New Year’s resolutions

I’ve never been a fan of New Year’s resolutions. They seemed a silly habit; for most people they were an admittedly pointless joke, made with the full knowledge that they would be abandoned in weeks, while for others they were a boast, a way of showing off their superior abilities at getting things done, at changing their lives. And for me, they seemed obvious – do the things I’m supposed to be doing, but don’t. Why bother to enumerate one’s own shortcomings?

Gradually, I’ve changed my position. I think they may be useful.

If you plan nothing, there’s a good chance you’ll achieve what you plan, so it makes sense to make a plan for your life, both professionally and personally. For me, the first week of January seems like the ideal time to do that – it’s the beginning of a relatively quiet time at work. Granted, it would have made sense to plan this time months in advance, but those are the times that are just too busy.

And while making plans for your professional life, why not make some plans for your personal life, some plans for self-improvement? While making short-term plans, why not stop to consider the longer term?  Well, maybe it isn’t a good idea to get ahead of yourself. Maybe planning for the longer term is something that’s worth making a short-term goal.

Will I achieve any of this? I have no idea. But one of those items on my yet-to-be-completed list – or plan – is to use this blog. After all, if I hit “publish” right now, I’ve beat by record for 2016.

Learning humility

I’m not a forester, though I sometimes forget that. I’m not an expert on sustainability, or environmental policy, or environmental history. While I know a lot about these things, my knowledge is riven with holes – and I’m often unaware of those holes.

When I teach environmental science, I know that I’m a dabbler when I talk about the atmosphere, or weather, or even ocean currents. I know my geology is self-taught. As a consequence, I know enough to make sure I know what I know and avoid stepping off the cliff into ignorance. But when I talk about environmental history or policy, when I talk about sustainability or land-use or economics, I don’t know what I don’t know. I built a decent edifice of knowledge on a foundation honeycombed with ignorance. He who knoweth not, and knoweth not he knoweth not.

There are things you know because you have a solid foundation, but not a whole lot of updated, specialised knowledge. But what you know serves you well. I can teach chemistry or physics to environmental science students and not feel like they are ill-served. My physics ends at A Levels and my chemistry with my first year undergrad, but what I’m teaching is barely O Level.  It’s stuff I know inside-out, backward and forward – well enough to take apart and explain to the science-phobic. When I hit an unknown, it doesn’t come as a surprise – it’s either higher-level knowledge that I never got to (but may be aware exists) or it’s something I once knew, but have forgotten. Forgetting can be annoying, but it’s just part of what happens to specific bits of information you haven’t though about in 25 years.

Hitting a gap in ecology, forestry, or environmental history can be vertigo-inducing.

I remember not knowing who Aldo Leopold was, early in my career as a grad student, when everyone else seemed conversant with his work. It was very different from discovering how much I didn’t know about the importance of Howard Odum or Robert MacArthur because at least I had heard their names.

So what sparked the current crisis of faith? Aldo Leopold, again.

Aldo Leopold (1887 – 1948) developed from his long professional experience in Pinchot’s Forest Service, his discussions with the British ecologist Charles Elton and his encounter with the German ‘Dauerwald’ experiments.

Dauerwald. The term doesn’t even have an article in the English Wikipedia, though it does exist in the German one (and, apparently, its Russian and Estonian counterparts). Not knowing about something that I don’t know exists shouldn’t really bother me, but once I started looking I felt like I shouldn’t have known about this.

Dauerwald is a forestry system that eschewed clear-cutting and defined timber quotas for a system that more closely mimicked nature. I’m immediately reminded of the Periodic Block System. It was required by the Nazi government. Really? And it was, of course, influential on Leopold.

There’s just too much there I should know, but don’t. Discovering this for the first time makes me feel profoundly ignorant.

Dauerwaldrevier2 Baerenthoren

Web presence

No one wants a Google search for their name to turn up a lot of negative information, but I am always curious when a search for someone shows up little information at all. Sure, it doesn’t surprise me if a search for my mother turns up limited information (though thanks to stories about my brother’s death, there’s actually some substance) but where you’re talking about someone who has presumably been online for the last decade or more, it can be surprising to see how little information Google brings up.

This makes me think about the way the internet has changed in the last twenty years. When the internet really became a ‘thing’ in the late 1990s, you created a web page as your presence there. It was probably at GeoCities or some other long-lost community. (It’s sad the way so much digital history has vanished as these sites were gradually shut down over.) Even with the rush by big companies to get online, it was still a rough democracy of content. There was an onus on you, as a user, to also be a creator. This continued, and grew, with the rise of blogs and Wikipedia. These days it seems like most people are online either only as consumers of information, or as producers in environments that are owned and controlled by others. We’re left as little more than the comment section of a corporate website.

This site isn’t permanent. It will only last as long as I continue to pay for hosting and, beyond that, in whatever bits the Wayback Machine finds interesting enough to archive. It’s also nearly invisible to the world (interestingly Bing ranks this page much higher than Google, yet here I am, a committed Google user). But it’s still a space that’s my creation (except the bits that aren’t, like the entire CMS that makes the site work), it’s still a chance to claim a space on what was supposed to be a platform for digital democracy. And to me, that’s important.

Why collinearity matters, or doesn’t matter

This makes sense to me

But then there’s this reply, from someone who knows a lot more than I do.

Conclusion: don’t trust everything you were taught in a statistics class. Like any other real academic field, there’s a whole lot of nuance that’s lost when you simplify things enough to teach undergraduates or grad students who are only interested in applying statistical tools, in the hope that they give you the ‘right’ answer.

What can I do with maps…?

I’m trying to learn a little about Github (because, well, I don’t know. I feel like I should). A few random clicks brought me to the Leaflet project. And it got me thinking about what I could – and should – be doing with maps.

As I child I drew maps constantly. Imaginary maps, around which I concocted stories – usually of the rise and fall of empires, but also about the migrations of tribes and peoples. It was fed by my fascination with history (especially my historical atlases) and Tolkien. It was a great form of expression. Today, while I have used maps for research, I have never managed to use maps to tell a story very effectively. I really should. There are tools today that would make telling stories – real or imaginary – so much easier than they once were. Why am I not doing that?


‘Ferns have not bowed to the ages’

When I started my undergrad, botany was something of an afterthought – I just needed a third course to go along with chemistry and zoology, which had been my mainstays in A Levels. But once I sat down in Dr Duncan’s class, I was enthralled – while chemistry and zoology largely rehashed what I had learned in A Levels, botany took me into an entirely new world. As we partook in an old-fashioned march across the plant kingdom, I was amazed. Lectures were interesting, but it was the labs that truly drew me in.

By the time we got to ferns, we had covered a variety of algae and simpler plants. Much of what I was taught slipped past me, adrift without a proper foundation. The difference between isotomous and dichotomous branching in the thallus. Steles, and steles within steles. But one thing that stuck with me was a quote from Frederick Orphen Bower: ferns, he said, had not bowed to the ages. While other ancient groups like the liverworts and horsetails had retained only a shadow of their former diversity, ferns were not only diverse, much of their diversity reflected a (relatively) recent diversification that had occurred ‘in the shadow of angiosperms‘.

The simple fact that ferns diversified after the rise of the group that is generally seen as replacing and displacing them is in itself remarkable. It clashes, not with evolutionary theory, but rather, with our (mistaken) perception of an orderly progression of evolution. If we can put aside our evolutionary misconceptions, it becomes less disconcerting. Or it did, until recently.

A recent paper by Fay-Wei Li and colleagues uncovers the mechanism by which ferns were able to diversify in the shadows: a gene from a hornwort. In is usual way, Ed Yong does an great job of explaining the research, as does Carl Zimmer. While the discovery is a great story, what really intrigues me is the mechanism of gene transfer. Horizontal gene transfer (i.e., transfer from one species to another) is no big deal in bacteria. Migration of genes from the mitochondrial and chromosome genome to the nuclear genome is strange, but it’s still the kind of thing for which you can envision a reasonable mechanism. Gene flow between species via introgression (hybridisation followed by extensive backcrossing to one parental species) is intuitive (or can be, if you don’t think about it too much). But transfer of a gene from a hornwort to a fern. How is that supposed to happen?

As odd as it sounds, I’m sure there’s a reasonable way for genes to make that journey. I’ve heard about people coaxing plants to take up RNA molecules. Viruses could also have unwittingly played a part. I suppose the most important message in this story may be the realisation that transgenic higher plants may not be as unusual as we tend to think they are.

Oil spills in southwest Trinidad

A couple weeks ago, I started writing a post in response to the announcement of Trinidad and Tobago’s first oil discovery of 2013; events overtook me when an oil spill occurred in southwest Trinidad. It was initially reported as a break in a 10-inch pipe at Petrotrin’s Pointe-a-Pierre refinery; later reports spoke of four separate leaks and still later, eleven.

Initial reports were followed by images of oiled beaches, fishing boats and mangrove and reports of one community in particular that was affected by the spill. A local NGO, Papa Bois Conservation, has done excellent citizen reporting on the spills. In an effort to wrap my head around what was going on, I put together a page – “Southwest Trinidad Oil Spills” – and managed to collect over 150 articles from the three daily newspapers in TT over the course of just over two weeks. Petrotrin and the government have been calling the spills possible sabotage, with Petrotrin chairman Lindsay Gillette saying that in at least two of the spills specialised tools would have been needed to open the pipes that spilled oil.

Oil spills are nothing new in south Trinidad – streams and roadside ditches in the oil belt are frequently oiled or have oil-stained banks; old pipelines built by companies that vanished decades ago may still leak oil. It takes more than a trace amount of oil to even be recognised as a spill. That alone suggests that these spills involve substantial amounts of oil. Pictures from Coffee Beach in La Brea (where 25 people were hospitalised after the spill came ashore) show substantial quantities of oil on the beach, while this video shows oiled water and coastline. The damage done to coastal and marine life (and to coastal communities) is going to be substantial. I think that it shows progress that this is being cast as an environmental disaster, not merely a costly inconvenience for the company.

Petroleum (and natural gas) production in Trinidad is a fascinating microcosm of the extractive economy. Oil production dominates the economy, and oil royalties and taxes dominate state revenues. Production – which comes both with the benefits of employment and the costs of living with oil production – is concentrated in the southwest and southeast (primarily offshore in the southeast). The people of La Brea (to pick an example that came up here) see relatively little of the benefits of the petro-economy, but pay a disproportionate share of the costs. Fisherfolk and crab catchers will also pay substantial costs for this oil spill, but again, see little of the benefits. Beach goers will be inconvenienced, but the people who frequent the beaches in southwest Trinidad are disproportionately from southwest Trinidad. Again, the wealthiest people, and the people who see most of the benefits, will pay a far smaller price. And into this whole mix we need to introduce the natural environment.

The natural environment in southwest Trinidad has paid a high price for petroleum extraction. Although relatively lightly populated, the forests of southwest Trinidad are heavily fragmented and degraded. The coastal and marine environment has also paid a price over almost a century of oil production. Environmental conservation should be more than just a concern of middle class hobbyists – natural resources, ecosystem services, natural capital – however you want to name it, nature plays an important role not only in the economy, but also in the well-being of people. But, again, the costs of an extractive economy are unlikely to be paid by the people who enjoy most of the benefits.

Climate change and denialism

Most of the time, when we talk about the shifting Overton window, it seems like it’s an inexorable shift rightward, towards more and more extreme language. Gun control is something serious politicians can’t discuss any more, even after the latest massacre of innocents. Ideas that Ronald Reagan embraced now lie to the left of the mainstream discourse. Feminism and conservation are now bad words. Here and there, though, language takes a more progressive turn. Marriage equality is no longer an odd turn of phrase used by activists – at the end of 2013 not only is a word that people understand (even if they don’t use it), it’s also a concept that isn’t shocking to the mainstream. Another such word is climate change denial.

Wikipedia is always a good place to gauge how widely controversial language is accepted. Go back to 2003 and their intelligent design article was firmly in the hands of people who were trying to present it as a real scientific theory. That changed after the Kitzmiller decision in late 2005, but it still took years before it could be called what it was – repackaged creationism – openly in the article. Similarly, if you go back to 2009 the term ‘climate change denial’ was presented as a slur, an attack on people, and people were going to great lengths to distinguish ‘skepticism’ from denial. Even I had my doubts as to whether it was really a term that could really pass muster in Wikipedia (given their policy on ‘biographies of living people’). Four years later, it’s no longer an odd linguistic construction that people need to have explained – it may not dominate mainstream thought, but it’s a phrase you can use in class without losing people.

Across the board, the scientific endeavour is under assault, both from the right and (sadly) from the left. Groups dedicated to climate change denial rake in almost a billion dollars a year. But slowly, people are becoming aware of this. The scope of the campaign may still shock people, but broadly speaking they’re becoming aware of the role that these groups have played in shaping the message.

In general, denialism is a phenomenon that finds fertile ground when people feel disconnected from ‘the powers that be’. By casting themselves as grassroots organisation, the “climate change counter-movement” groups have gained traction against scientists (who are distant, unknown people). As these groups are gradually unmasked as corporate front groups, it becomes harder for the press to treat them as one of two equal sides in a debate, and people may realise that it’s not grassroots fighting out of touch academia, it’s large corporations throwing their weight around. Now, the underdog is the scientist, and rather than being an approachable ‘everyman’, the climate change counter-movement campaigner is now an equally distant corporate entity. So maybe, just maybe, there’s reason to be a little bit more hopeful today.

Debt ceiling and denialism

With the US approaching yet another debt-ceiling crisis, the term debt-ceiling denialism has entered (or, I suppose, re-entered) the discourse. Many leading Republicans are claiming that there’s no such thing as a debt ceiling, or that if one exists blowing through it will have no effect. Florida Rep. Ted Yoho has even suggested that it will be a good thing for world markets.

Sound oddly familiar? Substitute climate change and carbon dioxide and we have the same discussion on climate change. Brought to you by the same people. I don’t think Merchants of Doubt was really meant as an instruction manual.