Category Archives: Blog Entries

A few thoughts about sexism in the skeptics’ movement

For those of who who have neglected to keep close tabs on the misogynistic slagfight in the so-called “skeptics movement” — which started when Rebecca Watson suggested men not hit on women alone in elevators late at night, apparently the greatest assault on Reason since Urban VIII asked Galileo to tone down that whole heliocentrism thing — that misogynistic slagfight proceeds apace.

The most recent iteration of the thing, as far as I can tell with only cursory digging, is that women who attend skeptics’ meetings started comparing notes, and found that there were certain prominent male figures in the movement with whom many of said women had had unpleasant experiences ranging from sexual harassment to physical assault. Some of those women, and their non-women comrades, started talking about ways to address and correct this problem. As usual, when the women started talking about this issue publicly they were told by their detractors to “name names!” and then — when a couple people speculated as to how that might actually work —-accused of having a secret smear list with which to threaten prominent men. Jen McCreight provides a good summation of the dynamics of the discussion. The idea of a list was dropped very quickly.

But not before the gasoline hit the warm coals. People who were working through possible approaches to the problem of harassment in good faith were the recipients, once again, of nasty insults, physical threats both explicit and implicit, gendered and racial epithets, and other such niceties.

Some of the objections were couched in civil language, however. One of those was that such a list would be compiled by people acting as prosecutor, judge and jury, and that contravened the principle of the presumption of innocence, the bedrock of jurisprudence in some countries with Internet access. People backed off on the notion of a Jerk List in rather short order. Then discussion centered around having event-sponsoring organizations adopt specific sexual harassment policies, which would seem a likely and reasonable solution to anyone who’s held a job at any point since about 1997. But wouldn’t you know it, the same arguments got trotted out against that idea as well, claiming that such a policy would “convict” men for the crime of “flirting.” And similar arguments.

As it happens, I actually got called up to jury duty recently and was presented with a really good illustration of why these really aren’t sound arguments. The case in question was a drunk driving arrest, and the prosecuting attorney was quizzing us prospective jurors along a line that clearly indicated that the physical evidence for her case wasn’t what she hoped it would be. She asked us all what standard we used to tell if a friend at a party was drunk enough to take his car keys away. Would we insist on a Breathalyzer test? or take a blood sample? We admitted as how we probably wouldn’t insist on a blood alcohol level in that hypothetical situation. Then she asked another hypothetical involving a kid promised a trip to Disneyland on Saturday if she wasn’t sick. (Yeah, it seemed exactly that far out of left field at the time, too.) Kid wakes up Saturday morning burning up, then runs to the bathroom and vomits. Would we insist on getting a firm diagnosis from a doctor, maybe some blood work and throat cultures, before canceling the trip to Disneyland? No, of course we wouldn’t.

The prosecutor asked if any of us had any questions about the Disneyland story. I raised my hand. “I’m not sure how it’s really relevant,” I admitted. “We’re not talking about a party or a trip to Disneyland here. This defendant’s facing criminal charges in a court of law. If we were discussing whether he was drunk at the time and therefore we’re not taking him to Disneyland, that’d be one thing, we could use our judgement about a small amount of evidence and he could say “yeah whatever.” But here we need a much higher standard of proof. Do you understand what I’m trying to say?”

She did, and she kicked me off the jury. But that argument works in the other direction, too. The presumption of innocence is a crucial protection for the accused in a criminal trial. But having a public discussion about notable figures in the skeptical movement from whom multiple women have been subject to unpleasant and inappropriate behavior? Not a criminal trial. The accused might suffer loss of respect. He might not get invited back to speak at similar events. That might mean a loss of income. All that would undoubtedly suck. Life is like that sometimes, when your actions have unpleasant consequences.

Still, though: not a criminal trial, and someone discussed publicly as a person who bothers women has had precisely zero rights violated. That person might still retain the option to bring libel or slander charges, which would compel the accusers to find corroboration of their charges for the record. Truth is a defense, after all, so a savvy defense attorney would likely find several other women claiming familiar experiences with the defendant and persuade them to state their stories for the record. As skeptics always look for evidence pro or con when discussing contentious matters, the accused would certainly welcome this process.

Though you know what would be really fair? What would really protect the rights of the accused to being presumed innocent? We could make sure they’re brought up on charges. Then the whole spectrum of their rights would be guarded diligently. They’d get to face their accusers in court. They’d get to be presumed innocent unless the evidence brought against them on the record, in front of a judge and possibly a jury, was sufficient to erase reasonable doubt.

And all of this would happen in a setting designed by the some of the most important philosophical forebears of the skeptical movement, namely Enlightenment philosophers. What Real Skeptic could object to that?

Barring that, though none of these quasi-legal arguments have any bearing on the discussion in the skeptic’s movement. No courts are involved, so the arguments are irrelevant.

I mean, it’s a lovely thing to be able to give every person you encounter the benefit of the doubt. But it’s no one’s business but mine if I decide, in my mind, that any man who complains about sexual harassment policies poses some a threat to women.

Which I generally do decide.

In any event, there are two salient character-related facts among all this discussion.

One is that the skeptics movement contains a significant group of men who are among the whiniest little shits I have ever had the nonpleasure to encounter. Note I said “among.” I cannot declare definitively that the skeptics movement contains the whinyshittiest men. They have serious competition in the world of gaming,for instance. (Though there’s a chance that demographic overlaps some, the same way the Skeptics in Buffalo in the 1970s overlapped significantly with the Society for Creative Anachronism. And the D&D crowd. And the Monty Python fan club. And Mensa. And the homebrewers’ club. Really, the reason I didn’t become an active skeptic in my teens was that I wanted more than one group of friends.)

The other, happier salient fact about the character of some involved in this discussion is that a group of people feeling aggrieved and frustrated by systemic bad treatment at the hands of a distinct group of individuals 1) realized they had a list of repeat offenders and 2) did not publicize that list. Not only is this a clear indication of their patience, forgiving nature, and palpable desire to reach a solution optimal for everyone concerned, it is also very likely the only time something like that has ever happened in the entire history of the Internet. If this group acted according to internet traditions set down by any other group online, be that other group feminists, the Daily Kos crowd, enviros, or—let’s face it—the men in the skeptical movement complaining about people complaining about sexism—then “hitchensgrabbedmyass.tumblr.com” would have been online in about forty seconds, and linked on io9 about a minute and a half after that. The forbearance of skeptical women in this matter has been nothing short of amazing.

In other words, what we have here is a group of men in the skeptical movement, either rampant misogynists or those happy to give them cover, who project onto their critics the personal failings they exhibit in spades. They say arguments about harassment are spurious and harass those who make them. They claim their critics are uncivil and issue rape threats in response. They viciously slam the critics for “scaring women away from meetings,” and thus scare women away from meetings. They claim their feminist critics are acting irrationally, and they make the Time Cube guy look measured and cogent while doing so. They accuse their opponents of destroying skepticism, while — well, you get the idea.

And all because someone has the temerity to suggest, Galileo-style, that the universe doesn’t revolve around them. Some goddamn skeptics.

Regarding My Sixteen-Year-Old Self

I wasn’t going to take part in the writing prompt going around lately of writing a note to your 16-year-old self, in part because I did something similar a couple of years ago.  But the last few weeks I’ve been aching to write something not on deadline. I’ve been reading old posts here, finding sentences and images I’d forgotten. I’ve been wondering when the last time was that I wrote something simply for pleasure, not for income or as a way of answering some external crisis or other.

Two writers I really admire offered really moving writing in response, and I remembered that I wrote things like that myself once, but when I thought about what I would say to myself at 16 all I could think of was “run.” I’m more than three times as old now as I was then, 2,500 miles from the epicenter of my adolescence, seeing my grandfather in the mirror when I wake in the morning, and thinking of what came after 16 still takes the bottom out of me. It’s not a time in my life I am anxious to remember. 

And of course the past was prologue. The foundation laid. A crumbling life is easier to bear, in the short term, for those already persuaded they deserve no better. Why dredge all that up in writing? It’s hard to imagine saying anything to my 16-year-old self that wouldn’t make me sound still adolescent. “You’re right and they’re wrong, don’t listen to them”? “No one recognizes your brilliance”? “Your parents don’t understand”? 

I am older than my parents were then, too, by a considerable sum. I understand them now better than they understood themselves at the time. I feel like I haven’t changed much in the last 36 years, like I and that slight 16-year-old would recognize one another immediately. That feeling is farcical. I am the only person alive who remembers what that child thought, wanted, and feared, and I am an unreliable witness. I have edited out some of the worst parts, and embellished some of the other worst parts.

Cosmologists say there are places in the universe so far distant, speeding away from us so quickly, that we cannot observe them and never will be able to. That teenaged man is as far remote. I carry around the mended bones he broke; I maintain memories of being him, banked and kindled over and over like an endless chain of cadged smokes. He had no knowledge of me and I see him only dimly, a voyeur watching an unsuspecting target through gauze curtains.

What would I say to him?

Maybe this: “You will get laid. In December. In a room filled with quilts and a layer of snow on the windowsill where the breeze sifts through the leading in the glass.”  That would give him hope, I think. And it would ruin the surprise.

“You will find the love of your life. There are several loves of your life, in fact. One of them is a dog that won’t be born for fifteen years, and another one is a species of tree. Another is a woman who will see into your head better than anyone else ever has and love you despite what she sees in there. She’ll tell you she loves you because of what she sees in there. But don’t bother trying to find her right now, because she’s ten.”

“Another love of your life will be the desert. Get out to the desert as soon as possible. Don’t waste time.”

It’s hard to say what would be useful. It’s hard to say what he would actually hear.

One day, bored and lonely and struck with random inspiration, he walked a few blocks to the drugstore. Three quarters in his pocket covered the pack of smokes, and buying the smokes covered the bottle stuck in his inside coat pocket. Back in his room he pulled out the bottle, unwrapped it. Five ounces of Winsor and Newton’s blackest India Ink, obtained economically through petty theft. He grabbed an eyedropper off his shelf and opened the cap, placed a small droplet on a blank page in his black blank book.

He watched the drop of ink for a moment, watched its tint move capillary-like into the thin page fibers. After half a minute he pursed his lips and blew softly. The ink rolled slowly across the page, leaving a thick straight track.

That wasn’t what he’d had in mind. He blew again at the ink, more forcefully: a short strong burst of exhalation. This time the droplet broke in two, three pieces. Each smaller droplet jagged crazily across the page, buffeted by the turbulence he’d aimed at them. Another droplet on another page, and he was starting to get the hang of it. A few sharp and well-delivered breaths, and each drop of ink became a clump of ramifying branches, dark ink twigs sprung from a common root. He had recently read a book on Zen, and he decided this was a lesson in letting go. You could carefully direct where the ink went, but the result wasn’t very interesting. If you wanted beauty, you had to give up the illusion of control. Blow forcefully, scatter the droplet to your small wind, and something worthwhile was likely to result — though there was no telling just where the ink might wind up.

Chrysopylae plus 75 years

Republishing this in honor of the bridge’s 75th birthday, today.

golden gate bridge

It is an immense machine, weighing nearly nine hundred thousand tons. Almost a hundred thousand tons of that is steel, smelted in the hideously polluting Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna, New York. It was built in an era of giant artificial atrocities: The Grand Coulee Dam, the Manhattan Project, southern Florida. It killed eleven workers during its construction. In a typical year, nearly twice that number of people use it to end their lives. It is an engine of environmental destruction. It sits in crucial endangered species habitat. Without it, the population of once-rural Marin County could not have quintupled since it was built. That growth prompted the drowning of miles of prime coho salmon stream for drinking water reservoirs. Only the emergence of environmental opposition prevented the giant machine from filling the county edge to edge with people. The world would almost certainly be a better place had it never been built.

And yet I love it, simply and without internal contradiction.

There are few things that prompt in my heart such uncomplicated adoration as this bridge. Certainly no other artifact of this size.  Its massive outline, the fluted, geometric Art Deco bas-relief of its towers, the interplay of fractal fog and simple steel provoke in me a feeling that I fear is the closest to patriotism I will ever get. I can force myself to admire its close architectural and spiritual cousin, Hoover Dam, but only at the cost of a sour stomach. What is it about the Golden Gate Bridge that exempts it from my sanctimony? Perhaps it’s the difference in function between bridges and dams: one blocks passage that was once allowed, the other allows it where once it was difficult.

Or perhaps it’s the simple iconography. It stands in the public imagination (and mine) for the place I have adopted as my home. I first saw it when starting a new life free of old constraints. It represents passage past the end of my world, and yet is still a prosaic part of a typical commute.

I confess that on some days when I really should take the train to work, I will drive in just so that I can cross the Golden Gate Bridge on my way home. A stupid waste of fossil fuel for no good reason, but there you have it.

Happy memory

It must have been in 1997 or so. I was in Bodega, California, sitting on a bench in front of the temporary local cafe and ice cream store. I was eating ice cream. Zeke was watching me eat ice cream. He was being very, very attentive. It was a sunny summer weekend afternoon.

An almost fatally blonde woman walked past with a similarly towheaded child in tow. The boy’s eyes grew wide as he passed, watching Zeke carefully. He was only a bit taller than my dog. He paused. HIs mother said something in German, her tone of voice implying “let’s go.” He turned back to her and said Schöne hund!

It was true. He was.

An open letter to the right wing in the wake of the passage of Amendment One in North Carolina

We have been incredibly patient with you.

Who’s “we,” you ask? Good question! And it’s a question that has the kind of answer we’ve noticed you seem not to like very much, because its complicated. We’re socialists, sure, some of us. And feminists. And Muslims. But we’re also patriots, and conservatives of the old school, and rich people and poor, black and white and Native and Latino and Asian, and Christian and atheist and Jewish and people who don’t really think about religion much. We are environmentalists and developers and engineers and forklift operators, moms and dads and grandparents, orphans and widows, city and country and suburb, gay and straight and neither of those exactly. We are a lot of mutually contradictory things, sometimes all at once.

Like I said: It’s Complicated. And a lot of us would disagree with certain things I say here. It’s not like I put it to a vote or anything. This open letter is just my description of things I’ve been seeing over the last decade or two, me letting you in on the way the world seems to be, because you have really been pushing your luck. That luck is going to run out, and it will end badly for you, and for a lot of other people as well.

Here’s the thing that’s really important: We are people who would really rather be left alone to live our lives. And we would rather leave other people alone to live theirs.

That’s why you’ve been able to push things this far. We’ve kind of been hoping that you’d wake up one morning, look at the things you’d written or said, the sermons you’ve preached, the blog posts you’ve published, the hateful things you’ve screamed at children and grieving parents, and suddenly see them with new eyes. We’ve been hoping that you’d wake up. No, not hoping — assuming. It happens often enough. People drop their fear all the time, shake their heads, make amends for the harm they’ve caused and start living their lives without the poisoned anger and hatred.

Because despite what we say sometimes when we’re frustrated, we don’t actually think you’re stupid. Not most of you. We’ve actually been expecting you to figure this all out on your own the way smart people do.

But that doesn’t seem to be going well. In fact, you just seem to be getting more and more afraid of everyone who doesn’t share your very specific beliefs.

We don’t understand how that feels, to be honest. And that’s probably part of the reason you and we have been communicating so badly. If there’s one thing WE can do, it’s disagree with each other. Somehow we survive the disagreements. We mostly don’t feel personally threatened if someone else in our orbit doesn’t share our beliefs.

As a result, we mostly can’t really bring ourselves to believe that you DO feel that threatened by disagreement. We think of it as silly hyperbole when you say the presence of other religions constitutes a War On Your Religion, or that two other people loving each other in a way you don’t care for is a War On Your Family. It’s hard for a lot of us to get it through our heads that you actually mean that.

But you do, don’t you?

What it comes down to is that we are only slowly realizing just how afraid of us you really are. You really think we pose a threat to you just by being who we are.

That’s why you folks have all those guns, isn’t it? To protect yourselves… against us.

It seems really stupid from our perspective, honestly. You see a scary Black man in your neighborhood. We see a tax accountant jogging before work. You see a radical lesbian determined to undermine your religion in the classroom. We see a grandmother reading books to kids. You see a jackbooted environmentalist come to take away your rights: we see some guy who just loves to study lizards. You see a soulless atheist out to Kill God: we see a person who loves tending his lawn. You see The Homosexual Agenda: we see people who want to take care of the loves of their lives.

And so it has been for the last few decades.

We were no threat to you, ever. But in your unreasoning fear of us you have reacted irrationally, trying to make the whole world safe from us. You have worked to strip us of rights our mothers and fathers fought and died for. Those rights cost you nothing. They even enhanced your own rights. They made you safer at work. They gave you the weekend off. They even, despite your fears of religious oppression, allowed you to worship as you chose! Regardless of what religious beliefs you hold, someone somewhere in American history almost certainly tried to wipe them out.

You push to strip us of rights one by one, battling against the tide of history. You pass your vindictive little laws, spread your slanders about us on blogs and radio and television shows, and sometimes even — when one of you goes just a little bit off the deep end — you pick up those guns you’ve got stockpiled.

In short, I’ve started to wonder if you think that our patience with you has given you the wrong impression.

Here’s the thing, guys. It’s obvious you’re afraid of us. But for the most part, we are not afraid of you. You concern us, sure. Sometimes one of you does scare us, your McVeighs and your Breiviks and your J.T. Readys. Fear is a reasonable response to violent sociopathic insanity. But that’s not all of you, is it?

What we are afraid of is seeing those rights we fought for taken away, one by one. Losing our right to control when we have children, and to be able to feed and clothe them when they’re born. Losing the right to clean air, water, and intact ecosystems to walk around in. Losing the right not to be killed in a workplace accident because it’s cheaper to replace an employee than a machine. Losing the right to have actual science taught in our schools without oversight by your religious leaders. Losing the right to love who we love. Losing the right to mind our own business. Losing the right to live our own lives regardless of who we are, who our parents were, or what we believe.

You only need to be afraid of us if you keep trying to take those things away.

When it comes right down to it, all most of us want is to live our lives and be left alone. We want the same thing for you. And so we have been patient with you, and understanding, and — as it turns out — significantly more tolerant of your campaigns against us than was probably wise.

You should not mistake our patience with you for weakness.

If you keep pushing to limit our lives you will lose. If you keep targeting women, ethnic and social minorities, gays and lesbians, and people who don’t share your religious beliefs? You will lose. If you keep resenting us for the flaws and failures you fear in yourself, you will lose.

You can worship as you want, marry who you want, work where you want and have the circle of friends you want. We won’t interfere with how you want to live your life. But as the old saying has it, your right to swing a frying pan ends where our noses begin. We have come very close to running out of patience. There are far more of us than there are of you. Trust me on this. We have been patient and you have been lucky. Neither of those things will last much longer.

Out of the mouths of babes, desert solar edition

We’re going to win on the broader desert solar issue. Today was the day I realized it.

Annette and I went out to catch the tail end of a picnic organized by the local Stonewall Democrats organization. We got there as people were starting to think about packing up the sign-up sheets and petitions, but a volunteer welcomed us, after we stood looking around for a few moments, and invited us to help ourselves to some of the food sitting out on a picnic table.I walked over and grabbed a burger.

A man straightening some things on the table turned to me and held out his hand, introducing himself to us. He was Mark Orozco, who’s running for the local seat in the California State Assembly: he’ll be facing the GOP’s Brian Nestande in the general election. (Nestande is your basic California Republican and thus opposed to all that is good and pure and wholesome.)

I’d known Orozco was going to be there, and reached for one of my Desert Biodiversity business cards. “I’d love to set up a meeting with you and your staff,” I told him. “I’ve been working on an issue that’s very important to me, preserving our irreplaceable local desert habitat against ill-considered industrial solar.” Or something along those lines, and that was as far as I got. Orozco started nodding. “Yeah,” he said. “I have somebody keeping me up to speed on that!” A young girl, grade school-aged, was idling nearby: he called her over. “This is my daughter, Isabella,” he said. “Isabella, tell this man about solar panels in the desert.”

She looked at me, sized me up in that honest way kids have. “We shouldn’t put them there,” she said. “They hurt the tortoises.”

I gave her a business card too.

Vote Solar to Tortoises: Drop Dead

Update: Partly in response to this post, Vote Solar has removed the sentence to which I objected most from their large-scale solar page. Vote Solar’s Adam Browning tells me that it was an older phrasing that no longer reflected Vote Solar’s position but which had remained online due to work overload. That’s certainly an explanation I can relate to. There’s still much I disagree with on the page, but I appreciate that change. As suggested by Adam in comments here, he and I will be talking sometime soon. I’ll keep you posted.

I got a piece of bulk email today from Vote Solar, an organization among other things is pushing for greater incentives for solar in California. And that email just about turned my stomach.

This is a long blog post, so I’ll give you my tl;dr right up front: We need to move to a solar economy and off carbon fuels as soon as possible, but Vote Solar is working to make it easier to destroy the desert habitats readers of this site care about, and even their support of urban, rooftop solar is weak-willed and ineffective.

Right now Vote Solar is pushing “net metering,” a weak-sauce version of the Feed-In Tariffs that have made Germany the solar capital of the world. In a Feed-In Tariff the local utility buys whatever power your solar cells produce at a premium rate. In Net Metering you only get “paid” for as much energy as you consume from the utility. The best you can do with Net metering in California is zero out your electric bill. Meanwhile people in Germany are making thousands of Euro a year. Support for Net Metering is better than opposing it, which the utilities often do. Overall, though, it’s the kind of policy that people push for if they really can’t face the thought of restructuring the badly designed parts of the world. It’s like driving a hybrid Hummer or changing the Twinkies recipe to include some whole wheat flour: a change that you can push without ever actually changing anything.

That’s not what made me vomit in my email inbox, though. Net Metering is a superficial benefit at best, and pushing for it is a sure sign that you’re letting the electrical power industry status quo do your thinking for you. But it’s not necessarily evil.

This second paragraph of the Vote Solar email isn’t so innocuous:

A huge thank you to our Equinox 2012 sponsors for their support: Recurrent Energy, Borrego Solar, BrightSource Energy, CalCEF, Dow Solar, enXco, First Solar, Intersolar, Keyes & Fox, Perkins Coie, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Q-Cells, SolarCity, SolarFrontier, Solaria, SolarReserve, SPG Solar, SunEdison, SunPower, Suntech, Winston & Strawn, and Yingli.

BrightSource and SolarReserve and First Solar are some of the worst actors in the rush to destroy the desert for solar energy installations.

Not all the firms on the list are bad actors necessarily. Some of those firms just build PV cells. Some are service providers of various kinds: accountants, trade associations, law firms and such that serve the big solar industry. On first glance that last is distasteful, I agree. But in the United States, we’ve long held that even the most scurrilous people — confidence men, Nazi synagogue vandals, pedophiles and serial cannibal murderers — have a right to legal consultation, and thus it’s only a little bit of a stretch to decide that desert solar contractors probably ought to have that right as well.

BrightSource, however, is busy destroying more than six square miles of the last best tortoise habitat in the Mojave Desert so that they can sell electricity to San Francisco, thus keeping Vote Solar’s decorative party lights lit. Solar Reserve is in the Concentrating Solar with Molten Salt Thermal Storage business. They’re building a plant near Tonopah Nevada on intact dune grassland, with others planned near Joshua Tree National Park and Ironwood Forest National Monument and a fourth not far from Quartzsite, AZ. These projects all involve very tall towers which will have blindingly bright boilers atop them, not exactly what most people visiting National Park holdings have in mind for their vacation viewing. First Solar, for its part, builds giant solar facilities with the same photovoltaic panels that could easily be put on rooftops. As it turns out, First Solar’s PV panels work better on rooftops than they do in the desert: the heat’s too much for them and they degrade, lose production efficiency, and eventually break. Another way of putting it is that a First Solar PV panel will produce more electricity over its lifespan on a rooftop in Seattle than it will on a rack in the desert. First Solar is taking this new information about their product’s weaknesses and amending their future plans to account for those weaknesses. They’re not shifting their focus to urban use. They’re expanding the amount of desert they want to destroy to make up for the loss in efficiency.

Vote Solar takes money from these people.

And that relationship would seem to be reflected in Vote Solar’s public statements about large scale solar. Their formal position on industrial scale solar in the desert, or in the Carrizo Plain, or for all I know on what will once have been ancient giant sequoia forests once First Solar gets through cutting them down to put PV panels on the stumps, boils down to this:

Unlock Land-Use Issues: Large-scale solar energy project development will require the use of large tracks [sic] of land. The key will be to ensure that this development is done in a way that minimizes impact and maximizes our conservation values. It is absolutely imperative however that conservation does not stand in the way of smart renewable energy development on public and private lands.

Some pretty nice weasel words there: “minimizing impact” and “maximizing conservation values.” Vote Solar’s funder BrightSource has used a lot of language like that, talking about how they are going to minimize their impact and maximize conservation values, by among other things “trimming” any vegetation that has the temerity to exist where they want to put their mirrors at Ivanpah. For those of you who haven’t yet seen it, here’s a video of BrightSource “trimming” a Mojave yucca that’s at least 500 years old:

Right now someone at Louisiana Pacific wishes they’d thought to claim they were only “trimming” the old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Of course the nut of that paragraph, the really ugly threatening language in that paragraph, is “conservation can’t stand in the way.” If I was an optimist, I would imagine that whoever wrote that did so at some metaphorical equivalent of gunpoint, and that their soul died ever so slightly as they hit “publish.” I’m not an optimist. I fully expect that some person thinking of him-or-herself as an “environmentalist” wrote that line about conservation getting out of the way of our development projects utterly convinced of the line’s justification and validity.

When people use “conservation” as a noun like that, what they’re really saying is “non-human living things.” “Renewable energy development” is for the benefit of human beings alone, unless you can point to an example of an endangered Coachella fringe-toed lizard using an electric toothbrush.  That’s what this issue comes down to: valuing people’s comfort and ability to maintain their bad habits more than the survival of whole ecosystems.

Never mind the fact that “pave the deserts or lose the climate change war” is a false choice, one that’s completely obsolete at this point, as we get more carbon reduction for the buck more quickly from rooftop solar than we ever will from the ecocidal monstrosities promoted by the likes of BrightSource and First Solar. Never mind that every dollar, every hour spent promoting desert solar makes any eventual solution to the carbon crisis that much further away. Never mind that Germany, with approximately the same amount of sunlight as Juneau, Alaska, installed more than 7.5 gigawatts of rooftop PV just in 2011, which is three times the output of all the fast-tracked public land desert projects assigned “priority status” by the BLM in 2011, and that those German panels are producing electricity right now while our “priority” plants might start getting us some power in 2013, if everything goes right for the developers, which it will not.

Never mind all that. Assume for the sake of argument that giant industrial solar in the desert actually makes sense from a strictly utilitarian perspective. We’re still left with “conservation” in opposition to “renewable energy development.” We’re still left with human comfort versus the continued existence of whole ecosystems. We’re still left with obliterating habitat with century-old animals and millennia-old plants because conserving that 30 percent of our energy use that the DOE says we waste completely would be too much trouble.  People in the US use the energy equivalent of about 7,800 barrels of oil per capita per year.  Germany’s per capita figure is 4,200. The UK’s: 3,900. Japan’s: 4,000. In Switzerland, a rich and luxurious country with plenty of winter cold to heat houses against, per capita annual energy use is less than half of that in the United States.

In other words, we could live better than we do now and reduce our carbon footprint enough to make any contribution from industrial solar in the desert completely irrelevant. And none of this is a secret. None of this is news. The only reason people still think paving deserts with mirrors makes any sense at all is because:

  1. Despite the ongoing collapse of the Big Solar industry, some rich people think they have a chance to get even richer by taking your land, industrializing it using government subsidies, and cashing out as quickly as they can when the project’s half-built, and;
  2. Those rich people give money to putatively environmental groups which then do their PR for them.

And the non-human world had better not stand in their way.

Vote Solar works to “unlock land use issues” to promote big desert solar. Translated from the stale Wise Use Movement jargon, that means rolling back environmental protection laws. Reducing public input on projects. Streamlining environmental review. Making it easier to get “take” permits for endangered species. Making it harder to sue developers or the BLM or the California Energy Commission for approving predictably destructive plants like Ivanpah or Genesis. Removing your rights to enjoy, protect and monitor the public land you own. Because if you do seek to make sure habitat isn’t unduly threatened, then you become part of “conservation,” and you are standing in the way.

That’s what that paragraph means.

We absolutely have to encourage rooftop PV and energy conservation, and we need to do it now. It pains me to interfere with the work of any group working to increase urban solar, even if they’re doing so ineptly. But if Vote Solar gets its program enacted, we will be losing our deserts for no reason.  I urge you to withhold your support from Vote Solar and to consider any analysis they offer with a jaundiced eye.

Earth Day Redux

It’s been quiet here, I know. I’ve been alternately busy and lazy. I write more frequently over at KCET and this will likely be the case for the near future, as they pay me. But I wanted to get something else up on the top of the pile here, so it’s time for the old Clip Show trick.

I wrote this five years ago. I wouldn’t change much here were I writing it again, except to make it less about my concerns of the moment back then, and to add 5 to some of the numbers and change the President’s last name.

Earth Day

I am reminded that yesterday was Earth Day. I should have thought of it: Earth Day coincides, roughly, with Muir’s birthday. I’d hoped to hike on Mount Wanda to celebrate John Muir’s birthday on Saturday, and didn’t. The last five days, today included, I have woken each morning after — literally — having dreams about Zeke’s last few breaths. April has been worse than February so far. It was only by a serious act of willpower that I got out this weekend at all. But I might not have remembered Earth Day even without the distraction. Seven years ago I landed a job with an environmental news dotcom, and when one of the Vice Presidents told me their target reader was someone who knew what April 21 was, I nodded blankly. I didn’t figure out what he was talking about until the next day.

Here’s a little secret: most employees of environmental organizations with which I am familiar don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Earth Day, excepting those who work in development departments. The general reaction of environmental organizations to the first of the modern crop of Earth Days, in 1990, was a mixed bag of appreciation for the excuse to do public outreach and fear that the likes of Chevron and Monsanto were buying their way into the celebrations. By Earth Day 1991, that leveraged buyout had been completed. The day now exists as a national holiday of greenwashing, a day of festivals at which homeowners can pick up biodegradable garbage bags — or to drop their non-biodegradable plastic bags into a bin for recycling, and never mind that the plastic is actually “recycled” into unregulated landfills in China and Thailand. (Jackets made of old soda bottles are a wonderful thing! All you need to do to make that work is to buy exactly as many jackets as your soda habit makes possible.) I spent my share of days in the early 1990s working at Earth Days, having earnest conversations with people who would collect a copy of every piece of literature on every table and then drive off in their 4Runner with the “Random acts of kindness” sticker on the back bumper. I suppose a few of them read the material, and a few of them were moved enough to do something.

We take opportunities for promotion where they exist, and if we set up a table next to the EPA’s Earth Day timeline, so much the better. When no one’s looking we can take up Sharpies to correct their posterboard displays where they laud Bush’s Clear Skies and Clean Air Mercury laws.

My problem is more fundamental: I object to the compartmentalization. What are we, if we are not Earth?

On Sunday I walked up into the hills, scant-dressed given the weather, hoping that the silt-laden wind would abrade me and scrape away all I no longer wanted, longing for that roadrash of the soul. I came upon a corpse, a skunk oddly odorless, vertebrae articulated and intact, the only flesh left a bloated bladder, beautiful striped tail still near-pristine. Skunk, dog, man, we all rot in turn, our hoards of nitrogen and calcium returned to the soil. There is no better antidote for ghosts: the pale tawn smiling shadow in my peripheral vision vanished, went back to its home beneath the oregano and Cynoglossum. None of it matters. We have our heads inverted. One day to take from our important lives to spend in consideration of the Earth? We spend all our lives on Earth, and it suffuses us. We are a transitory flicker on the Earth, a moment in a fever dream, and we will melt. The wingnuts are right, though not as they expect. A million species go extinct, one of them bearing iPods, and none of it matters. The Earth revolves and revolves again, around the sun, around the galactic core, and that messy cascade of dissipative effects we call “life” will continue until Sol goes Nova.

Earth Day? The Earth should pick one day in a million years to consider us sidelong.

I am not so dispassionate as I make myself out to be. I would mourn the loss of memory, of Beethoven, of frybread and chiles. I would leave words against the insane unlikelihood that sentience would again, one day, evolve, sometime before the serifs crumble with the stones. (A futile gesture, but what isn’t?) We are not built for the long view, really. We are best suited to the moment, the shiny object and the fleeting feel of strawberries on the tongue. It is an impossibly long time until the next April 22, and today the anise swallowtails drink from the thistles on the sunlit south face of Crescent Ridge.

My name is Chris and I’m aneurotypical

There was a really inspiring spate of stories a couple weeks ago, mainly on Twitter, by people coming out into the open about suffering from depression. Here’s one thread of a number of them.

I understand that my coming out to my regular readers as someone who continues to fight depression is a bit like Harvey Fierstein coming out as gay. I mean, it’s not a secret. But in the interests of solidarity, I’m going to anyway.

I have suffered from depression my whole life. It is not always crippling; sometimes it’s manageable, even comfortable and mildly amusing. But it’s always there.

I was thinking about this even before the recent spate of stories, what with the recent death of my friend Thistle. I am not ashamed to admit that in the few days of serious warning I had that he was going to die soon, I was terrified. Not for him: I knew I was going to do right by him, to spare him as much pain as I could and to bring him as much joy as I could. I was afraid of the aftermath. Losing Zeke five years ago was hard, and I am only lately emerged from the pit I dig for myself in my grief for him. I did not want to go back there. Quite honestly, in the moments where I wasn’t focused on the immediate demands of tending to a dying pet, I was really frightened.

As it happened, Thistle’s death didn’t disable me. I was and am sad; I miss him, and I’m not yet used to not having him around as we come up on a month since he died. I still rage against the unjustness of pet lifespans as compared to ours. But I was also relieved that I didn’t have to worry about him anymore, content that I did what I could for him and that that was enough, and grateful for my friends who made generous contributions to Thistle’s veterinary fund.

I came to an odd realization: it was actually a relief to feel normal grief for once. It wasn’t tied up in anguish over the failure of a decades-old marriage, as Zeke’s death was. It didn’t have the surpassing finality of the loss of the places I grieve in the desert. It was just the normal end of a normal life, a life that I know I made better than it would have been.

All the while my depression chugged on unaffected. How interesting to realize that depression and grief can be so decoupled, even happening in the same skull at the same time.

In the last month I have:

  • grieved the loss of a pet;
  • become more downcast over the likelihood of survival of the deserts;
  • been reminded that I would have help for this depression if I had more money;
  • felt depressed for no obvious and compelling reason.

Each one of those states is different. Each is a different emotional cocktail, with varying proportions of sadness, anger, self-loathing, motivation, anhedonia and fatigue.

Depression qua depression is not sadness. It is the scar tissue that too many attacks of sadness leave behind. It is a complex disease with marked physical, neurochemical and psychological causes. If you want to get a glimpse of the science behind depression, you could do worse than to set aside an hour and have Robert Sapolsky explain it to you.

People who haven’t experienced real, full-blown, persistent depression are often under the impression that it’s something you can just “walk off.” That assumption is unrealistic, unfair, and infuriatingly, often works. Getting out and walking around in the world does often help for a lot of us. That has more to do with distraction and neurochemistry and the possibility of seeing something beautiful than it does with mental discipline. For those of us whose depression is co-morbid with ADD, and who feel worse when the ADD flares up, walking it off can be an amazing help.

But it doesn’t work for everyone, and it doesn’t mean that depressed people are just moping for lack of an interesting outing.

Everyone is susceptible to depression. Depression is a stress response to emotional and physical pain, and as a general rule the more bad things happen to you the more likely you are to experience chronic depression. Some people are more susceptible to depression than others. Childhood trauma can predispose you to depression. So can possession of a certain genetic makeup. So can medications taken to control seemingly unrelated conditions. So can things like ADD, possibly through some neurochemical relation and possibly just through the stress of being an aneurotypical person in a world full of Normals.

I kind of won the trifecta. I don’t know about my genetic makeup, though there’s a lot of depression in my family. But I’ve got the early childhood weirdness, the ADD, and a string of seriously unpleasant life events.

And yet I don’t have it nearly as bad as I could have. One of the main symptoms of deep depression is anhedonia: the inability to feel pleasure. I almost never have that. Perhaps the ADD protects me against that by providing a need for novelty.

The biggest saving grace for me: I am needed. The absolute requirement that I be around to take care of Thistle helped me endure the worst of the loss of Zeke. My love needs me, and so does our cat, and the deserts need me. I can endure a lot when I’m needed that way. And I probably will.