Eugene Linden
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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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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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PLEASE TREAD ON ME (Updated)


A few weeks back, President Bush signed a budget measure that would effectively cut environmental protection spending by the EPA over the next year by about six percent. Score another win for the corporate Browns in their long-standing rivalry with the Greens in this latest game in the World Environmental Football League. Recurrent lopsided scores should not be a surprise in this league since the Browns are pros playing for money, while the Greens are amateurs playing for effete liberal ideas like the viability of the planet. The league itself has unusual rules and traditions. The Greens play touch, while the Browns play tackle. Moreover, leaving nothing to chance, the Browns buy the ref. Strangest of all; the Greens would not have it any other way. I was prompted to look into the rules of this bizarre set-up a few years ago. I attended a meeting of an international environmental group and listened as a highly motivated group of greens discussed plans to fund a pilot project on ecotourism in Quintana Roo, Mexico. The idea was to point the way towards nature-friendly projects in this beautiful but vulnerable stretch of Caribbean coast. I should have been swept up by their idealism, but I wanted to tear my hair. Fourteen years earlier, I had visited this very area and heard highly motivated greens discuss similar plans to raise money to fund pilot projects in ecotourism. In the interim, highly motivated developers have built real hotels, destroying mangroves, killing reefs, and fouling once-clear sinotes in the process. There are no pilot hotels. This was but one episode of a pas de deux of destruction now playing in the U.S. and around the world (the WEF is the world’s one true global league). While greens concoct pilot projects and scrupulously honor "process," developers develop, loggers log, and poachers poach. When a builder in Quintana Roo or a timber interest in the Tongass covets a piece of real estate, he does whatever necessary to get the necessary approvals, produces an environmental impact study that suggests that sewage is good for coral reefs, or cutting is good for forests, and then builds. When environmentalists find some natural treasure, they hold conferences, fund surveys and censuses, seek consensus with locals, and say things like, “after doing x,y and z we can begin to…” Greens are always beginning to do something or other. A green-run airline would have pilots perpetually training for flights that were forever delayed. When they need it, exploiters have an ace in the hole: corruption. Pay offs and muscle, ubiquitous in decisions affecting natural areas in the developing world, and more subtly used in the U.S., utterly trump the law-abiding, bureaucratic approach of greens. Mario Villanueva, the governor of Quintana Roo, accused of taking mordida to approve hotels, eventually went on the lam, but the damage was already done. When, during the ’97 Asian financial crisis, greens asked Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin to support making new loans to Indonesia contingent on environmental reform, he replied that the time to talk about environment was when the country was back on the path to prosperity. Wrong: it was when Indonesia was richest that its corrupt politicians and generals were the most destructive. Since Rubin’s remarks, Indonesia has become the most critical environmental catastrophe on earth as free-lance loggers, squatters, and poachers take advantage of the country's instability to invade the nation's protected areas and remaining forests. On some islands, even the legal amounts of timber allocated for cutting vastly exceed the remaining stands of trees, parks included. The mismatch between the Browns and the Greens offers one reason that decades of mounting environmental awareness have produced so little in the way of facts on the ground. The decline of earth's ecosystems has only accelerated despite a geometric growth in the number of environmental groups around the world. Perhaps the most aggravating aspect of this danse macabre is that even its victims accept it as the way it should be. As one environmentalist told me, "of course we have to do an assessment; how else can we make the case for what to save and where to put boundaries." He's right. But, doesn't it seem strange that even as we watch forests disappear, fisheries die, and creatures go extinct, we continue to agree that the burden of proof lies with those who would protect nature rather than those would exploit her? Greens do their studies before entering an area, while if a company is building a pipeline in Kamchatka or a road in the Amazon, they make their plans first and let others worry about environmental impact. The practical reality is that once a development project is announced, with all its promise of jobs and profits, it is very difficult to halt. Still, what seems like common sense today may go down in history as collective madness as the bills start coming due for the destruction of earth's life support systems. Greens need to toss their playbook, and find a legitimate way to level the playing field. The huge reservoir of environmental awareness in the rich consuming nations offers enviros a powerful weapon to bring to bear on corporations, financial institutions, and international lending agencies that control the flow of money to the developing world -- a point made by activists at every international globalization forum. This is a useful step. And please, no more pilot projects!

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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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