Saturday, November 24, 2007

Want to Save the Earth?

Why are there so many college students who want to save the earth, and so few who want to read their Geography 101 textbook? Saving the earth is very important business; but shouldn’t they know something about this earth they are trying to save?

Don’t we need to know why so many species of birds migrate thousands of miles north from the tropics each summer, including some that migrate all the way to the arctic region of Canada and Alaska? Why are soils so deep and well developed in the tropics, but so poor in organic material and nutrients; and, why are the soils of West Texas thin and rocky? What makes some rainfall very erosive, whereas other types of rainfall are hardly erosive at all? Why are some soils very erodable whereas other soil types are not prone to erosion? Why do we have many river valleys flooded by the Atlantic Ocean to become broad estuaries, with the Chesapeake being a prominent example, whereas cliffs and deep harbors are common along our Pacific coast? What caused all those long narrow lakes, often extending into the ocean as fjords, in the northwest of North America; and why do we find similar long narrow lakes along the west coast of Norway, Southern Chile, and New Zealand? Why is the east humid and most of the west arid? Why are the trees in the extreme southeast mostly broadleaf evergreen, in the east generally mostly broadleaf deciduous, in the north mostly needleleaf evergreen, and in the far north and Siberia mostly needleleaf deciduous? Is the earth closer to the sun in July or January? Has it always been that way? Has the elliptical orbit of earth about the sun always been so circular (off by only about 3%)? Has the tilt in the axis always been 23½ degrees? Why do almost half of all U.S. endangered species have Hawaiian names? Could we save many species by changing their names to something non-Hawaiian? Why is traveling “straight east” to some destination a very different sort of thing than traveling “straight north” to some other destination? Is the current interglacial period warmer or cooler than past interglacial periods? Wouldn’t it be prudent for those folks who are saving the earth to know the answers to those and several thousand other questions?

I suppose we should admire those young men who grow ponytails and douse themselves with that “save the earth” perfume. Hell, I never had the guts to do something like that! Just let one of those guys walk into your lecture hall and you and all 100 students present know immediately that the earth is being saved! If you are female the ponytail doesn’t help to save the earth; on the contrary, girls with ponytails are destroying the earth. Girls need to comb their long hair straight down and stop wearing makeup. And, if they are REALLY serious about saving the earth they need to wear a print dress of the sort made from flour sacks back in the 20’s and 30’s; unless there is an Amish community nearby those dresses are hard to come by and cost big bucks when you do find them. When one of those gals walk through the mall in her flour-sack dress, on her way to the natural foods and herbs store, several hundred shoppers know for sure the earth is being saved.

It helps when the “saving the earth” guys and gals gather in some public place and sit cross-lagged on the sidewalk. It’s tough sitting cross-legged when you really AREN’T an American Indian or Zen Buddhist. But they console themselves with long periods of intense eye contact and saying things like: “The wolves and Indians were here first, you know;” or “I don’t eat McDonald’s hamburgers;” or “People who can’t ride bicycles can just walk to work!” As a matter of fact, I don’t ever recall a single American Indian or Oriental person in one of those groups. And interestingly, there is never a foreign student among them either—not even from one of those countries that will take the brunt of famine, drought, rising sea levels, rainforest destruction, and capitalist exploitation. Apparently saving the world is strictly the “White Man’s Burden”.

When you have lived through as many environmental crises as I have, you start taking them in stride. I remember the first one ever brought to my attention; it was 1953 when our 9th grade science teacher informed us that all petroleum would be depleted by 1960, and natural gas and coal would last only five years longer. By 1965 we would be back to the horse and buggy and wood stoves. Hitchhiking to school a few days later I was picked up by an oil field worker who, being a good citizen, wanted to save me from the toil and low income that was his lot in life: “Take a degree in petroleum engineer; you’ll make good money in that field,” he said, contrasting his lot as a roughneck with those guys who walk around with clipboards. “My science teacher told us that all the oil would be depleted by 1965—long before I could complete a degree in petroleum engineering.” “Those people don’t know shit; we haven’t even started looking for oil yet.” He replied. Now I ask you: Am I to believe my science teacher or some oil field roughneck? Study petroleum engineering in the 1960’s? That about like buying new skis or investing in snowmobile factories with global warming bearing down on us: DAH’HAAA!

The end of fossil fuels could not have come at a worse time, because in the 1950’s and 60’s we were headed straight into the teeth of an ice age. The northwest passage was long closed and ice was moving rapidly over Canada, and would soon be bearing down on Detroit and Chicago. Indeed, even in the mid-1970’s there was still “a consensus among environmental scientists” that the ice age was imminent and with devastating consequences already apparent. The cooling trend from 1940 actually ended in about 1965, but a couple of cold snowy winters in the 1970’s keep global warming at bay for a time. I remember an environmental geography text published in the mid-1970’s (by Harm de Blij) that included a map showing ice covering much of North America and on the same page another map showing the consequence of global warming with Florida and much of the east coast under water—take your pick—ice age or global warming! Either way it will be disastrous; and incidentally, either way we were causing it by burning fossil fuels!

Actually the coming ice age and/or global warming was not the top environmental crisis at that time because the overpopulation bomb exploded in the mid 1960’s. Paul Ehrlich told us (in his Population Bomb book) that the struggle against overpopulation was over and we lost. We would have “mild” food rationing in the U.S. by 1975. Obviously, the darker-skinned folks in Latin America, Africa, and Asia would have mostly starved to death by then, assuming we were humane enough to mercifully stop sending them food. He projected a world population of 2 billion by 1985 and 1.5 billion by the turn of the century. As if that were not sufficiently scary, he also told us that most minerals would also have been depleted by that date. Take copper, for example, he told us (in his famous Playboy interview): All copper reserves would be depleted by 1975 and thereafter all our electrical systems would cease to work.

Never mind that fiber optics had just been developed to replace copper. And, never mind that we humans have not destroyed (or created) a single atom of copper in our entire existence—the end of “known reserves” of copper would be the end of copper. And, never mind that “known reserves” is defined as the amount already discovered that can be mined at the current price; and never mind that the “known reserves” has always been equal to five or ten years of current consumption because mining companies would have to be complete fools to develop reserves that will not be needed for ten years. And, never mind that the real price (adjusted for inflation) of copper and virtually all other raw materials has been generally declining since stone age times because potential supply continued to exceed the rapidly expanding demand. And, never mind that the percentage of total income spent on raw materials has declined to so small a fraction of total income that a doubling of the prices would hardly be noticeable; and etc., etc., etc. Anyway, we would be too busy mining libraries for fuel to worry about recovering and reprocessing used copper, inasmuch as deforestation would have long since have eliminated alternative fuels.

It was shortly after the overpopulation bomb exploded that the soil erosion crisis hit us. Remember that one? At the rate the Mississippi carried soil downstream, the entire Midwest would be rendered useless for agriculture by 1990. The Mississippi Delta would have extended several hundred miles into the Gulf—fortunately, because that would be one of the few places left to grow crops. Then our rivers started burning up, and most of us were choking to death on second-hand smoke, pollution, and Big Macs, and being poisoned by arsenic in our water or mercury in our air. Never mind that life expectancy has increased to the point that most people face the prospect of continuing to breath several years after their bodies were completely worthless and their brains mostly or totally dead while a nurse spooned pabulum down their throats.

Remember the 2006 hurricane season? After Katrina it was certain that global warming had increased Gulf temperatures to the point that dozens of class five hurricanes would be bearing down on us in 2006. We would run out of names for hurricanes and be forced to assign Greek letters, and after exhausting all those Greek letters would be forced to fall back on simple numbers. Now that is a true crisis; imagine not having names for our hurricanes! Actually, the number and intensity of hurricanes was abnormally low in 2006, but never mind that. The terrors of global warming were not diminished.

Is there anything to any of this environmental crisis stuff? YES! We have very serious environmental problems. Most of those problems can be remedied or ameliorated with good science and public funding. Too bad the “save the earth” people have made environmentalism a big joke that most citizens shrug off as complete nonsense. But, if college students weren’t saving the earth they would be doing panty raids and “streaking” nude across the campus. We expect that from college students. Too bad those students have been joined by adults who know better, and too bad the press gives them front page news coverage. [I don’t remember front page newspaper spreads and television coverage of the panty raids and nude streakers!]

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Interviewing the Lord

I understand that You want me to interview you Sir.

Mr. Watts! Now what do we suppose you want to ask me?

Well Sir, first I would like to say that I am privileged and honored to have been selected to conduct this interview. I have always held you in the highest regard, and...

Bullshit! You have hade little regard for me, notwithstanding the fact that you have some very special gifts with regard to philosophy and religion. So let’s skip the small talk and get on with the interview.

Well Sir, I do have some questions...

I know your questions and have wanted to get the answers off my chest for some time.

Excuse me for saying so Sir, but if you already know the questions and the answers, why not just write a book?

I tried that! People keep reading it upside down and backwards; I would rather have you write the book. So, why don’t you go ahead and ask me why—if I am so all-powerful—I have made such a mess of my creation?

Well Sir, it did occur to me that You, being all powerful, omnipotent, and all...ahh, excuse the redundancy...well anyway, why did you put all this evil and misery in your world?

The short answer is I’m not all-powerful, and I didn’t put all this evil and misery in OUR world.

But Sir, clearly you possess eternal life and can do anything you want.

Since I have eternal life I can’t kill myself, now can I?

But why would you want to do that?

I didn’t say I did; I was just pointing out that there are things I can’t do. More to the point of your question: If I can create a universe that I cannot control—and I can—then I can’t control it, can I? And, if I give you free will then I can’t control your behavior, can I?

Well excuse me for saying so Sir, but it occurs to me that if I do something you disapprove of you could strike me down with a bolt of lightening.

And, then you would not have free will, would you?

I can see your point there Sir; but, surely you could keep people on a shorter leash. I’ve seen some terrible stuff going on out there.

Free will means no leash at all; I suggest that even a dumbass like yourself can figure that out.

Well, you’ve got a point there Sir. Still, it seems to me that you can do a lot of things—just about anything you want to do. I wouldn’t mind making a touchdown once in a while when I get the ball.

I could make a touchdown anytime I wanted, and I wouldn’t need an offensive line blocking for me either. The San Diego Chargers could build the Great Wall of China across the 50- yard line and put half the Red Army behind it, AND I COULD STILL MAKE ALL THE TOUCHDOWNS I WANTED. And, that is precisely why I didn’t bother to make touchdowns until I came up with this idea. Now when I make a touchdown it means something, because I have to work my butt off to make the grade. You see, only one guy in a couple dozen has the ability to make a touchdown even in high school football, and only one in a couple hundred has the potential to compete at the college level, and only one in several thousand can make it at the pro level. Half of um never bother to pick up a football, and most of the rest of them don’t bother to go out for the high school football team. Of that few who make a touchdown or two in high school, most get their girl friend pregnant or flunk out of college. It’s rare for one of them to make it into pro-ball, and when they do most are satisfied with their Heisman trophy and Superbowl ring, and quit before they reach the potential I gave them. I’m still waiting for that guy who really wants to fulfill his destiny on the football field. But then, when you give them free will you’ve got to live with the bad decisions.

With all due respect Sir, you make it sound as if it is just a football game, and you are playing the role of the star player.

You brought up the football analogy, not me. Anyway, I play all the roles.

All of them? Hey, I know a guy in Boston who is about as ugly as sin and so ungainly that he can hardly walk, to say nothing of making touchdowns. How do you like—with all due respect Sir—playing his role?

I know the dude you are talking about. Did you ever notice he has an extraordinary talent with woodworking?

As a matter of fact he does have some abilities in that regard. He made me a little jewelry box that was quite nice—because I help him out occasionally; I feel sorry for him.

Well, stop feeling sorry for him! He has the potential to make the most beautiful jewelry box in the world; I would enjoy that box as much as making touchdowns. But, he is like most of the rest of you folks—satisfied with a word of thanks and a handout. I can’t tell you how disappointing it is to fail miserably most of the time and achieve no more that half my potential in fewer than one in one hundred tries.

How about Sir Isaac Newton?

It was fun; but he was like a small boy playing on the seashore, and diverting himself by finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before him.

But Sir, how can you compare the gifts you gave Sir Isaac Newton to those of ugly morons?

I didn’t give any gifts or limitations to anyone. I created evolution and let things sort themselves out according to inherited genes. Evolution was one of my finest ideas. With evolution, along with all the random variables, I am not able to predict the outcome. Surely even you can understand why I did it that way. How could it be sufficiently interesting to keep me interested if I could predict the outcome in advance? You must also be aware of the fact that, whatever the gifts and limitations, free-will guarantees that each individual has a choice: They can always turn right or left, up or down, good or evil—it’s their choice.

I still don’t get it. Why do you bother with all this? And why would you want to endure all the misery that has resulted?

So you don’t get it? Let me try to put it into a context that you can identify with: Ever noticed how miserable multi-millionaires are? You know why? Because in the absence of wants and needs they can’t possibly use their wealth to satisfy their wants and needs, can they? Even a dumbass like yourself should be able to figure that out.

I see your point Sir; but there are other things—things money can’t buy. I wouldn’t mind having a couple of pretty girls tuck me into bed at night.

You wouldn’t huh? Well, do you suppose those two girls would enjoy it as much as you seem to think you would? And incidentally, money can buy you a couple of pretty girls; but how long would it take you to get bored with them and start wanting something even more exotic?

That would be quite exotic enough for me, Sir.

That’s because you never had a couple of girls—who by the way hate your guts—to tuck you in at night. But if you were a multi-millionaire and so inclined you would have those girls, wouldn’t you?

OK, I get the point Sir. Wealth is not all that it’s cracked up to be. But, surely you can find something pleasurable to do. You make it sound like sex is deviant and evil. There is true love, you know.

Yes, there is true love. And, the more you hunger for it the more wonderful it is when you find it—and the greater the heartbreak when you lose it; ever notice that?

I see your point Sir. If you didn’t have the need, you couldn’t ever satisfy it, and the pain of loss has to be equal to the pleasure of having.

That’s not bad for a dumbass; so why don’t you get on with your next question?

Well Sir, obviously good could not exist without evil, but why so much evil? We are overwhelmed by poverty, misery, crime, hatred, disaster, name it, and we’ve got it. I mean, come on—if it had been me, I would have made a little bit more love and kindness and a lot less hate and evil.

I will overlook the fact that you, with your pathetic little brain, have questioned my judgment. Henceforth, I will require a little bit of that respect you say you have for me. But, to address your question, in my early creations I didn’t bias behavior against good. The result was pathetic! My free-will creatures figured out pretty quickly that if they all avoided evil they would all benefit. Soon they were all marching lock-step toward their pitiful little perfect society. There was no dishonesty or selfishness, and therefore no honesty or virtue. You would think that the basic desire to reproduce would at least preserve some degree of competition to get 50 % of your genes into the next generation. But, these idiots found a way to get more than 50% of their genes into the next generation with no competition at all. Would you believe they designated one female as the queen mother to have all the kids—all of them girls—so they were all sisters; and then when the queen mother needed to be inseminated the sisterhood would nominate one of the girls to become a male and do that job, and then eliminated him because he was henceforth worthless. I got so bored with it I stopped watching for 30 million years. Eventually, those idiots had completely given up free-will and become akin to robots.

Your description sound very much like some lifeforms in our world—ants and bees to name a couple.

Yeah, I left a few of those creatures in subsequent creations as an object lesson for the free-will types. There are always some idiot that wants to emulate the ant society—I’ve had my fill of the Harmony and Shaker people, and the so-called communists. But, they don’t get very far because I tweaked the good versus evil balance to make sure those systems fail quickly.

Tweaked, Sir? What do you mean by that?

Well, to begin with I arranged is so it would usually appear that evil would produce an immediate and certain reward. By contrast, I fixed it so the payoff for good would be delayed and quite uncertain. For example, suppose you see your uncle drunk and passed out on the couch with his wallet on the coffee table full of fifty-dollar bills. You could take a couple of those fifty-dollar bills and have a hell of a time with your friends. He probably wouldn’t even remember how many he had or what he did with them. In any case, he is unlikely to know you did it. On the other hand, if you resist that temptation he will also probably fail to notice; at most he might give you ten bucks for being a good kid.

So you actually biased behavior in favor of bad and against good!

Yes. And that’s not the only bias. I fixed it so there is usually a little bit of good in the bad and vice versa, and sometimes it will turn out that bad will produce a great deal of good and good will produce a whole ton of bad.

I’m not following you, Sir.

Take the following case: You consider executing the prisoners—that would be bad, right? But, if you execute the prisoners you don’t have to guard them and you can get on with your duty; that would be good, wouldn’t it? And, it is always possible that if you don’t execute the prisoners one of them will overpower the guard and slaughter your best friend or the whole bunch of you. Now, that would be very bad, wouldn’t it? Consider the opposite case: You give someone on the street a nice handout; that would be good. But, in doing so, you risk diminishing that person’s self-respect and individual initiative, and that would be bad. You also run the risk that the street person would use the money to buy booze and then wonder into the street and get run over by a car; now that would be very bad.

That seems unfair, Sir. It’s tough enough to stay on the straight and narrow path without that sort of perplexity in the equation.

It was never meant to be fair. It is meant to keep the game interesting.

Okay, I must admit that it is interesting. But one more question, Sir. It occurs to me that you could have made your presence a bit more know to us. As I look around this world it seems clear that there is at least some information available on everything except the why of creation and the Creator. I would bet that I could have a discussion with Socrates and blow him away on virtually any subject. I mean this guy, with all his super intelligence, thought the world consisted of a bit of land surrounding the Mediterranean Sea covered with bunch of spinning bowls with stars, planets, moon, and sun painted on them. But, if I discussed the creation, he would know as much about it as I do—which is nothing at all.

Very perceptive Mr. Watts. Now, why don’t you follow that simple fact through to the obvious conclusion?


Look, if you notice that there is one subject—and only one subject—for which no information is or ever could be available, don’t you have to ask yourself why?

You mean ask myself why You decided to deny us that information?

No! Why I decided to do this or that is none of your business—although I suggest that even a dumbass like yourself could figure that out if he thought about it for a few minutes. If you were in a mechanical universe why would the topic of how and why it started be completely impossible to approach, to say nothing of answer? I mean how could it be possible that the why and who of creation is the only subject for which information is totally absent if it were not created to be that way?

But, why...

If you could see the mountain standing before you, what possible virtue could there be in believing it is there?

Will Sir, I must say that has occurred to me. In fact I have considered writing a book with that as the central theme.

Yes, I know! That’s why I selected you to do this interview. Look, we just get rid of the communists who were intent upon creating a society of robots with no free-will, and now we have a bunch of so-called religious fanatics that think they can achieve a virtuous society by denying people the right to free-will on pain of death! This sorry attempt at another society of pissants could be terminated with a couple of well placed nuclear devices; of course, when they run out of oil most of them will starve to death in a few weeks anyway. But, it bugs the hell out of me to see them pull this stuff and seem to get away with it; isn’t there anyone in the rest of the world with brains enough to point out the fallacy?

Well Sir, assuming you send me back, I will consider that my first assignment. Knowing your views on this subject makes it perfectly clear to me that I was on the right track all along.

You’re going back Allan, but you’re not going to remember this conversation when you wake up. That’s not the way I play the game. I might just as well make all the touchdowns myself. In fact, this whole conversation has been your dream—a figment of your own imagination. So wake up and get on with writing The Book; there is a geographer professor down there who has some of the same ideas, and if you don’t get on with it he may beat you to it.