The Untimely Lesson of Coco

(warning: spoilers follow)

The new Disney film Coco looks at a timeless dilemma in an untimely way. The dilemma is that between individual and community, between the free self and the claims of family and tradition. By having a living boy dwell among the dead in the spirit world, the film shows the full depths of our contradictory human experience. Our birth sets us on a biography that no one else can share or inhabit from the inside. Our death folds us back into the same cloth. We are at once unique and selfsame. We are, en masse, alone.

Each culture has its own response to this push and pull. The modern west is founded, naturally, on the celebration of the individual. Tradition is seen as irrational, family as arbitrary and stifling, and the community as burdensome. Coco, however, is set in a premodern villa. We know this, because, work life and home life have not yet been thoroughly divorced. There is scant electricity and industry and business have not displaced the master-apprentice economy of handcraft. The square, the market, and the church are the living heart of the town. There is a widely shared and substantive morality, one rooted in shared religious celebration, especially Dia de los Muertos.

In the world of Coco, community, family, and tradition indeed lay heavily on the young. The boy, Miguel Rivera, is born into a rigidly structured arrangement with an identity already fated for him. The Riveras are shoemakers. They have been so now for five generations. The movie takes place on the Day of the Dead, where the living must concentrate on the pictures of the deceased arranged on the altar. The living must visit the graveyard and leave offerings there. The main song of the film is titled “Remember Me,” and it is the task of the living to remember, to hold the past in the present, to become a vessel for the ancestors. It is, to say the least, suffocating for Miguel who desperately wants to follow the bent of his own spirit to strike out and play guitar.


This much, of course, resonates with our modern mythology – the explorers, the pioneers, the self-made men. It is also classic Disney fare, and that portrayal of stifling and hidebound societal norms still painted a fairly accurate picture of the world Walt Disney knew. Main Street, USA, which although quaint and reassuring also left kids dreaming of some escape.

But this is no longer our world, and that is why Coco is untimely. Our children, who sit there gawking at the computer-generated phantasmagoria, are entirely free floating. Forget Main Street, how about Walmart Heights. According to the World Economic Forum, 65% of primary school-aged children will end up working in jobs that do not yet exist. An Oxford study estimated that 47% of current jobs are at risk of elimination by automation. Another report argued that roughly one third of American workers will have to switch jobs in the coming decade due to artificial intelligence.

Whereas Miguel’s future looked all too much like the past, our future has no resemblance whatsoever with what came before. We are approaching the singularity, the point beyond which we cannot see, because what lies ahead is so unfathomably different than what came before. Miguel was overcrowded with remembrance; we have no possible use for it. The week before seeing Coco, I took my kids to the new Star Wars film. It offers such a nostalgic vision of the future – one where skillful human engagement still plays center stage. Master pilots, shrewd generals, disciplined Jedi. Our future is not so human, not so virtuous or skilled. We hardly fly planes anymore. I doubt my kids will ever drive a car. Robots are taking over the operating room. Wall-E is a much more plausible rendition of our future – humans reduced to flabby appendages of the machine.

We live in liquid modernity, where life is fragmented, episodic, and discontinuous, and all relationships are fleeting and contingent. Miguel’s struggle is with the heavy hand of the past. My children’s struggle is with a nihilistic future. Miguel had to find a way to lift the anchor. My kids are adrift with no anchor aboard.

This is why that slogan, Make America Great Again, touched a chord. It is ironic, perhaps, that Trump supporters might find a film set in Mexico scratching such a deep existential itch. It’s that ‘again,’ the act of remembrance, the orienting genius of the past, that catches our attention. Maybe tradition, community, family, church – those enduring, given, and unchosen dimensions of a human life – form a necessary matrix for the equally necessary expression of personal will and choice. That, at any rate, is the moral of Coco. Family and individual can both give just a little and find a way to harmonize. Miguel sees the vicious and vacuous underbelly of individualism (even or especially a version bedecked with fame and fortune). And his family sees the cruelty behind their narrow definition of human possibilities. In the end, Miguel plays music as the others make shoes. It all fits together like, well, arts and crafts.

But whether such a harmony is possible in our modern, or postmodern, times is far more ambivalent. Miguel’s grandmother smashes his homemade guitar, mistaking it for a mortal enemy to her way of life. What the film doesn’t portray are the actual threats, which in her case would be global corporate capitalism, industrial automation, and trade deals – in short ‘development’ or ‘modernization.’ The guitar is an easy mark – what can she smash when something as nebulous as ‘la technique’ sticks its finger in her world and stirs it all up? As for Miguel, what will he do when Napster comes along, and then Amazon and the entire monopolized culture industry? In short, the film is set a century or two too soon to offer us much guidance.


Monsters and Honey Badgers

The quaintness of Frankenstein in an age that doesn’t give a shit


2017 was the year of creator’s regret, with several tech industry leaders anguishing over the unintended consequences of their creations. Elon Musk warned that we are “summoning the demon” with artificial intelligence. Other Silicon Valley insiders – Sean Parker, Tristan Harris, Justin Rosenstein, and Loren Brichter – lamented the impacts of social media on our lives and democracy. Former vice president of user growth at Facebook Chamath Palihapitiya confessed, “I feel tremendous guilt” for his part in “eroding the core foundation” of basic human decency. In biotech, Jennifer Doudna published a book about the gene editing technology known as CRISPR in which she relates a nightmare where Hitler asks her about this new discovery.

As it happens, 2018 is the bicentennial of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the locus classicus for tech-hubris leading to ruin. Much will be said this coming year about how Frankenstein applies to our times. Although the parallels are obvious, the nineteenth century monster is actually a limited archetype for understanding our twenty-first century techno troubles. It does a good job highlighting the problem of technological thoughtlessness, but it doesn’t get at the deeper problem of carelessness. For that, I propose a new archetype: the honey badger. Shelley’s novel is soaked in the morality of romanticism with all its passion and earnestness. We, however, sup listlessly from the teat of mass culture, downing soda in our sweatpants at Walmart thumbing through a newsfeed for our drips of dopamine.

Victor Frankenstein was no hero, to be sure. But he’s not necessarily a villain either. He didn’t intend harm, and once he realized what he had done he felt remorse and, in true romantic form, he devoted his life to the dogged pursuit of his monster. Of course, once the genie is out of the bottle it may be too late to do anything about it. Technologies, like Frankenstein’s monster, take on lives of their own. But at least Victor tried. At least he had a heart. So too with some of our contemporary Frankensteins: at least they care.

Not so with the honey badger, the cobra-chomping, chaos-generating animal that just doesn’t give a shit. Stephen Bannon, Donald Trump’s former right-hand-man, embraced the honey badger as a campaign strategy. He got inspired after watching angry young men get lost in World of Warcraft, where they could pretend to be much tougher than they actually are and, disinhibited by the internet, they could say foul things they would never say face-to-face. Donald Trump, the don of fake wrestling, has since governed as the honey badger in chief, transgressing every kind of norm imaginable: social, democratic, moral, and intellectual.

True, you could spin the honey badger in a positive light: self-confident, determined, and fearless. You could even seem him as a revival of the romantic urge for authenticity. In a society stifled with bureaucracy, Bannon sold Trump as a dose of reality, as someone who cuts through the political correctness to tell it like it is. But no he doesn’t. He insults, swindles, lies, simplifies, and demeans. This isn’t about boldly pursuing some ideal in the face of hardship – as Frankenstein did first in creating his monster and then in trying to destroy it. That would be a form of giving a shit. Not giving a shit is about unscrupulous selfishness.

Being Frankenstein is about making something without thinking about the consequences. Being a honey badger (like being an internet troll or a spoiled brat) is about taking whatever you want, consequences be damned. It’s grabbing crotches and bragging about it. In some sense, the original political honey badgers, Bannon’s distant inspiration, were the sophists. Democratic citizenship requires being able to reason and speak well. The sophists taught this art. So far so good. But when you marry these skills to relativism and inculcate them in people of low moral character, trouble starts brewing. People calculate things to suit their own advantage, even if it is harmful to the polis. During the campaign, Trump said that gaming the system to avoid paying taxes, “makes me smart.” Yes, clever like Thrasymachus and the wily, beehive-smashing honey badger.

Martin Heidegger once quipped, “The most thought-provoking thing about our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.” In one sense, that couldn’t be further from the truth. This is, after all, the knowledge society. We invest billions of dollars in research and we are constantly thinking up new gadgets. Bannon engineered Trump’s improbable victory through a masterful use of analytics and the processing of enormous amounts of data. But that is all instrumental thinking about the means. We don’t think much about ends and purposes, about being and living well, or about the common weal and greater good.

Victor pursued his ambition “with an ardour that far exceeded moderation,” but when he finished, “the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” That’s because despite all his instrumental thinking he wasn’t really thinking – not about why he was pursuing this knowledge or about its wider ramifications. Nowadays, the National Science Foundation would ask him to first complete a broader impacts statement justifying his research. Of course, this too has become a form of pseudo-thinking as ‘broader impacts’ becomes slang for economic growth.

The mention of funding agencies suggests two ways in which Shelley’s monster, like her morality, is an anachronism. First, it was the product of early nineteenth century vocational and small-scale natural philosophy. Science is now Big – involving legions of actors – which muddies the question of responsibility. Thinking is not just instrumental, but hive; it’s specialized and distributed across networks. No one is really in control and there is no pinch point (like Frankenstein’s lab) where we could just turn off a potentially dangerous development.

Second, Shelley’s monster is too much of an outsider. In one sense it is a detestable hybrid composed of a mix-match of parts. But in another sense it is all too pure. Frankenstein’s monster lives on the edges of the social world. It was never really enrolled, recruited, or folded into things. Our technological monsters, by contrast, are woven into the fabric of human life. Frankenstein’s monster was never commercialized or used. Our technologies, though, are making somebody profit and they even go beyond that: they become needs.

The internet and fossil fuels simultaneously sustain and imperil us. Now those are abominable hybrids! And they don’t sustain or imperil all of us equally – it is a congeries of winners and losers. Indeed, whereas Frankenstein himself suffered the most from the bad behavior of his creation, our modern creators from entrepreneurs to corporations to entire wealthy nations are usually the ones who suffer least from negative consequences.

Stephen Jay Gould argued that the moral of Frankenstein is not that Victor shouldn’t have made the monster, but that he failed in his duty “to teach his own charge and to educate others in acceptance.” Certainly modern day creators should take this lesson to heart. But my point is that any moral focused on Victor is antiquated. There is no Victor anymore – no single individual responsible for both creating and instructing his progeny. We can talk about Musk and the other big names all we want, but really they are just about as powerless as anybody else. Our monsters are a collective action problem, which introduces the deeper issue: no one cares.

Imagine if Victor never gave another thought to his monster once it was created. Thought only comes with motivation – the object of thought has to matter to you. But our monstrous technologies mitigate against this mattering. We fill up the car but don’t see the refinery, we buy the cellophane-wrapped meat but don’t see the slaughterhouse, and we work in the office but don’t see the steel mines that built it, coal mines that run it, or garbage dumps that follow it. As Heidegger would say, the world is obscured or covered-up. We might know abstractly that to sustain our lifestyle we must plunder the planet. But it is not present-at-hand; it is not a matter of concern. Thus, we go on living our decadent lives as if, well, we don’t give a shit.

Or imagine if Victor visited the murder scenes left behind by his monster only to point out the circumstantial nature of the case. Is there actual video footage of the killings? Even if there was, who can trust video nowadays in the age of digitally-resurrected movie stars? Then imagine him smugly shrugging the whole thing off as a hoax or as fake news. That’s not how the novel went, but that’s our reality. Gould said that the makers of monsters must educate others to accept them, but that’s precisely what the tobacco and fossil fuel industries do. And now that Scott Pruitt is in charge of the EPA we are learning how to accept all sorts of misunderstood chemicals, not to mention misunderstood climate skeptics.

For all the spine-tingling qualities of her novel, Shelley didn’t plumb the dark depths of power-hungry moral depravity. And she assumed a reality principle that we can no longer take for granted. Frankenstein’s monster was out of control, to be sure, but at least that was plain to see. But now? Who knows and, really, who cares?


Frankensteins R Us

In 1797, at the dawn of the industrial age, Goethe wrote “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” a poem about a magician-in-training who, through his arrogance and half-baked powers, unleashes a chain of events he cannot control. About twenty years later, a young Mary Shelley answered a dare to write a ghost story, which she shared at a small gathering at Lake Geneva. Her story, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, was published as a novel on January 1st 1818.

Both are stories about our powers to create things that then take on a life of their own. Goethe’s poem comes to a climax when the apprentice calls out in a panic:

Master, come to my assistance! –
Wrong I was in calling
Spirits, I avow,
For I find them galling,
Cannot rule them now.

It foreshadows Emerson’s remarks that “things are in the saddle and ride mankind.” Fortunately, the master does return and tells the enchanted broom that had run amok to “be hiding and subsiding!” He cancels the treacherous spell just in the nick of time.

Shelley’s tale doesn’t end so nicely: the monster goes on a murderous rampage and his creator is unable to hunt him down and put a stop to the carnage. There’s the question we face about our own story as we unleash technological powers complete with unintended consequences: will we sail through safely or will we, like Victor Frankenstein, meet with “destruction and infallible misery”? Who foretold our fate: Goethe or Shelley?

The name Prometheus in Shelley’s subtitle means forethought, which gives us the god-like power to bring something into being from non-being. But her intention here may best be read ironically, indicating that forethought is precisely what we lack. We make things without having thought through in advance what will transpire. Our ape brains cannot fathom our tech culture. Martin Heidegger, perhaps the greatest modern philosopher of techno-caution, once quipped that “only a god can save us.” But if we are the only god around, will we be up to the task of saving ourselves?

sorcIn Goethe’s poem, disaster is averted through a more skillful application of the same magic that conjured the problem in the first place. The term for this nowadays is “reflexive modernity,” the idea that modernity can deal with the problems of its own creation through learning and improvement. Whatever problems arise from technoscience we can fix with more technoscience. In environmentalism, this is known as ecomodernism. In transhumanist circles, it is called the proactionary principle, which “involves not only anticipating before acting, but learning by acting.”

Frankenstein, by contrast, is a precautionary tale. Imbued with the impulse to transform nature, humans risk extending beyond their proper reach. Victor Frankenstein comes to rue the ambition to become “greater than his nature will allow.” He laments: “Learn from me…how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world.” It is better to not know…or perhaps we could give it a Socratic twist and say it is better to not let yourself think that you actually know. Hubris will be the death of us all.


frankWhat has me worried is that a growing chorus of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs are getting cold feet. After creating something, they turn around and scream: oh crap! Are they like the apprentice calling for a master who will rescue us? Or are they like Frankenstein engaged in a futile quest to squelch something that is already beyond our control?

Consider some examples. Sean Parker, the co-founder of Napster and an early investor in Facebook, recently announced his status as a social media “conscientious objector.” Facebook, he claims, is likely damaging children’s brains and definitely exploiting human psychological weaknesses. There are more Silicon Valley refuseniks. Justin Rosenstein, the inventor of the Facebook “like” button, has deleted the app from his phone, citing worries about addiction, continuous partial attention disorder, and the demise of democracy at the hands of social media. Former Google employee Tristan Harris and Loren Bricther who invented the slot machine-like pull-to-refresh mechanism for twitter feeds are both warning us about the dangers of their creatures.

Anthony Ingraffea spent the first twenty-five years of his engineering career trying to figure out how to get more fossil fuels out of rocks. From 1978 to 2003, he worked on both government and industry grants to improve hydraulic fracturing. His own research never panned out, but when he learned of the success of others and the magnitude of chemicals and water required, he was “aghast” and said, “It was as if [I’d] been working on something [my] whole life and somebody comes and turns it into Frankenstein.” Over the past ten years he has become one of the nation’s leading fracking opponents, speaking out in hundreds of forums and in the Gasland documentaries about its environmental, climate, and health dangers. The industry that once funded him now regularly trolls and attacks him.

Jennifer Doudna is the main scientist behind the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR. In her new book, A Crack in Creation, she writes that CRISPR could eliminate several diseases and improve lives, but it could also be used in ways similar to Nazi eugenics. Doudna has nightmares where Hitler asks her to explain “the uses and implications of this amazing technology.” She organized a conference at Napa Valley like the Asilomar Conference decades earlier at the dawn of recombinant DNA technology. The scientists at Napa fell short of calling for a moratorium, but they did urge that the safety issues of CRISPR “be thoroughly investigated and understood before any attempts at human engineering are sanctioned, if ever, for clinical testing.”

Elon Musk worries that with Artificial Intelligence we are “summoning the devil.” AI is, for him, “our greatest existential threat.” Musk has super-charged Dr. Frankenstein’s initial impulse of evading his abominable creation: he is working on interplanetary colonization so that we can run all the way to Mars when AI goes rogue on planet Earth.

The anthropologist Bruno Latour would chastise Musk for this kind of thing. The way Latour sees it, the moral of Frankenstein is not that we should stop making monsters but, rather, that we should love our monsters. The problem wasn’t Dr. Frankenstein’s hubris, but his unfeeling – he abandoned his ‘child’ rather than educated it so that it learned to behave. Becoming godlike doesn’t mean we will achieve total control and blissful detachment from the world – no, it means (like parenting) being constantly folded into developments, tending, fretting, and caring. Musk’s initiative OpenAI, which seeks to develop safer AI technologies, is more what Latour has in mind.

As it turns out, Latour is putting his own advice to the test. He is the creator-in-chief of the scariest monster of our times. This creature is not actually a product of science, but rather a way of thinking about science. Latour spent his career showing how scientific facts are socially constructed, that there is no such thing as unbiased access to truth, in short that objectivity is a sham and science is never really settled or certain. But now he watches in horror as this spirit of deconstruction and distrust takes root in our post-truth age of alternative facts, climate change denialists, and media bubbles that are sorted into tribal epistemologies. In a recent interview, Latour regrets his earlier “juvenile enthusiasm” in attacking science and vows to reverse course and hunt down the demon of skepticism he once so passionately animated: “We will have to regain some of the authority of science. That is the complete opposite from where we started doing science studies.”

In order to love our monsters we have to have some basic agreement about when they are misbehaving and what to do about it. That agreement comes through widespread trust in the traditional institutions of truth – science, the media, and universities. Latour sought to liberate us from the paternalism of the experts inhabiting these institutions. It was a noble quest. But his acid, combined with the chaos of social media, has corroded things more deeply than he imagined. Now it is bias all the way down, everything is susceptible to a knee-jerk accusation of ‘fake news!’ Climate change may be the ultimate abomination or maybe it’s a hoax. Who can tell? The skepticism-induced paralysis is hardly conducive to chasing monsters.

Victor Frankenstein pursued his monster all the way up to the artic. The ice stopped his hunt, and the monster attacked and killed Frankenstein overnight. It makes you wonder: what if that chase were to happen now that the polar ice has so starkly retreated. Maybe Frankenstein would have caught his prey. I guess it depends…could the monster swim?

The Carbon Cult: Making Energy Great Again

“Coal is electricity. Electricity is life. Life is green…” Fred Palmer paused for a moment, enraptured. “Coal is green!” Applause from the audience. The man next to me said, “Yes, yes!” as he tapped his knuckles on the white table cloth. With this triumphant syllogism, Mr. Palmer had done the only damage control required the whole day. The speaker before him had let slip an unusual admission, saying that “Coal is dirty…or at least it is perceived as dirty…I mean by those who think carbon is a problem.” It was a sheepish gesture that maybe – just maybe – coal wasn’t, you know, entirely good. This was off message. And even though it was slight, it needed to be stamped out. So Mr. Palmer, former Senior VP at Peabody Energy and a leader in the coal industry, sternly objected: “Coal is not dirty!” No, coal is green.

The day began with the kind of bounty made possible by coal’s thankless work behind the scenes: a copious pile of bacon and bottomless orange juice. We took our seats and set our cloth napkins in our laps just in time for the video montage. There was the presidential candidate Donald Trump in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and North Dakota. He was talking about energy. The musical score evoked a glorious mood and managed to refine Trump’s crude campaign remarks (“Terrific. Great”) into a golden vision. There he was in a hard hat shoveling a pretend pile of coal. There he was with oil workers at a rig. We will build those pipelines and it will be with American steel. “Can you believe that?”

It was early, so the applause was still decaffeinated when Heartland Institute President Tom Huelskamp took the stage after the montage. Heartland is a libertarian think tank that worked with Philip Morris in the 1990s to question the health risks of smoking and now is the main American institution pushing climate change skepticism. It has played a leading role in making the U.S. Republican party the only major political party worldwide to deny the scientific consensus on climate change.

Mr. Huelskamp first cracked a joke about how they bought the “solar-powered wifi plan,” so we were out of luck if we wanted to check our e-mail. We had gathered, he then explained, for their America First energy conference. The goal was to assess the progress made thus far and identify the steps yet to be taken in realizing Donald Trump’s plan to make America a global energy super-power. It was Houston one year and two days after Trump’s improbable victory. It was also less than three months after Hurricane Harvey dumped a record-setting 64.5 inches of rain on the city and caused chemical fires and oil spills. There would be plenty of talk about the recently crowned World Series champion Houston Astros, but no mention of Harvey.

I scanned the room: almost entirely white men over fifty in dark suits. There was the occasional cowboy hat. Oil executives, coal mine operators, drilling engineers, conservative policy-makers, and libertarian opinion-makers. These were the bone-weary veterans of the long “war on fossil fuels” perpetuated by President Obama (set aside the fact that domestic oil production nearly doubled under the Obama administration). Haggard and worn by an eight-year tsunami of job-killing regulations, they had emerged victorious at long last. They had come to hear the good news from the brains trust behind Trump’s energy plan.

The plan is to achieve energy dominance, where ‘energy’ is understood to mean fossil fuels. The old goal of energy independence is for wimps. We don’t just want to have sufficient resources to satisfy our own needs. On top of that, we want to export enough oil, natural gas, and coal to impact global markets. The aim is to grab the world, so to say, by the pussy. The call for dominance, though, is about more than manliness. It is a manifest destiny. In Genesis, we are told that God created humankind in his image by calling on us to subdue the earth and to “have dominion…over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” We’re just giving that original command a patriotic twist. As Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry would later say at the lunch keynote in his Cajun drawl, “Move over Saudi Arabia. We number one now!”

But this was not just a policy conference, it was a morality tale. These embattled veterans, long demonized by the left, had come to reassure themselves about the righteousness of their cause. They are the good guys after all. They wear the white hats. Fossil fuels mean prosperity and only with prosperity do you get the luxury of caring for the environment. As Mr. Landry noted, it’s those oil wells off the coast of Louisiana that make the sleeping bag you lie in at night watching the stars from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Yes, there is money to be made – oh the money! – but it’s not about that. It’s about that single mom who will save on her heating bill. It’s about the 1.2 billion people around the world without electricity, begging for our coal, which is a carbon-wrapped dream of a better life. It’s about cars, and grillin’ out, and freedom.

Fossil fuels supply roughly 85% of America’s total energy demands. Heartland Institute CEO Joseph Bast assured us by the end of the long day that that would still be in case in 2050 and beyond. But isn’t that wrong? Renewables are the future, and there is a global consensus to decarbonize our economy…right? Not according to this group, the thinkers and storytellers behind the Trump administration energy plan. It is natural to assume that they are the 21st century equivalent of the last gasp of the whale oil or wainwright businesses. That could be a dangerous assumption, though. It is now open season for carbon extraction and combustion. That might lock us into path dependencies that delay a renewable future. And if the “global warming alarmists” actually happen to be right, the Trump administration might gleefully push us over the edge.



This summer, I received a little book in my university mailbox from the Heartland Institute titled Why Scientists Disagree about Global Warming. They had mailed it to 350,000 high school and college educators. It was a condensed version of earlier, thousand-page reports produced by the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC, pronounced ‘nipsee’). Most professors who received the book proclaimed it to be propaganda and tossed it in the garbage. But I ordered twenty-five copies and assigned it to my “Ethics in Science” class. It seemed like a timely case study in the way values and politics get tangled up with science.

They sent me the extra copies. They also sent me Sterling Burnett, Heartland research fellow, who delivered an hour-long lecture in our class on just why scientists disagree about climate change. Our class already had a couple of hypotheses about this. Our consensus was on the first theory: there isn’t really any important disagreement. Instead, what we have is a credible consensus position on one side and a handful of industry-funded denialists on the other side. We had watched the documentary Merchants of Doubt and read the work of Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway. We were not naïve; we understood how the tobacco industry prolonged uncertainty and disagreement about the dangers of smoking in order to keep their gravy train rolling as long as possible. Ditto for fossil fuel companies and climate change.

Of course, Dr. Burnett, who has a PhD in applied ethics, had a different story. He was no merchant of doubt and certainly no denialist. He was a defender of freedom, private property, and most importantly science. After all, there are other ways to explain disagreement among scientists. In the first instance, nature is complex. There is no possible way we could understand the climate system with anything approaching certainty. As the NIPCC report notes, “true science is never settled.” It is always provisional and open to falsification. Disagreement in science, then, is “the rule” and that is because “science is a process leading to ever-greater certainty, necessarily implying that what is accepted as true today will likely not be accepted as true tomorrow” (p. 9). We used to think illness was an imbalance in the humors and that fire came from phlogiston. We think we know better now, but give it time. Germ theory, the periodic table, plate tectonics…these are “likely” destined for the dustbin too. Science is a process, a fluid, and thus not suitable as a foundation for policy. But of course, the “formulation of effective public environmental policy must be rooted in evidence-based science” (p. 83), even though it probably isn’t true.

The NIPCC report doesn’t specify what ‘disagree’ means, which is its key epistemic move. Imagine all the variables involved in climate change: soils, the stratosphere, the role of water vapor and clouds, the human contribution, the placement of rain gauges, ice cores, polar bear populations, the right policy response, the proper estimation of uncertainties, the right inferences from this or that data set, etc. No scientist is going to agree with another scientist across the board on all of this. Thus, scientists disagree. Of course, according to this sweeping definition, so do the climate denialists. There are many different flavors of ‘skepticism,’ some reasonable and others loony. I sometimes think about writing a report titled “Why Climate Change Deniers Disagree about Global Warming.”

Thomas Hobbes already recognized in the 17th century that the empirical sciences could never fulfill their promise to transcend all religious and political factions to deliver the one true picture of nature. Science could not legitimately referee and resolve political debates, because scientists would never be able to agree among themselves. As Hobbes said, we will continue to “see double” and multiple truths will legitimate multiple claims to authority and multiple policy agendas. Hobbes, like Rene Descartes, didn’t put much stock in our senses – the frail and error-prone human apparatus is not a trustworthy source of knowledge about reality. We are so easily duped. You want me to ‘prove’ climate change? Hell, Descartes just barely proved that he existed.

Indeed, I don’t read the NIPCC report so much as an affront to the Enlightenment project as the fulfillment of it – as the working out of its own internal contradictions. Take Immanuel Kant’s answer to the question he posed in 1784, “What is Enlightenment?” It is the “courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know!” Enlightenment is when we mature and think for ourselves rather than rely on tradition and authority to do the thinking for us. Which brings us to page 59 of the NIPCC report. There they note that the complexity of climate makes it “difficult for unprejudiced lay persons to judge for themselves where the truth actually lies in the global warming debate.” Therefore, they turn to the “supposedly authoritative statements issued by one side or another in the public discussion.” But “Arguing from authority…is the antithesis of the scientific method.”

Kant set us up, that bastard. Science means thinking for yourself and questioning authority. But science also means expertise and authority. Am I really supposed to set all the textbooks aside and think for myself, from scratch, about the composition of matter, space, and time? To be scientific is both to distrust and trust. When to do one and when to do the other? There is no scientific answer for that. Note how the NIPCC report saws off the branch it is sitting on: if you can’t trust authoritative statements on either side, then that includes them. If doubt is your product, though, that is fine, because you don’t want belief. You want its suspension. You could call this a form of nihilism. The method is in some sense Socratic, because it is a negative dialectic, which questions all claims to truth. Socrates often talked his interlocutors into a state of aporia or impasse and puzzlement. They were paralyzed, which is why Socrates was known by some as the sting ray more than the gad fly. But in an industrial society the result of a negative dialectics is not paralysis, but the continuation of the status quo, especially drill and burn.

Dr. Burnett also had another theory about scientific disagreement. He quoted from Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famous 1953 farewell address where he talks not just about the dangers of the “military industrial complex,” but also the scientific industrial complex:

the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity…The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded…public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

Money dominates science. Did you ever notice how those global warming alarmists are all funded by the government? And what could be a greater boon for government control and research funding than a massive program to regulate carbon, the very lifeblood of our economy? Be alert. Dare to know.



(A picture of one of Mr. Leimkuhler’s slides)

After his visit, Dr. Burnett extended an invitation to me and my students to attend the America First energy conference. They would waive the $350 registration fee. My PhD student, Giovanni, jumped at the chance, because his dissertation is on energy ethics. We both grabbed our one decent suit and made the five hour drive from Denton to Houston the night before the conference. Room rates at the conference hotel were over $1,000 per night, which was slightly north of our budget. We stayed at a three star place outside the city center and shared coffee the next morning with a construction crew that was staying there in order to be close to their work site: another new building tacked onto the sprawling waistline of an already obese metroplex. Gio, who is from Italy, was overwhelmed by the scale of the city, the beating asphalt-smothered heart of modern petro-culture. “Why do you Americans need such massive lots for new cars?”

The morning keynote was delivered by Joe Leimkuhler, Vice President of drilling for LLOG Exploration and former head of Shell’s Gulf of Mexico operations. He spends his days helicoptering from Louisiana to offshore oil rigs in the Gulf. Leimkuhler delivered a sober analysis of what Gio and I took to be a punch-drunk plan to achieve fossil-fueled energy dominance. It is a reminder that rationality, as an instrumental operation, can operate anywhere. Once the ends are assumed, the means can be logically scrutinized. This is what the philosopher Leo Strauss called “retail sanity and wholesale madness.” We are clever with means and blockheaded with ends. Houston itself is a good illustration of how millions of small rational choices give rise to big irrationalities. In terms of energy dominance, once we take it as a given that we should drill and mine more, the questions become susceptible to Leimkuhler’s engineering expertise: just how much is still buried in the crust of the earth, how can we get it out, and how much will it cost to ship it to Asia?

He walked us through the state of American oil, coal, and gas. Can we be energy dominant in these fields? The answer is mostly yes. Nuclear power is less certain, but hopeful. Then he turned to that tiny remaining portion of our energy portfolio, which he first labeled “renewables” (in quotes) and then subsidy energy (not in quotes). Suddenly the logic of the analysis changed. For coal, oil, and gas we had assumed their unmitigated beneficence. The question was not whether, but how to get more. For renewables, though, the question was whether to become dominant. The answer was no. The first slide on renewables left the engineering realm of charts to show a picture of a wind turbine menacing a bird. Renewables kill birds. They also pollute his beloved Gulf. The hypoxic dead zone from all that agricultural runoff from the American heartland down the Mississippi is the fault of ethanol, which is lumped in with “renewables.” (Forget the contribution of fossil-fuel derived fertilizers to the dead zone.) Then he went even further from the universal language of data to tell a story about his own disappointing experience with costly and anemic solar panels on the roof of his house. The story drew howls of laughter. Solar! What a joke! (Forget that it created three times as many jobs as coal in 2016.)

The conference then broke into two parallel sessions, which established the foundations of the energy dominance paradigm. The first panel took up the theme of “energy and prosperity.” The upshot: increases in energy production lead to increases in human well-being. To form consensus around a policy strategy like energy dominance, you need foundational articles of faith and this is one: more energy equals better lives. Yet this is true only to a certain point. As the energy analyst Vaclav Smil points out, there are clear “saturation levels” beyond which further energy consumption fails to produce additional gains for quality of life. The people in Gio’s home country of Italy consume one third the energy of Americans per capita and in many ways enjoy life so much more.

Our desires (say for that new phone) become needs that distract and shackle us. If the Trump populists had really understood the ur-populist Rousseau, they would realize that our desires increase in proportion to our weaknesses. They are not peddling freedom; they are selling slavery and spreading “garlands of flowers over the iron chains that weigh men down.” Just look at those strained faces of the commuters stuck in Houston’s traffic. Consider how the very makers of our most sought-after technologies are looking for ways to escape their addictive grip. According to the 2017 World Happiness Report, Americans were just as happy in 1960 as we are now, despite the fact that we now have three times the per capita income as back then.

The other morning panel featured two climate scientists who rehearsed what had by now become a tired act: human impacts are a signal lost in the noise, models require so many fudge factors that they are meaningless, data gathering is drenched in methodological errors, ‘climate’ is itself an arbitrary construct… The room was surprisingly low-energy. I talked to an energy economics professor from Rice after the presentations who calmly dismissed the entirety of climate science: “I lost faith when all those weather balloons failed to show any warming above the tropics.” It was the confession of a lapsed Catholic who had given up on the church, i.e., the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He had found his new home in the protestant institution of NIPCC that professed its own truths. Such are the dynamics of what the philosopher Steve Fuller calls “protscience” or protestant science.

It dawned on me that climate denial had entered a new phase for this crowd. The heady days of feverish counter-studies were the stuff of what the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn called a “crisis,” which happens when an old paradigm falls under attack. But for this group now, the crisis had been resolved and the new paradigm had been entrenched. It is like when the American scientists dispelled those zany French theories about the presence of N-rays. Once you know they don’t exist there really isn’t a need to continue attacking them. The revolution is over and we can get on with the business of “normal science.” That carbon is simply not a problem can now be assumed and projects built atop that foundation. Thus, the other pillar of the energy dominance paradigm. Life is good and carbon is good. This is the story underneath all the data; it is the interpretive framework, the paradigm, through which everything is filtered.

Kuhn talks about a paradigm as a worldview or gestalt. Indeed, the conference left me feeling as disoriented as those psychology test subjects who put on goggles with inverting lenses. Up is down and down is up. The scary thing is that “after the subject has begun to learn to deal with his new world, his entire visual field flips over…” We get used to it, that is, the new normal. Once you have a new paradigm, you “see different things when looking at the same sorts of objects.”



(Kuznet’s Curve)

“Insanity is a word I am going to be using a lot!” It was Jay Lehr’s turn at the podium. Science director for Heartland, Princeton-educated, Ph.D. in hydrology, author of over 1,000 articles and 36 books, Lehr has all the trappings of sanity. He pulled out a CO2 monitor from his pocket and told us that the level in the room was presently at 715 ppm. The atmospheric level is only at 400 ppm. On submarines it regularly tops 1,500 ppm and those guys are fine! There is no limit to this, “well okay I’ve heard that at 18,000 ppm some people get a little woozy.” That’s it, though. Just buy one of these monitors! Pull it out of your pocket when you talk to those crazy environmental zealots. “I have found it really calms the nerves.” We are alright. Don’t be so hysterical!

He was practically hopping with energy on stage, betraying his grey hair and advanced age. “We are so fortunate that we have driven up atmospheric levels of CO2, and I pray that you all will live to see the day when it stands at 600 ppm.” Life will be so grand then. It is insane to demonize carbon. Carbon is life. Just google satellite images of Africa, there is more forest cover there than ever before in human history. Grasslands are eating away the Sahara. “We are greening the earth!” I looked at Gio, whose jaw was dropping. Somebody was insane alright. But that’s the problem. When you encounter someone from an alternative reality you don’t have any shared standard to judge whose reality is the real one. All standards derive from one or the other reality and thus any debate is hopelessly circular. Who took the blue pill and who took the red?

Kuhn called this the condition of incommensurability. When this happens, the possibility for rational exchange is over. Today, this phenomenon goes by the name of “tribal epistemology.” Indeed, NIPCC should be seen as just one instance of the right-wing alternative info-verse. The IPCC is part of the mainstream media that traditionally police the boundaries of discourse, setting the parameters for acceptable and honest speech. NIPCC is the Fox News of climate science. As their report makes plain, the IPCC is “not a credible source” because it is corrupt, agenda-driven, and a political rather than a scientific body. In other words: fake news.

Rather than attempt to salvage the institutions that govern a shared space for debate, Heartland and other right-wing organizations just created their own source of information. This is the sort of balkanization invited by the internet with its endless alleyways of terrabytes delivered at petaflop pace. So much for those early dreams of a “global village,” our future is much more likely to resemble Neil Stephenson’s world of Snow Crash, where gangs (or tribes) partition both the real and digital worlds into a menagerie of war zones. Through our solipsistic newsfeeds we are already fractionating into the “big sort.” There goes the whole dream of “one nation, indivisible” with each swipe of our slot machine social media.

At lunch I confessed to a lawyer that I was “outside of my bubble.” He works in Wisconsin helping sand mining companies and the oil and gas industry win permits from local governments. A modern fracking operation takes 100 car loads of sand per well to help prop open the fractures in the shale created by pressurized water and trade-secret chemicals. The best sand is in Wisconsin, although 20 new sand mines have opened just this year on the re-booming Permian Basin in west Texas. I asked the lawyer if he had read the recent book When the Hills are Gone, which laments the erasure of Wisconsin’s bucolic, rolling landscape in the rush for glacial sand. He scoffed, “yeah.” I asked, “What did you make of it?” In between bites of shrimp tortellini he replied, “I guess some people don’t own hills and they don’t like what other people do with their private property.” “But,” I said, “aren’t hills more than just private property? Aren’t they also part of a shared landscape, a sense of community and place?” He acknowledge that’s part of it too. I said, “But your job is to get local permitting organizations to overlook that part, right?” He smiled, “yeah.”

So much is overlooked with the free market environmentalism that forms the intellectual backbone of the energy dominance paradigm. At the end of his impressively smart talk, I asked Todd Myers, the head of a free market think tank, if he saw any legitimate role for the government in environmental policy. He admitted that, yes, there is a role. Lead pollution control is a story of government success. The free market turns out to be another article of faith that could stand a dose of Socratic questioning. Indeed, Myers had cited the work of Noble Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom as an example of how government is not necessary to solve environmental problems. That’s true, but her work was not about the free market either. Her work derived from examples of pre-modern and non-capitalist “common pool resource” institutions that depend on cooperation more than competition. Indeed, her path to sustainability requires the very kinds of cooperation prevented by tribal “deep disagreements.”

Myers’s talk articulated the eco-modernist strains of the energy dominance paradigm. The basic story is this: though modern technology creates environmental problems, it also eventually solves those problems. He put it in terms of the Kuznet’s Curve, which tracks pollution on the y-axis and economic growth on the x-axis. For a while, the line curves upward as pollution increases from our economic activity. But then we reach the “turning point,” which is what the eco-modernists call “peak impact.” The line then curves downward and pollution actually decreases as economic growth continues to increase. In this way, we “decouple” negative environmental impacts from positive economic gains.

This is the formula behind the push to eliminate – er, “right size” – the EPA. When Myron Ebell, head of Trump’s EPA transition team, took to the podium, he repeated the basic story. Air quality in Pittsburgh was horrible in 1960. The Cuyahoga River burned in 1969. But the air and water are clean now! We don’t need the EPA. Mission accomplished. To continue its irrational growth would be like an anorexic woman intensifying her diet regime; it will starve us. As Mr. Bast put it, we have to remove “the foot of environmental radicals from the neck of our economy.”

Let’s assume that the eco-modern gamble on modern technology is the right move. That doesn’t absolve the energy dominance paradigm, because it commits the same logical fallacy of composition made by Mr. Palmer in his syllogism about coal. Coal is not electricity. It is one primary fuel from which the secondary fuel of electricity can be derived. So too, fossil fuels are not modern technology. It is true that fossil fuels drive our economy. But unlike, say, the iPhone, nobody actually wants coal, oil, or natural gas. A lump of coal in your Christmas stocking is not the ideal gift.

People want the commodities that fossil fuels provide, the power, heat, light, and cool air. Those commodities can, however, be provided in other ways. That’s the thing about modern technology in a capitalist society. The ends (commodities) will be provided through whatever means are cheapest and most efficient. Thus, because they are peddling mere means, the fossil fuel industries are remarkably vulnerable despite all their power. And what they are vulnerable to is the very thing they so often praise: the free market. The kind of capitalism they claim to support is as blind as justice – it has no favored sons, not even fossil fuels.



Just before lunch, a tall, gaunt man with intense and deeply-set eyes shook my hand and introduced himself as an engineer living in Vegas. With a wink, he told me, “I am in hog heaven!” What does that mean? I was pondering that when the next speaker was introduced. It turned out to be my new acquaintance, Dr. Alan Chamberlain. He hunched over the microphone and proceeded over the next fifteen minutes to whip the crowd into a frenzy. There is a shale play in the Great Basin under Nevada and Utah that makes the Ghawar (the largest conventional oil field in the world) look tiny. A reservoir that size is known in the industry as an elephant and Chamberlain is the elephant hunter. “Come take a ride with me on my helicopter and I will show you the rocks! You can smell the oil…I love the smell of oil, don’t you? It smells like money!” The Trump administration is opening up the leases on all that federal land out there. Get in on the bottom floor. He has all the maps drawn up. Exxon is drooling over his seismographic work. The room buzzed and Chamberlain was swarmed after his talk.

Chamberlain was a big hit, but by far the most well-attended panel was on the endangerment finding. “December 7th, 2009,” one panelist said, “is a day that shall live in infamy.” That was the day the Obama administration succeeded in getting CO2 listed as a threat to the “public health and welfare of current and future generations.” Yes, we have ditched the Paris climate agreement, we’ve tossed the Clean Power Plan, we’ve opened up more federal lands and water to fracking, we’ve rescinded WOTUS (the Waters of the United States rule), and we’re putting climate skeptics on the EPA science advisory boards. But there is one major obstacle remaining, one last den of thieves: the endangerment finding, as one panelist put it, that “monument to regulatory onanism.” We must overturn the legal standing of CO2 as a threat to health. A picture was shown comparing smoke stacks on a coal power plant to the left with the papal smoke stack (used when a new Pope is being selected and the ballots are burned) on the right. The left side is clean, the right is the real pollution.

This panel was ghastly in its surgical precision. We must target the Office of Science and Technology Policy, because the finding is rooted in bad science. “We can then have a red-team, blue-team thing to get honest science in there.” A Harvard-educated independent consultant walked the room through the rules on information quality. Here is the sword developed by the federal government that we can turn around and use against it. The environmentalists tried to turn their crazy policy agenda into science. Very well, then, we will turn the science into information, we will then turn the information into a process, and turn the process into a legal hearing. With patience and exactitude we will succeed in getting a judge to pull the rug out from under the whole house of cards. One panelist put up a quote from Isaac Asimov on the screen: “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” I agreed with the sentiment, but I suspect for different reasons.

The next slide was a cartoon of Trump in a scene from Casablanca saying, “We’ll always have Pittsburgh.” That’s what this was all about. Those in the American heartland who dig, make, and grow things with their bare hands are suffering under the California model. Sure, it’s good for Silicon Valley, but those in the Central Valley suffer under “Third World conditions.” We have to get rid of costly regulations. (Never mind the absence of regulations that led to the 2008 recession, from which the American economy has never fully recovered.)

Speaking of the Third World, it holds the key to coal’s future. In one of the last panels, we heard from Heath Lovell, the clean-cut Vice President of Public Affairs at Alliance Coal. He assured us that he would much rather be in one of his Kentucky mines digging coal, but alas he had to put on a tie and go on the road to save the family business. Sure, the coal fleet has suffered tremendously, but this is less the result of market forces than unfair regulations promulgated by the Obama administration. Coal is now set for a resurgence and its primary market is not at home, but abroad. “We have a moral obligation,” Mr. Lovell said, “to help the rest of the world live like we do.” Over one billion people don’t have electricity and as a result they live short and miserable lives. Through coal exports, we won’t just keep our mines open, more importantly we will fulfill our ethical duty toward the world’s poor. Not just Americans, but “all the people of the world deserve the lowest cost energy.”

The only problem is the left coast. Oregon and Washington have both banned coal export facilities, which unsettled this group and its usual bullish defense of state’s rights. “Maybe we can go through the Gulf of Mexico,” a member of the audience suggested during the Q&A. Yes, that might work. And in the meantime we should consider acknowledging the fact that coal provides grid reliability or resiliency. Because you can stockpile it, unlike wind and solar (though no one mentioned the grid-scale batteries Tesla is developing), coal provides an added benefit that may not be fully recognized in market prices.

The room, however, got uneasy with such talk. After all, aren’t we supposed to be fans of the free market? And worse, doesn’t this kind of smell like a subsidy – a resiliency subsidy – and aren’t we opposed to those…in fact, weren’t we just laughing at how weak solar and wind would be without all those subsidies? Worse yet, what about that populist narrative about people mining things with their bare hands? That sits awkwardly next to the fact that the biggest killer of coal jobs is not wind, natural gas, or even regulations but automation, which is something the industry imposed on itself in keeping with the dictates of capitalism. Maybe the robots will have Pittsburgh.



The dinner panel opened with steak and a video message from Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma. He had just returned from a ceremony in Lithuania to commemorate the opening of their first liquefied natural gas import facility. America would liberate our European allies from their energy dependence on Russia, even though Russia isn’t really that bad. He concluded with a charming request: “Let’s enjoy energy independence together again, okay?” Maybe he didn’t get the memo that we were shooting for all out dominance now.

The headline spot belonged to Vincent DeVito, who holds the rare distinction of occupying a new government position created by President Trump. Agencies are being slashed and perennial positions left unstaffed in Trump’s version of a Ron Swanson government. National parks are even being downsized. But DeVito sits in the brand-new job of Counselor to the Secretary for Energy Policy. He was hyper-aware of this embarrassing position, and spent the first several minutes of his remarks defending his choice to take the newly-created federal post, which is “not a trophy job.” He is “not a swamp creature.” This is not about his professional resume.

No, this is about distributing the spoils of their victory in the war on American energy. The globalist war against our way of life in the name of a phony climate crisis has been defeated. As a result, we can now reap a “peace dividend” as American families enjoy the lower prices that will result from our new commitment to energy dominance. DeVito, working in concert with Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, is tasked with managing the allocation of our bounties. All those resources under our federal lands and waters “belong to the taxpayers, not the government.” Of course, the taxpayers don’t know how to turn shale into usable energy, so we’ll have to first auction things off to the private sector. But then the transformation of private greed into public good will assuredly follow. Americans will have cheaper gas to get them through those morning commutes.

The DOI is the second largest revenue generator for the federal government, behind only “our friends at the IRS.” It is time, DeVito said, “to add value to the taxpayer’s portfolio.” For him, our public lands are ‘public’ in the same way a corporation is public: they are assets to be managed in a way that maximizes the profits of the shareholders. Forget the preservationist agenda of John Muir, this isn’t even the conservationism of Gifford Pinchot. That, at least, was a vision of stewardship. This is a vision of return on investments. Of course, we are managing our public lands in the most responsible way possible. “In no other country… is energy produced in more environmentally friendly ways,” DeVito said in a broken cadence as he attempted several times to unsuccessfully stray from the remarks prepared for him by his speechwriters. On the other hand, there are lots of countries that permit energy extraction activities more quickly. We can learn from other countries.

DeVito’s slow and rambling cadence drained the energy from the room almost as rapidly as a shale oil well depletes after being fracked. Mr. Bast tried to re-frack the audience in his closing remarks, injecting them with a sense of our historical moment and instilling in them an appreciation for just how nuts the enemy really is. “Can you believe what they have done to language?!” Mr. Bast said, exacerbated, “carbon pollution?!” For a moment he was rendered speechless by this obvious grammatical mangle. Carbon. A pollutant?! Carbon is the basis of all life on earth.

Yes, carbon is life. It is also a threat to life. As Hegel noted, for every affirmation there is a negation. In The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, the ethical handbook for energy dominance, Alex Epstein argues that we are not taking a safe climate and making it dangerous through greenhouse gas emissions. Rather, we are taking a dangerous climate (prone to floods, fires, etc.) and making it safe by using fossil fuels to build shelters from the storms. But in fact, we are doing both – increasing and decreasing risks. The whole energy dominance paradigm is built atop these single-minded, and simple-minded, views. More energy is good, sure, but only to a point. Free markets are fine, yes, but only within limits. Fossil fuels have done lots of good, granted, but they are also horribly destructive. This is the appeal of the Trump administration in a nutshell: simple answers to complex realities. A black and white world of certainties. Hegel wrote that the owl of Minerva flies only at dusk. Wisdom occupies the both/and spaces where it is neither clearly night nor clearly day.

But we should be both for and against this both/and business. It would be good to play the Socratic sting ray for this group; to get them to stop and think that perhaps they don’t have it all figured out. I would settle for a little aporia to slow the carboniferous onslaught. But, to put it mildly, the conditions are not presently ripe for philosophy. Deep introspection is not exactly our zeitgeist. In which case, what we need may be philosophy of a different variety: not the theoretical monkey wrench of Socrates, but the more material kind once wielded by Ed Abbey out there atop the elephant hiding under the great American West.

A Hike in the Woods

These woods were made for nine-year-old boys. The leaves are carpet enough and the dark trunks of hickory are walls enough for the architecture of imagination. Already they run ahead, laughing, while we tarry behind. The young dog scampers, the old one trots. How they must pity us, the nose-blind, who can sniff only the uniform, stoic must of a wet and late autumn. I wonder what olfactory bouquet entertains them. The old one has found a half-chewed turtle shell. There must be a circus of smells – alkaloids, phenols, pheromones, the ribald humus, the ethylene of post-ripening, and the crystal twang of fungal filaments woven into the rotting wood fibers of the limbs all around our feet.

I drag the sky into my body, but cannot smell anything with much detail. Yet there is an emotional complexity that may surpass whatever the dogs sense, though I don’t presume to know how this day feels to them. Those threadbare clouds of autumn and the first chill unlock in me memories of her and that trip we took to Duluth, a city crowned by golden maples on the rim of a darkening lake full out to the horizon. I only remember her eyes. We didn’t touch each other the whole time. That would come later and then, like the winter, the touching would subside. And so, although I do not perceive the chemical nuances of autumn, I know her subtleties such as they take shape in humanly ways. One October breeze across the wet leaves can evoke an entire symphony of nostalgia, regret, nudity, wine, embarrassment, and a dull-burning rage that summer is over. The day aches inside me. What I mean to say is that if I have a purpose it is to be a place for the day to ache in this way.

To be nine. Life would be fine, if I were nine. Time would unwind if I were nine. Look at them, walking like fancy ladies with their hands on their hips that make exaggerated swings until they can stand the impersonation no longer and howl in laughter. Shoving one another. The first awareness of sexuality has dawned on them, a kind of spring that forms a contrapuntal to the fall around us. The sweet gum tree litters the floor with its ornate seedpods, filigreed globes pierced by two dozen holes, each surrounded by what appears from up close like wooden solar flares. Or from another angle, each hole looks like the gaping mouth of a bird, its beaks twisted elegantly. But for them, they are balls. Woodland testicles. And the pine needles form abundant and convenient, albeit slender, phalluses. Giggles all around. Man is the measure of all things. It is innocent enough – and accurate enough. After all, the woods are lousy with sex and its consequences.

We walk the old logging road. It appears to be abandoned – the woods slowly closing in with sprigs of ferns cropping up to erase human intentions. A grotesque spider hangs at adult eye level from a branch above. The three boys had not noticed it, but my companion did. “Look,” he says. “What will it do in the winter?” I wonder. For us, the wood is chopped and the harvest is in. But for the spider? What about these creatures that live, as it were, leg to mouth? They have nothing stored up, save in their flesh, which is meager to say the least. Will it die in the cold? Or will it hunker in somewhere under a crag of bark or a lip of soil and go torpid? Does it know the seasons are turning like a blue stone wheel around us? It may not know, I suppose, in a propositional sense, but perhaps in its body it knows that in the same way it knows how to weave its web. Knowing and doing and being are one. What is its life to it? Does it think, does it have that internal dialogue, swinging as it does for such long periods of waiting there in the infinite woodland? Or is there only an internal static, like on a radio before radio stations?

They boys have found a hump of soil, pocked here and there with shards of white quartz. My walking companion says it may have been made to dissuade off-road vehicles. I had assumed it was natural – that maybe it was an old trunk tucked under a blanket of soil. But that sort of thing doesn’t happen on its own. I see it now: the hand of man. I see it too in the thick row of spindly pines along the logging road. And in the road itself. The knoll is hardly four feet high, but enough for a game of king of the hill. More shoving and grappling. They test their muscles against one another – always ready to call foul, to change the rules, to feign a loss of interest should one suddenly wind up downhill. All you need to know about social compacts and wars, about monarchies and treason, about the unspoken norms of democracy is played out there in the flailing of arms and the bracing of legs. How close we live to violence and the wilderness inside. Yes, civilization harvests the woods but the woods in turn harvest the peace of civilization, the leisure to be unnecessary and beautiful. “Boys!” we call. It is time to head back to the cabin.

They run past us and ahead now downhill. It is a liminal age. Throw them in the lake and they set about like fish – you can drink a PBR on the pontoon with an easy spirt and a clear mind. Give them rubber boots and they take to the creek for hours like old explorers. Present them with the kitchen and they might even produce something akin to lunch all by themselves. But they are not yet ready to be on their own, we reckon, with the .22. And when we tell ghost stories there is genuine confusion about those glowing blue eyes in the woods, the eyes of star-crossed lovers who had died tragically at the hands of small-minded tribalists. Are they real?

One of them lost a tooth last night– the tooth that had long sat akimbo as the adult tooth pushed up from the pulp beneath, like an oversized hunk of quartz, slightly out of place. How adulthood breaks up through us, cracking and peeling its way through the soil, shoving unjustly until it is there: king of the hill. And he had put the tooth under his pillow in our bedroom at the cabin. The tooth fairy brought a handful of quarters, which he collected solemnly the next morning in silence. I feigned a mixture of surprise and drowsiness. I had listened from my bed above when he met his mates downstairs for scrambled eggs. He said nothing about the tooth fairy. Is it because they wouldn’t believe – that he feared they wouldn’t believe – that he didn’t really believe or at least want to be caught believing? Did he not want to be caught wanting to believe?

Oh, how nuanced the business of growing up! It happens in those moments there with a handful of quarters wondering where they really came from. The calculations about what to say to your dad, your friends, yourself.  A handful of quarters becomes the price of learning contrivances, the adult kinds of make-believe. The quarters become fare to get him to the other side of the river. Nine year old boys, it seems to me, are stepping on that boat, unprepared for the crossing. But I am still nine or at least still crossing and unprepared.

They miss the turn from the logging road to the small path that leads back to the cabin. We holler for them and they come racing back uphill, oblivious, with the dogs. How far would they have gone, we wonder, had we not called them back? The chilled air and the hallow blue drum of the sky remind me of German poetry. Give us just a pair of days, noch zwei… The hiker is fine. It is the hiker who feels compelled to give words to the evocations of the hike who you must worry about. He will always feel dejected and lost upon return. You must remind him that it is not his fault. There is too much space between language and being – between the root and the word ‘root.’ Even the young dog can only bound and zag amidst the bric-a-brac. His movements are just as inadequate as any spoken account. Expression is always indebted to experience, forever disappointing it.20171013_114512

The frustration can feel like a prison. We are trapped, perhaps, in these bodies. Why carbon, why not silicon? Why the humanoid form – this upright ape posture – why not any, or every, other? To quote from the venerable Father Copleston and his treatment of the pre-Socratics: “…in spite of all the change and transition, there must be something permanent. Why? Because the change is from something into something else. There must be something which is primary, which persists, which takes various forms and undergoes this process of change.” There must be some original stuff – Urstoff, for the German poets and philosophers. The sweet gum (shall we say?) endures throughout from seed to sapling to tree. The person (could it be?) abides despite being baby and then boy and then the man hollering for his own boys to get back on the path. Would this be your nature, your essence – the authentic you hunted and celebrated by Disney and fascists alike? And if so, why couldn’t it be lifted entirely from the body? That permanent you – that which does not itself change but lives through the change unchanged.

I think about when he was only three and how back then we knew him as a girl and he had a different name. This is an age before you learn the pump-jack motion of your legs to make the swing go all by itself. The father must push. It is his honor, or should be, because if he is wise he knows it is a short-lived needfulness and he wants to be needed. The child on the swing traces the largest arc, to be sure. Change is most apparent there, at the end. But follow the chain all the way up to the beam atop and you will see that even the topmost link rocks slightly at the same tempo. Even the beam, though you cannot see it, is rocked by the swing and this rocking is transferred into the pillars that are sunk in the ground. Even the earth vibrates at the swinging of the child. We just can’t feel it, the same as we cannot smell what the dog smells. We should never confuse the inadequacy of our senses for knowledge, let alone certainty.

There is nothing permanent. Or, if there is, it is far distal from us. The soul, you know, is not the self. The One requires the Many and the Many go up and down as if on a swing in and out of the One. “It is death to souls to become water,” so says Heraclitus, but take heart because “from water, soul.” The day has me all around and is distributed across skin and into sore ankles and sinking knees. There is the barbed wire fence marking the property line. We know it through the eyes but also through the legs, which must lift to cross the spot where a limb has fallen and, like a gentleman, is now holding down that line of rusty barbs for us.

The old dog has had enough and pants serenely, lapping at the meager inch of water in the creek. He takes his rest on the porch at the back of the cabin. The young one prances, confident that there is more – surely there is more – to the day than all this. This has only been a warm-up, right? From here we go on to the real thing, right? The boys too are ready for more and race to grab the .22 from the woodshed. I load the gun with five bullets each. And then I watch as each in turn takes aim at the rusty can on the nail in the fallen oak trunk. “Steady, now,” I say and watch as they calculate an imaginary straight line from their eye down the barrel, through the trapezoid blue shapes between the trees, above the leaf litter, and into the organic imprecision of the woods.

Blood and Soil

A white supremacist spits in a vial. A lab analyzes the spit. The results are printed on paper: Your genetic heritage is 86% European and 14% African. “That’s not right! Oil and water don’t mix!” Different essences cannot inhabit the same body. He spits in another vial. A different lab uses a different method. The results: Your genetic heritage is 97% European and 3% Iberian. “Yes, that’s me….mostly right anyway.” Mostly.

This is the story of the racist Craig Cobb. It is also the story of the majority of white supremacists, because they take DNA tests and are dissatisfied with the results. But it is so much more than that. It is the story of our times. Adrift in a globalized, hyper-paced world with infinite cultural possibilities and identities at our fingertips. We want to know: Who am I? Who are we?  It is a chasm of anxiety. Phones clutched in bed at night. Tell me who I am. The answer is never fully satisfying.

Torch march of white nationalists

They carry torches and swarm a small band of students on campus who are linked arm in arm at the foot of Mr. Jefferson. (Who was he…slave owner, author of human rights? Oil and water.) They shout “blood and soil.” Das Volk. But what about blood? It’s not the hemoglobin – everyone has that. It is why all blood is red when it ends up out there on the pavement. On your knuckles. No, not the blood of physiology but of heritage. Bloodlines. Lines back in time. The ancestors, the antecedere, those who came before. Anchor lines.

But they never hit the bottom of the ocean. The spit unspools into the thinnest strand and goes down, down, down. Back in time. As thin as a spider’s thread. Where to stop? How about a few hundred years ago in Europe. Fine, but why? There is no answer to that question that doesn’t carry the stain of the arbitrary and thus, the indefensible. After all it goes much further back. To Africa – always through Africa. How painful. It’s okay, you are white if you look in the mirror and you see a white man there looking back. “But the mirror is thin. What about the anchor line through the depths?” It’s still dropping into the fathoms. Past the monkeys past the frogs and fish. Who are we again? “The mirror is cracked….hello?”

The soil under the concrete under their marching feet is moving inches per millennia. Time and space move through each other. Soils hemorrhage down the James River to the bottom of the ocean. Soils emerge after long nightmares that turned them into rocks, scared stiff. Soils are atoms – the same as you. Quarks, really. It is all just quarks out there on the university square. Torches are quarks. Racists are quarks. Their arms linked. Quarks. Each one the exact same as the next. Give it enough time and Virginia will be at the equator. It will be under an ocean. The point is: it won’t be anymore. Hubris of man – to think the soil could hear you call its name. Does the mountain stoop to entertain the existence of the flea? Some supremacists! Kings of nowhere. Kings of never.

What could white culture mean if not the culture that gave us modern science? Though there is that “Iberian thing.” Those Muslims – Ibn Sīnā, etc. Mostly, though. Mostly it is the culture of science. Then, I am sorry, it is your heritage and your fate to fall and keep on falling. To spin and keep on spinning. To have your blood forever slip through even the most fastidious of methodologies. To have your soil pulled out from under you like a rug. Forever a hybrid. Mixed. Mongrel. Unrein.

Poor soul. This culture – the one you love – has planted inside of you an unbearable itch for certainty and purity. And then it deprived you of every possible means for scratching that itch. Everything melts in your hands.

“Those DNA tests are a Jewish lie!” Good. Tell yourself that so that you don’t shatter. You’ll keep falling, but at least you’ll never crash.

Dear Secretary Zinke


I am writing on behalf of my children to urge you to protect our National Monuments. My son Max (9), my daughter Lulu (5), and I have had the chance to camp at, explore, and hike several National Monuments, including Chiricahua, Organ Pipe Cactus, Chimney Rock, Capulin Volcano, and White Sands.

At these places, my children have participated in the Junior Ranger program and we have learned a great deal: about mountain lions, volcanoes, cacti, loggerhead shrikes, coyote scat, erosion, pit houses, hunting, the medicinal uses of juniper, and what to do if you simply have to poop while on the trail. Max and Lulu have earned many Jr. Ranger badges, which they proudly display on their Jr. Ranger vests. What I like about the ceremony of this is how each Ranger has a different oath that the kids repeat with a raised right hand. In one case, the Ranger asked them to pledge to treat everyone kindly even if they look different. In another case, the Ranger made them promise to care for our mother earth.

There is a basic ethos to being a Junior Ranger that has three parts. First, be safe – you know, stay on the trail, drink water, wear sunscreen, look large if a mountain lion appears, etc. Second, learn about the area (for example, did you know that mountain lions don’t roar?). Yes, mountain lions (or catamounts, if you will) are our favorite.

Third, leave no trace. These are places where we quiet our souls, slow our rhythms, and listen. They are places for contemplation, which, if we are the rational animal (rather than, say, a featherless biped or a human resource), is our highest good. This is also a lesson in humility and something of a counterbalance to, shall we say, the YouTube culture where everyone is a star. No, in these places you must be marginal and indeed insofar as possible, invisible – try to be nothing at all. The PG-13 version is that you are not special, you are inconsequential, you will inhabit this ancient earth for but a wee piffle of time, and then you will be gone.

If you spend enough time working on being a Junior Ranger, you will learn that there is a fourth, unspoken, part of the ethos. It is the most important and the most difficult. We could say that in the art of leaving no trace on those ancient and wild places, they begin to leave a trace on you. You start to get carved, shaped, and honed by the stars and blistering sun and the moon shadows of saguaro. It is a fragile process and the mood can be broken easily. But it has happened to us. For example, once among the rhyolite hoodoos of Chiricahua in a dead silence we suddenly heard the awful whump-whump-whump of a raven’s wings shoving desert air downward as it lifted into the towering arms of a ponderosa. When that sort of thing happens, as Rilke said, you must change your life.

So, the ethos is four-fold: be safe, learn, leave no trace, and deepen your soul. The fourth one is unspoken and ambiguous to be sure – but also essential. After all, if the point was only to be safe, learn, and leave no trace, then it would be far better to stay at home and study on the internet. If you go, it is because you are asking those places to mold you, redeem you, build you anew. The importance of land for building character should be apparent to conservatives, at least as I once understood them. Or, in John Muir’s words, “The mountains are fountains of men as well as of rivers…”

The sad implication of Muir’s words is that strip-malls, highways, and parking lots are also fountains of men and women. We, alas, are not as fortunate as the National Monuments. We have not been spared the debilitating impacts of so-called ‘development.’ Yes, we are comfortable. But we have grown soft, distracted, impatient, and in a word spoiled. The best cure for this is a long hike in an area outside of cellphone range. That such places still exist is a miracle. That we are thinking about shrinking or eliminating them is dumbfounding – especially coming from the party that stands, or stood, for conservation and good-old, tough-ass, quit-your-crying grit, spit, and fortitude.

Do not let either a narrow interpretation of the law or the small mindedness of your city-slicker boss cloud your vision. You know that these are the places that make America and Americans great. Keep them large so that we can fill out the full measure of our mettle.

organ pipe kids