Thursday, December 8, 2022

The Comfort and Joy of Birds

In an otherwise winter-dead landscape, wild birds bring a reminder that animate life still exists. The sun still rises, the Earth still turns, the seasons march on. When the frenetic pace of humanity becomes too much, birds offer a sense of peace, a reset button that allows us to relax a moment. These basic sentiments and sensations are rarely cited as reason enough for conserving our feathered friends, nor used in arguing that we have a right to nature.

My partner and I live in Leavenworth, Kansas, USA, less than two blocks from the federal penitentiary. One could hardly imagine a more stark, vivid contrast between the freedom of flight and the permanence of incarceration. We can see the dome from our kitchen window, but in the foreground is our back yard, enclosed by a wooden fence and one wall of the detached garage. Heidi insisted we put up feeders, and that gesture has been a blessing.

We moved from a dense residential neighborhood in Colorado Springs, Colorado well over a year ago now, and I have found it nearly impossible to embrace this much smaller town, overwhelmingly conservative in the political sense. Prisons, churches, and Fort Leavenworth define the entire county. The human atmosphere has been utterly stifling, and I have found my creativity and productivity suffering. Everyone I see looks old, unhappy, often in poor health.

By contrast, the birds that visit our feeders are energetic, alert, colorful. They chatter and sing as they compete for seed and suet, or communicate with fledglings they are still feeding (I’m looking at you, White-breasted Nuthatches). The birds are at least a reminder of what can be, the vibrant, happy lives we could have if we only chose to. We subscribe to far too many unhealthy pursuits and addictions as we try to escape the prisons of capitalism, familial discord, and other stressors.

As I write this, the only sounds audible through the walls and windows are gunshots at the firing range on the prison property, light vehicle traffic, and an occasional dog bark. We wait for the birds to visit in waves of brief duration, usually mixed flocks of House Sparrow, juncos, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, cardinals, Blue Jays, Mourning Dove, and woodpeckers. House Finches prefer to have the feeders to themselves and seldom appear with the other birds. What competition there is tends to be relatively peaceful, though until we can translate perfectly the calls of birds, who knows what is profanity.

Birds are not here for our entertainment, of course. Science tells us they fill niches unoccupied by other species, and provide ecosystem services such as membership in the food web, seed dispersal, and suppression of insects that would overwhelm entire ecosystems without checks and balances from avian predators. Still, such arguments are dry, impersonal, and relatively weak in convincing lawmakers and corporate executives of the need for conservation, preservation, and creation of bird-friendly habitat.

That is where comfort and joy come in. Birds, and other undomesticated organisms, are critical for the personal and social functioning of a great many people. The passion for birds is so great that it creates jobs itself: Seed growers and processors, feeder manufacturers, optical industries, travel and tourism, and parks and recreation agencies all depend on, and cater to, birders. Artists! Increasingly, landscape architects are specializing in planning and executing native plantings with birds in mind. Failing to acknowledge the comfort and joy that wild birds bring to citizens is an affront to human rights, and threatens to undermine our collective mental health, and even some livelihoods.

My partner and I have the luxury of White privilege, enough disposable income to feed the birds, and enough time to enjoy them. We can even travel to see birds elsewhere. We’re so far ambulatory and without most other physical challenges. It is incumbent upon us, however, to improve inclusiveness and promote diversity in birding whenever and wherever we can. We cannot allow anyone to be less than a proud birder, or birdwatcher, free of derision and shame perpetrated by those who have no appreciation for the living world in its natural state.

Share your bird-joy. Wrap others in philosophical, feathery comfort. Lend your binoculars and field guides. Donate to local, national, and international organizations promoting birding. Do not neglect those aimed at Indigenous, Black, LGBTQ, women, and other traditionally ignored demographics. There may be no greater gift you can give this holiday season, or at any other time of year.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

The Changing Conversation Around Invasive Species

Recently, the debate about invasive species has become more polarized than ever, with a degree of defensiveness and anger not seen previously. The reasons for this are many, some difficult to admit to.

Chinese Clematis may be invasive, but it deserves a less bigoted name.

I attended a webinar a few weeks ago in which the presenter asserted that “invasive species” is a “militarized term.” My instinctive reaction was that this was accusatory, bordering on defamation of science, when there is clear evidence that the introduction of a species to a new ecosystem can have devastating consequences.

Spongy Moth is still a bonafide forest pest, but now has a more appropriate moniker.

Pondering his comment further, it occurred to me that most of the animals, and plants, we label as invasive have some sort of obvious and negative economic impact. We have, as a consumer culture, become conditioned to frame everything in terms of business and monetary interests rather than ecological concerns. This has become more complicated by angst over climate change, and the resulting vulnerability of humanity to emerging threats, be they viruses or “murder hornets.”

20200512-P1090983 Vespa mandarinia japonica
© Yasunori Koide and Wikimedia Commons. Asian Giant Hornet only "murders" in the beehive, but is a serious threat to apiculture because of that proclivity.

The sudden, and/or overwhelming appearance of a novel organism is going to cause alarm, and the public seldom has comprehensive, appropriate knowledge for interpretation of potential impacts. We are at the mercy of what news outlets tell us. Because traditional print, radio, and television media now compete with social media, sensationalism is the order of the day. “Click bait” banners prevail over more accurate but less provocative headlines.

© Kim Fleming and Joro Spider, Trichonephila clavata, is not currently considered invasive.

Initial forecasts can also be premature. The jury is still out on whether some recently-introduced species will become problematic. They may not. The Joro Spider is a case in point. It is locally abundant in some parts of the southeast U.S., but whether this translates to a displacement of native spiders remains an unanswered question.

We collectively have a fascination with heroes and villains, too, and there are no more menacing villains than alien-looking insects, spiders, and other arthropods. Fantasy melds with reality and it becomes difficult to separate the two if you are not scientifically literate, or have a business model that demands public hatred of a particular creature.

© USDA ARS, public domain. Spotted Lanternfly, Lycorma delicatula, adult and nymphs. This species is a potential agricultural pest of serious magnitude.

In opposition to nativism is the idea that there is no such thing as invasive species. After all, man is part of nature, and therefore our actions are natural processes. The outcomes of those activities are circumstances to which we, and other species, will adapt.

It may be no coincidence that a backlash against the idea of invasive species is more evident now that we are recognizing, and attempting to mitigate, a history of colonialism. A convincing argument could be made that White settlers are the original invasive species. Here, in North America, we annihilated and displaced Indigenous members of our own species. We enslaved others. To this day we continue missionary work and other forms of colonialism. Therefore, the idea of invasive species becomes one of self-loathing, certainly an eventual threat to White supremacy and privilege. White people do not want to see themselves as villains.

Meanwhile, we demonize human immigrants and refugees as criminals and threats to domestic labor pools. We clamor for the closure of borders to our fellow humans, but allow our boundaries to be permeated by everything else. Not that human-imposed boundaries reflect natural ones.

The Cross Orbweaver, Araneus diadematus, is an example of a naturalized arachnid in North America.

Scientists have an uphill battle in resolving these opposing perspectives and initiating constructive dialogue. Looking to the past we see how some species from foreign lands have become “naturalized” over time, becoming innocuous additions to our flora and fauna. The average citizen may be shocked to learn that dandelions are not native to the U.S. They have become a fixture in our lawnscapes, even if we are instructed to use weed-killers against them.

Myrtle Spurge, aka "Donkeytail," Euphorbia myrsinites, is classified as a noxious weed in some jurisdictions, but not everywhere.

What is lost in all of this is attribution of the modern problem of invasive species to global consumer culture. Historically, human colonists brought other species with them as a guarantee of food and other necessary resources when venturing into unknown territory. Soon after, those species and their products became valuable in trade, a way to establish meaningful and positive relationships with Indigenous peoples, or other settlers. The pace of travel was slow, and the scale of enterprise miniscule compared to twenty-first century business.

Today, we mostly covet plants and animals of far-off lands. Plants, especially, can harbor potential insect pests. Thecontainers used to transport international commerce are frequently occupied by insects, rodents, and other organisms. We seldom make that connection between our consumer habits and the state of ecosystems around the world.

Captive Reticulated Python. Release of unwanted Burmese Pythons into the Everglades by irresponsible pet owners has been....problematic.

We cannot turn the clock back, but we should make more informed and conscientious individual choices in the marketplace. We should promote the welfare of Indigenous peoples, and actively seek their counsel and leadership in crafting a world better able to withstand climate change. A permanent end to colonialism would not be a bad thing, either.

Monday, October 17, 2022

Jim Anderson: My Original Mentor

Last week I learned that my first true mentor, Jim Anderson, passed away on September 22, 2022 at the age of 94. It was my intention to honor him while he was still among the living, but I did not make that enough of a priority. That oversight in no way reflects what a powerful and positive influence he was on my life, and the lives of so many others.

Jim Anderson at 82 years young

I am reasonably certain that my mother was the one who took the initiative in connecting me to Jim. She was a veteran in the television and radio industry, and at the time I first met Jim he was doing a local show on nature for Oregon Public Broadcasting. I seem to recall that our initial meeting was in his studio, in fact.

Concurrently, Jim was employed as an educator with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). From there, he became director of the Children’s Zoo and conservation and education programs at what was then the Portland Zoo (now the Oregon Zoo in Washington Park).

Jim introduced me to other biologists and naturalists, too, including Mike Houck, who went on to become the Urban Naturalist for the Audubon Society of Portland. Jim and Mike did programs at OMSI field stations and camps, which I had the privilege of visiting periodically on weekends.

The Nature Conservancy hired Jim to manage its Ramsey Canyon Preserve in the Huachuca Mountains of southeast Arizona for three years, but Jim and his wife Sue returned to his beloved Oregon to run the nature center at Sunriver resort south of Bend in the early 1970s. It was there that I caught up with him again. Had my late mother not been so overprotective, I might have spent time with him exploring lava tube caves, or maybe even assisting in banding raptors.

Myself and Jim at Sunriver in August, 1971

Eagles, hawks, and owls were always the center of Jim’s wild universe. He even flew with them, in a manner of speaking. He got a commercial pilot license, and was an accomplished pilot of glider planes. He even instructed student glider pilots.

Among Jim’s enduring menagerie of animals was “Owl,” a Great Horned Owl that had lost an eye. Remarkably, the bird regenerated the eye and, after several years of behavioral rehabilitation, Jim released “Owl” with great fanfare at Sunriver. Owl was immediately harassed by an American Kestrel, such is the drama of nature.

Jim surveyed and banded birds of prey in central Oregon for over fifty years, the last decade or so with the company of his wife, Sue. She wisely insisted that climbing cliffs and trees was too dangerous for someone in his eighties, and Jim begrudgingly retired.

One of the milestones I am most proud of is when I was first published in Ranger Rick magazine, because I had grown up reading Jim’s articles in that publication. He wrote consistently, for many periodicals, and had a column in The Nugget Newspaper of Sisters, Oregon. He also appeared regularly in The Source Weekly of nearby Bend, Oregon. Jim was an outstanding photographer, too, and most of his articles included his images. He compiled his most memorable and hilarious stories in Tales from a Northwest Naturalist, published in 1992.

Everything came full circle for me when Jim agreed to be best man at my wedding to Heidi, on April 29, 2012. A few years later we saw Jim for the last time at his home in Sisters. I had the privilege of introducing another young man, and his then girlfriend (now marital partner), at that time. The couple lived in Bend, and I hope they were able to visit with Jim and Sue again before Jim and Sue moved to Eugene, Oregon to be closer to their children.

Jim, myself, and my mother at my wedding

Being an only child, I had a difficult time socializing with my peers. It was with adults that I felt most comfortable, but Jim nudged me to expand the boundaries of my comfort zone. He was always patient and encouraging, but also insistent, especially when it came to my education. I am glad I still have a few years left, hopefully, to become an even better human being, and a less hesitant one when opportunities present themselves.

Jim's photo of Heidi and I

From what I hear from Sue, I am one of many disciples of Jim. His enthusiasm was contagious, his breadth of knowledge and interests seemingly boundless (did I mention he sang in church choirs?), and his self-reliance admirable. There was no machine he could not repair with bailing wire. He had an old-fashioned wit and sense of humor, and a genuine love and appreciation for all of those he invested his time and counsel in. They do not make men like him very often nowadays. Rest in peace, Jim, you deserve eternal joy and love.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Children Are the Corn

It is the month of Halloween, and a perfect time to confront horrors both real and imagined. The most insidious of threats, however, are those we are blissfully unaware of, or don't perceive as dangerous. Such is the case for the marketplace. We do not spend nearly enough conscious attention to the corporate landscape we navigate daily, and it is at our peril.

In 1984, the horror film Children of the Corn was released, loosely based on a short story by Stephen King. The plot of the film revolved around the children of a ficticious rural U.S. town where the children formed a cult that demanded the ritual saccrifice of adults to ensure a successful corn harvest. The film spawned several sequels and has a cult following of its own. Cut to the reality of today, and I would argue that children are the corn of the global marketplace. Allow me to explain.

Parents who attempt to control the exposure of their children to television, the internet, and other forms of commercial entertainment are fighting an uphill battle against the influence of corporations. Kids will still be vulnerable to persuasion by their peers, social media influencers, billboards, and all manner of other corporate vehicles. Children are the next "crop" of consumers in the corporate economy, fed on the "fertilzer" of advertising and marketing campaigns. This is the real fear of corporations over falling birthrates: not the labor shortage they purport to have anxiety about, but a potential consumer shortage. If a labor shortage were a genuine concern, companies would not be outsourcing jobs overseas. They would be paying a living wage and offering a healthy benefits package to entice more workers into applying for jobs.

Children and adults alike are relentlessly conditioned to frame the solutions to everyday irritations as either "product" or "service." Spilled food and beverages require special chemical cleaners. Insects and spiders in and around the home require "exterminators," or the more politically correct "pest control operators," regardless of whether the creatures in question pose any danger at all. What are we supposed to never do? Change our mindset. Frame things differently. Ask ourselves if it really is a problem demanding action, or simply a periodic nuisance we can live with. Address our irrational fears, give them less power over us.

The expectation of the marketplace to be answer to all our ills makes us dependent on corporations, and lazy in our intellectual appraisal of circumstances and situations that annoy us or appear as intractable problems. While no one can be a jack-of-all-trades, we could stand to be more self-sufficient. Personally, I know I could use basic instruction in everything from home repairs to cooking to auto repair. This human condition is a major facet of the urban-rural divide. Those in rural regions and small towns are undeniably more self-sufficient than city-dwellers. Urbanites have partitioned expertise and resources to such a degree that there are specialists in niche markets. Farmers and ranchers are livestock EMTs, landscapers, butchers, and equipment repair technicians to name only a handful of their skills. They are too often still at the mercy of corporations that dictate which seeds they plant, where their produce can be sold, and for how much, but there is no denying their skill set.

Given our reliance on the corporate gods for our daily salvation, is it any wonder we cannot solve major societal problems that exceed the capabilities of business entities? It can be argued that colonialism, patriarchy, and White privilege and supremacy are supported, at least tacitly, by corporations. Turning to other human institutions, such as religion, gets us no further. Government has failed us repeatedly due to corruption, and extremists in political parties. As long as powerful people and entities prosper under the status quo, we are unlikely to see the systemic changes necessary for true equality in rights and freedoms, and equity in wealth distribution.

Environmental, consumer, and labor protections are viewed as barriers to corporate prosperity, but climate change, ecosystem destruction, an overstressed workforce, and an increasingly distrustful, powerless consumer constituency threaten to wreak economic havoc anyway. We need to remove the scales from our eyes and see the global marketplace for what it is: a means of preserving elitist power and wealth by dividing the vastly larger population that are employees and consumers.

We need not always be hostile in creating a revolution. Indeed, the Covid pandemic has highlighted the ingenuity of the individual, and the desire of many for simplicity, self-sufficiency, and a local economy that reduces energy consumption, rejects labor exploitation, and instead empowers each citizen to identify their personal passions and goals. People are quietly executing revolutionary changes that are positive and affirming, and vastly more inclusive of human diversity.

I am not generally a fan of horror films, but I can recommend one exceptional, and relatively tame, cinematic production that cleverly addresses the concepts mentioned above. They Live was released in 1988. Directed by John Carpenter, it is based on the short story "Eight O'Clock in the Morning," by Ray Nelson. It was ahead of its time, and might have been part of the inspiration for The Matrix. We do need to "free our minds" of the shackles of corporate expectations, and see our own personal potential to be the change needed today. That doesn't mean you have to saccrifice everything. Continue to indulge in your comforts, but perhaps not as frequently? I'm going to go brew a couple of cups of coffee now....

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Supreme Injustice Part II

It seems like only yesterday that I wrote about the Breonna Taylor trial and the rush to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, but it has been nearly two years now. The results of installing (I refuse to use the word “confirming”) two ultra-conservative justices into the high court has escalated quickly. They wasted no time, given the usually glacial flow of decisions, in overturning the most impactful verdict in recent history: Roe versus Wade. It is a clear example of collusion of between religion and government, for the purpose of strengthening a destructive patriarchal culture. Yes, I am calling this a criminal act.

What were once ”Christian fundamentalists” are now Christian extremists, an arguably greater threat to democracy and a civil society than any foreign enemy. While they claim there is a fictious “war on Christmas,” they perpetrate a very real war against women, including transgender persons. That we allow any level of the judiciary to continue defining and limiting the role of women as child-bearers, subservient to males, is appalling. That the citizenry has very limited power to influence the lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court is disgraceful.

Beyond the ramifications for women’s health, including abortion procedures, the court decision has an overwhelming effect of demoralization. Women are already physically and emotionally exhausted from meeting personal and societal expectations on the domestic front, and in the workplace, even if they are perfectly healthy and not battling chronic pain, disease, and/or other afflictions beyond their control. Where are they going to find the strength to overcome these newly-imposed limitations?

Numerous female friends have already posted on social media that they are willing to host and care for any friends from other states needing proper medical care that could be denied them in their own home states. I am hoping to soon see that same empathy from my male friends. I will happily be the first to volunteer. I’ll sleep on the couch or the floor if need be. That is assuming that we can vote down a proposed constitutional amendment here in Kansas.

The double-whammy of this court decision, and continuing efforts aimed at denying voting rights, is depressing. At least some democratic and independent voters are registering as Republican for their state’s primary elections, in hopes of defeating the most extremist candidates before the mid-term elections in November. We are going to need more innovative tactics like that if we do not wish to return to a wholly puritanical republic.

Do not underestimate your personal sphere of influence. You are intelligent and respectful and capable of advocating effectively. Be brave, and share your views with family, immediate and/or extended. Broadcast creatively through all your social media channels. Do not share the meme everyone else is sharing. Make your own. Be as compassionate as possible but as forceful as necessary. We can make this better. We owe it to ourselves, previous generations, and to those children we choose to have, not those we are forced to have.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

What Pride Month Means to Me

I have been struggling with what to say in honor of Pride Month. On the one hand, I am not lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or any other demographic that falls under the rainbow banner, and I have no right to speak for those people. What I can do is speak to why they have my unconditional love and support.

I know many people who face daily challenges of a magnitude inconceivable to those of us fortunate enough to be cis, straight, and otherwise conventional in identity and lifestyle. I have not always been sensitive to their plight. In my younger days I know I hit on women who were lesbian, probably more of them than I realized. I am grateful to those who admitted their preference, especially given the courage it took when you were in legitimate fear for your life from strangers. Sadly, this is still too often the case.

I am still learning the new vocabulary of our changing times, but I accept the challenge. It is the least I can do to be better informed, and become more empathetic. Too many people try and ride the fence when it comes to others who do not share their reality. “I don’t think it is any of my business” they say, believing that is somehow a comforting and acceptable response to learning of diversity in identity and lifestyle. It is not. It is condescending.

In no way are any of the rights and personal freedoms I enjoy eroded or compromised by extending those same rights to marginalized peoples. Let me say that again, louder, for those in the back: Extending to others the same freedoms and rights that I enjoy as a white, cis, straight male, in no way deprives me of those rights. Please repeat that to yourself at will until you recognize it as truth. Thank you.

It is appalling and embarrassing to me that so many citizens are apparently convinced that the whole topic of transgender can be boiled down to “men wanting to play women’s sports.” Have you seen how we treat women? Do you honestly believe that any “man” would want to heap upon himself the restrictions, discomfort, and vulnerabilities endured by women, plus the hatred shown to transgendered persons, simply for the opportunity to “dominate” in athletics? Seriously? I know this is not the case because nearly every man I know will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid social ridicule, persecution, and emotional pain.

What I desire more than anything is for those who are consumed with affirming, defending, and protecting their identities, to have the freedom to do the things they were born to do, to achieve greatness without the needless social and political barriers and hostilities they currently face. If there are any rights that should be taken from people of privilege it is the right to hate speech, the right to politicize lives you know nothing about, and the right to deny anyone else the freedoms you already enjoy.

What does an ally look like, you ask? Openly proclaiming your allegiance is a good start. Putting your money where your mouth is helps even more. Ever heard of The Trevor Project? There are countless other charities, legal defense funds, and other affirming organizations that can use your financial donations. Use your social media to follow those individuals and organizations that are effective advocates and educators. Unfollow, unfriend, or block anyone who reveals themselves to be anything but an ally.

If you found this post uncomfortable, but read it through anyway, you have my sincere appreciation. You’ve taken a step towards something good. I guarantee that your life will be enriched beyond measure by getting to know others living different lives, with different identities. That rainbow still includes you, too, you know?

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Resurrecting Hope

Is there anything left to be said in the wake of yet another mass murder event in the U.S. that can be helpful? Probably not. Maybe I should shut up. I have less and less energy, and enthusiasm for life every day, but the last thing we need are discouraging words, because that is what domestic terrorism thrives on. Somewhere between thoughts and prayers and conspiracy theories lies truth and constructive action.

By now it should be abundantly clear that our lawmakers, at least the majority, have no interest in the safe education of our children. Indeed, part of the agenda is to abolish public schools such that only wealthy families have access to education through private schools. The goal appears to be a largely uneducated population of unquestioning consumers, and a powerless labor pool for production that is not already automated, or outsourced to foreign countries.

Maintaining and increasing power and wealth within a small circle of elites is at the heart of every level and category of governance, from legislation to executive to judicial, local to federal. It is obvious that there is no sacrifice too great, including the preventable deaths of children and teachers, to ensure the established power structure persists.

Every social media post and tweet that claims voting does not matter, that nothing can be done to stem the tide of blood, is another victory for these “leaders.” We are conditioned to be apathetic, lazy, armchair activists at best. Please repeat the same trite, tired, worn-out pleas and rhetoric so that indeed nothing changes. Submit, surrender, accept your reality of death, poverty, and despair. You have streaming services on your phone to distract and comfort you….

Do not be deceived. There are ways you can make an impact. Be brave. Change your habits and set an example others can live by. What I am asking is that you make some difficult decisions, but none of them are irreversible.

Do you have a firearm? Ask yourself whether you truly need it, especially if you have curious children in your household. Give serious consideration to surrendering it. My late father had at least one handgun. I should have insisted that it be taken away from him as soon as the full scope of his dementia became apparent. I’m grateful nothing catastrophic happened, and the pistol was turned over to police upon his passing.

As much as possible, drop out of the corporate economy. Patronize local businesses instead. Eat at local restaurants, tip as generously as you can.

Do you have an investment portfolio (mine is modest, through inheritance)? Make sure you divest any shares in corporations that manufacture or sell guns, that are guilty of crimes against labor, the environment, and/or consumers. Get a new financial advisor if they balk at your standards.

Voting does matter, as it remains one of the few avenues to influence lawmaking; but running better candidates is even more important. Consider running yourself, and/or promoting the candidacy of people in marginalized demographics (Black, Hispanic, Asian, transgendered persons, non-binary, LGBTQ+, truly middle-class and below). I guarantee you that our general population will be better off. Beware, however, of individuals seeking to increase their own power and wealth by aligning with power brokers in either party, or those with an existing high profile as a celebrity.

Here is a hard one: Consider changing or abandoning your religion. That is not the same thing as surrendering your faith, or a belief in God. At least re-evaluate the ethics of your church, sect, synod. Are they in favor of limiting the freedoms of others, especially women? Do they discriminate against agender, transgendered, and/or LGBTQ+ people? Do they want to deny their right to exist? Do they support continued colonization via missionary work? Do they align themselves with the more destructive aspects of any political party? Any “yes” answer here should be a red flag. What good are freedom and charity if we pick and choose who receives them?

Dismiss me as a grumpy old man if you wish, but I am not going to take up arms, or an attitude, to “protect” myself from changes that are long overdue. I am in no way threatened by the idea of true equality, justice, and freedom for those my race, gender, and ancestors have abused for centuries. The biggest part of my White privilege is the obligation to repair the damage to the best of my ability. If that makes me an “apologist,” “race traitor,” or some other epithet you are compelled to apply to me, so be it. I’ll wear it proudly.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

The Pursuit of Power

”Power” may be the most aggressive and dangerous concept in world history. Certainly, the pursuit of power has led us to countless devastating events, including the one we are witnessing today in Ukraine. Is such behavior, if only carried to the extreme periodically, inevitable? Is peace the exception?

The biological sciences can shed much light on human behavior. It is necessary to understand that Homo sapiens is an animal species, subject to the genetic code that has “advanced” us to the pinnacle of social organization, and supremacy over other species. What began as mating success through physical superiority to other males evolved to success through demonstration of better skills at provisioning food and other resources. Today, we no longer compete merely in a tribe or village, but on a global stage. Accumulation of excessive material wealth is now one standard. Use of military force is another means of demonstrating an "alpha" persona.

Our cultural revolutions, from the Agricultural Revolution to the Industrial and Digital, are mere extensions of our biological evolution. They have all been driven by personal aspiration to power in the sense of reflecting our biological imperative to advance our personal genetic code through future generations. The collective success of our species is probably largely a by-product of personal pursuits, choices, and invention.

We have always coveted resources held by other humans, and viewed “others” as competition, or impediments to our selfish pursuit of a monopoly on genetic advancement, though we would never come right out and say this. We have become so conditioned to ignore the role of our biological instincts that we create all manner of arguments to distract us from it. We are loathe to accept ourselves as biological beings subject to the “laws” of nature, yet it is at the heart of everything we do.

The most terrible situation of all is when an individual succeeds in convincing others it is in their best interest to advance his personal agenda, when it does not benefit those who endorse it. Tragically, we see this scenario time and again, so we are apparently not learning anything from it. In fact, when the scam is revealed, it often serves to solidify allegiance to the scammer. We abhor being duped more than we are committed to truth, justice, and equity. People who are easily fooled do not perpetuate their genes as successfully.

Time out. None of us want to admit we are that basic, that everything is driven purely by biology. Fine, but that is the foundation of our success to this point, and there is no shame in that. What is shameful is how we have chosen to evolve socially. Social evolution is largely a feedback loop that begins again with genetic code that is then modified through experience and experimentation. Social evolution is nature and nurture, the latter being more than maternal, paternal and familial, but including the global village. What works is perpetuated, what fails is not. Well, ideally, anyway.

The fact that we see rampant opposition to warfare, colonization, poverty, racism, and other manifestations of oppression and exclusion, speaks to at more than marginal success in advancing a genetic and social code based on peace, justice, and inclusion. This is highly encouraging.

Here in the U.S., efforts to gerrymander congressional districts and restrict voting rights are actually signs of success. The more desperate the measures to protect concentrated power, the more we should accelerate the opposite agenda, because we are at the brink of breaking the power cycle forever.

That is the ultimate characteristic of individual power: it is fleeting, impermanent. Even relatively benign examples like the British monarchy, are likely to expire in my lifetime, or at least be rendered irrelevant. Powerful individuals and families tend to stop evolving once they have achieved their personal version of success, while the rest of society continues to evolve, eventually overwhelming them, replacing them with more effective institutions.

We are living an accelerated social evolution right now, where, at its best, social media is creating widespread empathy for those not in positions of power, empowering those who previously believed themselves to be powerless, and organizing movements at lightning speeds. Despite a global pandemic we are refusing to allow ourselves to be isolated. We still take to the streets locally (hopefully vaccinated and still masked to protect the immunocompromised), and broadcast globally. There are fewer and fewer strangers every day.

We are getting there. Refuse to acknowledge anyone who tells you otherwise. We will prevail in normalizing the pursuit of equal power for all, and aspiring not to material wealth but to generosity and critical thinking.

Saturday, February 5, 2022

Digital Anxiety

Forget the global pandemic. That I can manage through personal choices to vaccinate and wear a mask in confined spaces with strangers. No, fears of contracting a novel coronavirus pale in comparison to my constant anticipation of some failure of my desktop computer, my laptop, my phone, wi-fi, social media platforms, and everything else electronic. Recent experiences have only heightened the tension in my brain and body.

At the end of the 2021, my old (admittedly too old) desktop began to display a blue screen at start-up. The local computer fix-it shop determined it was a compatability issue between the ancient processor and the desire for Windows 10 to update properly. Do not tell me to get a Macintosh. I am too committed to Microsoft, and while it is arguably not that intuitive, there is remains a mild degree of comfort and familiarity as I, myself, continue to age.

Even after the tech folks diagnosed the problem(s?) and did the best they could to fix them, I still got a blue screen a few days later. They strongly suggested I purchase a new desktop, and so I did, last month. I ended up with the "house brand" from Micro Center, got talked into their supplementary security software, and off I went. I did manage to upgrade to Windows 11, so I feel set for awhile, but still dreading some pop-up window that I don't understand, or am leery of accommodating.

I transferred some files to my documents and pictures, but soon filled up the One Drive that was syncing with the PC. I had forgotten that abomination of "The Cloud" that Microsoft insists you subscribe to, demanding you to pay for extra storage. I thought I had managed to unlink, and then uninstall, One Drive, but yesterday I created a new Word document that I accidentally saved to One Drive instead of my desktop, so could not immediately locate after closing it. Now it is saved to "My PC" with a slightly different file name.

The laptop seems to be doing ok, but it is refurbished and I already know it will not be compatible with Windows 11. I am not good about backing things up regularly, and when I do, I end up scattering things in different external hard drives and flash drives. I no longer re-use SD cards from my camera, in case every hard drive fails. That is how paranoid I have become.

I was dragged kicking and screaming into buying a smart phone because the last time I tried to add minutes through my pay-as-you-go carrier, the service disallowed the transaction. My basic, reliable flip phone was at last obsolete, incompatible with 5G or whatever. I had to have my spouse set up the beast, which is an android. She has an iPhone, so she was a bit frustrated, too. I remain steadfast in having as few apps as possible, and I still managed to fill up my phone with only a handful of pictures. Nobody told me that I need a micro SD card for more storage.

Having enrolled in a self-paced wildlife conservation photography course, I learned that Instagram is a good place to showcase your best images. Consequently, I resurrected my dormant Instagram account, and started posting. I was initially getting prompts that Insta was not recognizing me, so I had to change passwords several times before agreeing to have a two-step authentication process that included my phone. I was doing Instagram through my laptop, and progressing ok, with a whopping fourteen posts. Then, when I logged in a couple days later, I got a message that Instagram had permanently disabled my account for a "violation of community standards," and I had no way to appeal. I can guarantee that I committed no violation, unless posting a photo of the cover of my book Wasps: The Astonishing Diversity of a Misunderstood Insect was somehow copyright infringement. I have no plans to try making a new Instagram account. I'll continue relying on Flickr as a way to attract the attention of publishers. Pity, though, as there are some friends I can follow only on Instagram. I do hope they will forgive me.

My overriding existential fear, naturally, is that my voice will become increasingly irrelevant as the next generation of digital technologies leaves me ever farther behind. No Tik-tok for me. I have a few things on my "Bug Eric" Youtube channel, but that is about it. I have been posting all my edited images to iNaturalist, but am terribly behind in uploading to Flickr. Both are my way of saving things to "the cloud," but only Flickr lets me save images at their highest resolution. I may need to find additional solutions.

Too much screen time, too little exercise here in the winter months, and the trepidation I feel every time I push a power button, is taking its toll. It is highly tempting to return to pen, paper, and typewriter, but that would be self-inflicted irrelevance. I feel compelled to keep my social media friends entertained and informed, but get less and less satisfaction from Facebook and Twitter all the time. In-person interactions are not only problematic from the standpoint of the pandemic, but unappealing given the highly religious and conservative community I now find myself living in.

How do you cope? What comforts, and cures for anxiety and frustration am I unaware of? Please share your thoughts in the comments. Thank you.