Friday, July 25, 2008

Is Nature Natural?

The environmentalists are losing. The destruction of the rainforest continues, greenhouse gas emissions are rising, fish stocks around the world are collapsing, the polar ice cap is melting, species continue to go extinct, and the United States will probably reinvigorate its nuclear energy program within the next ten years. Nature is being slowly being overrun, consumed, and destroyed by man and his Civilization (that is, manufactured objects, and the landscapes sculpted by human interaction).

I’ve been an “environmentalist” for my entire life. I watched the T.V. shows Nature and Nova on PBS, hiked in the woods, recycled, lamented the spread of human development, and donated money to environmental causes. For the most part, my behavior has followed in the footsteps of other environmentalists, repeating their behavior though not necessarily understanding why. And enjoying it along the way.

But what is Nature? Implicit (and sometimes explicit) in the environmental movement, Nature is the world in its theoretical state without human interference. We may visit it, but it is separate. The birds living in the backyard tree or the rafters are not in Nature, but are some sort of visitor or cling-on. The Natural world is the world that would exist if humans society could suddenly be replaced with what would be there otherwise. Wikipedia agrees: “Manufactured objects and human interaction are not considered part of nature unless qualified in ways such as ‘human nature’ or ‘the whole of nature.’”

In this essay, I will argue that this definition, inherently people-centric, is not a useful paradigm for environmentalists. Philosophically, this dualistic definition of nature leads to one of two ultimate conclusions: the elimination of Nature or the destruction of Civilization. The world may hang precariously stuck between these two options, but one or the other will occur at some point (Though, in the case of human civilization becoming omnipresent, it could always revert back). Under this definition, it is no surprise that nearly all human members of Civilization do not side with Nature, especially when it threatens their livelihood.

In other words, few among our species are willing to sacrifice themselves (or their children’s future) in order to halt the destruction of Nature. In the following essay, I will try proposing an alternative philosophy that will preserve our Civilization as well as Nature, (both re-defined, of course).

The Ishmaelites

For me, Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael represents the height of Nature vs. Civilization (or “Takers”, as he calls them) dualist thinking (or at least, the height from the pro-Nature side of the argument). The philosophy contained within its pages lies at the heart of much of the environmentalist movement and its definition of Nature.

The fansite summarizes the book’s core philosophy well:

“For Ishmael, our agricultural revolution was not a technological event but a moral one, a rebellion against an ethical structure inherent in the community of life since its foundation four billion years ago. Having escaped the restraints of this ethical structure, humankind made itself a global tyrant, wielding deadly force over all other species while lacking the wisdom to make its tyranny a beneficial one or even a sustainable one.

“That tyranny is now hurtling us toward a planetary disaster of pollution and overpopulation. If we want to avoid that catastrophe, we need to work our way back to some fundamental truths: that we weren't born a menace to the world and that no irresistible fate compels us to go on being a menace to the world.”

For Ishmaelites, biodiversity and co-existence are not merely facts commonly associated with the functioning of the Natural world, but moral imperatives, defining what is and is not good behavior. They are also considered natural “law,” organizing biological existence in the same way gravity organizes the stars and planets. Most species (the “Leavers”) that follow the law, “environmental conditions permitting,” continue to exist, while some humans (the “Takers”) live in violation of the law before quickly becoming extinct. The law includes the following rules, which the Takers break: 1) Never exterminate competitors; 2) Take what you need, leave the rest alone; 3) You may deny competitors access to the food you are eating, but you may not deny them access to food in general. In conclusion, “Those who threaten the stability of the community by defying the law automatically eliminate themselves.”

On one level, they have it right. Humanity cannot consume a finite number of resources at an increasing rate indefinitely. At some point, the music will stop and there won’t be many chairs left in the room. The earth’s resources are limited to the energy dispensed by the sun (at a very constant rate) and the material resources found on and in its crust. Unless long-term space travel is realized, this is all we’ll ever have.

Besides this basic point, which I will return next week, the Ishmaelite’s worldview is plain wrong. The so called invasive species are an easy, recent example. Invasive species are species that have been introduced by humans into an ecosystem. Typically lacking a predator or having some other competitive advantage, these species quickly inhabit the new ecosystem, often driving out a “native” species it either consumes or competes with. While this phenomenon has been exacerbated by human travel, it is a normal occurrence in Nature.

Here are some examples:

  • “The predatory brown tree snake, introduced in cargo from the Admiralty Islands, has eliminated ten of the eleven native bird species from the forests of Guam.”

  • “The first sailors to land on the remote Atlantic island of St. Helena in the 16th century introduced goats, which quickly extinguished over half the endemic plant species.”

  • “The zebra mussel, accidentally brought to the United States from southern Russia, transforms aquatic habitats by filtering prodigious amounts of water (thereby lowering densities of planktonic organisms) and settling in dense masses over vast areas. At least thirty freshwater mussel species are threatened with extinction by the zebra mussel.”

  • “ When the Asian chestnut blight fungus virtually eliminated American chestnut from over 180 million acres of eastern United States forests in the first half of the 20th century, it was a disaster for many animals that were highly adapted to live in forests dominated by this tree species. For example, ten moth species that could live only on chestnut trees became extinct.”

  • “Rainbow trout introduced widely in the United States as game fish are hybridizing with five species listed under the Endangered Species Act, such as the Gila trout and Apache trout.”

  • “The endangered, endemic Hawaiian duck is being lost to hybridization with North American mallards introduced for hunting.”

The first two examples, the snail and the goat, might be good examples of what the Ishmaelites get right. If you eat your food supply to extinction, it is likely you will follow. Except that both species continue to live on said islands, 500 years after introduction in the case of the goat and over 50 in the snake’s.

The zebra muscle might not actively hunt down and destroy its competitors, but it is on the path to eliminate its competition and is surely breaking the second rule: eating more than its need. Likewise, the Asian chestnut fungus breaks rule #3, denying many species access to food and driving them to extinction. Yet like the snake and goat, it continues to thrive despite having violated the supposed laws of nature.

And what sadistic, lawless animals those ducks and trout are, fucking their competitors out of existence! Surely these species will some day meet their doom for breaking Nature’s moral code? Perhaps, but I doubt it will come about as a result of said immorality.

It is possible that Quinn just didn’t do his research. However, Ishmaelites and many environmentalists in general make a basic philosophical mistake when they deny “conscious intent” to all non-humans. Or, perhaps more precisely, when they grant it to humans. Either way the outcome is the same: living things are by and large designed to eat and reproduce (or assist fellow members of its genetic group in doing so), and if they do it better than another species competing for the same environment or food, the later species will either evolve, or see its population reduced, even extinguished.

The problem – and it is a problem – is that when a species is much, much better at eating and promoting the growth of the species, then it can threaten its own existence. This is not a moral issue, but a physical fact.

I strongly disagree with the Ishamelites on the moralizing of the Natural law, not because it isn’t a viable moral system (its as good as any), but because it is counter-productive to their cause. The Ishmaelites condemn humanity for living the way that feels normal, for the way most people prefer, and the way human culture pushes them. The Ishmaelites offer no redemption, no salvation – only damnation. This, as I have said, does not have a wide appeal. Most people do not want to condemn the poor to starvation, which Ishmael portrays as Natural, and therefore morally correct. Starvation in the modern world often has little to do with the state of Nature and more to do with the state of Civilization.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Dissecting the ‘War on Terror’

In the previous article, “Egocentrism in the War on Drugs and Supply-Side Economics,” I wrote about the relationship between the War on Drugs and the ‘War on Terror’:

“I fear that the same mistake that was made in the war on drugs is being made in the latest war, the war on terror. Much of our military policy has been about killing the terrorists and assassinating their leaders. If we destroy the producers of terror (whatever that may be – I’m not arguing that the war’s philosophical groundings make sense to begin with), then we end terror. Our policies do not recognize, however, that the terrorists fulfill a demand for an ability to fight, a demand for empowerment, a demand to fill power vacuums, a demand to fulfill Allah’s word as interpreted by some Muslims. There are a variety of demands that feed our declared enemies, and I think that a concerted effort to eliminate these demands instead of merely eliminating the producers of violence will lead to a more robust and sound solution.”

Dan rightly pounced on my intellectual laziness:

“I definitely think that there is some truth in the matter. Personally, I am inclined to believe that much of terrorism is a response to the hegemony of the United States and the bandwagon of Western (and increasingly Eastern, as well) Europe. Thus, I agree that terrorism currently fulfills some psychological need(s) and that the use of the all-powerful military fist of the United States to destroy the current “producers of terror” will only serve to place terrorist leadership into new hands.

“However, I'm not sure that I can really accept this fact as a flaw in the war on terror, because I don't believe that the ultimate goal of this war is to end terrorist activity. This war is really about so many other things and terrorism is really just a very marketable excuse. I consider one of the primary aims of the war to be a style of militarily-compulsed democratic nation-building in order to produce nations that are more amenable to joining the bandwagon and thus supporting US hegemony. Thus, the goal of the war may be to decrease the level of international dissent, but not by destroying terrorists, but by using terrorists as an excuse to remove particular governments.”

Dan is definitely on to something. In this article, I will explore some of the meanings of the “War on Terror,” how the idea relates to Bush policy, and where I think U.S. policy should be headed.

The “War on Terror” Disassembled

According to Wikipedia, the phrase “War on Terror” predates the hijackings and subsequent attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, commonly known as the “9/11” terrorist attacks. Originally used to describe efforts by governments to combat late 19th century anarchists, the phrase was also used by the British to describe their efforts to quell violence perpetrated by Jewish fighters in the British Mandate of Palestine in the 1940’s and by Ronald Regan in the 1980’s.

At face value, the phrase “war on terror” is a bit silly. The U.S. is not fighting against the emotion felt when extremely fearful. The “war on terror” is a shortened version of “war on terrorism.” What qualifies as “terrorism” is tricky to qualify. Generally, terrorism is considered to be violence perpetrated for political reasons with the intent of inflicting psychological damage or terror. Other common limiting factors or beliefs about terrorism are that the violence takes place against civilians, and/or that it is illegal or in some way an illegitimate use of force. The idea of legality is especially important to governments considered legitimate, who by this definition cannot be the purveyors of terrorist activity.

The modern War on TerrorTM began immediately after the 9/11 attacks, and includes the war in Afghanistan, the “homefront” efforts to tighten security (armed soldiers patrolling airports, required passports to enter from Mexico and Canada, increased port inspections, etc.), and the detention and torture of terrorist suspects.

Though the stated purpose of this war was to hunt down the terrorist haters of freedom dead or a alive (or something similar, defined in such an elegant manner), Dan has a point in saying that the War on TerrorTM’s ultimate goal is not to end terrorist activity. I do not believe that the War on TerrorTM’s explicit purpose is “to produce nations that are more amenable to joining the bandwagon and thus supporting US hegemony,” though this might be a very real effect of the War.

Instead, I don’t think there is a clear purpose or objective in the War on TerrorTM. Instead, the government is flailing around, trying to fulfill the marketable mission to protect the United States from her enemies. Its almost as bad as government attempts to “fix” the economy.

For better or worse, the Cold War had an easy to identify enemy – Communism. Even though we often saw Communism where it did not exist, there were indeed people who declared, “We are Communist, and we believe X, Y, and Z,” even if X, Y, and Z varied greatly from Commie to Commie. However, no on stands up and says, “I’m a terrorist, and I want to take away American freedom and kill your children.”

Even attempts to define the terrorist enemy as “Islamo-Facists” fails because all this says is that the terrorists are Muslim, which limits the enemy to only a billion or more people, and “facist,” which has lost nearly all of its analytic-descriptive power since the end of World War Two. We might as well label the enemy in the War on TerrorTM “Muslim Fuckheads.”

I understand that many of these terms have benefits when it comes to PR. The problem is that the U.S. Government (Bush, most of the Republican party, and probably the majority of the Democrats as well), have bought into the PR without having any real analysis. Once the policy has been sold, the government uses the logic of their bullshit PR to execute the policy. Its as if the bio-chemists working for a drug company believed they would reach a breakthrough if they could excrete the essence of grandchildren smiling, a lovely golf course, and an expensive country club dinner and put it into a pill.

This is all too apparent in Bush Administration’s “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism,” published in February, 2003. The strategy specifies that we should, “defeat, deny, diminish, and defend” against the terrorists. This “4D” strategy doesn’t get all that much more specific The document is full of pithy quotes from Bush speeches:

“We have seen their kind before. They are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions – by abandoning every value except the will to power – they follow in the path of fascism, and Nazism, and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way, to where it ends: in history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.”

The Strategy defines terrorists as those who commit, “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational or clandestine agents...[and] strive to subvert the rule of law and effect change through violence and fear. These terrorists also share the misguided belief that killing, kidnapping, extorting, robbing, and wrecking havoc to terrorize people are legitimate forms of political action.”
The terrorists are also enemies of civilization, who represent “a treat to our way of life.”

But tactical strategies for fighting Ted Kaczynski, IIPB (Chechnya) the Tamil Tigers, Hamas, and Al Qaeda are all very different. Also, should we fight all groups that fall under this definition? Is this even the best definition for identifying the groups against whom our efforts should be placed?

And how do we define “noncombatant” or “subnational” anyways? The War on TerrorTM does not offer coherent answers. Until it does, our policy will continue to be strategically ineffectual.

The Nation’s War on Terror

Separate but related to the War on TerrorTM are local efforts to root out terrorists within our communities. Since 9/11, American citizens have looked out from their fenced yards to engage with their neighbors in efforts to protect us from the next terrorist attack. Neighborhood patrols, gun control laws, store-initiated background checks for fertilizer purchases, you name it. The American people have began to take their security and safety seriously after the 9/11 attacks.

What was that? You don’t know what I’m talking about? Ok. Fine. You caught me. I made it all up.

There are few if any new security policies implemented over the past 7 years that have not been implemented from the Federal level. The fact is that we are not fighting terrorism individually at the local level, but collectively at the Federal. And even then, most efforts are made out of public view – container checks at U.S. ports, baggage screening beneath airports, secret FBI wiretaps, Guantanamo, the war in Afghanistan – the American public is kept in the dark about the actual efforts being made in the name of their own safety.

Our war is the War on TerrorTM. People may claim to worry about terrorism, but on the whole the worst intrusion most of us must deal with is taking off our shoes at the airport.

On one level, this is a good thing. I’d be very worried if Americans allowed the government to overtly intrude into their lives. The problem is that we allow intrusions into the lives of those not deemed “real” Americans. For example, the FBI is currently considering official racial profiling as a way to out potential terrorists. And as long as it doesn’t directly affect the lives of most people, the multi-billion dollar War on TerrorTM will continue so that politicians can say they’ve made us safe.

While I think there are legitimate security concerns and things that actually can be done to address them (nuclear proliferation comes to mind), most of what we do seems to me to be a bunch of hand waving. At the very least, there is very little bang for the tax-payer’s buck. Personally, I feel more threatened by a lack of bike lanes, a proliferation of potholes, and the rickety Sellwood Bridge.

Iraq, and George W. Bush’s Dream of a Democratic World

From what I have seen of the evidence coming out of the Bush White House, which includes accounts of insiders such as Scott McClellan, Paul O’Neill, and Richard Clarke suggests that the Bush administration did have an unhealthy relationship toward Iraq from the get-go, and that the War on TerrorTM was merely a branding.

Though Iraq had almost no relation to the terrorist networks that were threatening the United States following 9/11, it became part of the War on TerrorTM due to the confluence of the two for the purposes of PR. Again, the War on TerrorTM doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with providing protection for Americans.

Many people have speculated as to why Bush decided to focus on Iraq. Oil is a popular theory. WMD, even though we didn’t find any, is believed to have been a major motivating factor. Douglas Feith, who manufactured evidence linking Iraq to a 9/11 hijacker from his office in the Pentagon, has since stated that he believes the Administration could have made the case for war without WMD.

I argue that Bush’s motivations were rooted in his desire to become a Great President, not a mediocre footnote like his dad. The conscientious student of history that he is, Bush believed that all great presidents were 1) war presidents and 2) a person who, in some way, fought for democracy. Thus, Bush saw in Iraq the opportunity to spread democracy via war.

Though this justification for the Iraq war didn’t surface until after the invasion, this motivation can be found dating back to the beginning of Bush’s presidential campaign in 1999. In his speech, “A Distinctly American Internationalism,” given on November 19th of that year, Bush laid out his vision for American foreign policy: “American foreign policy must be more than the management of crisis. It must have a great and guiding goal: to turn this time of American influence into generations of democratic peace.”

He added: “America, by decision and destiny, promotes political freedom – and gains the most when democracy advances. America believes in free markets and free trade – and benefits most when markets are opened. America is a peaceful power – and gains the greatest dividend from democratic stability. Precisely because we have no territorial objectives, our gains are not measured in the losses of others. They are counted in the conflicts we avert, the prosperity we share and the peace we extend.”

Perhaps these were merely platitudes inserted by a speechwriter. But, as we’ve already seen, PR and actual policy making are often mistaken for each other in the Bush administration. The rhetoric has replaced reality.

What were the motivations of the other members of the administration? Cheney? Rumsfeld? This is less clear, though it is interesting that so many members of Bush II’s administration were in Bush I’s as well. Though at the time many, Cheney in particular, defended the decision not to take Saddam out of power in 1991. It is possible that these statements did not represent their true feelings at the time, but those of their boss, George H.W. Bush.

Is it possible that I am giving the government too much credit for its stated reasons and that underneath lie hidden, devious intentions? Yes. However, I don’t think it is likely.
A focus on what I will pejoratively call “conspiracy theories” distracts us from the more likely and subtle problems not created by the conscious efforts of a few, but the semi-conscious actions and partially thought-out ideologies of the many. It makes much more sense to me that the policy really is as bad and incomplete as it sounds. I see the role of Iraq’s oil and the military-industrial complex (MIC) as grease on the tracks that allowed the train to leave the station where there might have been too much friction without the $$$ lubrication oil and the MIC brought.

Re-creating the “Good War”

World War Two (WW2), and the narrative that has risen around it, has been disastrous for peaceniks and an invaluable rhetorical tool for hawks. WW2 was a fluke – a war with a strong moral underpinnings which have not just been accepted and incorporated into the mythology of the victors, but also by most surviving Germans and Japanese. We do not have to reevaluate the rightness of the U.S.’s involvement in WW2 to recognize that involvement is recognized – almost universally, as correct and worthwhile. Hence WW2’ nickname – “The Good War.”

The Revolutionary and Civil Wars both carry a similar sort of mantle as well, though with a lack of slaves to free or a repressing empire to fight off, not to mention the separation of years, they are rarely used as parallel examples. On the other hand, WW2 has handed down to us a classic Good vs. Evil dichotomy, where the U.S. plays the Good and whomever the hawks don’t like (in the most recent case, the so-called Islamic Fascists), plays the Nazis. We attempt to create and fight another “Good War.”

But of course, war does not fit into this neat dichotomy. Even if one accepts the premise that WW2 was a “Good War” (this is an argument that I have no intention of entering), then it was a once in a millennium event. The American wars to followed – Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Iraq (not to mention the nearly countless conflicts where we played arms dealer or the CIA otherwise had a hand) – do not as easily fit into the “Good War” rubric, despite the efforts of a great many.

While the “Good War” mentality makes for some useful propaganda, it doesn’t lead to coherent or thought-out strategies. It is important that we stop trying to put every war into the rubric of WW2, and instead consider parallels with a whole variety of wars.

Most importantly, American leaders as well as Americans of all affiliations should not simply rely on parallels with other wars but evaluate the facts of the current conflict in a level headed manner without the influence of ideological biases. Though in recent years reality has taken on a liberal bias, as Stephen Colbert likes to say, this has not always been the case.

In contemporary political affairs, little at the strategic level happens that is impossible to predict. I do not mean to say that tactical details of events are predictable. I do not believe we should have known about the 9/11 attacks in their every aspect. But we knew that an attack of some sort was on the way (i.e. the memo entitled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”, released in August, 2001).

Many problems emanating from and regarding the Iraq War – Iran’s support of insurgents, sucking American resources from other problems, occupation lasting 8-10 years (instead of 2-4), ethnic strife within Iraq – were all predicted by some members of the Bush Administration, not to mention countless lawmakers and citizens who opposed the war from the start, but were overruled and ignored by ideologically driven wishful thinking. To build a coherent strategy in the current fight against Al Qaeda, we must ground ourselves in good old-fashioned facts and rationality, not dreams of re-living the victories of our parents or grandparents.