Monthly Archives: February 2009

I’m going to the mojave this summer!

This is where I'm spending my summer vacation. Bleak, ain't it?

This is where I'm spending my summer vacation. Bleak, ain't it?

As my inaugural post (other than my old Collegian articles) I’m going to gloat a little. I just got accepted to work with one of my biology professors this summer as part of Willamette’s Student Collaborative Research Program (SCRP). SCRP pays professors to take on students as research assistants and students to do research. (I’m getting $4000, plus food and housing stipends, compared with the ~$3000 most other programs give.) My team (Professor Chris Smith, a freshman biology student, and me) are going to be studying two aspects of Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) ecology. We’re going to Tikaboo Valley (which happens to be right next to Area 51) for three months after classes end, and then we’ll spend about a month and a half in the lab. We’ll present our results to everyone at Willamette, and then head down to Gonzaga in November for a conference.

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Hug a biologist: Darwin Day is for English majors too

Originally published in the Collegian on February 11, 2009

I hereby declare Thursday, Feb. 12 to be “Hug a Biology Student Day.” Not because I’m a biology student and like hugs (though I am and I do), but because it marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. Yes, the father of evolutionary theory and the bane of biblical literalists for a century has reached his bicentennial, and I would like to encourage everyone to take a moment and think about what they owe to evolutionary theory.

Evolution is the glue that holds biology and the biological community together. Unlike any other theory I can think of, it has remained essentially unchanged since its proposal. Albert Einstein, in defending his theories of relativity against the onslaught of Niels Bohr’s theory of quantum mechanics, famously said “God does not play with dice.” Whoops: turns out He does. (And quantum mechanics doesn’t seem to predict movements of big things, like planets. Physicists still search for the Theory of Everything.) Atomic theory, as first proposed and still popularly conceived, had electrons whirling around the nucleus like planets around the sun. Again, wrong. (As it turns out, electrons actually exist everywhere in space at once, in something called a superposition, until we look for them. It hurts my head too.) Evolution by natural selection, on the other hand, has been improved only by the addition of Father Gregor Mendel’s theory of genes and statistical models developed in the latter half of the 20th century.

Of course this is interesting from an academic stand point (to me, at least), but I will forgive the liberal arts majors for asking why they should care about Darwin. Let me give just two critical examples of evolution’s impact on modern life. First is the case of antibiotics. If you’ve read the news recently, you’ve probably heard of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) or multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) invading hospitals. MRSA and MDR-TB are two of the worst infections one could get because, in addition to being deadly, the bacteria causing the infections are resistant to the antibiotics most commonly used to treat them. This is a classic case of evolution. Antibiotics have been overused since they were introduced: many people from older generations will remember getting doses of penicillin for the flu, a viral infection that doesn’t respond to antibiotics, and we still dose livestock regularly — regardless of whether the animals are ill — with powerful antibiotics in an attempt to increase milk, egg or meat production. When the bacteria are exposed to antibiotics — and Staphylococcus aureus is found everywhere — only those with genes to resist them survive to reproduce. And so rises MRSA.

The other, and to me more interesting, case of evolution’s importance that I’d like to share with you is the case of rabbits in Australia. It turns out, contrary to what my six-year-old cousins might tell you, there is such a thing as too many bunnies. When a British expatriate in the mid-19th century grew homesick, he decided to import his favorite quarry to “provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.” The fur-balls began to multiply, and by 1910, they had spread over so much of the continent that the government decided to build a fence to keep them out of what little land remained lagomorph-free (the “Rabbit Proof Fence” from the 2002 movie). It didn’t work, and eventually the government released the Myxoma virus, which only infects rabbits, in an attempt to cull the population. It worked, for a time. Like bacteria attacked with antibiotics, only those rabbits with a mutation allowing them to resist infection survived. Now almost the entire population in Australia is resistant. Since scientists are considering the use of introduced parasites to control fire ant populations, they had better consider the possibility that the ants will simply evolve to deal with the parasites.

I could go on about the importance of evolution, but I fear that it would take over the entire page. So allow me to end with a request. If you do not feel the urge to hug a biology student on Thursday (though I don’t understand why you wouldn’t), do something that would make us even happier: learn more about evolution, and teach it to everyone you know that doesn’t believe it’s true.

How Thoreau screwed over environmentalism

Originally published in the Collegian on January 28, 2009

I have a dirty secret that I’m now announcing to the world: I want to live in the country. Preferably in a small house with a garden, a field enormous enough to keep a horse and a big dog, and an orchard.

I say it’s a dirty secret because it is, literally, dirty — a half-ton of carbon emissions annually (not to mention sulfur, ozone, and particulates), to be precise. The sad fact is that living the simple rural life extolled by so many tree huggers is one of the worst things I could possibly inflict on the environment. And this is the root of the problem with environmentalism today. There’s a war between hippies and science.

Let’s get a few facts straight: nuclear power is probably a net plus for the environment, not some force destined to turn us into Hulks and fish creatures. Moving to the city is not only healthier for the earth, it’s healthier for you (city dwellers live longer on average), and, with the advent of social networking and urban renewal, unlikely to damage your psyche. Farms are a big part of the problem of global warming. Forests are healthiest when managed by undergrowth removal. And, quite frankly, wilderness does a lot better when people leave it alone than when they commune with it in the form of Walden-esque cabins.

Climate change, deforestation, pollution and everything else we inflict on the environment are not, as Al Gore likes to claim, spiritual crises. They are fundamentally economic and scientific crises. It is not that a willingness to destroy the environment has replaced an ancestral tie to the earth (a tie I suspect never existed as imagined by today’s environmental romantics); it is that our capacity to destroy has outpaced our capacity to restore. We are no longer stewards of ancient forests like the Iroquois were. Not because we lack their nobility, but because they lacked our backhoes and chainsaws.

Who is to blame for this? Some would blame the environmental romantics like Thoreau and Grey Owl or those who would derive a moral responsibility to protect the earth from scripture. They deserve blame, yes, for giving birth to such ridiculous notions. But I am more prone to look at my community, the community of scientists, when assigning responsibility. Otherwise sober tracts on deforestation by respectable botanists talk of spiritual connections to forests. Accounts of the urgent need to protect biodiversity speak of a moral duty to protect a species of bird or beetle.

Forgive me, but I see no need to appeal to spirituality or moral duty to call for an end to environmental destruction. (Moreover, how can there be a moral duty to protect a particular species when extinction is a normal ecological event?) It doesn’t seem to work, for one thing: despite pleas from the likes of Alice Walker to return to an ancestral earth worship, we still pollute at record levels and destroy more acres of rainforest every year than ever before. Only when everyday life has been affected do we see change, as in the case of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The truth is that only a rational argument seems to convince anyone that society must change. Try this one on: despite all our efforts to the contrary, life will survive. It’s survived eruptions, ice ages, and meteors. On the other hand, we never have. There are animals and plants who will thrive in a world we’ve destroyed, who will give rise to new species to replace those we’ve killed. But we won’t. We’re a fragile species, not well suited to drought after drought. Forget about saving the whales. Worry about saving the humans.

Destroying neurons, creating art

Originally published in the Collegian on December 10, 2008

Art and drugs have been linked since the beginning of history. Paintings dating to the Paleolithic have been found accompanied by hallucinogenic seeds like the morning glory and mescal bean. The ninth mandala of the Rigveda consists entirely of poetry devoted to — and possibly composed by authors on — Soma, a psychedelic compound many believe to be the mushroom Amanita muscaria. Manet, Oscar Wilde, Guy de Maupassant and many other artists of the late 19th century were aficionados of the alternately maligned and venerated absinthe. Kerouac supposedly wrote On the Road in twenty days while high on bennies, while Shakespeare’s drug of choice appears to have been Cannabis.

But why? Do artistic minds gravitate toward new experiences? Or is it the drugs that make the mind artistic? The answer, I believe, is rooted in abnormality. Put simply, there is no such thing as a normal artist.

Technique — be it a violinist’s speed and accuracy, a painter’s control over the brush, or a writer’s grammar — can be honed with practice, but technique alone merely allows one to create derivatives: cover versions of another’s music, kitsch, or, worse, the modern high fantasy. The ability to create something new is somewhat less easily obtained. In fact, creativity seems to be very strongly correlated with mental and neurological illnesses, from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder to ADHD and epilepsy. No one is entirely sure why. Perhaps creativity is stifled by the ability to focus on the mundane, or perhaps art is the only way to communicate altered mental states.

In any case, aspiring artists who are unlucky enough to have a clean bill of health can create an abnormal brain through use of drugs. For example, psychedelics can cause a bizarre neurological effect called synesthesia. In synesthesia, the brain is unable to distinguish between two or more senses: music may begin to have colors, letters scents, or words tastes. Many people with organic synesthesia, such as Anne Salz and Carol Steen, become artists, and psychedelics seem to stimulate a similar artistic sense. Likewise, amphetamines mimic many of the effects of mania. Organic mania stimulated van Gogh’s creativity during his stay at the mental hospital in Saint Rémy de Provence, and artificial mania created by benzedrine helped bring about bebop by enhancing Charlie Parker’s artistic impulses.

On the other hand, artists who are “blessed” with mental or neurological illnesses may try to self-medicate. The illness that has been linked to creativity most definitively is bipolar disorder. People that suffer from bipolar will swing from highs — mania — to extreme lows — depression. While mania can be extraordinarily pleasurable and artistically productive (Starry Night and Les Miserables were both likely products of the state), the depressive side of the disorder is debilitating. Prior to the development of reliable treatments like lithium and valproate and now for those who remain undiagnosed, the only recourse was a drug that might numb the pain. Thus artists like James Taylor, Jack London and Eric Clapton self-medicated with the only things they had available — often heroin or alcohol.

Of course, mind altering substances are a double edge sword: numerous artists have destroyed themselves with them. Kerouac died of cirrhosis and Jack London met his end with an accidental overdose of morphine.Psychedelics can cause psychoses and amphetamines strain the heart beyond what it’s built to take. Do we, then, say that drugs are an evil because they destroy minds? Or do we say they are a blessing because they release minds? To this question I claim no answer; I only say that without mind-altering drugs the art world would be far poorer.

The promise in the purchase of Zena Forest

Originally published in the Collegian on November 5, 2008

I won’t disguise my bias toward scientific research; I believe that if a project discovers anything about the world, it is worth funding. Of course, in the real world funding is limited and its holders must prioritize. This is why I applaud the university’s administration, especially Dr. Bowersox and President Pelton, for their work on Willamette’s purchase of Zena Forest. It is one of the greatest opportunities in Willamette’s history to foster work not only between departments, but also between the College of Liberal Arts, the Atkinson Graduate School of Management, the College of Law, and the School of Education. And, almost as important, it represents the obvious culmination of Willamette’s relationship with Oregon’s forests.

I did a quick poll of my friends who haven’t been involved in sustainability on campus to find out what they thought about our acquisition of a whopping 305 acres. The almost universal response was “cool, but why spend that much money to benefit one department?” and I imagine that many of you reading this are asking the same question. To answer it, I turn to the goal of a liberal arts college: integration of art, science, and philosophy.

In a world where specialization is omnipresent, there is often little conversation between biologists and lawyers, environmentalists and economic theorists, or geologists and novelists. This is a loss for both the specialists and society as a whole, as tunnel vision sets in and each person forgets the impacts of their work on others’ fields of study. Willamette has done an excellent job of countering this by requiring both science and art credits to graduate, but that is not enough. Mere exposure to multiple disciplines is not enough to make one a rounded student, any more than taking Spanish classes qualifies one as an expert on Hispanic culture. It is the collaboration with students and faculty of other subjects that rounds out education and life.

And therein lies Zena’s promise. In addition to the obvious projects on habitat restoration, the small mill run by Sarah Deumling and her son offer the chance for business and economics students to explore the theory and practicality of running a profitable, eco-friendly business. The oak savannah, one of Oregon’s rarest habitats, offers Walden-like opportunities to writers and endless landscapes for artists that do not share our Arts editor’s aversion to en plein air painting. And, of course, Zena Forest’s beauty and proximity offer Willamette’s future teachers the opportunity to teach young students ecology and grow a new generation of environmentalists.

I will not lie, however, by saying that our purchase of Zena Forest does not center on forest restoration. But that is as it should be. One fact that few students today seem to know is that Willamette was built using money donated by loggers: Hallie Ford and her husband started Roseburg Lumber Company in the 1930s, and donated millions of dollars to Willamette. The Collins family (no relation), after whom the science building, the law building, Goudy commons, and a substantial scholarship are named, similarly made their fortune in lumber. Willamette owes its existence to Oregon’s forests, and now they are in trouble. Decades of poor management by timber companies and the state, local, and federal governments have left forests across the state vulnerable to disease, overcrowding, and fire. The only thing that can save them for future generations is protection informed by knowledge of natural forest ecology. This is what Willamette has, through the purchase of Zena Forest, to offer Oregon.

Senators, you’re no Jimmy Carter

Originally published in the Collegian on October 15, 2008

As a dyed-in-the-hemp environmentalist, much of my opinion about politicians depends on their energy policies. I had little hope that either John McCain or Barack Obama would be as forward thinking as Jimmy Carter was when he put solar panels on the White House, but when I watched the town hall debate last week I sunk into a crushing depression—both offered energy plans that were trite and fundamentally ignorant about or unconcerned with environmental consequences. And since the issue is so rarely talked about except in terms of gasoline prices, an analysis of the flaws of both plans is long overdue.

First, there is the call to increase domestic oil production. Both Obama and McCain have come out in support of increased offshore drilling. Aside from the fact that offshore drilling won’t appreciably decrease energy costs, oilrigs pose a significant environmental risk. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita damaged several platforms and seabed pipes, spilling over 714,000 gallons of oil—seven times what the U.S. Coast Guard considers a “major” spill. Moreover, spending money on drilling takes away funds from alternative energy research and production.

Senator Obama has particularly raised my ire by proposing to eliminate “any infrastructure obstacles/shortages or possible federal permitting process delays to drilling in the … National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska [NPR-A].” Drilling in a petroleum reserve sounds reasonable, but the NPR-A has spent the last 85 years untouched by humans, and is more ecologically sensitive, unique, and important than Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Drilling there would be akin to drilling in the Galapagos or the Great Barrier Reef.

Then there is clean-coal. Or rather, there isn’t clean coal—both candidates have endorsed (McCain more enthusiastically than Obama) a non-existent technology. Clean coal, as it is conceived, involves capturing the carbon dioxide emitted by traditional coal plants, and then storing it underground. Assuming that such technology will ever actually exist, we would have to deal with eternal, leak-proof storage (which many scientists say is impossible); the environmental impact of mining coal, which is often done by simply removing mountain tops and the ten-or-more-year wait for the technology. Not to mention the fact that investing in a decidedly questionable technology eats into funding for more proved technologies like solar and geothermal energies.

Since both candidates support such atrocious ideas as domestic drilling and the fairy tale of clean coal, the only way to make a decision about the relative merits of their energy plans is to judge them on the completeness of their plans and the likelihood that they will follow through with promises of support for truly green energy like solar, geothermal, and wind. This is where a clear difference arises. Rather than investing directly, McCain wishes to merely expand already existing tax breaks—a plan that will never result in the massive and immediate switch to carbon neutral energy we need. Moreover, the selection of a vice presidential candidate who was previously known outside her state only for her support for unrestrained oil exploration and who elicits chants of “drill, baby, drill” undercuts his claim to environmental realism.

Obama, on the other hand, has a plan that is salvageable because it rests on a foundation of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. He also appears to grasp the fact that, since a transition to a carbon-free economy virtually mandates nuclear power, we need a safe place to store it—unlike McCain, who has supported making earthquake-prone Yucca Mountain a waste dump. Neither candidate is green, but at least Obama’s energy plan stands a chance of working.

Sustainability tips for a greener lifestyle

Originally published in the Collegian on September 17, 2008

Since I work for the Center for Sustainable Communities, editing our weekly newsletter, my friends often ask me about the best ways to make their lives more environmentally friendly. Alas, omniscience does not come with the job and I often can’t come up with a ready answer. I can, however, give this list of general suggestions (in no particular order) that you may not have heard before for improving the sustainability of anyone’s life.

Beware of “greenwashing.” This insidious marketing practice makes products seem more environmentally friendly than they really are. One study performed last December found that 99% of 1,018 randomly selected products were guilty of this practice. For example, many companies that offer “carbon offsets” merely plant forests of invasive trees, which is not ecologically sound by any standard. Likewise, any company promoting a non-food product as “organic” should be questioned, since there are no standards for the label.

Don’t use a tray at Goudy. Believe it or not, the Willamette Valley is facing a water shortage. Trays require an enormous amount of water to wash, water that would be better used for agriculture or left in the ground to feed springs.

Remember that the three R’s are not all equal. The mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle” has been drilled into our brains for so long that I once asked my mom why Oscar the Grouch lived in a garbage can rather than a recycling bin. However, recycling is not like a medieval indulgence, a license to consume without thought. Recycling takes energy—energy to transport, to sort, and to process. It is far better to invest in reusable containers like metal water bottles.

Use a laptop. The energy demands of a desktop are extraordinarily high compared to laptops. Even a very powerful laptop can use as little as 20% of a desktop’s energy consumption. Also remember to put computers into sleep mode or turn them off when you’re done.

Eat less meat. Meat requires a much larger area of land to produce the same number of calories than vegetables; beef, for example requires more than 50 times the land than vegetables. Pork and poultry require less, but still far more than vegetables. This increases the amount of wild land lost to agriculture, raises global food prices and puts pressure on farmers in underdeveloped countries to push into sensitive habitats, and raising livestock, especially cattle, produces far more greenhouse gas emissions than growing plants.

Wear a condom—every time. No, you have not stepped into sex ed. Believe it or not, using birth control is the single biggest thing you can do to reduce your impact on the environment. Many of us will, in the next decade of our lives, decide whether or not to have a child. As the world’s population continues to rise, demands for food, travel, and consumer products rise as well. By not having biological children—choosing instead to adopt—you not only improve the life of an already-living child, you reduce your long-term impact on the environment.

Finally, if you’re interested in keeping up to date on sustainability news on campus and around the world and receiving more tips for sustainable living, sign up for Willamette University’s Sustainability Newsletter through JASON or by e-mailing me.