The Casual Blog

Tag: Paul Krugman

Connections, construction, climate change denialism, and the insect apocalypse

The new Publix, looking toward downtown Raleigh

We had a nice Thanksgiving weekend, with family visiting and catching us up. Jocelyn and Kyle, down from New York, had sworn off Alexa, and had interesting things to say about privacy and social media.  Among many other things, we talked about the epidemic of loneliness. Even with overwhelming digital connectedness, meaningful connections aren’t getting any easier.  Love takes some work.

The big construction projects in our neighborhood in downtown Raleigh are coming right along.  I took the Tiller drone up on Saturday morning and flew around the work site of our forthcoming Publix and the almost-complete Metro apartments for some fun and pictures.  It’s going to be so good to have a grocery store just down the street. I had a scare when my aircraft and I lost radio contact, but after I did a short walk to get out from behind a building we got back together.  

Sally and I went over to Durham that evening for some food and chamber music.  We ate at Viceroy, which features good British-style Indian food, which we finally figured out we like best on the milder side of spicy.  Then we heard the Calidore String Quartet play at Duke’s Baldwin auditorium. They’re a relatively young group that’s won a lost of prizes, and we thought they were excellent.  They played with passionate musicality and rare freedom. Their program was also inspired: Sergey Prokofiev, Caroline Shaw (an N.C. native born in 1982), and the brilliant Robert Schumann.  

On Sunday afternoon, we went to the Boylan Heights Art Walk.  Residents had lent their porches and front yards for the day to many artists and craftspeople, including potters, jewelers, wood workers, metal workers, weavers, glass blowers, printmakers, painters, and others.  The weather was mild.  We enjoyed looking over the work, and chatting with friends.

There’s been a lot of good journalism this week about climate change, including some addressing the puzzle of why climate change denialism persists.  Possible answers, as Paul Krugman recently noted,include ignorance, party tribalism, and corporate greed (similar to the cigarette industries’ disgraceful denial that their product caused cancer). Anyhow, there’s some good news with the bad: as we experience more and more catastrophic weather, like droughts, floods, fires, and hurricanes, more people are recognizing that there’s a planetary emergency.

But most of the discussion is still about the disastrous effects of global warming on humans — their cities, housing, transportation networks, food supplies, and so forth.  I keep looking for more discussion of what is happening to the non-human natural world. These last few years as I’ve spent more time hiking in the woods, it’s seemed like fewer birds are singing.  Given my small sample size, I haven’t drawn any firm conclusions from my data, but I’ve been worried.

The almost complete Metro, restored after the big fire of last year

This week the NY Times published a strong piece by Brooke Jarvis titled The Insect Apocalypse Is Here:  What Will the Decline of Bugs Mean for the Rest of Life on Earth?  Jarvis summarizes a lot of data, and makes a convincing case that in recent decades insect life has collapsed on a massive scale.  Populations of monarch butterflies are down 90 percent, and other studies show reductions in flying insects of 75 percent and more.    

We hardly noticed, and we still don’t fully understand the causes.  Along with global warming, there have been pesticides and loss of habitat.  Monarchs aside, most insects aren’t particularly glamorous, and we seldom think about their role in the ecosystem.  But without enough insects, a lot of birds and other animals starve. In addition to their vital niche in the food chain, insects pollinate many plants and turn dead things and waste into soil.  

As alarming as the insect decline is, Jarvis’s article shows that there are people who care.  There’s a short profile of a group of passionate entomologists in Krefeld, Germany, who have kept detailed records of their bug watching since 1905.  Their main motivation seems to have been simple love of nature.

Republicans and science

Last week Paul Krugman departed from his usual subject matter (the economy) to present the case that Republicans are becoming the anti-science party. His argument included a quote from a Republican official accusing a conspiracy of scientists of fabricating global warming data to promote their own careers.

It would be nice if such lunacy could be dismissed as a fringe phenomenon. But the speaker was the current governor of Texas and a leading candidate for President. And according to Krugman only 21% of Iowa Republican voters believe in global warming, and only 35% of them believe in evolution. Holy Toledo!

Is it possible that we could elect as President a person who opposes factual analysis and critical thought generally? As unbelievable as it sounds, the answer, apparently, is yes. At any rate, none of the current Republican candidates is prepared to stand up for rational thought over patent nonsense when their potential supporters prefer the nonsense.

I’ve never considered it particularly heroic to acknowledge factual reality or base action on the best available data. I thought this was what people ordinarily did. There have always been people who were disconnected from reality, but traditionally we either feared or pitied them. No sane person would consider taking their views seriously. So how is it possible that the anti-science Republicans (surely, or at least I hope, still a minority among Republicans) have developed into a political force? This is crazy!

Now, I have nothing against people who prefer their fantasies to hard reality. It’s OK if they want to believe, for example, that it’s possible to have public services without paying taxes, or that climate change is nothing to worry about. But it would be folly to let such people have serious responsibility for anything. Just as we don’t let young children drive cars, we don’t want the anti-science people making important decisions. As opponents of science, they just don’t have the tools necessary for good decision-making. Why would we even consider trusting them?

Mayhem in Tucson, and the politics of evil

The killing spree by a mentally ill young man in Tucson last week was shocking and sad, as senseless mayhem always is. But there’s something about this attack that’s especially worrisome. The main target (who miraculously survived) was a moderate Democratic congresswoman. A number of right wing pundits have made careers of demonizing such politicians and fanning ignorance into raging anger. Palin, Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Beck and others have persuaded millions that non-right-wingers are not merely misguided, but essentially and utterly evil. It isn’t hard to imagine that their intense, emotional rhetoric would lead unbalanced minds to violent action.

We usually think of political differences as less important than, say, differences in moral values, but lately the two kinds of differences have converged and made it hard to address real social problems. Paul Krugman in the NY Times was insightful and eloquent on this issue.

Krugman points out that the right wing has developed a view of government as opposed to their natural rights. They regard “taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.” Thus they view health reform (and lots of other government programs) as a moral outrage, and most of what government does as illegitimate. It follows from this that those who believe government has an important role to play in addressing serious social problems are evil enemies.

This is, of course, a radical view, with no more basis in our traditions than in reason. It’s probable that this approach in its strong form is a fringe phenomenon. But the Tucson mayhem brought home that such ideology may still seriously threaten our public life. The sophisticated right-wing PR machine makes unbalanced individuals even more unbalanced, and there will be a certain percentage of these who enjoy shooting assault weapons. Krugman is probably right that no amount of reasonable discussion will persuade the right wingers, and we can’t hope to prevent all mental illness. But Krugman thinks we may be able to agree that it’s wrong to incite violence. That seems little enough to ask.