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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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Silent Partners
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Apes, Men, & Language
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THE BAY OF PIGS: DISASTER AND TRIUMPH


Tuesday March 08, 2011

 

Eugene Linden
 
At first I thought it was a version of the granfalloon, the term Kurt Vonnegut invented to describe a striking but meaningless encounter: my brother-in-law, Jim Rasenberger and I both have books coming out within two weeks of each other. My book, The Ragged Edge of the World, is a farewell tour (the places are disappearing, not me) of the most remote reaches of the planet, and it tries to evoke life at that moveable frontier where wildlands and native peoples collide with modernity. His book, A Brilliant Disaster, examines the Bay of Pigs fiasco on its 50th anniversary.  To judge by their covers, the books are utterly different, but we thought it fun to schedule a joint book party midway between the two publication dates, For the sake of family harmony, if nothing else. The more I think about it, however, the more I realize that the two books investigate two aspects of the same thing: individual brilliance and collective stupidity.
 
            Jim looks at the foreign policy expression of this enduring puzzle as he explores the iconic American example of the fiasco that ensues when some of the smartest and most powerful men in the country-- the best and the brightest as David Halberstam indelibly called them-- become blinded by ideology and arrogant self-assurance (although the Iraq War is a strong contender to replace this example).  I look at what this syndrome has wrought as the march of progress continues to consume wildlands and peoples despite decades of evidence that this march-- more like a stampede, really-- leaves nothing but wastelands and disenfranchised peoples in its wake. There’s an element of black humor in both books. I tell this story through tragicomic vignettes, while, with the arch perspective of time, Jim lets the black humor of self-delusions of the times speak for themselves.
 
            Our two books converge in a more immediate way: in one chapter, I also write about the Bay of Pigs. Where for Jim, the Bay of Pigs provides a symbol of an epic fail of the intelligence and foreign policy apparatus, I look at some of the positive results of that failure. Today, the Bay of Pigs is a triumph of conservation and one of the natural wonders of the Western hemisphere. The Bay marks one boundary of Zapata Swamp, an Eden-like wetland the size of Delaware, with boundless bird-life and shimmering pure rivers. It is one of a string of great parks that make Cuba’s natural systems among the best protected in the world.
 
            How this happened is an object lesson in the ironic twists of history. The island stands today as a shining example of how a desperately poor country can preserve its natural systems. This is no endorsement of communism, a system that seems to have been designed to convert resources into pollution with minimum economic benefit. Karl Marx was focused on the control of the means of production, and was blind to environmental consequences (which is uncomfortably similar to  unregulated free-market capitalism which is focused on the private control of the means of production and simply ignores environmental consequences).
 
            The reason Cuba has not suffered the ecocide visited on the landscape by other communist governments has to do with three things: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the American embargo, and, most importantly the accident of history that an illiterate farmer who saved Castro’s life during the Cuban Revolution, turned out to be a nature lover. Elevated to be one of three Commanders of the Revolution, Guillermo Garcia Frias, provided political cover for an entire generation of conservationists and scientists who now have key positions in parks and environment.  The collapse of the Soviet Union starved Cuba of funds from its former patron, and the ongoing U.S. economic embargo has forced Cuba to be both innovative and sustainable, since it has lacked access to cheap fossil fuels. For the Bay of Pigs and Zapata Swamp this means that very few pollutants flow into the area from surrounding agricultural lands.
 
            The unexpected connections that link our two books prompt another question: what might have happened had the U.S.-sponsored invasion succeeded in 1961?  Without question, many Cubans would have gotten rich as developers exploited Cuba’s gorgeous coasts, lagoons and beaches. The mob would have gotten its casinos back, and Cubans of all stripes could experience the joys of fast food and the consumer society. But Zapata Swamp, which in structure is similar to the Everglades, would long since have been channeled, converted, polluted, and otherwise exploited like most other wetlands in the hemisphere, including the Everglades. So maybe The Brilliant Disaster Jim describes was for the best. Despite the many other benighted policies of this police state, Cuba may be one of the best-prepared nations to navigate what looks like a fossil fuel constrained future that the rest of the world may soon have to deal with. Sometimes good can come from having a superpower as an enemy.
 

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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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