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The Conservation Biology Divide

[ 37 ] December 13, 2014 |

Conservation biologists are currently in another civil war over the meaning of the field. In short, should conservation be concerned more with humans or should it be concerned more with biodiversity? I find these conversations frustrating because they are so either/or. In other words, they reflect the larger debate among environmentalists over the past several decades around wilderness and the role of humans. Are humans strictly destructive and thus nature should be protected from humans or should we just accept the reality that there is no pristine and realize that the rest of the world is probably going to start looking like Europe, with a heavily managed and overpopulated landscape, albeit not one without any green spaces?

As much as I love wilderness, it’s more likely that the long-term answer is accepting human activity in most spaces in some way, even if that does cost some biodiversity. The major reason for this is political. Keeping people out is a short-term possibility but if people don’t develop a respect for environmental values, if those government structures begin to tumble, or are not strong to being with, it becomes really hard to enforce those legal restrictions. Plus, restricting people from land can cause resentment and incentivize poaching and other activities that can have a political angle against the wealthy white people from around the world coming to take their safaris instead of letting me farm this land so I am going to kill the animals they like plus feed my family. The best case scenario here is probably a Costa Rica, where you do have a lot of preserved land and a lot of biodiversity protected and mass deforestation everywhere else.

The Nature Conservancy ends up playing an outsized role in these debates. I like The Nature Conservancy because I think it is vitally important that small spaces are protected for the masses to visit. Yes, TNC works with corporations. No, they are not pure. But there are many rivers of environmentalism and ensuring that a piece of land outside Providence is not developed because some unique plants live there actually has value, both in preserving that biodiversity and in providing green spaces to people. But a lot of conservation biologists loathe this organization for, essentially, being sell-outs.

In any case, even within a single discipline there needs to be room for different methods and goals. It’s not like if all the conservation biologists stand together, the world is going to listen. All the climate scientists are standing together and the powerful just call their science a hoax. Rather, while these debates should exist in a field, I don’t think it’s particularly productive to go to war over them. After all, here I am writing about this and not noting some recent victory in the field of conservation.

Put Your Face On and Forget It

[ 15 ] December 12, 2014 |

Discuss

Questions That Aren’t So Hard to Answer

[ 61 ] December 12, 2014 |

Here we have yet another article on the decline of the middle class, by which of course the author actually means the words you can’t say in America–the working class. In other words, we had good paying jobs that allowed people to be upwardly mobile. Now we don’t. And now I’m going to write 2000 words on the mystery of why this is instead of just saying the obvious, which is that corporate greed led to massive outsourcing which undercut unions which undercut the ability of the working class to influence policy. This led to policies allowing the elite to concentrate wealth in their own bank accounts they could use to create policies even more favorable to themselves. Thus the jobless recoveries, purchasing of elections (and even more influence in policy!), shrinking economic safety net, long-term unemployment, and generational declines in economic mobility when compared to people’s parents.

I know the Washington Post doesn’t want to run a column ripping corporations and policy makers for greed, but that is actually the answer to why we have a downwardly mobile working class and shocking levels of income inequality.

Cancer Clusters

[ 29 ] December 12, 2014 |

Paul Voosen has an interesting article at National Geographic that wonders why there has not been more known cancer clusters develop given the nation’s long history of toxicity. There’s no shortage of the skeptic in Voosen and so the article in places reads like someone who really doesn’t believe toxicity may be that great of worry. That concerns me because we do know that toxicity and pollution can cause powerful and horrible things to happen to human bodies. The large historiographies of workplace health, toxicity, women’s bodies, and the history of science plainly demonstrates this in broad terms. But the fact remains that there are not a lot of officially designated cancer clusters as was predicted in the 1970s. Is this because we don’t study this issue enough? Is it because of corporate influence over science? Is it because Americans move around so much? Is it because people respond to outside influences on their bodies in different ways, making it hard to verify? Is it because cancer is just so common anyway that we aren’t really seeing when toxicity causes it? Or is the impact of toxic materials on human health overstated? I am pretty skeptical of the last possibility, but I think the answer to why the cancer clusters haven’t been recognized may be a combination of several of the above factors.

In any case, protecting humans from toxic waste is not something that should be up for debate. It’s important and the resources to clean up the environment and make humans safe are a necessary expenditure. There is far too much clear historical evidence before the environmental laws of the 1970s to make us question that.

Organics from the Air

[ 122 ] December 12, 2014 |

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What can we tell about organic farms from the air? These aerial photos are intended to show the problems with large organic animal farms. They convey an image of industrial farming that the organic movement was intended to reject. A couple of key points missing here:

1. I’m far from the first person to note the problems with the term “organic,” as defined by the government. Those who care about this issue far more than I have long noted how it was co-opted by industrial farms. However, one can also legitimately question if it is possible to have organic farming on an industrial scale that will feed the people who want to eat this way without some industrial farming methods. If everyone wants organic milk, can farmers provide that without the mega-farms the movement does not want? With eggs at least one can see how raising your own chickens is possible for many, but for other products, it really isn’t.

2. It’s quite clear that there’s a strong correlation between the organic and local food movements and a romanticization of a certain type of work and certain type of relationship to the land. It’s not just that when people think organic, they think of a little local farm with chickens running around happy. It’s that they can’t imagine anything other than that because that, I think, more than the quality of the food or the happiness of the animals, is really what a lot of consumers want here. So any reality of large-scale farming is going to upset them.

3. The fact that such a survey had to be done in the air does get at major problems in our production system, not only in food but in apparel and everything else. It is out of sight. Everyday citizens can’t really go into these places. The regulatory system is captured by industry and vastly underfunded. The reality is that people want to know what is happening on farms. They want to know what is being put in their bodies. And they largely can’t. That’s why food is such a powerful way to indict the entire production system. Maybe people can’t see how their clothes are made in Bangladesh. That’s just too hard to imagine. But they do know food is being produced all around them and food is such a personal thing because it affects the inside of your body and not just your fashion. Thus, if demands around a meaningful inspection and regulatory system are going to succeed, food is probably where it happens. And it indeed needs to happen in food, as I write in my book.

4. I would also like to note that there is real room for alliance here between the labor and food movements if the food movement cares about workers. That’s one thing this article lacks. If we can’t tell what is happening to the animals, we can’t tell what is happening to the workers. When animals are abused, often so are workers. So if we can’t tell whether a farm is really organic, we also can’t tell whether it is treating its workers with dignity. Unfortunately, there’s not much evidence that organic farms treat workers better than conventional farms. Food justice cannot exist without justice for workers as well.

Deep Thoughts

[ 41 ] December 12, 2014 |

What happens to the Corleone family if Sonny lives?

More Dangerous than Dynamite

[ 40 ] December 11, 2014 |

Everything in your home will kill you. But especially if you use gasoline to clean your clothes. That might not be a good idea.

Free Higher Education: A Conservative’s Nightmare

[ 125 ] December 11, 2014 |

I get that conservatives hate the idea of free higher education for all. What an unspeakable horror, that the poor would have equal access as the rich. What I think I need explaining on is the claim that free education would lead to higher tuition. Since, you know, there would be no tuition if education was free.

Lumbersexuality and a Crisis of Masculinity?

[ 168 ] December 11, 2014 |

Willa Brown published a piece in the Atlantic yesterday on “lumbersexuality” and a crisis of masculinity. By lumbersexuality, Brown means the logger fetish a certain subset of bearded hipster men have for the fashion and work life of an imagined, romanticized logger. Brown compares this desire for an authentic and highly gendered work experience to the famed crisis of masculinity of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that led men like Theodore Roosevelt to embrace war, boxing, football, the Boy Scouts, hunting, and other manly pursuits that changed the nation in pretty dramatic ways due to those men’s ability to enact their desires in law and popular culture.

Both then and now, the men who sought these identities were searching for something authentic, something true. But that “authenticity” often came at the exclusion of real working men and a romanticization of “real” work. A bearded man on OkCupid once told me, upon learning what I study, that he’d always envied lumberjacks because they were so connected to their labor. It must be so immensely satisfying, he wrote, to take carbon and turn it into something of real use. I considered replying with one of my favorite lines from an old lumberjack ballad: “Every bone in his body was broken / And his flesh hung in tatters and strings.” Job satisfaction and the authentic nature of his occupation were not the primary preoccupations of a working lumberjack. Even that fawning Atlantic journalist eventually concluded that he “would rather see one than be one.”

Style is style. Beards and plaid may well just look good, and I hardly think that the man wearing both while coding on a MacBook Air in a coffee shop is really attempting to sell anyone on the idea that he’s an authentic ‘jack. But what middle-class urbanites are playing at is not the “true” workingman of the woods. The caulked boots and bold red sash around a lumberjack’s waist were symbols of reckless daring in a world with few opportunities, except those that often risked death. The symbols these men are taking on—the plaid, the woodworking, even the beards—are perhaps closer to Coolidge in his chaps. They’re impractical, spangled gestures at a reality they’ll never have to know.

I don’t know. Is a bunch of bearded hipsters dressing like loggers really a crisis of masculinity? Are these guys really worried about a suppressed manhood that needs to come out? I’m skeptical. I agree with Brown that this is a middle-class romanticizing of working-class culture but I don’t think it’s that comparable to the Progressive Era. I think it’s really more about a broader desire for individualized authenticity among a larger group of people under the age of 35 or so that revolves around working with your hands, semi-opting out of the traditional work norms, and seeing the products of your work. It seems to me that this phenomenon is more closely related with women and the knitting craze and having backyard chickens than TR-style masculinity assertion. After all, do you feel like young hipster men today are really worried about what it means to be a man? Is that a big part of their conversation? I don’t see it in the public realm.

If Americans are looking to hard work as a masculine preoccupation they wish to watch or emulate, I think it is far more concentrated in working and middle-class Americans watching shows like Ice Truckers, Deadliest Catch, and Swamp Loggers. Here are “authentic” working-class people doing the sort of jobs in nature that have long defined a significant portion of working-class labor in the United States. In these shows, nature itself isn’t romanticized nor a middle-class longing for authenticity so much as a desire to be able to make a living through hard work in a society with a shortage of good paying jobs for working people and a semi-official disdain for blue-collar labor. Watching Swamp Loggers and wishing one might be a swamp logger perhaps therefore becomes as much about sticking it to the snobs who are looking down on my life as a semi-employed electrician or plumber as it is about any desires about the work itself. Maybe.

Moreover, it seems to me that the crisis of masculinity, something historians claim for basically every period in American history, is getting really played out as a way to structure the past or the present. Such a claim is strongest in the Progressive Era because Roosevelt and others were talking about it so openly. But even here, this is about upper-class masculinity. That may well conflict with working-class masculinity but the latter is never in crisis within the public discourse and usually not within the historical conversation either. I’m not sure we can call the hipster class privileged in the same way that we could about elites in the past, but certainly these are largely highly educated people articulating very specific desires here in ways that perhaps working class people don’t have the cultural capital to do. But like with our lumbersexuals, I’m not sure that a lot of what historians talk about as a crisis of masculinity, outside of those Progressive Era upper class men, really is one. Here I think it’s a very different phenomena and I think that’s largely true in the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit era as well (James Dean’s father wearing an apron in Rebel Without a Cause notwithstanding)

Still, if people really do want to be lumbersexuals, might I suggest something about the impact of sex and logging life among early twentieth-century loggers? A crisis of masculinity or not, this is all about having an authentic experience, defined of course by the person having the experience. Now as we know, I have been declared an expert on loggers’ sexuality by some of America’s finest intellectuals, such as Robert Stacy McCain. So let me share a story. This is the first paragraph of Chapter 1 from my logging manuscript:

In 1917, a new logger came into an Oregon timber camp. His new boss assigned him to a typical bunkhouse, crowded with eighty other worker in bunks. Those eighty men shared one sink and one towel. Unfortunately for his bunkmates, this new worker had untreated gonorrhea. He used the towel to wipe his infected body. In the wet mountains the towel never dried and the gonorrhea culture stayed alive. Not knowing of their new coworker’s disease, the men continued to use the towel. Soon, an outbreak of gonorrhea set in the workers’ eyes.

This was reported by a Red Cross doctor investigating conditions in the timber camps that led to so many loggers becoming Wobblies and going on strike. The combination of loggers purchasing the services of prostitutes because they were too mobile to marry and unsanitary conditions led to this horrifying and disgusting outbreak of eye clap. So if lumbersexuals really want an authentic experience of early 20th century logging, I have lots of suggestions on how to do so.

Today in America’s Internal Colony

[ 68 ] December 11, 2014 |

Taxation without Representation:

The developments capped a roller-coaster 24 hours in the worst possible way for advocates of the District’s marijuana measure.

Late Monday, congressional aides had floated the possibility that the spending deal would include a provision sought by conservative House Republicans to block the voter-approved measure.

By midday Tuesday, it appeared negotiators had found middle ground to legalize possession of marijuana but to allow no further action by D.C. officials to create a regulatry system for legal sales and taxation of the plant.

But many warned that the partial constraints might prove to be a worse outcome, potentially leading to chaos for lawmakers and police officers trying to rewrite and enforce city drug laws.

For conservatives, it’s always about keeping big government out of the lives of everyday people and allowing them to set their own decisions. Right? That’s what they say anyway and surely we should believe them.

The Nicest Man in Texas

[ 92 ] December 11, 2014 |

Rick Perry is a very nice man:

Despite a significant rise in income inequality in Texas, Gov. Rick Perry (R) is arguing that it’s not something the state ought to be worried about.

“We don’t grapple with that here,” Perry told The Washington Post in a recent interview, while acknowledging that the state’s richest residents have seen the greatest spike in earnings.

“Biblically, the poor are always going to be with us in some form or fashion,” he added, an apparent reference to Mark 14:7. While Perry takes the message from the Bible to mean poverty is hopeless and therefore not worth grappling with, Jesus Christ was actually delivering a different lesson: “For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good,” the Son of God advises in the King James version of the Bible.

Yet the Biblical shoulder-shrugging is consistent with what Perry said while briefly running for president in 2011, when he proposed a tax plan that would have helped wealthy Americans while potentially raising the taxes of lower- and middle-income people.

“I don’t care about that,” Perry said when asked by The New York Times about the effect on income inequality. “If that’s what comes, I’ll take that criticism.”

Have to give him credit though. This should raise his standing in the 2016 Republican primary.

Inspiration

[ 23 ] December 10, 2014 |

Worth remembering who influenced Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, the CIA, and all the other architects of American torture:

The United States knows quite a bit about waterboarding. The U.S. government — whether acting alone before domestic courts, commissions and courts-martial or as part of the world community — has not only condemned the use of water torture but has severely punished those who applied it.

After World War II, we convicted several Japanese soldiers for waterboarding American and Allied prisoners of war. At the trial of his captors, then-Lt. Chase J. Nielsen, one of the 1942 Army Air Forces officers who flew in the Doolittle Raid and was captured by the Japanese, testified: “I was given several types of torture. . . . I was given what they call the water cure.” He was asked what he felt when the Japanese soldiers poured the water. “Well, I felt more or less like I was drowning,” he replied, “just gasping between life and death.”

Nielsen’s experience was not unique. Nor was the prosecution of his captors. After Japan surrendered, the United States organized and participated in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, generally called the Tokyo War Crimes Trials. Leading members of Japan’s military and government elite were charged, among their many other crimes, with torturing Allied military personnel and civilians. The principal proof upon which their torture convictions were based was conduct that we would now call waterboarding.

In this case from the tribunal’s records, the victim was a prisoner in the Japanese-occupied Dutch East Indies:

A towel was fixed under the chin and down over the face. Then many buckets of water were poured into the towel so that the water gradually reached the mouth and rising further eventually also the nostrils, which resulted in his becoming unconscious and collapsing like a person drowned. This procedure was sometimes repeated 5-6 times in succession.

The United States (like Britain, Australia and other Allies) pursued lower-ranking Japanese war criminals in trials before their own tribunals. As a general rule, the testimony was similar to Nielsen’s. Consider this account from a Filipino waterboarding victim:

Q: Was it painful?

A: Not so painful, but one becomes unconscious. Like drowning in the water.

Q: Like you were drowning?

A: Drowning — you could hardly breathe.

Here’s the testimony of two Americans imprisoned by the Japanese:

They would lash me to a stretcher then prop me up against a table with my head down. They would then pour about two gallons of water from a pitcher into my nose and mouth until I lost consciousness.

And from the second prisoner: They laid me out on a stretcher and strapped me on. The stretcher was then stood on end with my head almost touching the floor and my feet in the air. . . . They then began pouring water over my face and at times it was almost impossible for me to breathe without sucking in water.

As a result of such accounts, a number of Japanese prison-camp officers and guards were convicted of torture that clearly violated the laws of war. They were not the only defendants convicted in such cases. As far back as the U.S. occupation of the Philippines after the 1898 Spanish-American War, U.S. soldiers were court-martialed for using the “water cure” to question Filipino guerrillas.

The Bush Administration’s respect for human rights during times of war: worse than during the conquest of the Philippines.

But America is awesome, so whatever.

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