Just Thinking About…Roads As Self-Fulfilling Prophesies, Part 1

The US Highway System--interstates and federal roads--have got us covered, except for a few pesky white spots where people are few.  Courtesy US Dept. Transportation

The US Highway System–interstates and federal roads–have got us covered, except for a few pesky white spots where people are few. Courtesy US Dept. Transportation

October 25, 2017. Years ago in a former job and former life, there was a man in the volunteer leadership of the organization I worked for who was a transportation planner and engineer. He was also highly placed in the Twin Cities transportation community. He and I hit it off and would talk about the topics of the day, one of which was public transit—buses, light rail, streetcars. Being a transportation expert who came of age in the car-driven planning era of the 1950s and 1960s, he saw no need to invest in public transit, and in fact felt that public transit was a dying form of transportation to be supplanted eventually I suppose by individual car-pods that would be controlled by computers, pick you up at your back door, and let you off at your destination.  (And yet, now he seems prescient…as we stand on the threshold of self-driving vehicles.)

One of his arguments against public transit was that our cities had outgrown the need. Most people, he said, lived in suburbs where densities couldn’t support a cost-effective public transit system, nobody lived downtown, and the areas of urbanity in between were best served by car. I pointed out that higher urban densities justified investments in public transit just as great distances in rural areas justified investments in interstate highways. Interstate highways didn’t pay their way, I argued. User taxes—gas tax, special taxes on trucks—don’t pay the full cost of building and maintaining the road network; the rest is paid by general funds, making roads a type of public transport.

He would then counter with the cost per passenger mile to construct and maintain the different systems. His argument was always that cars were more efficient than public transit on a per passenger mile basis. This was long before $4 a gallon gas—when gas prices were as low as in the 1970s, adjusting for inflation. Back in the 70s, when I first started driving, we paid 25 cents a gallon at “gas war corners”. (Gas war corners:  where two or three gas stations at the same intersection tried to undercut each other’s price. Everybody in that part of Dearborn and Dearborn Heights bought gas there.)

I couldn’t argue the point because I didn’t realize that the rock-bottom price of gas was subsidizing the low cost per passenger mile. And I didn’t have the presence of mind to point out that bikes, with no energy cost but your breakfast, were the most efficient way to move around. I also know now that, to use just one example, trains are much more cost-effective than trucks at delivering goods to market—a ton of freight can be moved 400-500 miles on one gallon of fuel. Sailing ships would be amazingly cost-effective if people would accept the extra couple days to receive their toaster from China. Trucks and cars, then, aren’t the cheapest way to move things around, they are just convenient at the moment.

If you want to be really efficient in how you use energy to get around, ride a bike or walk.  If you don't, hop a plane.  (Missing from the picture..gondolas and catamarans, among other things.)   Chart from Sustainable Transport and Public Policy (2009) by David Banister, from the intriguingly titled book Transportation Engineering and Planning, Volume II (part of the equally intriguing Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems).

If you want to be really efficient in how you use energy to get around, ride a bike or walk. If you don’t, hop a plane. (Missing from the picture..gondolas and catamarans, among other things.) Chart from Sustainable Transport and Public Policy (2009) by David Banister, from the intriguingly titled book Transportation Engineering and Planning, Volume II (part of the equally intriguing Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems).

At some point we wound up at the chicken-egg conundrum of new road construction. He believed that roads merely responded to trends, anticipating and serving future growth, while I maintained that they stimulated growth—my opinion was backed by a couple of decades watching the process unfold across the Midwest. We wound up at loggerheads every time. In my travels I’d seen the tell-tale signs of future road work—the black hoses laid across the roads counting cars, or pink wetland delineation flags—and a couple years later, a wider road appeared…or a new road or bigger intersection went in…after which development blossomed.

If we’d been talking a few years later, I’d have brought up Atlanta.  In the late 1990s road construction in the city of Atlanta was effectively halted because the city had tried and failed to build its way out of traffic congestion. They had already installed two ring roads—the first in the 1950s and 1960s for inner ring suburbs, the second in the 80s and 90s to serve the second suburban ring because the roads around the first were choked with traffic. Atlanta planned to build a third ring road, but in 1998 the US Environmental Protection Agency, citing the region’s deepening air pollution problem, cut off federal transportation funds until Atlanta took a different approach to solve its congestion. As it had before, another ring road would simply cause development to leap outward and fill that road up, too, with extra emissions to boot.

I argued against a similar proposal here in the Twin Cities, in a 1990 Star Tribune Commentary.  In the Twin Cities, the flickering flames of third ring road enthusiasm were doused by sensible people before the idea became a conflagration. Good sense prevailed also in the early 2000s, when the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council—an institution for pooling the region’s resources around transportation planning and other regional needs—introduced the idea of centers and corridors of growth—“smart growth”—as opposed to metastasizing growth across the region wherever roads or buildings would fit. Those centers of growth were to be on existing major transportation routes, where other ways of getting around could also develop—bus rapid transit, light rail, commuter bike routes, and ride-sharing lanes.

All this was yet to come, but at the time my colleague stuck to his guns, especially on the issue of roads not promoting low density development. Sadly, my friend died in the early 2000s and I could no longer annoy him with my arguments (or give him the floor to argue against my views, including this essay). I would have told him, for instance,  that I am witnessing firsthand the transformation of a mosaic of forests, wetlands, pastures and cropland to an exurban suburbia of big homes and vast lawns after major road upgrades were planned and executed by the highway department using data from those little black hoses they place on roads . − Kim

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Just Talking About…Two Versions of the American Boulevard

Black-eyed Susans blooming on July 1.  Photo Kim Chapman

Black-eyed Susans blooming on July 1. Photo Kim Chapman

September 26, 2017.  Last summer my neighbor and I conspired to turn our shared boulevard (the strip of land between the sidewalk and the street in our Winona neighborhood parlance) from a crabgrass herbarium to a prairie.  We covered the sod in plastic to solarize the vegetation, then turned it over, burying the mostly dead weeds.  Finally in late fall we sowed a short statured prairie mix which had been recommended for city use—the plants would not grow so tall as to frighten the neighbors.

Come spring, not much happened.  A lot of weeds returned, spurges and queen Anne’s lace the like, but we didn’t see any sign of the prairie plants we had been hoping for.  When I asked Kim about this, he said to be patient—it takes up to three years for a prairie to establish itself.  We were about to give up when, mid-summer, suddenly we had a plethora of black-eyed Susans and our weedy boulevard was transformed into a riot of yellow blooms.

Jim's prairie displaying the yellow of black-eyed Susans less than a  year after it was seeded.  Untidy for some, but rich in resources for others.  Photo Jim Armstrong.

Jim’s prairie displaying the yellow of black-eyed Susans less than a year after it was seeded. Untidy for some, but rich in resources for others. Photo Jim Armstrong.

I have included photos comparing the boulevard prairie to the standard Winona grass boulevard.  Looking at them, you might prefer the grass version: so much more neat and tidy.  Our nascent prairie is a confusing welter of vegetation (and there is a rather intrusive milkweed on the right which is actually obstructing traffic—I tied it back with twine).  The grass boulevard is also easily traversed by those who park their cars by my house and wish to access the sidewalk.  One can certainly see why the city has regulations about care and upkeep of these spaces.

Tidy but ecologically impoverished boulevard in Winona, Minnesota.  Photo Jim Armstrong

Tidy but ecologically impoverished boulevard in Winona, Minnesota. Photo Jim Armstrong

However, the grass boulevard is a desert.  Its abstract sameness (so convenient to humans) is of no use to any other species.  One of the reasons my neighbor and I wanted the prairie is that we are concerned about the plight of pollinators.  Once you see your personal landscape as a shared space with other species, you begin to have a different aesthetic.  What I see when I look at the untidy prairie space I’ve created is the intense activity it supports: bees, birds, butterflies all visit regularly to harvest its nectar and pollen.  For example, I have seen goldfinches perched delicately on my black-eyed Susans—a brilliant yellow-and-black bird swaying atop a whorl of yellow petals, pecking seeds from the black center.  My urban space is a source of nourishment and sensual delight, not just a monochromatic mat board with which to frame my house.

Another factor to consider is the effort involved.  My prairie is very low maintenance.  Once it fully gets going I will only have to cut it once a year.  Because it is used to extremes, I don’t have to water it or replenish nutrients by fertilizing it.  My grass boulevard, however, has to be regularly groomed and wetted.

Ironically, emptiness takes work—nature, as the ancients say, abhors a vacuum.  Reduced diversity is against the inclination of the natural world, which is why agriculture—and by extension lawn care—is endless work.  Labor omnia vicit / improbus says the poet Virgil—steady work overcomes all things.  But nature’s motto is more like Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign slogan, “Stronger Together.”  The goal should be a richer community, not a simpler one. – Jim

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Just Talking About…The Little Things That Run The World

Alexander von Humboldt stands before Chimborazo, which he and Aimé Bonpland, seated, climbed in 1802--higher than any human for decades, and they didn't use special gear.  Painting by Friedrich Georg Weitsch 1806.

Alexander von Humboldt stands before Chimborazo, which he and Aimé Bonpland, seated, climbed in 1802–higher than any human for decades, and they didn’t use special gear. Painting by Friedrich Georg Weitsch 1806.

September 8, 2017.  It’s amazing to me how much of the world hinges on the workings of tiny things.  I’m reading about Alexander von Humboldt, the most famous man you’ve never heard of, who paid attention to those small things.  It’s not a stretch to say that Humboldt created or influenced most of the technical or scientifically rigorous disciplines of the modern age.  He was most active and influential in the first half of the 1800s.  He was a friend and correspondent of Thomas Jefferson, and a consultant to his and subsequent administrations.  For decades he was among all Earth’s inhabitants the one who’d been highest up a mountain, the volcanic Chimborazo in the Ecuadorian Andes.  (Although shorter than Everest measured from sea level, Chimborazo is actually higher into space due to the equatorial bulge in the Earth.)  He didn’t invent, but laid the foundations for my discipline, ecology, which emerged as a coherent field around 1900.  Add to that sociology, anthropology, meteorology, advances in geology, and several other lines of inquiry in the sciences and humanities.  He’s the most eponymously decorated person on the planet, with more places and things named for him than anybody alive or dead:  rivers, mountains, counties, colleges and high schools, various species, and, of course, the Humboldt Current.  In the mid-1800s he was an intellectual giant, and everybody knew who he was.

Back to tiny things running the world, Humboldt was a vigorous collector of data, not just species as he traversed the planet, but of atmospheric, geologic, chemical, and other data.  He formalized the art of combining all those data into a story of place, and that story entirely depended on vast amounts of data—big data, you might call it today.

It was the little things that Humboldt noticed and recorded, from flowers and trees to insects and rock types, to the minute pressure changes as he ascended mountains.  There’s a famous quote by J.B.S. Haldane who was asked what he could conclude from his biological studies about the nature of the divinity.  He answered, “God has an inordinate fondness for beetles”—because twenty-five percent of all species on Earth are beetles.  Recently we’ve learned how important bacteria are to our survival—not in a negative way, but as part of our body’s architecture, comprising half the cells in our body, with a dramatic influence on our health, depending on which species dominate our gut fauna.

Just a few of the millions of beetle species on the planet, each of which has a job to do.  Collections of the Harvard Museum of Natural History.  Photo Kim Chapman

Just a few of the millions of beetle species on the planet, each of which has a job to do. Collections of the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Photo Kim Chapman

Natural history as it relates to everything—culture, economics, quality of life, happiness, soulfulness—this “integral ecology” as Pope Francis calls it—Humboldt envisioned as the Cosmos, a word he reached back to ancient Greek for, in order to frame up the proper relationship among humanity, all the fields of study, and the seen and unseen physical world.  I learned recently that Thoreau and Whitman picked up on Humboldt’s theme and worked it out in their own American writings—trying to make of their own lives and thoughts an integral ecology.  By contrast, it is so easy to be swallowed up by the minutiae of our created world—from baseball statistics to hair care products, varieties of snack bars on grocery shelves, to makes of cars, the glitterati on screens, fashion in magazines—that we cannot see outside the opaque bubble we’ve created and notice all the small things supporting us, not just our gut bacteria, but the fungi and microorganisms that perfect the soil’s innate fertility and support 200 bushels an acre corn, and the plants which go about their lives and incidentally produce the oxygen that we breathe in order to live.

The shaggy Pholiota, just one of the five million different species of mushrooms working quietly in the background.  Without fungi, a lot of the world might be covered with dead wood several miles deep.  Photo by Keith Wendt

The shaggy Pholiota, just one of the five million different species of mushrooms working quietly in the background. Without fungi, a lot of the world might be covered with dead wood several miles deep. Photo by Keith Wendt

To the stream of this meandering essay, I offer a book title by the renowned ant biologist E.O. Wilson, The Little Things That Run The World.  Along these lines, I’m thinking about Jim’s essay on riffle beetles and the centuries of species collections housed in natural history museums around the world.  Collections used to be central to biology, but now it’s all about genomics, molecular biology, and CRSPR gene splicing—a technology people can invent new organisms with.  That’s where the money is, and that’s what biologists now train themselves to do.  But Jim’s discursive on the art of field collections exhibited at the Field Museum of Natural History cracked the door of a little used closet at the back of biology’s big warehouse.  Jim wrote about riffle beetles, bugs that spend most of their lives under water, except for a brief fling in the atmosphere after they emerge from their pupal cases.  I told him that riffle beetles are one of the key indicators of whether a stream is polluted or not.  You can go anywhere in the world, and if you find a riffle beetle, odds are that stream’s watershed is mostly forested or grassy, chock full of wetlands, with nobody piping in factory waste or sewer water.  In short, a healthy, resilient place…”alive with the grace of all that in the mind is fleckless, free, and naturally to be desired,” in the words of William Carlos Williams.

We’re talking Index of Biotic Integrity!  Dozens of scientists around the world have labored over thirty years to perfect this measuring stick that gauges the health of streams.  The EPA and state agencies charged with enforcing the 1972 Clean Water Act (which Republicans and Democrats jointly passed –how times have changed!)—they use the Index of Biotic Integrity to identify problems in our nation’s streams and rivers.  That whole evaluation system depends on little creatures like riffle beetles, on aerial acrobats like dragonflies and damselflies, and on the unreal swarming of mayflies which are food for trout and the model for a famous lure, the Adams, which is revered by fly fishermen for its ability to snag a fish.  Even the not-so-nice black flies—Simuliidae is their family name—are so necessary to a healthy stream ecosystem, and a food chain staple that brings us those trout.

Where the little things that run stream ecosystems on Earth fit into the picture.  the fish are just one small part, though a tasty one.  Image by US Environmental Protection Agency.

Where the little things that run stream ecosystems on Earth fit into the picture. the fish are just one small part, though a tasty one. Image by US Environmental Protection Agency.

All these species and more, invisible to us, as if locked away in a cast iron safe whose key was lost a century ago.  The human world operates as if such things don’t exist, and yet if they did not, our lives would be the poorer for it—not just emotionally or spiritually, but rather, in the added expense to keep our cultural-economic-techo bubble intact.  We’d need to spend more to substitute for the lost services that healthy ecosystems provide, like the water cleansing function of watersheds, as measured with tools like the Index of Biotic Integrity.

My personal nightmare is the idea of everything being used by people.  Not one square foot of the planet left to its own devices, to work out an evolutionary path over millennia, supremely adapted to the ever-changing world around it, able to withstand the buffets of change, unlike our own increasingly fragile, human-centric ecosystem, in which cracks appear from time to time, and which we, like those busiest of animals, the ants, repair at great expense and with an urgency born from a belief that we can’t depend on nature…it’s all on us.  But isn’t that exhausting? – Kim

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Just Talking About…Highway 62 Prairie Revisited

The circular blockhouse at Fort Snelling, defending against the noise of commuter traffic on Highway 5 where it crosses the Mississippi River.  Photo Kim Chapman

The circular blockhouse at Fort Snelling, defending against the noise of commuter traffic on Highway 5 where it crosses the Mississippi River. Photo Kim Chapman

September 3, 2007.  I passed this morning a postage stamp piece of the original, authentic Minnesota.  It’s just a little scrap of land wedged between two highways and the federal lands containing the Veterans’ facilities and other administrative chunks, all part of the former Fort Snelling Military Reservation established in 1805 by purchase of 155,000 acres from the local Dakota Indians for $4 million (2017 dollars), which was never fully paid, apparently.

As you drive this stretch of road you notice, if you’re paying attention, an oddly placed chain link fence.  This is an old fence, perhaps from when Highway 62, my commuting route, was punched through in the late 1960s.  When I first moved here thirty years ago, the little patch was mostly prairie grasses and sagebrush, and a succession of flowers starting in June with bergamot whose scent is the flavor of Earl Gray Tea, then black-eyed susans, drooping-petaled yellow coneflower, and finally the fall colors of goldenrod and aster.  The eternal grasses of the tallgrass prairie stood there in profusion through the winter—copper-colored big bluestem and Indian grass, and the yellowish prairie cordgrass with its graceful arched stems waving in a decent wind.

None of that is evident now because a thick growth of box elder, ash, diseased elms, and shrubs has taken over.

Mysterious fence around the Highway 62 prairie is quite evident in this air photo kindly provided by Google Earth.

Mysterious fence around the Highway 62 prairie is quite evident in this air photo kindly provided by Google Earth.

The reason I’m so obsessed with this patch of ground—besides the curiosity of a scientist in watching thirty years of plant succession—is that this place is a stone’s throw from the Mdewakanton Indians’ traditional place of origin.  This whole area, the military reservation the US Army established on the order of Thomas Jefferson, a time when soldiers wore nearly brimless blue top hats, was the center of local Dakota civilization.  There was a sacred spring, called Coldwater Spring by whites and Mni Owe Sni by the Dakota, on the bluff above the Mississippi River to which the soldiers moved after losing half their number to disease and starvation the first winter spent down by the river.  When Josiah Snelling showed up in 1820 to build a fort, the soldiers had moved to the flat, open plains by Clearwater Spring.

The soldiers quarried the bluff-topping Plattville limestone to build the fort, and you can still see those ancient workings today along a bike path that sits on an old road between the fort and Minneapolis.  Snelling’s lovely house for himself, wife and children looks east over the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers.  From his back window he could see the hill the Dakota called Wotakaye Paha or Oheyawahi, and Pilot Knob by paddle-wheelers that steered by it.  Loosely translated, it meant “hill of the relatives”, or “hill that is visited often”.  This was a burial grounds as well as a place where Dakota met to discuss the important issues of the day and settle matters.  Josiah may have had inklings, given the history of his country’s dealings with Indians, that in the year 1851, seven years before statehood, a treaty would be signed here that gave for $42.3 million (2017 dollars) some 35 million acres of Dakota land to the United States government—a bargain at less than 2 cents an acre.  Between that not so great deal—much of the money was already spoken for by traders who sold Indians goods at inflationary prices on credit—and the Germans and Scandinavians who flooded the scene in the 1850s, topped off by the Civil War that caused the government to forget its treaty obligations to address more pressing matters—the tinder was laid to ignite the US-Dakota War of 1862.  That event unleashed such sorrow from which the state has not yet recovered.  You can read about this in the beautiful expository of Minnesota history by Mary Wingerd.  Yes, there are villains and heroes.

From Wotakaye Paha, which I am near when I bike the Mendota bridge where the Mississippi receives the Minnesota River—at Bdote, the place where two waters come together—you have a commanding view up and down both big rivers and can see in the distance the white sandstone cliffs where the Kapozha Indian village was, up the Minnesota to the Indian town of Black Dog, and on some days spy the mists at the thunderous cascade of St. Anthony’s Falls where the little village of St. Anthony was built to cut logs and grind grain for the soldiers’ construction projects and sustenance.  Louis Hennepin, the boastful Franciscan priest who made a name for himself in Paris with his travelogue about the Upper Midwest, was taken as a captive by the Dakota in the year 1680 and brought to the falls, which he named for a Franciscan friar and the patron saint of lost things and also of Hennepin himself.  (The falls already were sacred to the Dakota, so giving it a Catholic saint’s name didn’t embellish it at all.)  I occasionally bike the route of the portage he walked to view the falls—amazing how the past is still present, and not so long ago.

Bdote, where two waters meet...the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers.  Wotakaye Paha, or Pilot Knob, is the hill on the horizon, and Fort Snelling is just off photo to right, on the opposite  bank.  Photo Kim Chapman

Bdote, where two waters meet…the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. Wotakaye Paha, or Pilot Knob, is the hill on the horizon, and Fort Snelling is just off photo to right, on the opposite bank. Photo Kim Chapman

Back to this little patch of prairie…on a map I saw briefly years ago, and which since has disappeared from the Internet, was marked the center of the Dakota’s world, its Garden of Eden.  The place was a distance south of the little prairie, at the edge of the airport, on a rise of land in the plains.  Now it is packed with little ranch houses and bisected by a big fence topped with barbed wire for national security reasons.  It’s the Twin Cities airport, after all.

R. Jones Colby's 1850 map of Fort Snelling and environs.  Pilot Knob is southwest of the fort, and the spring where soldiers camped while building the fort is just northwest of the fort.

R. Jones Colby’s 1850 map of Fort Snelling and environs. Pilot Knob is southwest of the fort, and the spring where soldiers camped while building the fort is just northwest of the fort.

I had a close call there the summer after 9-11 when I got it in my head to drive the neighborhood and find the place where the Dakota people’s world was centered.  I found the highest spot in the neighborhood and parked at the intersection of two streets, near the airport fence guarding the planes against another catastrophe—and naturally the neighbors called the police.  Before the police arrived, though, I’d worked my way east and had just turned the corner by the Fort Snelling parade grounds when I spied them driving way over the speed limit, headed to where I’d been seconds before.  Somehow they didn’t see me.  I took that as a cue to leave.  Back on Highway 62, I caught a glimpse of them racing down the frontage road in the opposite direction.  I was spared, perhaps by the same Great Spirit the Dakota put their faith in.

From Wotakaye Paha looking west to the fort.  The Mississippi River heads upstream on the right, and the Minnesota to the left.  The island is another important place to the Dakota, named Pike after the same Zebulon who never ascended Pike's Peak, but did buy 155,000 acres there from the Dakota on which to construct the fort.  Painting by Edward Thomas 1850.

From Wotakaye Paha looking west to the fort. The Mississippi River heads upstream on the right, and the Minnesota to the left. The island is another important place to the Dakota, named Pike after the same Zebulon who never ascended Pike’s Peak, but did buy 155,000 acres there from the Dakota on which to construct the fort. Painting by Edward Thomas 1850.  Collections of the Minnesota Institute of Arts.

I wonder what this all means, my mingling of the personal and factual, of the distant past and present day.  I suspect that this is the last unturned piece of soil hereabouts, still holding the same carbon from grass roots which grew here 10,000 years ago—a deep, black soil that made the Midwest the breadbasket of the world.  This organic-laden dirt, a few feet thick, created by millennia of lives that played out to their endings at this spot, is perhaps mingled with the blood and tears of a nearly vanquished people and occasionally the tears of newcomers who sympathize with their story.  Good thing there’s a fence.  – Kim

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Just Talking About…Britain Giving Up Coal For A Day

Water vapor and carbon dioxide aplenty at Drax Power Plant, Yorkshire, England, in 2007.  It has provided England with 7% of its energy needs, and is the biggest single emitter of CO2 in the country.  A CO2 capture scheme was investigated but deemed too costly without major government subsidies.  Photo by Paul Glazzard.

Water vapor and carbon dioxide aplenty at Drax Power Plant, Yorkshire, England, in 2007. It has provided England with 7% of its energy needs, and is the biggest single emitter of CO2 in the country.  A CO2 capture scheme was investigated but deemed too costly without major government subsidies. Photo by Paul Glazzard.

August 27, 2017.  A noteworthy moment in the history of the planet occurred with few of my countrymen noticing.  On Friday, April 21, 2017, the United Kingdom got all its energy needs without burning an ounce of coal.  Coal, as we know, is the most polluting of energy sources measured by carbon dioxide emissions—the greenhouse gas—and also soot, nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide.  The last three pollutants used to cause smoggy days, lung irritation, asthma attacks and even early death (see the great London smog of 1952, for instance; or Beijing’s current situation).  That was before scrubbers were put on smokestacks beginning in the 1960s, and before sulfur dioxide trading began in the 1990s.

So now coal-fired power plants discharge mostly water vapor and a greenhouse gas, and coal produces a lot of that for the amount of energy gained compared to all other energy sources.  That extra dose of CO2 in the atmosphere is overtaxing the capacity of plants, soils and oceans to absorb it all, helping to drive up carbon dioxide concentrations measured at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii to over 400 parts per million.  (This is up by a good margin from the pre-industrial background level of 170-280 ppm, a level held constant by the planet for several hundred thousand years.)

Where did this incredible event I mentioned actually happen?  In the heart of the Industrial Revolution, Great Britain, which enthroned coal as the king of energy sources beginning in the early 1700s.  Here we are, 300 years later, with a lot of water over the dam (which is a renewable resource, by the way, along with wind through the turbine blades and sun on the solar panels).  In that time Britain threw its civilizing yoke on over half of humanity, becoming the most influential political entity the world had ever known until the United States took on that burden after WWII.

We too depended on coal to drive our industrial engine, manufacturing objects to extend our civilization from thirteen little colonies on the eastern seaboard to the California coast.  Not to mention fighting a civil war which killed more Americans that all our other wars combined, and the North winning it to abolish slavery and knock the landed southern aristocracy on its heels for a while, and along the way saving democracy from Germanic tyranny not once, but twice.  We couldn’t have done any of this without coal.

So coal, we loved you, we celebrated you, but like the lover who finally sees your toxicity to physical, if not mental health, we must bid you adieu.  You were good to us for a time, but that time has passed.  On that momentous day, April 21, 2017, we see the future.  Germany is farther along than Great Britain, but Great Britain’s industrial class has less of a communitarian spirit than Germany’s and has resisted the wishes of Britain’s people to revoke coal’s kingly status and relegate it to a minor lordship for now, until the time when it dies a natural death.

Coal's decline in England mirrors the uptick in the use of natural gas since 1991.  Energy conservation and renewables are adding to that trend.  Source:  "Economics Help" using World Bank data.

Coal’s decline in England mirrors the uptick in the use of natural gas since 1991. Energy conservation and renewables are adding to that trend. Source: “Economics Help” using World Bank data.

Meanwhile, in Germany, also this past spring, it was reported that on one sunny day 85 percent of that country’s mighty industrial workings and residential energy needs were met by renewables.  A scant 15 percent was fueled by coal, natural gas, and nuclear power.  Wow.  Keep your eyes on Germany, which for some decades now has put their money where their mouth is, finding ways to use energy more efficiently and to get all their energy needs from renewables.  This includes a commitment to shut down all nuclear power plants by 2022.  America with its wealth of German-descended engineers surely can do as well as Germany at leading us into the future of how energy is created and used.  – Kim

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Just Talking About…A Walnut Eclipse

Walnut leaves taking a picture of the great 2017 eclipse--as only walnut leaves can do.  Photo by Jim Armstrong

Walnut leaves projecting an image of the great 2017 eclipse–as only walnut leaves can do. Photo by Jim Armstrong

August 25, 2017.  My wife took this picture last Monday in our back yard:  the naturally-occuring “pinhole camera” effect that happens when the partially-eclipsed sun shines through tiny spaces between the leaves.  For a moment, the ground was shining with crescents—a vivid reminder of our companionable star.  I was struck, reading the news of the event, by how many stories reported on the reactions of animals:  kangaroos at the Minnesota Zoo began grazing, as if twilight had begun; birds in the total eclipse zone went quiet; cows lay down in the fields.  And of course human animals stood watching in rapt awe; many of them had driven hundreds of miles to do so.

Which leads me to consider how different an eclipse is on Earth compared to lifeless places.  On the moon an eclipse is simply a passing shadow, knife-edged, and dark within its silent penumbra.  There is no atmosphere to scatter the light, no plants or animals to react to the changes.  The earth, being alive, is ever-reactive, a vast roiling membrane of kinetic impressions.  The spectacle of the shadow of the moon passing across the living face of the earth reveals how thirsty for meaning life can be—how eager it is to translate physics into beauty. – Jim

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Just Talking About…Harry Nelson and the Riffle Beetles

A riffle beetle - a creature that lives in its own bubble - of air, at a stream bottom.  Photo by Ed Engleman

A riffle beetle – a creature that lives in its own bubble – of air, at a stream bottom. Photo by Ed Engleman

August 15, 2017.  This past month I was in Chicago and had a chance to visit one of my favorite institutions, the Field Museum of Natural History.  I was especially eager to visit an exhibit entitled “Specimens,” a fascinating overview of the museum’s role in collecting, organizing and safeguarding over 30 million biological, geological, anthropological and zoological specimens.  The exhibit was designed to explain that, although fewer than 0.1 percent of these specimens are ever exhibited to the public, they play a vital role in the ongoing expansion of our scientific understanding of the natural world.

With this story, the exhibit did something unusual:  it foregrounded the lives of specimen collectors themselves—those who travel the world, often in difficult conditions, to identify and bring to the museum the bewildering variety of animals, plants, rocks and artifacts that are stored in its archives.  One collector in particular caught my attention: Harry G. Nelson, who spent his entire life collecting tiny dryopoid riffle beetles for the museum.  Five hundred and twenty-five thousand riffle beetle specimens, to be exact.

There was a full-size photo of Nelson in his lab—an elderly man with a silver beard and ponytail, wearing the Pendleton shirt and wide-wale, high-waisted corduroys of a field scientist.  Behind him was an enormous map of the Great Lakes region speckled with red paper dots; under his hands was a similar map.  In addition to the myriad of boxes and jars of dryopoid beetles, this was Nelson’s other great contribution to science:  bestickered wall maps.   Over the length of his career he visited more than 6,000 streams in the upper Midwest and Canada—making careful notes of water conditions and of the presence or absence of riffle beetles.  This care and detail would prove useful in ways he could not have predicted.

Harry Nelson at work, mapping riffle beetles across the Upper Midwest.  His data are used by the US EPA to diagnose the troubles facing streams.  Photo by the Chicago Museum of Natural History

Harry Nelson at work, mapping riffle beetles across the Upper Midwest. His data are used by the US EPA to diagnose the troubles facing streams. Photo by the Chicago Museum of Natural History

Riffle beetles are tiny beetles that live at the bottom of streams and feed on algae.  Unlike other water beetles, they do not surface to breath—they extract oxygen osmotically through an air bubble called a “plastron,” which they surround themselves with when they first enter the stream as adults and which they maintain all their lives as a kind of natural diving suit.  Because of their unusual method of respiration, riffle beetles can only live in cold, oxygen-rich, and clean water:  their presence or absence in a stream is therefore a good indicator of water quality.  The power of Nelson’s maps therefore goes beyond merely describing the population distribution of an obscure, tiny insect—they are benchmarks of stream health throughout a vast swath of the country.

I was deeply moved by the patient work of a man who, with unflagging zeal, waded through thousands of cold Midwestern brooks and streams and rivers—no doubt swatting mosquitoes and black flies as he wielded his net and collecting bottles.  When we think of science we often think of transformative figures like Darwin or Pasteur or Einstein—figures whose theories have changed the way we perceive the world.  But such scientific giants only exist because of the vast body of data collected, evaluated, and catalogued by foot soldiers like Nelson.  And whereas it is easy to see why it would be thrilling to be Darwin, we don’t perhaps quite appreciate why it would be important to be Nelson—or why it might be satisfying.

Nelson worked without knowing what good would come of his efforts.   He no doubt felt the pleasure and excitement of the process itself—the opportunity to spend his days in the field, clomping through the bush in hip waders, carefully searching the riffles of streams for a tiny beetle whose life he became so intimately entangled with.  But he also worked in the faith that the ongoing project of science was bigger than he was, something that had cumulative power.

People who cast doubt on science by and large have no idea of the actual work that goes into it—they don’t understand or appreciate the scale of this vast international human endeavor, or grasp the complexity of it.  They mostly cast their stones at a few salient results, which they disagree with for pecuniary or ideological reasons.   If they bothered to acquaint themselves with the massive accumulation of evidence those results are built on, or observe the patient, faithful labor of those who put that evidence in place, perhaps they would not so thoughtlessly seek to dismiss it. – Jim

 

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Just Talking About…The Illusion of Rural Character

Plenty of sparrow and grackle habitat, and a whole bunch of mowing at this suburban Twin Cities church.  Photo Kim Chapman

Plenty of sparrow and grackle habitat, and a whole bunch of mowing at this suburban Twin Cities church. Photo Kim Chapman

August 13, 2017.  A couple years before the housing market imploded, I was asked to design a residential neighborhood in a way that would protect one of the largest wildlife preserves in the Twin Cities region.  The development bumped up against the west side of Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area, home to one of biggest populations of a kind of turtle the US Fish and Wildlife Service was proposing as a threatened species.  The turtle is called Blanding’s—after Dr. William Blanding, a Philadelphia naturalist who first described it—and sports a surprising banana yellow blaze, worn like a gaudy cravat on its throat.  It’s also notable for living a very long time, at least a hundred years.  (I wrote about this in a March 19, 2016 essay.)

Carlos Avery is a haven for other species of turtles, the usual countless red-winged blackbirds, marsh wrens, yellowthroats and yellow warblers, exotic creatures like cranes, rails, and bitterns, and a host of other weird-voiced birds, not to mention the hordes of frogs and toads with their deafening spring din, and the numberless dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies, bees and other insects.  It is a place full of life, all oriented to the water and marshland there.

The developer owned a few hundred acres right next door.  Because it’s private property and there’s no law stopping you from putting a house at the edge of a nature preserve, the developer had every right to build a subdivision there.  My mission was to help him build it in a way that didn’t intrude on the life of the nature preserve.  Among other issues were septic systems to treat household waste—did each house get one, or should we install a community system that used natural processes to clean the waste to drinking water standards?  We also needed to deal with the rain falling on roads, parking lots, and rooftops, which pours off those hard surfaces at a ferocious rate, destroying downhill streams and ponds by eroding their banks and loading them with nutrients that algae use to build their numbers up to distasteful levels.

In our business, applied ecology and ecological design, it’s always tough, it’s always painful to participate in the willful destruction of the natural world that development precipitates, but much worse is to stand by and watch as somebody with a different sensibility unleashes worse damage on the land, water and life of a place.  So I said yes.

We did a pretty good job.  By grouping the homes on smaller lots, narrowing and shortening streets, and eliminating stormwater drains, we kept the homes six hundred feet from the refuge, gave everybody open space in front and behind, and brought the wastewater to one facility that released clean water into a created wetland.  This saved all sorts of money because we didn’t have to clear so many trees or scrape and shape the land, didn’t have to install storm sewers—except at a couple road-crossings—or build long roads.  We had a plan to restore the ecological health of the oak woods and wetlands, and the developer and home-owners would pay for it.  Frontage of all lots on open space would bump property values by 5-10 percent, generating more property tax revenue, and the attractive, wooded setting would guarantee quick sales.  We were pretty pleased with ourselves.

City staff was skeptical because this hadn’t been done this before, but also encouraged us because they’d heard of this development style and were curious.  They had an escape-hatch provision in city ordinances we could use.  It allowed “planned unit development”—a flexible way to mix and match development strategies on unique properties to do something besides the usual cookie-cutter road and lot layout.

We ran into a bit of a headwind with somebody at the planning commission, but for the most part they liked what they saw.  So far so good.  We were then summoned to a special meeting just before our city council presentation.  At that meeting the city’s lawyer raised several last-minute issues, the most important of which was that it would set a precedent (but wasn’t that the point?).  The lawyer said if the city allowed the development, the city could be sued by someone wanting to do the same thing, but at a lower level of competence and performance.  It started to dawn on me that somebody in city council, and maybe the lawyer, too, just didn’t like our development.  Sure enough, at the council meeting our proposal went down in flames.  One board member said, “We are known here for our rural character.  That’s what we want to preserve.  We don’t want houses blocking our view of the distance.  One home on one acre—that’s what we’re known for.”  And that was that.

Brand new hacienda, complete with barn, and nobody nearby--the perfect exurban homestead.  Photo Kim Chapman

Brand new hacienda, complete with barn, and nobody nearby–the perfect exurban homestead. Photo Kim Chapman

The idea that the rural environment is preserved with big lots makes no sense on so many fronts.  Let’s start with the ecological reasons.  The scientific literature is chock full of papers on the ill-conceived wisdom of “exurban development”—the most common style of development in America.  Anything from half an acre to a few dozen acres is exurban development.  This type of expansion spreads the damage we cause when expanding our living space to a much larger area than necessary.  Every house at city’s edge, in the country, north woods, or near-wilderness—every house carries with it a burden of harms to the natural world.  There are cats that roam the surrounding woods and fields gobbling up the food base of small mammals and birds.  There are the plants brought in to ornament the house, which often spread from there and overcome the larger variety of plants in nearby natural areas.  Then there’s the noise and visual disturbance of lawnmowers, bicycles, and off road vehicles, and the comings and goings of cars and delivery vans and garbage trucks.  And there’s the fact that, if you put a house in the forest, you open the forest to predatory crows, grackles, raccoons, and cowbirds—these last are sneaky parasites of songbird nests who, through evolutionary guile, have figured out how to get another species to take care of their young after laying an egg among those of the unwitting surrogate parent.  I should toss in the problems that exurban homes pose to crews trying to put out wildfires—people risking their lives and dying to protect a house in environments prone to wildfire—which is a lot of North America.

If you’re not in a firest—in grassland or savanna—cats wipe out the ground and shrub nesting birds and eat up the small mammals that hawks and owls depend on.  (Dogs have similar effects, but not as severe as cats who hunt for hours to entertain themselves.)  If you fill your grassland lot with trees, the grassland species shrink away from your new habitat.  I once studied a grassland in the north Twin Cities metro and was astounded to find no grassland or shrub-nesting birds.  Chatting with a landowner I asked, do you have cats?  He said, no, but pointed out a barn with eight cats, another with eighteen, and mentioned a neighbor who kept four cats outdoors most of the time.

Exurbia marching one 3-acre lot at a time into rural lands of the Twin Cities metro.  Photo Kim Chapman

Exurbia marching one 3-acre lot at a time into rural lands of the Twin Cities metro. Photo Kim Chapman

In the southwest metro, where I work, I’ve watched exurban development creep towards us, one big lot at a time, unfurling bluegrass and fescue lawns over vast areas with an army of rider-mowers tending them.  Over that same time I’ve seen more house sparrows.  If you pay attention in movies and radio interviews placed outdoors in cities, you always hear house sparrows cheeping in the background—they’ve been spread around the globe by people.  As their favorite habitat of grass and buildings expands, they make forays into naturally vegetated areas looking for more.  Luckily, the predators at my place are still too much for them and they disappear shortly after arriving.  As development continues, though, the sea of new lawns hereabouts will produce such a bounty of house sparrows, they will overwhelm not just their predators, but other species that use the nooks and crannies of the neighborhood—bluebirds, tree swallows, house wrens and phoebes.  (These species return every year to our property to raise a new generation of themselves, but their days are numbered, I fear.)

So exurban development unleashes a tidal force of human ecological effects, and those of our hangers-on like house cats and house sparrows.  This happens not just on a one-sixth acre lot typical of cities (where I live), but over many acres of land.  Some of these influences, called “edge effects”, penetrate thousands of feet into natural lands, shrinking what’s called the “interior habitat.”  The fragmentation of the planet’s natural fabric is one of the big causes of local extinctions landscape ecologists have studied for some decades now.  Eventually critters that need interior habitat have nowhere to go because everything is edge.  The sixth great mass extinction of species, happening now, is in no small measure due to habitat fragmentation and pervasive edge effects over the entire globe.

We can’t forget to mention the pocketbook issue of whether property taxes from homes on one, five, or ten acre lots pay for all the services that must be provided at a lower density than at city lot densities.  An analogy would be helpful here.  If you built an expressway in the country and made the adjacent farmers pay for it, each would owe nearly a million dollars because four-lane expressways cost around $5 million a mile to build.  Same problem with local services and dispersed homes.  Take a square mile, 640 acres, divide it into ten acre lots with a house on each, and you’ve got 64 families paying for the several miles of roads needed to serve them.  Of course, those families don’t pay full freight because the rest of us chip in, based on the idea we will use those roads, too, when we visit our friends in exurbia.

I don’t know if people who own property where one acre lots are the norm pay more to support the roads than people in more densely settled places, but I suspect they would without the rest of the region’s subsidy.  To keep property taxes down municipalities deliver fewer services.  It’s an interesting catch-22.  Aside from roads, fire, and police, living in exurbia doesn’t buy the services some people like—cultural venues, community events, recreation facilities.  If your life revolves around family, school, and church, and you like organizing your neighbors to do things—that’s just fine.  Communities get out from under some of the economic burden of exurbia by making homeowners install their own septic system and water well, and the power, cable and telephone companies make sure they charge what they must to make operations profitable.

Lastly, there’s the energy and pollution footprint.  Yes, it’s only one house, but if you have somebody mowing a one acre lawn once a week from June through October, there’s a lot of carbon dioxide going up and a lot of noise spreading sideways across the countryside.  There’s also the fertilizer that lawns need two or three times a year, some of which makes its way into the streams and wetlands nearby.

It doesn’t take much thought to see that compact development like the one we proposed serve so many more people at lower cost, with less environmental damage, than houses sprinkled over the countryside.

It makes no sense to preserve rural character this way.  Yet the idea persists because Americans only poorly understand economics and ecology.  The former is about managing our household—keeping a balanced ledger of our society’s workings—and the latter the study of our home—how the blue-green orb that sustains all life actually operates.  Those two realms we understand not well enough, yet they are the essential operating controls for this little bubble we call civilization. – Kim

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Just Talking About…The March For Science, Part 2

Minnesota's refurbished capitol, with lots of people petitioning the government for redress of grievances.  Photo Kim Chapman

Minnesota’s refurbished capitol, with lots of people petitioning the government for redress of grievances. Photo Kim Chapman

August 5, 2017.  It seems eons ago that I and ten thousand others walked from the St. Paul Cathedral to our state’s capital in St. Paul.  It was Earth Day, 2017, and a massive slice of the Twin Cities elite hell-bent for leather on the destruction of our society (to hear it told by right-wing talk radio hosts), decided to go against their personality type and let it be known that they were on a March for Science.

I don’t know how many of them there that day had been in a protest march before, but if they were like me, the answer would be few, if any.  Protest march is a little strong.  It was after all, a march for something, not against something.  Although as we walked down Summit Avenue to the gathering place at the cathedral, a jovial Fortune 500 type striding in jaunty, manly fashion down his mansion walk, with his voluminous family in tow, shouted to use from his front steps—“Down with science!”  Of course, we all laughed, knowing he was making a joke.  But at the same time, how did he know?  How did he know that we highly educated few had become an easy object of scorn by a substantial segment of the voting public?  Perhaps gut instinct led him to that knowledge, as with all good executives governed by their abdominal workings.

In any case, we were there to support, not offend, and one sign I think summed it up:  “When the introverts are marching, you know there’s a problem.”  My other favorite sign was, as befitting a bunch of nerdy people gathered in one place to extol their nerdiness, “This march would have been twice as big, but the control group had to stay home.”

Yes, there were the caricatures of President Trump as the enemy of reason, a climate denier, and statements like, “You can’t have opinions about facts.”  My liberal friends surrounding me pulled all the little shibboleths and stock phrases out of their kit bag to expose the foolishness of the anti-science crowd.  It was all there on display to either warm the cockles of your heart, or make you shake your head.

For me, though, I’d never been at such a thing before.  Not being an easy joiner type of person, I much preferring to be swayed by craft of argument and weight of evidence than the emotion of the moment.  All the same, an indescribable feeling kept dogging me—there above were the immaculate cirrus clouds presaging summer, the deep blue of a northern sky, the occasional puff of warm air on my face, the heads and backs of thousands spread out in a multicolored river before me, and the white dome in the distance.  The capitol, seat of our self-governance where the hopes that we, the people, have for our children, through force of political will and fairly enacted laws, will eventually become reality. – Kim

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Just Talking About…The March For Science, Part 1

The iconic Blue Marble shot of North America by Norman Kuring, courtesy of NASA and its Suomi satellite.

An iconic Blue Marble shot of North America by Norman Kuring, 2012, courtesy of NASA and its Suomi satellite.  The original Blue Marble shot was first taken in 1972 by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft.

[I wrote this a month after Earth Day, 2017, forgot I’d written it, and wrote another essay on the same topic, which follows this one.  The first is an essay, the next seems more like a poem.  Interesting, the way time shifts perspective.]

May 22, 2017.  A month ago on Earth Day, I gathered with about ten thousand other people in front of the St. Paul Cathedral and marched a mile to the state capitol.  It was the March for Science and the first time I’d publicly made my political opinion known.  Well…there were those commentaries for the Star Tribune, one on how to control zebra mussel spread with a lake quarantine program, and the other against a third ring road at the fringes of the Twin Cities suburbs which would not relieve congestion but only promote sprawl.  In both I amassed facts, made a compelling case (I thought, anyway), left the job of politicking to politicians, and stayed true to my dispassionate calling as a scientist.  Our reputation depends on not holding an unassailable point of view on a research question, but rather weighing the evidence and drawing a reasoned conclusion which the majority of one’s peers would accept as consistent with the facts.  That is the way of science.  (Ah, but…scientists have a point of view on lots of things, you say.  The difference between them and non-scientists who write about science, is that scientists are trained to draw conclusions separate from their personal opinions, and to bow to the reasoned opinion of their peers who severely critique their work.  It’s ok to hold an opinion about a theory–that’s called a hypothesis–but as a scientist you’d better be ready to change your opinion if facts don’t support it.)

The March for Science on Earth Day, 2017, brought out millions of scientists around the country who have cultivated a habit of making reasoned judgments based on facts and subject to the critique of other scientists.  At this moment in our nation’s unfolding story, though, it seemed important to these millions to draw attention to something.  One sign at the event summed things up nicely.  “When the introverts are marching, something is wrong.”  That’s the truth.  Those people crowding around me, wearing t-shirts with “e=mc2” or the face of Bill Nigh the science guy, or Einstein, and carrying signs that a scientist would find amusing, like—“Empiricism now!”—these people would like nothing better than to stay in their laboratories, or walk their field plots, or take their lake sediment cores, and measure their atmospheric gas levels using a weather balloon—they’d like nothing better than to do these things, publish their papers, go to conferences, and be left alone.  At this moment, though, they all sense something seismic had shifted in the cultural landscape, and that’s why they were here.

Scientists and friends gathered at the Cathedral of St. Paul, April 22, 2017.  State capitol in the distance.  Photo Kim Chapman

Scientists and friends gathered at the Cathedral of St. Paul, April 22, 2017. State capitol in the distance. Photo Kim Chapman

What was that shift that they sensed which drew them into the sunshine of a beautiful spring morning with fellow eggheads and science geeks?  Maybe it started in the 1990s when science got caught up in the culture wars, a time when conservative think tanks and far right talk shows were changing the landscape of public discourse.  What the marchers all around me sensed happening was that a determined group of people were trying to erode the faith that people put in scientists to tell the truth, or as much truth as can be told given the world’s complexity and our meager capacity to see, hear, and understand how it all works.  Those culture wars, as many have pointed out, had their roots in opposition to the secularization and liberalization of our society, made visible in periodic skirmishes over tenets of Christianity as practiced by certain groups, and the scientific method.  The Scopes monkey trial of 1925, for example, pitting godless Darwinism against the Bible’s seven day creation, is a classic case.

Let’s just say that this long-running altercation goes back centuries, and in our country, most obviously to 1909 when fundamentalist preachers and businessmen made their case for Christianity and against Darwinism in “The Fundamentals:  A Testimony to the Truth”.  Flash forward to the 1960s and ’70s and the enactment of laws that used scientific information to address urgent environmental issues.  Those laws made rivers and lakes clean enough to swim and fish in; established sulfur dioxide emissions trading which eliminated smog that hurt the elderly, children and asthmatics; protected drinking water from dumped industrial chemicals; eliminated lead in gas and paint which effectively raised the IQs of urban children by several points; prompted an international ban on the chlorofluorocarbons damaging the ozone layer—a natural shield against cancer-causing solar radiation…I could go on, but you’d be happier if I didn’t.

Those actions affected business people who, already in the 1960s, had set their gun sights on what they believed was stultifying their earnings—high corporate income tax, personal income tax on high earners, laws favoring unions and opposing monopolies, restraints on international trade, and restraints on ingenious financial arrangements.  To this laundry list of economic burdens was added “over-regulation”.  Emboldened by the triumph in 1991 of a capitalist economic model over the Soviet’s extreme and incompetent socialist model, they mounted a full-court press in the 1990s and have pressed on vigorously to this day.  Businessmen paid scientists willing to skew or selectively use data, and supported outspoken individuals who were only too happy to bring worthy environmental laws under the umbrella of over-reach and over-regulation by a government intent on constraining liberty.

Once those elements were bound together and that story told over and over, a small but measurable part of the voting public saw scientists as biased with an agenda opposed to liberty, if not socialist in its intent.  (Despite the galvanization of opposition to science, the majority of Americans still view scientists as mostly acting in the public interest.)

Most Americans still believe scientists mostly act in the public interest, but a solidifying group of voters and the people they elect increasingly do not.  Pew Research Center poll, April 2017.

Most Americans still believe scientists mostly act in the public interest, but a solidifying group of voters and the people they elect increasingly do not. Pew Research Center poll, April 2017.

Calls for climate change action only made it worse.  Most of the oil and gas industry, and companies dependent on fossil fuels but unable to see a path forward to other energy sources, opposed investment in alternative ways to power America’s industries, electrical grid, and transportation network, and any move away from fossil fuels.  Conservative think tanks, conservative talk show hosts, and certain chambers of commerce carried the banner.  Despite the sometimes distant effects of climate change (it will be a few decades before sea level rise combined with storms bankrupts the insurance industry), it is not a bad thing to shift to renewables.  After all, they represent cutting edge technology, their future aims toward cheap and low-polluting energy production, and they will eliminate entanglements with oil-producing countries opposed to an open, democratic society, like Russia, Venezuela, and most Middle East nations.

One telling example of how science is made suspect for millions occurred in a Rush Limbaugh session where Rush questioned NASA research about a former ocean on Mars.  Evidence for water on Mars, including once vast amounts of surface water, is pretty convincing.  There remains on Mars enough frozen water to cover the planet.  Rush’s incisive rebuttal to the claim of a lost ocean was, “How do they know that!?”  He accused NASA of falsely alarming us by saying runaway climate change will eliminate water on Earth as it did on Mars.  He went on…“They’re just making up the amount of ice in the North and South Poles, they’re making up the temperatures, they’re lying and making up false charts and so forth. So what’s to stop them from making up something that happened on Mars that will help advance their left-wing agenda on this planet?”  Yes, the question is still open as to whether the hypothesis of a Mars ocean is irrefutably true, which is what separates science from belief or bluster dedicated to a single truth.  Given the weight of evidence, though, it’s reasonable to assume there was an ocean on Mars, but you’d have to read the evidence yourself to know for certain.  On the other hand, all Rush has to do to convince his millions of listeners—and everyone continuing the conversation at kitchen tables, Main Street cafés, churches and social gatherings—is to say “How do they know that!?” and all is suspect.  He and his like, including past and present authoritarian regimes, know that repeating a falsehood thousands of times can shift public opinion.

One event in particular is a textbook example of how the impartiality of the scientific process and motives of scientists are called into question.  In what some call Climategate, a hacker stole emails from the University of East Anglia, a climate change research center.  The head researcher there, Phil Jones, was trying to combine a graph of tree growth rates with temperature measured by thermometers.  Tree growth data and temperatures are correlated—warmer temperature produces wider annual growth rings because the growing season is longer and trees can lay down more cells in that period, thickening the annual growth rings.  Cooler periods produce narrower annual growth rings.  From 1880 to 1960, tree ring width largely followed temperature swings.  Since 1960, however, tree growth has slowed while temperatures have gone up.  Scientists in the field all know this—it is no secret (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divergence_problem).  Going farther back, historical tree ring data matches other temperature indicators, like ice cores, quite well, and so it is a reasonable proxy for prehistoric and modern temperatures—until 1960.

In one of the hacked emails, Phil Jones told a colleague how he was going to present in a graph the recent divergence between measured temperatures and tree ring data.  If you want to read this yourself, go to https://www.skepticalscience.com/Mikes-Nature-trick-hide-the-decline.htm.  In once sentence he said he’d use a statistical “trick”—not a trick at all, just his colloquial expression for a statistical tactic—which ended in the phrase “to hide the decline,” meaning the decline in tree growth rates.  Recipients of the hacked emails revised the sentence to show nefarious intent: “a trick to hide the temperature decline”.  Those words were not what the email said, but they were picked up verbatim and spread widely.  The scientists were found blameless in subsequent investigations in the United States and Britain (see the Wikipedia entry on this, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climatic_Research_Unit_email_controversy).

Screenshot of a climate change skeptic's website--with links to topics fanning the flames of false controversy.

Screenshot of a climate change skeptic’s website–with links to topics fanning the flames of false controversy.

For many, however, this was the smoking gun which proved that climate change was a hoax concocted by scientists intent on chaining American industry and its people to a poverty-stricken and limited future.  Nobody need look at evidence, nobody need balance the evidence and reach their own conclusion.  Climate change skeptics found the evidence, disseminated it widely, and for many it is now indisputable.  Some of my relatives cite this moment to reject the entire concept of climate change.  For them Climategate is a foundational truth propping up other evidence they’ve gathered from Internet sources, many supported by some in the fossil fuel industry and by conservative funders.  That version of climate science seeks to refute the evidence that rising atmospheric carbon dioxide is paired with increases in temperature and water vapor, which is linked to certain unfortunate weather events around the globe, and that people are in part responsible and will experience economic and emotional harm that will increase over time.

The problem is that few have the time, patience or background to understand what really happened.  The science has advanced to a point where ordinary people cannot engage with it.  Just reading the Wikipedia entry about“Water on Mars” would take an ordinary person an hour.  More urgently, there’s so much technical background you’d have to accumulate over a lifetime to grasp most of the concepts, it is just hard to understand.  This is a problem for our society.  The cultural-economic-techno bubble we’ve created to insulate ourselves against the ups-and-downs of the natural world is now so complicated that it takes a legion of experts to understand, operate and maintain it.  Think of the economic system we’ve created—it’s no longer Joe trading Jane one sheep for two bags of wheat, like in the Settlers of Catan.  It’s now about derivatives and futures and mortgage-backed securities and annuities and hundreds of other financial instruments, as they are called, to make and grow money.  Medicine is becoming more complicated as we dig into the cellular, molecular, and genetic basis of biological function, and manipulate the body at the level of atoms, using tiny robots we create from atoms.  We plow our fields and apply our fertilizers and pesticides using lasers, GPS systems, and computers.  Hardly anybody can work on a car anymore—you can change tires, brake pads, oil and filters, but that’s about it.

Science is where our life-supporting technology starts.  Science is the demon and savior at the same time.  I suspect this is what my fellow Americans are unconsciously reacting to.  No one person can understand it anymore.  Leonardo da Vinci may have been the last to master all the sciences.  The lay people who practiced science regularly lived in the 1700s, holding science parties on a Saturday night, playing with nitrous oxide which dentists now give you to relax.  Fun was had with the repelling power of magnets, in extinguishing candles by pumping the air from glass bell jars, or with any number of interesting experiments done in the home.  I was just at an exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts—an 18th century Science Salon could have taken place in the room where we stood.  It looked so quaint, the various mechanisms and objects of science in an ordinary sitting room of the day.  Imagine people like you and me doing science experiments at home on a Sunday afternoon, entertaining ourselves and guests.  The closest thing to that now is the High School science fair with volcanoes made of vinegar and baking soda—no longer an award-winner , with top honors instead going to statistical tests of product performance or experiments with light refraction and wavelength detection.

On an emotional level, we have 95 percent of the country’s population who are not science people being bounced around inside this cultural-economic-techno bubble we’ve created and hardly understanding anything about it.  “Why am I getting jerked around all the time?” they ask their neighbors.  And then you have someone tell them that regulations scientists spawn with their so-called research findings are in fact in service of socialism, or crushing America’s entrepreneurial spirit, or just born of a gleeful petulance to control the world—you come to believe science is a humbug, to corrupt a phrase from Ebenezer Scrooge.

Now we have the science wars come to a head with the election in 2010 of an anti-science group in Congress and then an anti-science president in 2016 (or perhaps these groups are anti-science to the extent it benefits them politically).  Ergo…the Science March.  This and all the rest I touched on here is the seismic shift scientists sense has occurred, and they decided to march.

I’m walking on this beautiful spring morning with ten thousand of my fellow Americans, making a point.  What is that point we’re making?  I suppose it’s to tell those in power there are a lot of us out here who’d like the facts to speak for themselves.  Feel free to disregard those facts, but tell it like it is—we disregard them because we can’t afford to pay attention to them right now.  I can accept that.  Tell us that we’d rather reduce corporate taxes and expand the military because we want our economic part of the bubble propelled forward by large corporations and the military-industrial complex, because we understand how to do that.  That’s a political decision.  To urge the case that science itself is suspect, and that scientists themselves are in service of their own nefarious ends…that is ridiculous.  I marched to reassure myself that there are people out there thinking about science as I do, a source of enlightenment and a way to uncover the mysteries of the universe, and in some ways, discover the mind of God, or whatever you hold as the greater power behind it all.  – Kim

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