Eugene Linden
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Lastest Musing

A Nobel Prize in Economics a Climate Change Denier Might Love

It has been a scary month in climate science. Hurricane Michael and a frightening report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underlined the potential costs of human-caused global warming. Then to add insult to injury, William Nordhaus won the economics Nobel Prize. Nordhaus wa...


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The Ragged Edge of the World
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Articles by Category
endangered animals
rapid climate change
global deforestation


Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.

The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Future In Plain Sight
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The Parrot's Lament
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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The Alms Race
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Apes, Men, & Language
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Wall Street is the undertaker beetle of statistics: the markets voraciously consume, digest and then forget the numbers churned out by the keepers of vital economic statistics each week. Every now and then, however, a statistic pops up that gives pause to this number munching machine because the number points to deep and scary forces gathering beneath the surface. That happened Jan. 9, when the U.S. Labor Department announced that non-farm payrolls only increased by 1,000 jobs in Dec. despite robust economic growth, and it was underscored March 5, when the Feb. payroll number came in at 21,000, a small fraction of the 130,000 new jobs predicted by economists and the 300,000 estimated by the White House. After three months of anemic numbers amid a supposedly robust recovery, even the most Panglossian cheerleaders recognize that consumers canít spend if they donít have jobs. Much has been written about outsourcing, but the real threat of these stunning numbers is that they may set in motion a cascade of events that could become seriously destabilizing in the coming years. A jobless recovery that enriches shareholders, but bypasses Americaís debt-burdened employed will exacerbate the wealth gap between rich and poor. This gap was perceived as a problem at the end of World War II, and despite more than 50 years of unprecedented global economic expansion it has only widened, both in the U.S. and in the developing world. In my 1998 book, The Future in Plain Sight, I made the wage gap one of my clues to future instability because the gap is written in the DNA of the way we now do business, and because it is unsustainable. The few can only hold onto their gains with the consent of the many, and at some point those not sharing in those gains will realize that a significant portion the enormous wealth created for the fortunate few in recent years has come out of their future prospects. Back in 1997, I expected that this realization to take a long time to gain traction with workers, but a few more months of payroll numbers such as those released last week, and this ďahaĒ moment might arrive within a year. Thatís when trouble will really begin. The labor department figures have prompted a flood of explanations. Some caution that the payroll number may miss significant numbers of self-employed, while different pundits have mentioned technologically driven efficiency improvements, cautious businesses that make people work harder rather than hire as business improves, and the movement of jobs overseas. This last point is the real problem Any U.S. business can now draw on an unlimited pool of cheap skilled labor for nearly any business need that does not involve face-to-face encounters. This not only fosters recoveries without jobs, it also puts a cap on wage demands by those lucky enough to still hold a job. The executives making decisions to outsource to low wage employees have their own problems. The digital connections that gives Amalgamated Cup access to cheap programmers in Bangalore also gives competitors in China and elsewhere access to Amalgamated Cupís markets at home. If a networked global economy has put a cap on wages, it has also put a cap on the prices a business can charge for their goods. Thanks to the Internet everything and everyone is in danger of becoming a commodity. Both businesses and labor would like to set up barriers to low-priced competitors, but there really is no easy way out of this self-destructive system. If the gap continues to widen and the economy turns down, there will be an ever -growing constituency for protectionist measures and other restraints that could lead us into a disastrous spiral of trade wars. On the other hand, any measures such as government guarantees, safety nets, or other programs offered by politicians trying to capitalize on class resentments would spook the deficit-conscious bond markets, and could easily cause a collapse of the dollar. Because of U.S. dependence on trade and because trillions of dollars in dollar-denominated assets are held overseas, U.S. economic policy is now hostage to the opinions of foreigners, our military might notwithstanding. Is there a solution? Maybe. A massive public works project that did not expand the deficit would help; something like a massive clean energy program or nationwide high-speed rail network financed by new taxes on pollution and fossil fuels. A more progressive tax system would help as well. Both seem inconceivable since the Bush administration wants to spend public works dollars on Mars not earth, and Congress that has just enacted tax breaks that exacerbate the wealth gap. Still, if this jobless recovery stalls, and populist resentments find a voice, I suspect that the few might give up a bit to the many in order to hold onto the rest. The South African tycoon Harry Oppenheimer once remarked, ďIf they donít eat, we canít sleep.Ē He was talking about racial apartheid, but the remark might well apply to economic apartheid as well.

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Short Take

In Memorium: Koko the Gorilla

Koko the gorilla died on June 19. She and a female chimpanzee named Washoe (who died in 2007) played an outsized role in changing how we view animal intelligence. Their accomplishments inaugurated deep soul-searching among us humans about the moral basis of our relationship with nature. Koko and Washoe have made it much more difficult for us to treat animals as commodities, in any way we wish.

I knew the two great apes when I was young and they were young, and I”ve closely followed the scientific, philosophical and moral upheavals they precipitated over the last five decades. In the 1960s and ’70s, they learned to use American sign language, and they came to understand that words could be combined to convey new meanings. It threw the scientific world into a tizzy, implying that sentience and languagewere not ours alone, that there was a continuum in higher mental abilities that linked animals and humans.

The problem for science remains unresolved: 3,000 years into the investigation of signal human attributes and we still don’t have rigorous ways to define language and intelligence that are agreed on and can be empirically tested. There remain a number of scientists who don’t think Koko and Washoe accomplished anything at all. Even if a scientist accepts one of the definitions of language that do exist, it’s nearly impossible to test it in animals because what is being examined is inherently subjective, and science demands objective, verifiable results.

Consider how hard it is to prove a lie beyond a reasonable doubt in court. Then consider trying to prove lying in an animal in accord with the much stricter standards of science.

As difficult as proving it may be, examples of apes lying abound. When Koko was 5, I was playing a chase game with her. When I caught her, she gave me a small bite. Penny Patterson, Koko’s lifelong foster parent and teacher, was there, and, in sign language, demanded, “What did you do?”

Koko signed, “Not teeth.”

Penny wasn’t buying it: “Koko, you lied.”

“Bad again Koko bad again,” Koko admitted.

“Koko, you lied.” But what was Koko’s intent — a central issue when it comes to proving a lie. What was actually going on in her head when she made the gestures for “not teeth?” As if that weren’t inscrutable enough, one of the guiding principles of scientific investigations of animal intelligence is what’s known as Morgan’s Canon: Scientists must not impute a higher mental ability if a behavior can be explained by something more primitive, for example, simple error.

Analogously, about 50 years ago, on a pond in Oklahoma, Washoe saw a swan and made the signs for “water” and “bird.” Was she simply noting a bird and water, or was she combining two of the signs she knew to describe an animal for which she had no specific word? The debate continued for decades and was unresolved when she died.

Since Washoe made those signs, there have been many more instances of apes combining words to describe something, but these examples still don’t prove they can combine words to arrive at a novel term, even if it seems obvious that they can. Faced with these ambiguities, many scientists have moved to studying whether animals can accomplish specific cognitive tasks, and a welter of credible findings show sophisticated abilities in animals ranging from crows to elephants.

Although science struggles with questions of general intelligence, language and intent, the public is in the “it’s obvious” camp, readily accepting evidence of animal sentience. The latest objects of fascination are the octopus — a relative of the clam! — and fish. Stories of cephalopod escape and problem-solving regularly go viral, and to the consternation of sushi lovers , John Balcomb’s book, “What a Fish Knows,” provides copious evidence that fish know a lot.

We tend to see animals as either personalities or commodities, or sometimes, both. When I wrote about octopus intelligence, I was amused by one octopus-oriented website that divided its space between stories of smart octopuses and recipes for cooking them. Perhaps the most extraordinary example of our schizophrenic view of animals occurred some years back when a chimp colony that included sign-language-using apes was disbanded and many of these onetime celebrities were shipped to a medical research lab to be used in Hepatitis B and AIDS drug testing.

I knew these chimps too, and visited them in their new environment. They were desperate to communicate with their human captors, but the staff didn’t know sign language. So insistent were Booee and Bruno with their signing that one handler put up a poster outside the cages showing some basic signs to help the humans respond. When I was there, three days after Booee had arrived, he was signing agitatedly for food and drink. But what I think he really wanted was reassurance: If the humans would respond to “gimme drink,” things were going to be OK.

Teaching Koko, Washoe and other animals some level of human and invented languages promised experimenters insight into the animal mind. But the animals seemed to seize on these languages as a way to make their wishes — and thoughts — known to their strange, bipedal wardens, who had no ability or interest in learning the animals’ communication system. For Koko, I believe, sign language was a way to make the best of a truly unnatural situation, and so she signed.

Science doesn’t know if great apes can invent terms or if they tell lies. And the tension between whether we view and treat animals as personalities or as commodities lives on. The truth is, Koko, Washoe and many other animals who have had two-way conversations with the people around them shatter the moral justification for the latter.

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