The Casual Blog

Tag: Bill McKibben

Ways of looking at fishing birds, The End of Nature, Fellow Creatures, and the appeal of slavery denialism

Osprey at Jordan Lake preparing to dive

Again this week I spent some time at Jordan Lake looking at the water, trees, and birds.  The birds weren’t as numerous this week, but I saw ospreys and great blue herons catch a number of fish.  Even watching the inherent violence of animals eating other animals, there is something peaceful.  They’re doing what nature designed them to do, as they’ve always done.  

 

I got my first relatively high end photo printer this week.  Hunt’s photo supply offered a big discount on a Canon Pixma Pro 10, and with the pandemic lock down still in force, I decided to experiment with some home printing.  It was not a smooth take off.  After putting some parts together, I ran into software problems, and ended up spending the better part of an hour on the phone with the Canon customer support guy.  There is definitely a learning curve to making good prints, but after watching a few instructional videos, I managed to make a couple that I thought were promising.  

As I worked on my prints, it occurred to me that there are a lot of levels of nature photography, and different ways of looking at the pictures.  A photograph can pull us closer to a moment of reality, but it can also do the opposite.  When I see a picture of a bird catching a fish, I might just think, that’s a picture of a bird catching a fish, and not think much else.  That is, I might mistakenly think the photo fully contains the event, and for that reason not even bother to look carefully at what can be seen of the event.  I could be thinking, I could always look at it later, and never do it.   

Great blue heron and fish

On the other hand, I might decide to look harder, and consider the species of bird, the species of fish, their ages, the location, the weather conditions, and other particulars of the moment.  At the same time, I might get some sense of the existential terror of a particular fish and the ecstasy of a particular bird.  I sometimes notice how certain birds can look beautiful and repulsive at the same time, the last remaining dinosaurs.    

Speaking of extinction events, I’ve been reading The End of Nature, by Bill McKibben.  The book was published in 1989, as the possibility of massive environmental destruction from manmade climate change was coming into focus, so it is dated.  But the basic science hasn’t changed, and a lot of his account is dead on target.  As with his recent book, Falter, he has a gift for putting these difficult issues in perspective, which makes it possible to think productively about them.

I’ve also been re-reading Fellow Creatures, Our Obligation to Other Animals, by Kristine Korsgaard.  Korsgaard, a professor of philosophy at Harvard, makes the case that we are not justified in treating non-human animals as objects to be exploited, and that they are entitled to respect.

Her argument is built on her extension of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, which I find difficult.  I suspect that if I fully understood Kant, I would not be a Kantian, though it’s doubtful I’ll ever know for sure.  Still, struggling with his theory of morality seems like good exercise — brain calisthenics.  And Korsgaard is surely doing something worthwhile in investigating our relationship to non-human animals and whether any system of morality can exclude them.  

I was happy to see that Nikole Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for her remarkable work on the 1619 Project. Her original introductory article is here.   As I’ve noted previously, the series published in the New York Times along with a podcast   proposed new ways of thinking about the role of slavery and white supremacy in forming America.

It was surprising that George Will used his column  to attack and distort the message of the 1619 Project.  Will is a very intelligent person, and his column is a reminder of how being intelligent does not at all inoculate people against such mental tendencies as denial and bias.  

That is, one can be both smart and prone to denial and delusion, including denial that slavery was an essential, formative element in American democracy.  Will’s attack on the 1619 Project does not, of course, mean he is himself a racist.  But it is a reminder of how deeply white supremacy is woven into our culture, and how uncomfortable it is to look straight at the racism of our past and present.   Will’s anger at the challenge to some of our founding myths is understandable, but his obfuscation is a regrettable service to white supremacy.  

Big birds, pandemic masks, non-dairy cheese, factory farms, and the war on climate change

Bald eagle at Shelley Lake

I managed to get up early three mornings this week to spend some time with the birds of our area, including these bald eagles, great blue herons, and ospreys.  The birds weren’t doing anything special — just living their lives. But it was especially heartening in this perilous time to get their orientation — intense, with all the senses open, and prepared for the next opportunity.

This week Sally got me a coronavirus mask that had been sewn by the tailor at our dry cleaners.  It’s green and looks, well, strange. I’m starting to wonder whether we’ll be getting used to not seeing much of each other’s faces.  

As the pandemic and the stay-at-home order continue, we’re trying to make the best of things.  One good thing is finding time and energy to try new projects. This week I finally got around to one I’d been meaning to do for a while:   making non-dairy cheese.  

I’ve known for some time that dairy products involve heart-breaking cruelty to cows.  Like other mammals, mother cows feel intense attachment to their young. The reason they make milk is to feed their babies.  Factory dairy farms get them to make more milk by a cycle of artificial impregnation and stealing their calves immediately after birth. 

The mothers cry out for their missing calves and grieve. Confined in small spaces, they are fed unhealthy diets that often include hormones and steroids.  Their natural life span is around 20 years, but on factory farms they are too exhausted, sick, or injured to keep going after 5 years. So they are killed to make hamburgers.     

Great blue heron in early morning fog at Jordan Lake

 

Some time back, Sally and I started finding good plant-based substitutes for milk — soy, cashew, almonds, oats.  Quitting ice cream was challenging, for obvious reasons, but we’ve recently discovered some delicious non-dairy substitutes — Ben & Jerry’s, So Delicious, and Nada Moo.   But it’s been hard to give up the deliciousness of cheese. We’ve had good plant-based cheese substitutes in restaurants, but haven’t seen them in our grocery stores. If you’re looking for a business opportunity, there’s a business idea, which you’re welcome to steal.

In the meantime, I tried a friend’s recipe for non-dairy brie, the main ingredient of which was cashews.  It took some work, and I nearly burned out the blender motor, but the result was pretty good. I used fresh herbs — rosemary, sage, and chives.  It tasted a lot like brie, but the consistency was more like a dip. I may have done too much blending. Anyhow, I’m planning to give it another shot soon.    

I just finished reading Jonathan Saffron Foer’s recent book, We Are the Weather:  Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. It’s a book about the relationship of factory farming to climate change and to us.   Foer reviews the facts, including the fact that animal farms are a major contributor to global warming. He thinks that we need to take whatever action we can as individuals to combat the developing catastrophe of climate change.  Recognizing how deeply habituated we are to eating meat, he proposes that if we can’t quit entirely, we try eating it only at dinner.

Foer is a fine writer, and I was heartened by his good sense and good-heartedness.  But I agreed in part with Mark Bittman, the NY Times reviewer, who said that hoping to save the planet by giving people good reasons to change their habits is probably not going to work.     Old habits die hard, especially when they’re constantly reinforced by the advertising of agribusiness fighting for its accustomed profits.  

Bittman recommended a piece by Bill McKibben that was in the New Republic in 2016 titled  A World at War — We’re Under Attack from Climate Change, and Our Only Hope Is to Mobilize Like We Did in WWII 

 The war metaphor is not a new one, but it is still apt.  McKibben points out that if Hitler had been wreaking havoc on our cities with firestorms, hurricanes, droughts, and floods, we would have seen the necessity of mobilizing to fight back.  As McKibben recounts, in WWII the US mobilized in just weeks and months to make bombers, ships, tanks, and other weapons under the direction of the federal government. He argues that we’re going to need that sort of leadership to head off complete disaster.  

Osprey at Jordan Lake

One benefit of the pandemic is that it is helping us get a new understanding of what a real crisis is, and how we can’t just do nothing.  That may help us understand the need for government leadership on climate change. The idea that markets alone will solve our current problems is not going to work, and the political leadership now in place is not going to work.  

The TImes reported this week on new research on the threat of climate change to animals.  The scientists found that the risk of mass extinction is much closer than previously thought, with thousands of species at risk beginning in the next decade.  The study emphasized that this is not inevitable, if we take dramatic action soon.  

At the same time, the pandemic has brought into focus the precarious situation of working people.  With businesses shut down, no jobs, and no savings, having food and housing is no longer a given. Pending getting new leaders and a compassionate safety-net system, we’ve been trying to do some extra giving for food and other necessities.  

The latest:  Sally discovered the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which is raising money for domestic workers who have no other resources.  It’s a great time to help workers whose job is helping others and who can’t work from home.  

Flying and fishing egrets, the possible survival of nature, and two books — Falter and the Evolution of Religion

It turned cooler here last week, and the leaves were starting to glow at Shelley Lake.  One day I saw three great egrets together at the other side of the lake.  Usually, at least around here, these are solitary creatures. One looked smaller, and I wondered if they were a family. Anyhow, they were too far away to photograph well. Then one decided to fly right towards me, and the others soon followed.  They spent some time standing in the water near me and did some fishing.

For me, these images are about a moment, never to be repeated, in the lives of particular birds.  At the same time, they open a little window into a larger world of nature, where there’s always more to be discovered.   For me they speak of the beauty and fragility of the natural world.

Though I guess it’s possible to see only odd creatures.  Indeed, that may be the typical view. Our traditional attitude toward nature treats it as irrelevant, or else an antagonist to be exploited.  The concept of nature as foundational, as the ground for everything, is still far from mainstream, and needs more development and support.

Perhaps because of increasing weather emergencies, we seemed to have recently turned a corner on climate change, with some former climate change denialists finally acknowledging that our environmental situation is not good.  But the full weight of the dire reality still hasn’t sunk in.  

Bill McKibben’s recent book, Falter:  How the Human Game Has Begun to Play Itself Out, may help. It’s a well-written, well-thought-through book that somehow manages to talk about the frightening reality we face without panicking, and instead thinking constructively about our mitigation options. 

McKibben does a great job of piecing together some of the elements of the storms we currently face, including individual greed, corporate rapaciousness, and libertarian idealism.  One thing he doesn’t examine is the central assumption underlying our heedless exploitation of nature, which is that humans are ultimately more important than anything else in the world.  

The assumption that at the end of the day humans are the only species that matters is so deeply embedded that it’s hard even to get a good look at it, much less have a serious discussion about it.  (It may be even more embedded than our assumptions about race.) But that discussion needs to be part of our survival strategy.  

Our failure to appreciate the significance of other living things and our own relationship to the complex web of life accounts in significant part for our current dire predicament.  On the other hand, embracing the natural world with empathy and gratitude would point us away from fossil fuels, agribusiness, runaway consumerism, and the other drivers of global warming.

There’s a lot to be said about long-held assumptions about human psychology and culture that are now looking like they need reexamination.  For now, I’ll mention just one thought-provoking books: The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, which I just finished reading for the second time. 

Wright takes on the ambitious task of addressing the functionality of religion for the earliest humans through to us.  He views the development of religious beliefs as a progression, starting with hunter-gatherer animism, continuing through the polytheism of early agricultural civilizations, and then on to monotheism.  

He gives a really helpful overview of the historical roots of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and shows how their central concepts are closely related.  Along with that, he addresses the psychological and economic factors that led societies toward variations on these main ideas.  

 

In the end, Wright disclaims having a view on whether there actually is a God, while arguing that the idea of God has been good for humanity.  Like McKibben, he doesn’t consider whether benefits to humans should be considered the highest good, and doesn’t address whether religion reinforces assumptions of human superiority and entitlement that have destroyed much of the natural world.  I found his argument on moral progress to be vague and unconvincing. But I still found the book tremendously valuable in providing a framework for considering varieties of religion.

Fireworks, new bluebirds, right-wing NC Republicans, and bees at work

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Sally fixed chilled cucumber soup and two salads for our July 4th dinner, with homemade coffee ice cream for dessert. From our condo on the twelfth floor we had a good view of the fireworks show at Red Hat Amphitheater. Fireworks shows vary, but I’ve never seen one I really didn’t like, and this was no exception. OK, it could have been faster and bigger, but there were interesting shapes and sparkling colors, and lots of noise. This may be my favorite ritual in the American civil religion.
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Earlier that day, Sally took me along when she monitored the bluebird houses at Lochmere Golf Club. She’d promised that there should be some new eggs and nestlings, and there were! We were pleased to see the new arrivals.
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Speaking of country clubs, the News & Observer reported this week that Carolina Country Club, Raleigh’s old line club, finally admitted its first black member. This was front page news, and I was glad to hear it. CCC maintained the color barrier for way too long. Now that the curse has been broken, I hope they will implement a policy of true non-discrimination going forward.

In my lifetime, we’ve made so much progress on the race issue, for which I am happy and grateful. For all my disappointments with President Obama, every day I feel proud and a little amazed that we have a black president. I can go for weeks or months without observing anything like the racial prejudice that was pervasive when I was a boy.

But we’re still not done. Republican measures to limit the voting power of blacks in NC and elsewhere by imposing ID requirements are moving forward. This is just shameful. With this movement in process, the Supreme Court was surely wrong in striking down part of the Voting Rights Act. There’s still a ways to go to build a color-blind society.
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Our North Carolina Republican legislators have gone on a right-wing tear this session. Some of their activities make sense from the point of view of bettering the lot of the wealthy or pandering to the ignorant, but some are inexplicable in ordinary moral or practical terms.

Does any rational person, no matter how selfish or cynical, think it makes sense to get more people carrying concealed firearms into more public spaces? Would a person with a shred of decency change the law to protect agriculture operations that abuse farm animals and criminalize the behavior of those who seek to expose the abuse? Would a normal caring parent or employer find it sane to reduce school funding and increase class size? Would any responsible leader or citizen turn down federal funds meant to help the unemployed or ailing? Does any moderately educated person school think that North Carolina has the right to establish its own state religion? In establishing the highest priorities, does anyone think Is outlawing Sharia law makes the top-thousand list?

And while we’re outlawing Sharia law, why not work in a slew of anti-abortion measures? This actually happened this week without fanfare and without the usual legislative formalities, presumably to minimize the chance of organized opposition. I’ve never found the abortion issue as easy as some of my friends, but the state Senate’s work this week under cover of darkness is really disturbing from a process point of view, and looks like a huge mistake. In the aftermath of this latest fiasco, my liberal friends were looking glum, and worrying at the damage this is doing both to the humans affected (such as women with unwanted pregnancies and poor people) and to the image of our state.
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This onslaught really doesn’t seem like the result of a theory of government. To the extent it has a direction, it seems aimed less at accomplishing any policy objective than at making liberals screaming mad. Once a liberal value gets identified, it is attacked with extreme prejudice.

To a certain extent, the NC right-wingers seem to be reproducing the values battles identified by national-level right-wingers. What else could be going on? I heard an NPR interview with Bill McKibben, an environmentalist and college professor, who said the problem with building a green movement was that a movement needed an enemy. In a sense, all of us are conflicted on environmental issues, since we all like cars and electricity. We can’t be our own enemy and still feel motivated to get into the streets. His solution was to declare the oil companies the enemy. This would, he thought, allow a green movement to cohere.
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So maybe that’s what our NC right-wingers are up to: building their group cohesion by identifying liberals as the enemy and trying to cut out their hearts (metaphorically speaking). It’s hard for a liberal to find a silver lining at the moment, but I’ll still take a swing. I don’t think this is the direction a majority of the state, or even a majority of Republicans, want to go. And by forcing minorities, low-income people, women, immigrants, and the reality-based community to see their common interest, the wing-nut legislators are increasing the chances that their “public service” will not last past the next election.
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In the meantime, President Obama has seized the initiative on climate change by ordering rules on power plant reductions for CO2 and other measures. Longtime readers of the Casual Blog will know that this is a big issue for me that I think should be a big issue for everyone. At issue are mass extinctions and dislocations on a scale previously unknown in human history. The significance is much greater than putting a man on the moon, and we ought to mobilize with a level of commitment on a scale comparable to the Apollo project. I hope this is the start.
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And while we’re on the subject of things to feel good about and continue working on, let us not forget, the long fight for gay rights has made real progress. The Supreme Court, a highly conservative institution (even if not all of its justices are conservative), struck down the Defense of Marriage Act! A majority recognized this as a human rights issue. It seems the tide has turned.
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Well, that’s it, I’m climbing off my soap box. I got out to Raulston Arboretum on Saturday and found a lot of bees hard at work. I took along my tripod and used a Nikkor 18-55 mm lens in aperture priority mode. Along with a variety of bees and flowers, I was struck by the sculptural qualities of some of the blooms. My favorites are above and below.
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