How to Make America Great (An 8-Point Plan)

Make America Great

#MAG

My optimism stems largely from a belief in progress. Progress is the inevitable outcome of accumulated knowledge and enlightenment. As we understand the world better, understand ourselves better, we come to understand how to improve the world and our place in it.

The Progressive approach is guided by reason and virtue. In many regards (hunger, poverty, human rights) the world is in a better place than it’s ever been, and this is largely the result of people who utilize our scientific and intellectual advancements wisely.

At the same time, the world remains awash in fucked uppedness. With climate change, the cracks in the levy are rapidly becoming fissures, which promises to exacerbate all kinds of fucked uppedness unless we get somebody to stick their thumb in it, right quick.

Make America Suck Again

Here in the United States, we would only be so lucky if the Trump administration were merely fiddling while Rome burns (to mix metaphors slightly); instead, they’re throwing their fiddles and whatever else they can find onto the fire, whipping it into an inferno.

Long before Trump, though, the Regressives in this country, led by plutocrats, have been crapping on democracy. In addition to buying (or becoming) politicians, Regressives sow division, disinformation, and dysfunction, as they reap a bounty in the wake of discontent deflected away from their devious designs.

Put more concretely, certain Regressive elites in this country (present President included), primarily in an effort to entrench their power and wealth, have endeavored to:

  • Divide Americans:  From the Southern Strategy to welfare queens to Willie Horton to Donald Trump, Regressives (in this case, primarily Republicans) have been stoking white fear and anger toward people of color. Misogyny, xenophobia, and homophobia are other tools in the divisiveness toolbox. And among whites, Regressives promote tribalism via Fox News (Liberal Elites vs. Real Americans), the NRA, religion, etc. Here it must be said that liberals and Democrats are also guilty of regressive tribalism when they ridicule and show disdain for poor and rural white folks.1
  • Spread Disinformation: There’s a certain element of my news feed that’s tragicomic. Stories from Fox News2 seem to focus on either the crookedness of Hillary Clinton, tabloidy bullshit, people of color and immigrants doing bad things, or female teachers having sex with their male students.3 When there are stories that make Regressives look bad, they are downplayed or ignored; when the stories make liberals look bad, they are pounced on. The tabloidy crap serves to distract people from real issues. Fox is a pusher of the Regressive ideology. Limbaugh, Breitbart, The Blaze, and InfoWars follow the same playbook (to varying degrees of insanity). It’s funny how people of this ilk rail against the mainstream media, claiming it has a liberal bias. Well, to the extent that some mainstream media believe in facts and reason, I guess that would make them appear more progressive – that said, in the interest of appearing balanced, I still think mainstream media give too much credence to regressive ideas. Fair and balanced, indeed!
  • Create Dysfunction: Defund public education, diminish access to health care, destroy unions, deter people from voting, drown government. Weaker public education leads to a less enlightened populace, and has the added bonus of empowering for-profit education, which primarily benefits the wealthy. Reduced access to health care, lack of unions, and poverty in general distract people from political engagement (and of course create more wealth for the elites). Voting restrictions and gerrymandering, combined with artificially divided Americans, disinformation, and ignorance, help keep Regressives in power, even though their interests are aligned with a tiny minority of the population. When they do attain power, they follow the advice of Grover Norquist and try to drown government in a bathtub. A shittily functioning government works perfectly for Regressives: See, told you government sucks! Discontent and ignorance breed yet more Regressives.
  • Promote Plutocracy: All of this division and disinformation and dysfunction is made possible by a government that is easily bought, thanks to Citizens United and other systemic failures that allow money to infiltrate our government. Since money equals free speech in this country, the loudest voices don’t belong to you or me. Thus we have the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, where the only “jobs” being given are to the Republicans’ wealthy pimps.

What could be more unpatriotic, more un-American, than the way these Regressives defile democracy?

What Do Americans Want?

Thomas Jefferson wrote that the doctrines of Epicurus (which he described “as containing every thing rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us”) included the moral that:

  • Happiness is the aim of life.
  • Virtue the foundation of happiness.
  • Utility the test of virtue.

From the Koch brothers to Rush Limbaugh to Donald Trump to Grover Norquist to my in-laws, what the Regressives have failed to grasp is that their own happiness is integrally tied to virtuous action.

Wealthy Americans (I include myself in this category) have been afforded, whether we realize it or not, enormous opportunity by virtue of living in this country. Isn’t it our patriotic duty to ensure that all Americans receive similar opportunities? Premium taxes in return for premium opportunities.

Ultimately, I believe most Americans, most people, want a system that provides opportunity and fosters happiness (in the fulfillment sense). While the system is necessarily quite complex, there is precedent for what works and what doesn’t to achieve happiness and prosperity.

The Regressive way seeks to destroy; the Progressive way seeks to build.

Make America Great

So now let my lamentations and railing give way to an optimistic, Progressive path forward. Here’s my 8-Point Plan to Make America Great:

1. Return Government to The People

  • Enact campaign finance and lobbying reform that gets big money out of politics
  • End gerrymandering
  • End voter suppression

At a time when politicians brazenly pander to their big donors rather than their constituents, we are in dire need of substantive Campaign Finance Reform. Other than the small minority of Regressives, who wouldn’t agree that politicians should be focused on the vast concerns of their constituents, not just the concerns of a few large donors? Something like the Fair Elections Now Act would address this.

Gerrymandering is some of the most Un-American bullshit out there. Both Democrats and Republicans have been guilty of drawing districts that favor them over the years, but Republicans have taken it to new lows of late, with state and federal houses across the country receiving disproportionate representation by Republicans due to partisan gerrymandering. Soon, the Supreme Court will decide Gill vs. Whitford,4 a case that could provide a metric for what constitutes partisan gerrymandering. If we believe in reason and virtue, districts should be drawn using a nonpartisan metric that most accurately reflects the will of the people, not partisan manipulators.

One other strategy that Regressives use to stay in power is voter suppression. If your interests only align with a few wealthy elite, then, aside from those you’ve duped into voting for you, you want to ensure that less people have access to vote. You do this through restrictive voting laws, making it onerous (or impossible) for people to register or vote. As people who believe in facts understand, voter fraud is negligible. Rather than extinguishing it in the gutter of voter suppression, we should light the beacon of democracy by making voting as simple and straightforward as possible.

2. E Pluribus Unum

  • End divisiveness and promote a vision of unity in which all Americans are working to attain the same goal: a happy and prosperous society
  • Re-establish that knowledge, science, facts, truth are attainable, and that they should guide policy
  • Reach out to different demographics (rural, urban, black, white, Latino, conservative, liberal) to better understand their concerns5
  • Work with local community leaders to disseminate information about the benefits of a Progressive platform
  • Spread the message that purveyors of divisiveness and hate are undermining American values

In case you didn’t know (and you’re not a true patriot!) E Pluribus Unum is a motto of the United States, meaning “out of many, one.” The Regressives seem bent on a mission that would change that to E Pluribus Pluribus. Here’s a real quote I found in the comments section of an anti-Obama piece after he won the 2012 election:

I seriously think dumbocraps have at least 50% less brain power than normal people. Otherwise how can they continiously over look the damage that he’s already done, not see it, and want MORE of it????

Aside from the comical placement of the “sics,” the troubling thing about this statement is how emblematic it is of the tribalism that has done, and is doing, so much damage in our country. I actually agree with the commenter that far too many people on the left aren’t informed consumers of media. But far more pervasive than this ignorance is the disinformation and divisiveness spread by Regressives,6 of which this guy is an eager adopter.

Dumbocraps is a new one to me, but we’ve all heard of libtards and snowflakes, and from the other side, rednecks, white trash, Bernie Bros; all of these are Regressive pejoratives meant to divide. And of course, playing on people’s fears via racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia further divides us. As mentioned above, it’s a Regressive tactic to pit people against each other who would actually benefit from working together. The Regressives will be shitting their slacks when the rest of us figure this out.

Conservative rural voters feel under siege by liberal elites, and I think they’re right to feel abandoned by Democrats, who have mostly ceded this bloc to Republicans (who pay lip service but not much else). A true Progressive platform (not all dumbocraps) encompasses the needs of rural whites as much as it does those of urban blacks, or liberal elites, or the working class, or poor folks. 

Not to get all kumbaya-y or anything, but Progressives need to make it abundantly clear that our policies are inclusive of all working class folks (defined as anybody who works for a living, wants to work for a living, can’t work for a living, is retired, or is a child). In other words, E Pluribus Unum.

3. Invest In Us

  • We are a big country – we need big government to administer equal opportunity
  • Ensure that our big government runs smoothly and efficiently
  • Enact fair regulations that ensure government, businesses, and individuals work for the benefit of society
  • Incentivize businesses to empower and reward employees
  • Establish that taxes are investments in the happiness and prosperity of our country and its citizens
  • Publicly account (via a simple website) for how our taxes are spent – our investments should pay dividends in the form of safety, security, education, health, convenience, and sustainability
  • Make filing taxes free and easy on a government website

According to the 2017 Happiness Report, Denmark is one of the happiest countries in the world (#2 after Norway). Danes pay 41-56% income taxes. For this, they receive free health care, education, and a financial safety net. They work less than 40 hours a week and get at least four weeks of vacation a year. Between them, parents get over 50 weeks of parental leave when a child is born.

Among advanced economies, the United States ranks 2nd highest in net income inequality. Out of these same 30 countries, the U.S. is 13th in happiness. They say money doesn’t buy happiness, but with about 40% of the world’s total wealth, it seems like we could be doing better.

Wagner’s Law states: “The advent of modern industrial society will result in increasing political pressure for social progress and increased allowance for social consideration by industry.”

In other words, wealthy nations have a tendency to provide more opportunities for their citizens over time. So, why, while much of the rest of the wealthy world (including Denmark) moved toward greater opportunity, has the U.S. remained relatively flat in that regard? Why, it’s those pesky Regressives, convincing people that what we really need is smaller government and less regulation – meanwhile, even as production increases, the Regressives have concentrated more and more of the resultant wealth among themselves at the top.

4. Invest In Education

  • Provide equal opportunity for all public schools by increasing and equally distributing funding among schools
  • Promote excellence in education by properly valuing and incentivizing teachers
  • Reward innovative and effective curricula that energize students
  • Integrate schools and communities more closely – many learning projects (gardens, food, building, service, technology, research, etc.) can also benefit the community
  • Use evaluative procedures that aren’t one-size-fits-all and that don’t force schools to teach to the test
  • Provide free preschool and college
  • Institute a year or two of mandatory national service after high school in which students work on national or international projects (military or civilian)

Preach a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils, and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.

This is Thomas Jefferson again. Note that one could substitute “Regressives” for “kings, priests and nobles.” Sadly, it seems that the Regressives have used this quote prescriptively: Hey, if we crusade for ignorance, we should be able to rise up among the people!

Of course, Jefferson didn’t mean for this to be a recipe for plutocracy, but rather against it. His prescription was that we must invest in education to enlighten the common people so that we may be informed participants in democracy.

5. Invest In Health

  • Enact universal health care
  • Establish a network of health advisers who work with individuals to promote preventive health care through healthy lifestyles and preemptive diagnoses
  • Regulate standard rates for various procedures and prescriptions
  • Regulate the ability of pharmaceutical, hospital, and other medical institutions to influence research, doctors, and hospitals
  • Provide adequate funding for impartial scientific research on health, medical procedures, and pharmaceuticals
  • Create a national database that tracks health issues to provide researchers with data to establish cause and effect for both illnesses and their cures (or prevention)
  • Include DNA, microbiota, and environmental information in this database
  • Focus more resources on determining the causes, prevention, and cures of mental illness, as well as creating more opportunities and better care for the mentally ill
  • Provide better detection, education, counseling, care, and monitoring for people with unhealthy or dangerous sexual or violent tendencies
  • End the war on drugs and utilize the resources saved (as well as taxes from alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana) to regulate dangerous drugs, and provide education, counseling, and care (not punishment and prison) for those who are addicted
  • Educate people better about diet and exercise, and properly regulate and tax unhealthy foods
  • Promote measures that will reduce traffic deaths – such as less reliance on vehicles, better urban design, and self-driving vehicles
  • Recognize that guns, like vehicles, can be much better regulated to promote safety

6. Invest In America

  • Rebuild infrastructure to make it smart infrastructure, geared toward a sustainable and lower-impact 21st century America
  • Design urban space that promotes community, civic pride, safety, enjoyment, and of course happiness and prosperity
  • Create nationwide, public internet access
  • Research and reward smart and sustainable agricultural practices
  • Regulate and reward businesses and cooperatives that foster positive community and societal ideals
  • Provide amnesty for the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants living in this country
  • Establish fair and effective immigration laws, and work with Mexico and other countries to establish worker exchange programs that benefit both those countries and the United States
  • Maintain and create more open space and wilderness
  • Recognize that equality of opportunity makes a stronger society

7. Invest In The World

  • Recognize that the United States has had a huge, often negative, impact on the rest of the world, especially through our outsized use of resources, but that we can also have an outsized positive impact
  • Invest in developing countries to help them develop in a sustainable manner – more than just altruism, these investments are repaid in the form of greater security, climate change mitigation, and ultimately more prosperous nations with which to cooperate
  • Work with the United Nations to strengthen its mission of maintaining world peace and security
  • Change the Department of Defense to the Department of Global Development, with the primary mission of advancing peace around the world7 – the vast resources afforded to our military could be better spent by fostering goodwill toward the United States
  • Create a leaner, smarter, stealthier military, ready to step in when power is needed
  • Work with countries to establish fair trade

8. The Environmental Moonshot

None of the above will ultimately matter much if we don’t address climate change now. Luckily, there are multiple economic factors involving renewable energy, battery storage, electric vehicles, lighting technology, agricultural practices, and other innovations that are increasingly making it more feasible for the world to drastically reduce its carbon footprint.

What we need now is the moral leadership and vision to accelerate into this new sustainable age. This could also be an effort that galvanizes our country around an existential cause (similar to the war effort during World War II, but with some of the energy and excitement surrounding the Apollo Mission). This environmental moonshot can and should be a massive jobs creator, and a boon to the U.S. economy as a whole.

  • End subsidies for fossil fuel and other polluting industries
  • Provide training to help people in these industries shift to new ones
  • Enact a carbon tax, with proceeds going toward sustainable energy innovation and endeavors
  • Become the world leader in green energy technology and goods
  • Shift to primarily electric transportation
  • Shift to an integrated and sustainable agricultural system
  • Work to restore and preserve biodiversity nationally and internationally
  • Work with impoverished, environmentally degraded communities to rebuild sustainably
  • Become a zero-waste nation by 2035
  • The Moonshot: become a 100% renewable energy nation by 2035

America, Fuck Yeah

I can hear all the naysayers laughing at my idealism, calling me Pollyanna. But this is ‘Merica, dadgummit, and when we want something, we take it! Many of the above ideas are already underway, if not here, then in other nations. We can see the success that they’re having – we can emulate and improve upon it.

Who would’ve thought in 2010 that, in just a few years, the Supreme Court would find that same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry under the Constitution, or that pot would be legalized in multiple states? When there’s a good Progressive idea, the dominoes often fall pretty quickly. And, of course, many of the above ideas work synergistically, amplifying the domino effect.

Maybe it’s time to throw down the gauntlet to the rest of the world and show them what American exceptionalism is really about. Instead of internecine fighting, Americans need a common enemy we can unite against… the Danes, of course – fuck the Danes! We need to knock their shiny happy asses down a peg or two. Too tribal? Fine, then let’s just unite against Regressive thinking and fight for a Progressive America.

 

Save The World: Eat Insects

A few years ago I worked with some colleagues to write a paper about the potential for entomophagy to address undernutrition. We titled it, fittingly enough, “The potential for entomophagy to address undernutrition,” and it was published in the Ecology of Food and Nutrition journal. Entomophagy is the fancy word for insect eating.

My brother and I had been doing research on entomophagy and I came across a paper in which somebody surmised that we could feed all of the world’s hungry people using insects produced in just a few buildings. I did some calculations of my own and brought this up in a phone conversation with Dr. Florence Dunkel, one of the world’s preeminent entomophagists. She was intrigued, and enlisted my brother and me and another professor, Dr. Frank Franklin, to collaborate on a paper based on our calculations of how much land it would take to grow enough insects to meet the food deficit of all of the world’s undernourished people.

While not quite as optimistic as those first estimates I had read, our calculations indicate that insects could represent a radically more efficient source of calories, protein, and other nutrients, as compared with conventional Western livestock.

Here’s a brief summary of our findings:

  • There are almost 800 million undernourished people in the world (undernutrition is “the result of prolonged low levels of food intake and/or low absorption of food consumed.”)
  • As of 2014, the average food deficit is 84 calories per person per day. Food deficit describes “how many calories would be needed to lift the undernourished from their status.” Some areas, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, experience much higher average food deficits.
  • Increasing population and food consumption patterns, coupled with pressures from climate change and overutilized resources, may cause more food shortages.
  • Humans knowingly and willingly eat over 1900 species of insects worldwide.
  • More than 2 billion people eat insects on a regular basis, in spite of centuries of Western pressure against it.
  • Many insects have similar nutrient profiles to conventional Western livestock meat and products.
  • Yet farming insects uses far fewer resources, less energy, less water, less land, creates less waste, and reduces global warming potential, as compared with conventional livestock.
  • Many insects can utilize organic side streams for feed. Organic side streams are biowaste from agriculture, forestry, and household processes. Insects also have huge potential as recyclers of organic side streams, in turn becoming feed for conventional livestock (see Mad Agriculture for more information).
  • On less than 50,000 acres, one could raise enough mealworms (in a light industrial operation utilizing organic side streams for feed) to erase the world’s food deficit. That’s about 0.0004% of the world’s 12 billion or so acres devoted to agriculture.
  • On less than 250,000 acres, one could raise enough crickets (in a small farming operation utilizing organic side streams for feed) to erase the world’s food deficit.

Our calculations were meant to illustrate the enormous potential for entomophagy to help reduce hunger while reducing pressure on our resources, but, clearly, increased entomophagy represents only one component in a complex approach to combating hunger (including reduced poverty, better education, better food distribution, less wasted food, better agricultural yields, and less environmental degradation).

Just for fun, though, how much land would it take if we derived all of our calories from mealworms? There are about 7.5 billion people in 2017. If we should eat an average of about 2000 calories per day (2400 for men, 2000 for women, less for children), that’s a mere 15 trillion calories a day. Since one could theoretically grow about 10.7 million calories of mealworms per acre per day (not including the feed for the mealworms), it would take about 14 million acres to feed the entire world all-mealworms, all the time (that’s less than one-thousandth the agricultural land we have in production today).

“What’s for breakfast, dad?” “Mealworms!” “Again? We always have mealworms….” “Yes, that’s all we eat.”

Getting back to the present situation, I’ll draw your attention to the first bullet point above. There are 800 million undernourished people in the world today. Let that sink in for a second. While that number has fallen fairly significantly over the past few decades (from close to a billion in 1990), that’s about one in nine people in the world that are going hungry. Most of us are so far removed from this tragedy that it can be hard to connect to the very real suffering. This recent New York Times video by Nicholas Kristof helped make that connection again for me – we are living in a world where we let children die in a dystopian climate change-induced landscape. These kinds of stories will become more common if we don’t work on solutions.*

One part of the solution, as detailed in the 2013 UN Food and Agriculture Organization report Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security, is entomophagy. This report came out before our paper, and did not include detailed calculations about the land and other resources needed for farming insects, but it establishes entomophagy as a very real component of the FAO’s approach to combating hunger.

Wageningen University in the Netherlands is where the rock stars of entomophagy research reside. There is some skepticism there that insect calorie production will be as efficient as our calculations indicate. But, on the one hand, even if our numbers were off by a factor of ten (or a hundred), insect farming is still far more efficient than farming conventional livestock. On the other hand, I believe that our numbers could be too conservative, if anything. Consider that insect farming is currently very primitive relative to much conventional agriculture. As insect farming technologies improve, I believe we will see leaps and bounds in its efficiency, which could far surpass what we suggest is possible in our paper.

Of course there are a lot of unknowns, but that’s where organizations like MightI and Aspire come in. MightI is a nonprofit working with local communities in Sub-Saharan Africa to study the feasibility of implementing insect farming there. They are also doing research into how different feeds affect insect nutrient profiles, as well as the health impacts of insect consumption. Aspire is a for-profit that is using higher tech farming to create cricket flour in the U.S., and is also working with local communities in Africa to farm insects.

In the U.S., meat-eating is one of the largest contributors to climate change. Entomophagy represents one way to curb the amount of conventional meat we eat. Culturally, most Americans are averse to eating insects, but are generally open to new culinary experiences (witness the explosion in sushi eating over the past few decades). And flours made from some insects can provide a protein boost in things like soups, shakes, baked goods, protein bars, etc. that, if anything, adds to the flavor. I could envision a time when we add a little mealworm or cricket powder to almost everything we eat, allowing us to cut back significantly on more expensive and wasteful (and some would say unethical**) proteins.

 

Where do we go from here? My plan is to keep evangelizing entomophagy. Practicing a little of what I preach, I’ve been growing mealworms in the basement now for over a year. My next move will be to see if I can grow enough to meet my protein needs for a week. I’ll also do some experimenting with organic side streams (mostly our erstwhile compost) as feed, to see if I can get decent mealworm growth with nary an ounce of high-grade feed. In agriculture, I see a lot of potential in indoor vertical farming, especially with advances in solar power, LED lighting, lithium battery, and other technologies); entomophagy fits right in with this (imagine taking old abandoned warehouses in places like Detroit and Baltimore and turning them into beautiful farms).

Want to grow your own mealworms (GYOM)? Or start your own insect factory? Or maybe travel to developing countries to see how you can help with entomophagy projects there? If you’re interested in getting involved in entomophagy in any capacity, check out the great resources below.

Warning: A lot of insects are great to eat, but don’t just go out grabbing insects willy nilly and eating them. Some insects are poisonous. Some insects carry pathogens. And some insects may contain pesticides.  

Entomophagy Resources

Organizations Working With Entomophagy in Developing Countries:

  • MightI: “Aims to use robust, multidisciplinary research to investigate ways edible insects can contribute to sustainable food security and improved health and well-being globally. Our vision is to generate applied research on edible insects that has the potential to improve lives and protect our precious environmental resources.”
  • Flying Food Project: “Aims at rearing and eating crickets as a delicious, affordable and healthy solution for malnutrition.”
  • Aspire: “To celebrate, innovate, and advance responsible farming and healthy eating of insects. We will continue to research and invest in sustainable insect farming practices to bring this protein alternative to market.”

A Small Sampling of Companies Raising Insects or Selling Insect Products in the United States and Canada:

  • Aspire: “We raise food-grade crickets on a commercial scale, and are actively working to normalize the consumption of insects in the western world.”
  • Tiny Farms: “To enable adoption of insects as a source of sustainable alternative protein, Tiny Farms Inc. applies designs thinking, IoT, and automation to build smart, easily scalable farming systems.”
  • Mad Agriculture: “We harness the nutrient recycling abilities of insects to turn food waste into a protein rich feed supplement so we can be less dependent on unsustainable ingredients like fishmeal and soy.”
  • C-fu Foods: “A new approach to protein that comes from a more sustainable source, insects. Through our innovative process we’ve created a healthy meat replacement that helps you create culinary staples like burgers, schnitzel, or nuggets.

DIY Insect Farming:

  • A series of videos detailing how to start a mealworm farm
  • Third Millennium Farming: Small-scale cricket farms
  • Open Bug Farm: From the Tiny Farms folks, open source instructions for building mealworm farms
  • Livin Farms: Countertop mealworm farms. Looks sleek and high tech, but fairly spendy at $649. Harvest over a pound of mealworms a week.

Articles, Books, and Videos on Entomophagy:

 

*I’m hopeful that, just as with the Millennium Development Goals, we can work together to achieve the even more ambitious Sustainable Development Goals, which call for ending hunger and extreme poverty by 2030.

**We know pigs and cows and chickens experience consciousness and pain and suffering. Do insects feel? Here’s an interesting disquisition on that. Insects may have a form of consciousness, but probably do not feel pain as we define it.

Changing Evolution

mothsIt’s well known that humans have had a huge impact on the world’s biodiversity, with some suggesting that we have precipitated the sixth major extinction event in the Earth’s history. This may also be the worst sin perpetrated in Earth’s history. And it will only be accelerated and perpetuated via climate change. Shitty job, us.

A lesser known phenomenon occurring via humans is that we have changed the path of evolution for countless critters. There is the textbook example of the peppered moth, which evolved darker strains after the industrial revolution, resulting in better camouflage on polluted surfaces. Newer studies have found that swallows that spend more time around highways have evolved shorter wings, the better to dodge and dart around traffic. A new study, also with moths, finds that city variants of ermine moths are less attracted to light than their bumpkin cousins – thus avoiding the pitfalls of porch lights.

A few dozen millennia ago, wolves that capitalized on leftovers from human camps started developing traits that endeared them to humans – and bingo bango, we got chihuahuas.* After the hunter-gatherers and their dogs started planting stuff and settling down, we started to manipulate plant and animal life to an even greater degree. Did you know that cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and Brussels sprouts are the same species, Brassica oleracea? Or, rather, they were all cultivated from that wild plant. Carrots used to be mostly purple. Corn cobs used to look a lot more like grass stalks before humans got their hands on them.

Way before Darwin and Mendel figured out what the hell was going on, humans were intentionally changing evolution. And by changing our environment, as in the moth and swallow examples above, we’ve also made unintentional alterations to the fabric of our world. Unlike the moth and swallow examples, some of these alterations will have lasting negative repercussions.

As a small example, I was in my yard yesterday ostensibly destroying some dandelions (sans chemicals), and it occurred to me that these little em-effers are probably evolving adaptations to work around human attempts to eradicate them. I noticed that some of the dandelion flowers grow very close to the ground – is this an adaptation brought about by the dreaded lawnmower? What other ways have they evolved to continue to blight our attempts at perfect green carpets of grass?

On a larger scale (and with more than just aesthetic implications), pesticides are leading to resistant pests, which leads to increased pesticide use and new chemicals – great for Monsanto, shitty for the rest of us.

On a microscale, antibiotic overuse results in super bacteria evolving resistance, which leads to an arms race – great for big pharmaceutical companies, shitty for us. Antibiotics have also, in a sense, changed human evolution in that they have changed our microbiomes, which is partly responsible for a number of modern ailments.

Speaking of which, modern medicine has changed the course of human evolution in other ways. One side effect of the amazing advances of modern medicine is allowing many genes that used to be weeded out through natural selection to remain in the gene pool. Eventually, this problem may be solved via gene therapy, which will ultimately be a form of human-directed evolution (but that’s a story for another post).

In a sense, we are GMO’ing (GM’ing is probably more accurate) ourselves and the world – or the world is GM’ing itself, in an adapt-to-human-changes-or-die scenario. This has, of course, been part of the game since the incipient primordial soup, when microorganisms reacted and evolved to adapt to changes wrought by other microorganisms. The relationship between flowering plants and insects is one of the most fascinating examples of this. Consider the bee orchid, which, in what could be considered trans-species sexual selection, mimics a female solitary bee, inducing male bees to pseudocopulate** with the flower, thus transferring pollen (if they’d stop fucking flowers, maybe they wouldn’t be such solitary bees).

But never has the course of evolution been so affected by one species: humans. Human-caused extinction has to be up there as one of our worst irredeemable acts, but we shouldn’t overlook the other ways in which we’re altering our big blue marble.

 

*One of my favorite disses on the creationist dupes was in the movie “Jesus Camp,” when the mom says “Creationism… it’s the only possible answer to all the questions” and the camera briefly pans to her chihuahua-ish wolf (1:51 in this clip):

**I admit it, this whole post was just an excuse for me to use the word “pseudocopulate.”

Soil Yourself

As visitors to the Cottage are aware, we like to get dirty. Another thing we like is the potential that crowdsourced science has to rapidly improve our knowledge. Here’s an opportunity to combine the two. The Natural Products Discovery Group is offering free soil collection kits, which they will then analyze for fungal compounds that may have medical uses.

Wouldn’t it be great if these guys were also looking at all the bacteria and other microbes in the soil samples? A database like this could help elucidate many of the ecosystem functions that soil microorganisms serve (with agricultural and climate change implications), as well as many potential non-medical uses for millions of unstudied compounds. But, hey, it’s a start.

I got mine – get yours!

Awe-full

The Universe

“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them – the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” -Immanuel Kant

Have you ever been awestruck? It’s a truly palpable feeling, hence the bolt-of-lightning idiom often associated with it. Awe is often accompanied by physical changes, such as piloerection (aka goosebumps). I remember experiencing awe only a handful of times, and for me it’s always been associated with attempts to contemplate the vastness of the universe. This usually occurs in conversation; as I try to expand my understanding outward, I reach a point where I can’t fathom anything larger, where I reach the limits of my comprehension. At that moment, my mind does a pleasurable resetting, and I land back on Earth. Interestingly, though, it takes more to reach that state of confoundedness in subsequent musings on the vastness of the universe. Maybe each experience of awe entails an expansion of one’s comprehension, resulting in the need for even greater stimulus to achieve it the next time. It’s been over a decade since I last experienced awe.

It was only recently that I discovered that this sensation is called awe. Previously, because I didn’t have a better way to explain it, I called it an epiphany. In a 2003 paper, Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt review the literature of awe and attempt to imbue it with some defining characteristics. Awe, they say, must involve two central themes:

1. Vastness – Experiences that are much larger than the self. The universe is hard to beat, but vastness can also include non-physical size, as in social structures such as fame, authority, and prestige. Vastness is often associated with power.

2. Accommodation – Adjusting one’s mental faculties when one can’t assimilate a new experience. This can either lead to a better understanding (enlightenment, rebirth), or increased confusion (fear, disorientation).

Five additional themes affect how we experience awe: threat, beauty, ability, virtue, and supernatural causality. We may experience some of these emotions, though, without experiencing awe. It’s only when we experience both vastness and accommodation in conjunction with one of these themes that we truly experience awe. If we only experience one or the other of the two central themes, then we should label it something other than awe. For example, witnessing exceptional ability in another may trigger accommodation, but if it doesn’t also trigger the sensation of vastness, it should simply be called admiration.

Likewise, elevation is a sensation that usually doesn’t involve vastness but does involve accommodation. Elevation occurs when we witness actions of virtue or moral beauty that inspire us to become better people.*

In an evolutionary sense, K and H say, awe may have arisen to maintain hierarchy in human societies: lower status individuals exhibit a primordial awe toward leaders. This is opposed to learned, or elaborated, awe, which has primordial awe as its basis. We experience elaborated awe in response to culturally subjective variables like famous people, art, nature, and even grand ideas (interestingly, epiphanies are a kind of awe).

I wonder about some of these assertions. Might awe at the vastness of nature be the primordial evolutionary adaptation? It’s a wide world and our ancestors did well to both fear and respect it. The paper asks more questions than it answers, and this seems to be part of the point: to stimulate more discussion and research about awe. The authors suggest that, with a better understanding of awe, we may be able to harness it and utilize it to improve our lives. I’ll give it a shot…

There are 200-400 billion stars in our galaxy. There are at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe. But what’s outside the universe? Infinite nothingness seems unlikely. Maybe there are more universes. What’s beyond that? More universes, ad infinitum? That would mean space and matter are infinite; would everything that exists exist in infinite numbers? Maybe we’re just an infinitesimal speck in a larger universe, which is itself an infinitesimal speck in a larger universe, ad infinitum.

 

*I’m a sucker for this in movies. Hollywood has become pretty good at including elevating themes in their movies (White Chicks notwithstanding), as cheesy and Manichean as they usually are.

Passenger Pigeons: Why Extinction Matters

Passenger Pigeons by John James Audubon

Passenger Pigeons by John James Audubon

I had a dream last night that I was keeping dodo birds the way one might keep chickens. They had been resurrected, phoenix-style, through DNA lab work. I was excited to tell my stepmom – this would be a great bird to add to her life list.

In the category of birds that have run afoul of man’s voraciousness, perhaps only the passenger pigeon occupies a place in the public’s consciousness equal to its relative the dodo. It’s been 100 years since the last passenger pigeon died.

In college I wrote about the ecological implications of the extinction of the passenger pigeon (the paper was creatively titled Ecological Implications of the Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon). During the course of the 19th century, the passenger pigeon population plummeted from about 3 billion birds to virtually none, killed for food, for animal feed, for sport, and to protect crops. This was exacerbated by loss of habitat as forests were cleared. I focused on three areas where the loss of passenger pigeons likely affected the ecosystem.

1. Passenger pigeons ate a variety of nuts, fruits, insects, worms, and grains. During certain seasons, beechnuts made up a large part of the passenger pigeon diet. Imagine a billion or so passenger pigeons descending on a beech forest to gorge themselves on beechnuts and other food. The pigeons helped maintain healthy forests by dispersing nuts, keeping potentially harmful insect outbreaks in check, fertilizing the forest floor, and even occasionally destroying individual trees, which would clear the way for younger trees. Might the presence of passenger pigeons have been enough to minimize the effects of beech bark disease, caused by scale insects imported from Europe in the late 1800s?

2. Passenger pigeons ate a lot of food, but they also were food. In addition to providing a tasty meal for numerous mammalian predators, many raptors would have feasted on the cornucopia of pigeons. In particular, peregrine falcons, famously affected by DDT, may have been more susceptible given that an important food source was no longer available.

3. And passenger pigeons didn’t just provide food for larger animals. The American burying beetle uses small bird and mammal carcasses to rear its young. The historical range of the burying beetle was similar to that of passenger pigeons. Today this beetle is found in only a few small areas, and is critically endangered.

Of course there are innumerable ecological functions that changed with the loss of passenger pigeons, given that there had been around 3 billion passenger pigeons prior to their eradication.* We often look at the ecological implications of human interference with nature, but this is generally presented based on how it affects humans, whether environmentally or economically.

Do we really care about the American burying beetle, beech trees, peregrine falcons, or passenger pigeons aside from the services they may provide for us? By discussing the “ecosystem services” that species provide for humans, well-meaning environmental and other groups are attempting to tap into our natural self-interest. These services include resources like food, water, and wood, as well as processes like carbon sequestration and air purification. And there are cultural and aesthetic services – we value the serenity of nature, the beauty of tigers.

It’s OK to value organisms and ecosystems based on their benefit to us. It’s important to have a metric by which we can assess ecosystems’ values. If we were more rigorous about this, then we might have a better handle on the true cost of fossil fuels, meat, and Nikes.

But there are many species whose loss doesn’t mean much to us in an ecological, economic, or even aesthetic sense. If our ethic were to stop with the economic and environmental benefits to us, where would this leave critters like the desert pupfish? Why should we care? Because, beyond any value organisms may provide to us, they have intrinsic value, a right to exist. These creatures have evolved over hundreds of millions of years, and to just snuff them out in a blink just ain’t right. Each is an incredibly detailed, intricate, refined creation of evolution.**

But extinction is a natural part of life on Earth, you say. Yes, but humans have brought a chainsaw to this delicate natural surgery, with species loss probably over a thousand times higher than the natural rate of extinction (and with climate change underway, this will likely accelerate). By many accounts, we are in the midst of the sixth major extinction event on Earth, and it’s our fault.*** We need an ethic that goes beyond human self-interest, a refined ethic, a return to a greater appreciation of nature.

Aldo Leopold argued for a land ethic:

“The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land…. [A] land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”

Understanding that we are part of the greater whole, and valuing all its parts for their intrinsic worth, not only redounds to our economic and environmental benefit, it reconnects us, as humans, to the natural world. This is an essential component of living a fulfilled life.

On this centennial anniversary of the death of the last of one of nature’s spectacular creations, perhaps we should reflect on what we’ve wrought, and what kind of future we want to leave for posterity. In the words of Aldo Leopold, memorializing the passenger pigeon:

“We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin. …[A] few decades hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.”****

 

 

*Here are a few more, from Science.

**Of course, there are certain beings that I – selfishly, from a human point of view – wouldn’t mind seeing fully eradicated (the Ebola and AIDS viruses come to mind). And I wouldn’t go as far as Tolstoy, who apparently wouldn’t even kill a fly. Although it’s worth something to reflect upon what an amazing creature a fly is as we swat the crap out of it for waking us with its annoying buzzing.

***See the recent book by Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction, or The Sixth Extinction by Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin, or The Sixth Extinction by Terry Glavin.

****What if we could bring things like the passenger pigeon back from the dead? Here’s a paper discussing the ethics of de-extinction.

Update: For those interested in the idea that an accounting of ecosystem services may not be the best way to preserve biodiversity, a new paper in Science by W. M. Adams discusses some of the costs and benefits of this approach, concluding: “ecosystem service values are just one argument for the conservation of nature.”