Monthly Archives: May 2014

How Climate Change Became Un-American

American FlagSuddenly, we seem to have entered a new phase in climate change. Tipping points, which a short time ago lay ahead of us, if not comfortably ahead, are now either staring us in the face or passed us by. The West Antarctic ice sheet is melting away, one among many, setting in motion irrevocable changes in sea levels. An El Niño event, building across the west coast of South America now threatens to spread warmer than normal temperatures across the equatorial East Pacific region, bringing devastating droughts to Australia and floods to the southern U.S. And still, Republican politicians feel the need to pledge allegiance to the non-existence of climate change.

Sociologists, pollsters and psychologists have been bearing down on the phenomenon in the hope of discovering why the U.S, the lead country for climate science, is also where skepticism is most prevalent, and why concern for the effects of climate change has been sliding downwards as knowledge about it has increased.

The role of the U.S. is crucial. Not only because it spews out 25% of the world’s fossil fuel emissions, but because of its economic and cultural hegemony. Canada can attest to that. The Harper government insists Canada won’t/can’t/shouldn’t work harder than the U.S. to lower fossil fuel emissions. It also happens to provide a convenient cover for not facing the implications of our home grown, petro-economy.

Living in DenialIn Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life, author Kari Marie Norgaard breaks down climate change denial into three forms: outright skepticism; interpretative denial (sort of accepting it but reinterpreting its consequences); and the mushier, more pervasive denial, which is worked in with passivity, guilt, and helplessness.

The U.S. ranks around the bottom globally for acceptance of climate change. The well documented, richly funded efforts by the fossil fuel industry, in league with conservative think tanks, to deeply massage the American psyche have been hugely successful because climate change grates on Americans in all the wrong ways .

“What to pay attention to and what to ignore are socially constructed,” writes Norgaard. “Whether something is considered morally offensive or not is a function of whether it is inside or outside socially defined limits of concern. Our social environment provides us with what we should repress from our consciousness and ignore.”

Climate change is too pervasive, too needing of collective action to jive with Americans’ heightened sense of individualism and their distrust of government and institutions—the flip side of their can-do attitude. Climate change is un-American. It runs counter to the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps ethos, so ignored it.

Something that is likely to make you feel powerless should be avoided. The more climate change info out there, the less personal responsibility is felt, hence concern drops.

Norgaard argues that Americans, (she is one by the way) while disengaged politically compared to other advanced nationalities and ignorant of the mechanics of government, do perceive climate change as a function of weak government action. They just can’t see a way around it. American exceptionalism essentially blocks discussion of alternatives.

Inaction around climate change also flows from the poor standing of science in American political decision-making. Despite the high regard in which American science is held around the world, the American public has proved receptive to the idea that science is just another institution to be skeptical about. (They haven’t bought into evolution either.)

tree against skyThe misinformation-climate-change denial-campaign, just like the smoking-doesn’t-cause-cancer campaign aimes to stay clear of evidence-based everything. Winning arguments isn’t the objective, just sowing doubt. There is always another side, goes the thinking and so the American media find a debunker for “balance” what reporters in other countries might view as a case of straight reporting. Human survival gets reduced to a political issue; this, when there is more scientific evidence in support of climate change than any other contemporary scientific discovery argues Norgaard.

Of course there are great and compelling reasons why climate change gets a yawn. We’ve normalized it. We’ve allowed environmental disasters into our worldview. There are limits to how long we can maintain a level of anxiety appropriate to the level of threat we face, especially one that isn’t knocking us down right now.

The problem created by fossil fuels at least in its outline, is easy to understand, but the solutions aren’t. What exactly would the consequences of reducing carbon emissions by 60% over the next 50 years look like?

But now the fight has left the phantom boxing ring where the scientists and the deniers who have been squaring off since the 1980s. Because floods, droughts and wildfires are no longer far-off problems, governors of some affected U.S. states (Maryland, New York and Washington) are bearing down on climate change damage and pointing accurately to its causes. Nine northeastern states and California have adopted cap-and-trade policies. Eight states have passed legislation calling for a reduction in carbon emissions, according to the New York Times.

The paper quotes California Governor Jerry Brown as saying that his state “is at the epicenter of the impact of climate change. We have to adapt because the climate is changing. There’s no doubt that the evidence has been strong for quite a while, and it is getting stronger. We have to get other states and other nations on a similar path forward and that is enormously difficult because it requires different political values, to unite around this one challenge of making a sustainable future.”

The insurance industry, not noted for getting lost in esoteric, ivory tower discussions is seeing the damage, estimating its costs and pointing fingers—and their lawyers—at those responsible for insuring that homes and infrastructure are built for the future.

“Illinois Farmers Insurance Co. is suing Chicago for failing to prevent flooding related to climate change in what experts say could be a landmark case that accelerates local efforts to grapple with the impacts of climbing temperatures, ” reports E&E News.

Now that climate change has arrived on U.S. shores, the nomenclature has gotta change. The shrill skeptics have already muted their language somewhat if not their message. But it doesn’t really matter. Events have passed them by.

Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life by Kari Marie Norgaard, The MIT Press

E & E News: Insurance Company Sues Ill. Cities for Climate Damage

New York Times: In California, Climate Issues Moved to Fore By Governor, Tuesday, May 20th,

The Science of Shakespeare: A Many Splendored Thing

Science of Shakespear_Canadian-cover_2A review of Dan Falk’s The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe

Think of London in 1600, a pivotal year in Shakespeare’s canon, as a mash up of Canada circa 1967 (Expo, Trudeau, a blasting economy, and lots of kids with hardly anything to worry about) and contemporary Palo Alto, the app startup incubator of the world. Throbbing with British bravado, the sinking of the Armada, religious freedom, explorations of the New World, 1600 was a time when princes, ruffians and pickpockets equally enjoyed bear baiting (an appallingly sadistic sport) and flowery poetry.

This was when the distinctions between religion, astronomy, astrology and magic were fluid; when “science” wasn’t science yet; when adventurous thinkers were pulling away from ancient ideas and increasingly relying on mathematics and observation.

In November 1572, when Shakespeare was eight, a supernova, a massive dying star shone in the sky for months, shaking up the idea of immutable heavenly spheres. It signaled the slow death of magical thinking and the birth of paradigm-shaking revelations: the distinction between electricity and magnetism; the law of inertia; the magnetic pull of Earth; the theory of lenses; Galileo’s telescopic discoveries (born the same year as WS); the laws of planetary motion; the law of hydrostatic pressure; and the law behind the swinging of a pendulum.

How curious then that scholars came so late to considering if and how this scientific exuberance might have found its way into Shakespeare’s plays. This is the subject of an excellent book, by Dan Falk. It’s a scholarly guide to some of the best thinking —and a refutation of some of the more loony ideas— about Shakespeare’s canon and the “science” of his times.

The science-bard link was first made by Peter Usher, an astronomer, in a paper he presented at a conference in Toronto in 1997, which he followed up with a book, Shakespeare and the Dawn of Modern Science, in 2010. He claimed that “Hamlet” was actually a gigantic face-off between the Ptolemaic and heliocentric/Copernican concepts of the Earth’s place in the universe, whether it be at the centre where the Ancients had put it, or farther out, a mere planet rotating around the sun.

Tree with hole“Perhaps the biggest riddle of the time was whether the universe was small, comfortable and human-centered—or whether, as a handful of bold thinkers had suggested, it was enormous, with mankind a mere speck and our planet, on a cosmic scale, little more than a dot,” writes Falk. “No wonder Hamlet sees ‘this goodly frame the earth’ as nothing more than a ‘congregation of vapours’, ‘a sterile promontory.’”

The scholarly community was prepared to buyin to this notion at least a little, but as for the more radical picture, that Hamlet was actually a secret allegorical code that Shakespeare had created with the idea of dodging the (non-existent) religious police,  well as one Harvard prof put it, Shakespeare doesn’t do allegories.

At the opposite end of the argument, it now seems absurd to suppose that Shakespeare, living within a few cramped dank city blocks of the world’s greatest pre-telescope astronomers, socializing as he did up and down and sideways across society as only celebrity entertainers could do, wouldn’t work in some scientific fervor into his plays. And this view seems to have won out, according to Falk.

The Science of Shakespeare is your time machine to a deeper appreciation of the plays and the history of science, especially regarding Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, the book that moved Earth away from the centre of the God-created galaxy. Fortunately, the book stays away from the aggressive fact-twisting that imbues the attempts by the lunatic fringe to prove Shakespeare misogynistic or anti-Semitic or a literary fraud or something else that suits the temper of our times. Falk’s book is definitely a cut above all that.

But back to “Hamlet”, Falk does draw lines between specific references in the play to contemporary people and events. “Yond same star that’s westward from the pole” in the opening scene probably referred to the supernova of WS’s childhood. Hamlet’s pals, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, were names plucked from a list on a 1590 engraving of the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, the greatest of the pre-telescopic astronomers. (Tycho is thought to have been the model for Prospero in the “Tempest.”)

More telling is Hamlet describing himself as the king of infinite space. “Infinite” applied to “space” was new. It’s his fussing over his role in the psychic and cosmic abyss that has kept “Hamlet” at the forefront of Shakespeare’s plays.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut just as “Hamlet” looks forward, “Macbeth” looks back to an older world of magic and witches. Falk describes them, these vectors of bad magic/science, as something of a national obsession. Witches could be male or female but they were usually described as old women, elderly, helpless, crippled, wrinkled, hairy-lipped, squinty-eyed, squeaky-voiced and with a scolding tongue. Their most intense persecution coincided with the scientific revolution, as people joined their need for vengeance with scraps of emerging science.

“Magnetism seems almost tailor-made for mystical interpretations…The very idea of magnetic forces ‘seemed to open the possibility of telepathy, magical healing and action at a distance.’ For example, if someone was injured by the use of a weapon, it made sense to apply the healing ointment not only to the wound, but also to the weapon; after all, if magnetic forces could affect planetary orbits, might not vital spirits readily traverse the short distance between weapon and wound?”

The same arguments for why you should read this book hold for why you should read Shakespeare. Because you need a rest from thinking bad thoughts about the ultimate legacy that human beings will leave the planet. Because understanding how the Copernican worldview picked us up and put us down in a different place throws some useful light on how we have “received” evolution, the last time we were reminded that our specialness is only relative.

I remember someone from my university days exclaiming that it was remarkable what WS could write, considering he didn’t have the benefit of modern psychology.  She got it backwards of course. We can’t know what Shakespeare thought, but we think we know what kings among others think, because Shakespeare convinced us of it.

The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe, by Dan Falk, published by Goose Lane in Canada and Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press in the U.S.

Author photo by Sara Desjardins Photography




Wanted: An Adult Conversation about the Spring Bear Hunt.

IMG_2699After a 15-year hiatus, the spring bear hunt is back for a two-year trial, subject to the approval of select municipalities in northern Ontario. Only residents of the province need apply, leaving out the Europeans, Americans and Russians who used to pack out the hunting lodges: so no bump in tourism dollars. (First Nations and Métis have always hunted year round.)

Public safety issues associated with nuisance bears were cited as the reason for reversing the ban. The Animal Alliance of Canada and Zoocheck Canada challenged that argument in court, arguing that the hunt would do nothing to solve the problem and would result in killing mothers and orphaning cubs but the court found against the groups.

“Politics” comes in for a lot of blame here. Some southern, nuisance-bear-suffering municipalities attribute their ineligibility to the province’s wanting the reinstatement to escape the attention of the “animal-rights-types”, presumably residents of the south. The proprietors of the just-scraping-by hunting lodges would have liked to see hunters from outside the province participate. And of course, the people who fought the long hard battle to institute the ban suspect the spring hunt is a vote-getting tactic in ridings where the Liberal government is weak.

Loading canoesHow bad is it? Carole White of McGregor Bay writes, “In the first break-in, the bear used its paws to rip open the dryer vent while we were in residence. Another time, again while we were there, the bear pried open a window and ran off with a large plastic bin of dog food without spilling a kernel. Two additional break-ins occurred when the cottage was unoccupied.  A large plate glass picture window was pushed in until it broke. The fridge was raided and food spilled about: cooking oil, flour and sugar all over the floor. The only thing untouched was a box of coffee filters.”

A few years back, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources was painstakingly trapping bears, hauling them into trucks, driving 100 kilometres north, releasing them and then finding them back home again a week later.

MNR has been running a very popular Bear Wise Program. “Problems with bears are usually created by people. By following these tips every spring, summer and fall, you can avoid attracting bears to your property,” it instructed. But now the program seems starved for funds and the MNR has simply stopped looking after bears.

“MNR has a mandate to manage all wildlife and it doesn’t have the right to pick and choose what animals it is going to manage,” fumed one municipal official who wanted to remain anonymous.

Since the cancellation of the bear hunt in 1999, the bear population has exploded say observers, but data is difficult to come by. Meanwhile, some municipal officials complain that residents are exhibiting garbage-sorting and handling fatigue. Bags of garbage are being dumped willy-nilly after hours at transfer stations, leading to increased clean-up costs and the threat that the Ministry of the Environment will close the affected sites.

As country living gets increasingly urbanized, residents age, and entitlements seem to become increasingly entrenched, it’s reasonable to suppose that people are finding certain aspects of rural living increasingly unacceptable, such as being crazy-vigilant about looking after garbage, cleaning their barbecues after each use, eschewing veggie gardens, composters and bird feeders: all bear deterrents. And then there are the outliers who deliberately feed bears.

3 people paddlingThe Bear Wise Program is all about holding people responsible for keeping their food and garbage out of the reach of bears. But now attention has shifted to the bears themselves. They used to be a “nuisance”, now they’re described as a public safety problem.

The public safety aspect is a bit of a stretch. Black bears very rarely attack people. You are probably much more likely to be attacked by a dog. But bear break-ins are terrifying. Residents can legally kill a bear that threatens their home or person at any time, nothing new about that. But actually shooting a bear that has just ripped the door off your fridge with bear cubs standing by is not something ordinary people can or will do, even assuming they have the appropriate weapon.

But does it follow that the spring bear hunt will deal effectively with the nuisance bear problem? Although the word isn’t used, the spring bear hunt is actually a passion-enflaming cull: reduce the bear population and you are bound to include some nuisance bears. But the logical extension of that theory is if the nuisance bear problem persists, the solution is more culls: if you want to be really safe from bears, you have to eliminate all of them.

This slippery slope could be avoided if we just accepted the fact that hunters want to hunt, and where the harvest is sustainable and regulations can be respected, perhaps a hunt should be considered on own merits instead of trying to make a case that hunting is going to deal effectively with nuisance animals. Because if after a cull, the same triggers exist to habituate bears to feasting on human garbage and food, then good bears are going to become bad bears.

A more honest discussion would also ponder the fact that spring is the preferred hunting season when the pelts are glossier and the meat leaner than in the fall. Pre-hibernation bear fat I’ve been told is horrible to eat. On the issue of cubs being orphaned in the spring —they’re born over the winter—hunters claim the absence of foliage in the spring allows them to determine whether a bear is a sow with cubs.  Thus they can more accurately and legally kill only the males.

A Sans Souci hunter, just back from a 6-day moose hunt says his party found no moose at all but 29 bears. He speculates that the bears are emerging from their dens with no prospect of anything to eat except moose cubs and fawns, and that this is driving the moose and deer farther afield. He is definitely convinced that the bear population has exploded.

Intelligence gained in the bush year after year is invaluable, we should listen to it but as the biologists tell us, dramatic and devastating changes can happen to a species’ population over a very short time, and there is sometimes only the thinnest of lines between a small population and virtual extinction. But to have this sort of conversation, we would have to stop pussy-footing around the real agendas.

CBC News: Court Dismisses Animal Welfare Case Against Spring Bear Hunt

MNR Bear Wise Program

Ontario Press Release re Spring Bear Hunt

CBC News: Evidence to Support Spring Bear Hunt Lacking, Biologist Says

Animal Alliance of Canada