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I recently had Keith Preston on the C-Realm Radio show where he made the point that Milo Yiannopoulis promotes a pretty mainstream Republican agenda. According to Keith, Milo's views are not particularly extreme and don't push the rightward boundary or mainstream political opinion on the contemporary American scene at all. His main distinguishing gimmick is that he is flamboyantly gay and makes a big todo of his sexual exploits. He is also deliberately provocative with the language he uses to provoke feminists in his public appearances. But in terms of his actual political opinions, he is pretty vanilla. And yet I hear (and read), time and again, hysterical leftists assert that Milo is a Nazi and that no tactic is off limits when it comes to stopping Nazis.

I am no Trump supporter, and I do take the danger of his authoritarian brinksmanship seriously, but I maintain that talk of fascism is premature and that talk of Nazism is just plain stupid. In a recent post, I described how I am likely to smile and nod and then change the subject when someone refers to Trump supporters as fascists or Nazis around me, but that, in my mind, I judge them harshly. One reader, who is a regular listener to the C-Realm Podcast, scolded me, writing, "...to think negative thoughts towards people who have these fears... is just wrong. Very wrong."

I responded that his focus on my thinking being wrong is symptomatic of the problem with a considerable fraction of the so-called left in this country. My sin, in his view, is thinking "negative thoughts" about people who use irresponsible, hyperbolic, and alarmist language. I don't assault them or attempt to limit where they go, who they meet with or what they do. I don't even say rude things to them. I make silent, private judgments about them. And that, according to my critic, is just wrong.

I cannot violate someone else's rights with my thoughts. Or, going the other way, nobody has any right to dictate what I think. The legitimate limitations that my government, my culture, and my community can place on me only apply to my actions and, in rare and extreme circumstances, to my speech. To demand that I conform my thoughts to some ideal standard is to endorse totalitarianism. That's the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. An authoritarian leader won't hesitate to use deadly force should you do or say something to threaten his power, but otherwise, your thoughts remain your own affair. A totalitarian regime is not content with controlling the actions and speech of its subjects. It demands total subservience in action, word AND thought.

I know that I will have to repeat this idea ad nauseum, and, hopefully, I will find a better way to convey it. The language I've used here makes sense to me, but I am under no illusion that what I've written will satisfy my critic or people who think as he does. I could call them Maoists, but I don't know that the example would communicate very clearly. The Cultural Revolution is ancient history to someone born in the 1990s or later. What's worse, calling a keyboard crusader for social justice a Maoist is the same sort of nuance-flattening hyperbole as calling Milo Yiannopoulis a Nazi. I'll have to do better than that, if only for the sake of my self-respect.

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What Worries Me?

"Is that still a thing?"

I love that expression. I was wondering if the idea that California might secede from the United States was still a popular topic or if its day had come and gone. I opened a new browser tab and started to type my query. I had typed "Cali" when Google offered a list of potential completions. At the top of the list was "California secede."

Okay, so it's still a thing. Or is it? Maybe Google just knows me and my interests so well that it can effectively predict my searches before I make them. As a long-time libertarian, maybe I should be worried about that possibility.

Forgive me, Libertarians, for I have sinned, and continue to sin. Here is my confession:

I'm not all that worried about the government, or Google, or Facebook, or Microsoft, or Netflix, or Amazon.com knowing me better than I know myself. I'm not worried about the Internet of Things which might have my toaster talking to my microwave oven. That's a bad example, as neither of those devices can be found in my kitchen (which is really Olga's kitchen). I'm not worried that diabolical data analysts or their AI minions will ferret out my psychological weaknesses and use them to get me to vote for some odious troll in the next election.

I'm definitely not worried about the fact that my phone knows where I am and is relaying that information to Google or the NSA. I'm probably at home. If not there, I'm at the gym, or the TV station, or the radio station, or at a public meeting in Bellows Falls or a nearby village. Or I might be sitting at Subway reading a book.

I could say that I'm worried that Google maps will never figure out that I always want to avoid the George Washington Bridge when I'm coming back from visiting my kids. It's free westbound, but the eastbound toll is fifteen freakin' dollars! I could say I'm worried about that, but what I'd really mean is that I'm pissed off that Google always tries to take me through that pick-pocket station and that I suspect some sort of payola is at work behind the scenes. Either that or the programmers at Google think it's obvious that a driver would pay $10 to shave an expected 4 minutes off their trip. (I still have to cross the Tapenzee bridge, which costs $5.)

I do kind of worry about identity theft, or, more accurately, I recognize that I am vulnerable to identity theft and that it should be a matter of genuine concern for me. In terms of that topic actually hooking up with a state of emotionally-charged anxiety in me, I don't really worry about identity theft either.

What do I worry about? I worry that I will get into a wreck while driving (because I'm fighting with my phone trying to get it to avoid the heinous GW Bridge toll). I worry that I will slip on ice and break something when I have no health insurance. I worry that my kids will be saddled with debt and will struggle to earn a living in tough economic times. I worry that a cop will piss me off and provoke me into doing something incredibly stupid. I worry that a time will come when I am not able to do the thing for which I receive my modest income and that I will have nothing to fall back on. I worry that my best days are behind me.

In short, my worries are all very self-centered, prosaic, and don't flow from my ideological commitments.

In fact, I'm really pretty impatient with worriers, and I've about had it with people who claim to worry over ideological bullshit. And if you tell me that you are afraid when you are not in any apparent danger, and if the source of your supposed fear has something to do with fascists, or Nazis, or white nationalists, I will likely give you a tight-lipped pseudo-smile and an "mmm hmmm" to acknowledge that you have spoken. Then I will disengage or change the topic of conversation, but in my mind, I will have said something rather rude.

I kinda worry that someday I will lose the capacity to think something without saying it out loud.

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I remember reading about the I Ching in the alternate-history SF novel, The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick. In that novel, the character who consulted the oracle used the yarrow stalk method to determine which entry in the book to apply to the matter at hand. One can also use coins or even dice to speak on behalf of fate and guide the questioner to the answers they seek.

That was before the internet. I don't own a copy of the I Ching. I just Google it and click on the graphical representation of a button. With the click of the mouse, I engage in simulated button pushing which replaces the handling of physical objects. So long as the internet is working and available to me, it is likely to remain my I Ching of choice. I could order a paper version, but that would put another book in orbit around me, increase the clutter in my sight and in my mind, and give me one more thing to keep track of (or, more likely, fail to keep track of).

I consulted the Oracle the day before yesterday, asking it about how I should focus my efforts. The Oracle directed me to hexagram  41, Decreasing, changing to hexagram 19, Nearing (or Approach). I took this to mean that while it appears that my consistent work has lead to stagnating rewards, behind the scenes, developments proceed apace and will soon give way to the Approach, when I find new power and accomplishment as I rise to new challenges, possibly in an effort to help someone else. That's all good news, but I wanted guidance, not divination, and I don't know how to turn this forecast into a prescription for action.

Given that I meet regular deadlines for creative activity that I set for myself, I continue working even when I'm feeling fallow. With the podcast and radio show, I judge myself to be slacking when I seek mainly return guests for the program. I don't have to introduce myself to repeat guests or craft an email that simultaneously communicates my intentions and establishes credibility. Repeat guests are a known quantity. These are people with whom I have an established connection and who I know can provide entertaining or informative conversation. With a new guest, even if they've written something that I enjoyed reading, there's no telling how it will go. In some instances, it's gone so badly that I chose not to use the interview and had to find someone else to interview or fill the hour with just my own thoughts and voice. That latter option is a lot of work, but it's the kind of work that comes from failing to complete some previous task at the right time. Paradoxically, in the phases where I don't think I'm getting much done, I often have to work harder than I do when I'm really killing it.

Both of the hexagrams my most recent consultation brought to my attention focus on the ebb and flow, the rhythmic pulse of advancement and setback, that is the normal condition of living things making their way through life. This makes sense to me. It's not anything I have to coerce myself into entertaining for the sake of the exercise. Even so, it is at odds with the voice of authority which tells me that the universe is a perfect meritocracy and that if I'm not getting anywhere, it's either because I'm not working hard or smart enough. It is in times like these that I take comfort in the words of Thomas Ligotti, who reminds us that there is "nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to be, and no one to know."

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A Conversation with the I Ching

I asked the oracle, "How should I focus my efforts?"

The answer I got was hexagram 41, Decreasing, changing to hexagram 19, Nearing. I didn't specify a career focus when I started, but that's my primary concern.

The second hexagram is encouraging, but I wasn't asking to have my fortune told. I asked how I should focus my attention. If the Oracle were a person that I was talking to, she might ask me what I'm trying to achieve. If my desire to make more money were paramount, then my best focus would be different than if what I really wanted to do was build a following.  I want to do both of those things, but neither one is primary.

Money would be good so that I can pay off debts, see my sons more often and provide better opportunities to them. It would help in my domestic situation as well, though I'll say no more about the particulars here. If I thought that money alone would satisfy me and give me the sense of a life well lived, I might look into lobbying for industries that have a hard time getting established here in Vermont due to environmental regulations and the general progressive attitudes of the people who live here.

Fortunately for me, and possibly unfortunately as well, I had a fat stack of money dropped on me in my early 30s, and I know, from firsthand experience, that it didn't make me happy or satisfied. Having too little has also been a source of heartache, humiliation, and resentment, so I do not intend to fetishize poverty or hold it up as an emblem of virtue.

That said, I know that the ill-will I sometimes feel for people who are doing well when more and more people are losing the security they once enjoyed presents a mental and spiritual stumbling block. If I too find a way to make a comfortable living in tough economic times, then I will have joined a tribe that I hold accountable for at least some of the injustices of the moment. That's a conundrum I don't expect to resolve today, but it needs to be acknowledged.

What about building a following. I enjoy podcasting and broadcasting, and if I were to triple the number of people who subscribe to the C-Realm Vault podcast, I'd be in a respectable position financially. That's not shooting for the moon, and a few simple steps to run my business more like a business could probably get me there with no compromise in my style or the content of the show. I haven't made those changes, even though I know I need to. See previous paragraph.

After 10 years of audio-only podcasts, I'm now spending my time and effort making YouTube videos. I can spend 5 hours making a podcast that 3,000 people will access, and I can spend 10 or more hours making a short video that only a hundred or so people will access. Why bother with video?

I could come up with sensible-sounding reasons, but they would be rationalizations. My bedrock reason is simple intuition. It seems like the thing to do at this point.
Also, I have a cast of fictional characters that I developed when was in grad school, primarily the Lion and the Chick, whom I can't bear to consign to oblivion. Creating the artistic career I've desired for decades is, at least visually, tied to them in my imagination.

I tried doing webcomics a couple of years ago, but it was too time-consuming to sustain. I'm now working to incorporate the characters into my videos. I know I won't be satisfied with what I'm doing until I put my drawing skills, such as they are, to regular use in my creative projects.

I'm conscious of framing my ambitions in terms of my desires. I'm told that desire leads to suffering and that eliminating desire is the path to overcoming self-imposed limitations. That leads me back to hexagram 41. Perhaps decreasing desire leads to my coming nearer to the fulfillment of my career ambitions. I know that some people in my life would disagree, that they see me as suffering from too little ambition, that stoking my desires would be just the thing if it prompted me to strive more.

The Oracle says:

'Nearing.
Creating success from the source, constancy bears fruit.
Reaching an end in the eighth month means a pitfall.'

I'm down with consistency. It' actually something I'm pretty good at, so there's a morsel of encouragement that I'm willing to accept.

I don't know what to make of the eighth month pitfall.

(continued tomorrow)
A few weeks ago, the topic of virtual reality came up in conversation on my weekly radio show. I explained that I have been anticipating the advent of virtual reality since the early 90s and that in my early 20s I would have given nearly anything to strap on the VR goggles (the vision was GLOVES and goggles back then) and step into a 3D computer simulation in which anything was possible. Now, nearly 40 years later, I just don't care. I have no interest in virtual reality. Or at least I HAD no interest before I played a few minutes of Star Wars Battlefront VR.

The experience made me sweat, turned my stomach and had me gasping for air as I took off the headset. Why would I want to do it again?

Well, I DON'T want to play VR fighter pilot again. But I would love to explore the moons of Jupiter in VR or stand atop a Mayan pyramid at the height of that civilization or see Hannibal taking his elephants over the Alps. I've traveled more than most people ever get the opportunity to do, and I hope my travels are not over, but I know there are more places I want to see than I will ever get the opportunity to visit in the flesh, and what's more, famous places can be truly unpleasant to visit in person because of all the other people who have the same idea.

I remember taking my kids to Washington DC to see the famous cherry blossoms one spring. The crowds were so dense that just keeping track of my kids took all of my attention. There was no sense of leisure or quiescence, just the anxiety of staying together in that pulsing throng of human bodies. Never again. Not in the flesh anyway. But if a VR simulation was sufficiently nuanced, it might be worthwhile to see what it's like to have Potomac Park to myself and to sip sake while sitting on a picnic blanket and looking up at the sunlight filtering down through the pink sakura blossoms.

Also, I can well imagine clever people using 3D spaces to organize information. This actually doesn't require technology. People have been using imaginary spaces to help them remember large quantities of information since classical antiquity, but I'm hoping that VR could be put to a use that is more like an abacus than like a digital calculator. Using a digital calculator for multiplication or division does not make us better at those tasks. In fact, our ability to perform those mathematical operations in our heads can degrade from lack of use if we always use a calculator. Not so with an abacus. People who use an abacus to perform calculations can get to the point where they can just imagine having an abacus at hand and perform the same sorts of calculations with the imaginary abacus.


I don't know how to use VR to improve memory rather than replace it, but I'm hopeful. I think of GPS navigation and driving. I got my first GPS device at Wal*Mart in December of 2009. I was amazed by it, but what I noticed is that on long road trips I had trouble remembering what roads and highways I had traveled. I had offloaded that to the device and didn't keep it in my head. I noticed that I learned the local geography of new places more slowly than I had in the past. When I had to rely on maps, written directions, and trial and error to navigate by car, I committed the geography to memory much more quickly than I do now that I take my robotic navigator with me everywhere I go.

Again, I don't know how to use the technology to enhance my ability to remember, imagine, and get around in the word rather than replacing and thereby degrading my native capacities, but I'm hopeful that it can be done, and I'd like to propagate that vision and the desire to make it a reality.
The guys in the studio with me talked me through the opening screens of the new Star Wars Battlefront game. I had to direct my gaze at objects and then push the X button on the game controller to select the thing I was looking at. But since I was wearing a VR headset, I couldn't look down at the controller, so I didn't know which button was marked with an X. Presumably most people who would buy Sony's virtual reality kit and kaboodle have enough experience with the game controller that they don't need someone to tell them that the X button is bottom center button on the right-hand side of the controller. Fortunately, I had three knowledgeable guides in the room with me.

After the screen with the AT-AT but before the beginning of actual gameplay came my favorite part of the experience. Again, I was in an empty white void, but there was an X-Wing fighter on the ground surrounded by crates and equipment and a red astromech droid doing busy loops under the ship making preparations for flight.




There were a number of stations around the X-Wing to which I could teleport by looking at a target and pressing the X button. Some of those positions were farther from the ship and some closer. One viewing position was on a lift, so I could see the top of the fighter. Eventually, I was at the base of the ladder and then I was seated in the cockpit.

Then I was on my first mission. Like most games, the first level was dead easy and basically just gave me the opportunity to get some practice piloting my fighter without anyone shooting at me. Then I formed up behind my squadron leader and we jumped into hyperspace and emerged into a scene that slotted neatly into the Rogue One movie. We were to provide a fighter escort for Cassian Andor and his reprogrammed imperial droid, K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk in both movie and game.

From that moment on I was in combat with imperial tie fighters. I've played such games before, but never in VR, and after several minutes I realized that I was playing as if I were looking at a monitor. I kept my gaze out over the nose of the ship and dealt with anything that came into my view. It came as a sort of revelation that I could turn my head and track a fighter that zoomed out of that narrow zone out front.

I don't know if moving my head and looking around me improved my combat piloting, but it did make me dizzy. As I continued the space combat I started to sweat. The controller grew wet in my hands, and I could feel the armpits in my shirt growing hot and moist. Then, gradually, my initial dizziness turned into unwavering nausea. By the end of the mission, I was done with the game and had no desire to play it anymore.

The headgear pressed down on my nose a little bit so that I was breathing through my mouth, but the equipment did not inhibit my breathing or direct my exhalations back at me like a fighter pilot's mask would, but when I removed the VR headgear I gulped in as if I had been denied access to fresh air. It felt liberating to get that thing off my head, and when I was free of it, Colin asked me how I felt.

What I realized in that moment was that I was more grounded in my body than I am most of the time. Even when doing something physically demanding like yoga or weight lifting, my mind is often elsewhere. In those first few seconds after I got free of the VR gear, I was nowhere but in my own body and happy to be there.

Tomorrow: How this experience changed my views on VR

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My First Taste of VR Since the 90s

Today I got my first taste of virtual reality since I first experienced it back in 1996. My first VR experience took place at the SIGGRAPH conference in New Orleans in the summer of 1996.
I took part in three VR demonstrations. One was touted as a therapeutic aid for people who are afraid of heights. I stood on a small wooden platform that had a length of rope suspended between to posts. When I put on the VR headset, I found myself standing on a narrow foot bridge over a canyon. The person supervising the demo had me reach out and take hold of the length of rope, which complemented the illusion of standing on a small bridge with rope handholds. I couldn't move in the simulation. I could only look around and, most importantly for this exercise, look down into the simulated canyon.


One of the other SIGGRAPH virtual reality experiences put a lightsaber in my hand, and I blocked shots from the practice drone that Luke Skywalker sparred with on the Millenium Falcon in the original Star Wars movie. I couldn't move much, and the scene was probably simpler than I remember it being. I just remember being on the Millenium Falcon.


Today, I stopped by the local community access TV station. I do freelance videography for them, so I stop in most days to pick up or drop off equipment. Sometimes I use their facilities to shoot my YouTube videos. Today, I was just stopping in to pick up a coat that I had left there rather than stuffing it into a locker at the gym, which is just down the hall from the station.


I heard noises which indicated that there was some video game action about to commence in the actual studio (as opposed to the office of the TV station). As soon as I stepped into the studio, which was mostly dark except for some deep purple/red lighting and the glow of an absurdly large flatscreen TV, Colin, who works there, asked me if I wanted to play a Star Wars VR game.


"Fuck yeah, I do," I answered before I realized that I was in a room full of cameras and that one or more of them were likely turned on and recording the encounter.


As I walked into the middle of the studio I saw that there was an AT-AT (AKA an imperial walker) walking back and forth across a blank white void with a mouse droid rolling around at the walker's feet managing not to get squashed by those enormous metal feet. I could only see the walker's feet and legs, not it's body or head.


I sat in a swiveling chair in front of the giant monitor and Colin instructed me in putting on and adjusting the Sony Playstation VR headset and headphones. Once I had them on, Brian, who was operating a camera behind me, said, "KMO, look up."



I looked up with my eyes first, but in doing so, I moved my head a little bit in the same direction, and as it did, my view changed in a way that doesn't happen when playing a game that is confined to what you can see through the window of a TV or computer monitor. I moved my head more and found myself looking up into the underside of the walker. I was in a virtual world, as if I had stepped through the screen or been digitized by the Master Control Program and reassembled in software on the game grid.

(More tomorrow)

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Eric Toensmeier told me that humans are not poisonous to the planet by nature. It's the system we live in that makes us toxic to the planet. He didn't say what aspect of the system is the noxious part, and so I wondered if he meant capitalism. The Soviet Union created loads of pollution and waste, and they were ideologically opposed to capitalism.


I doubt that Eric meant that overpopulation was what makes us toxic to the world we depend on because overpopulation is not what I would normally describe as a "system." Someone directed me to a video by Dr. John McMurtry in which he dispels the idea that the ongoing doubling of human population is degrading the carrying capacity of the planet because the majority poor don't control much in the way of resources.


I don't really know how to do the math to determine how much credence to give that claim. I've heard it said that 8 individuals control as much wealth as the poorest half of the world's population, but much of that wealth is abstract. Those 8 people don't eat as much food as 4 billion poor people. They don't emit as much carbon, nor inhabit the same amount of space nor have the same embedded energy in their cars and houses as the bottom half of the population. Wall Street hedge fund managers don't cut down trees to make charcoal. Nor do they poach rhinos or kill gorillas for "bush meat."


I'm as eager to blame the billionaire class for the planet's ills as the next person, but when I know that I want something to be true, I try to direct extra skepticism toward it. Wishful thinking is like walking downhill. If you seem to be gaining a lot of ground with very little effort, you're probably losing altitude.


Dr. McMurtry claims that the damage comes from the resource extraction that is driven by the imperative of transnational companies to create commodities with ever more waste. His statements come rapid fire, and I don't have access to them in print, so I can't really be certain that I'm doing them justice with my attempted summation, but it does seem like he's on to something.


The need for economic growth in order to pay maintenance on ever-growing debts seems like a good candidate for that part of the system that makes us toxic to the planet. Because we have debts to service and rents to pay, human beings are driven to find a way to generate economic activity. We have to "work" even though the mechanization and automation of tasks that once required lots of human labor have left us in a situation in which a small fraction of the population is capable of generating all the food, clothing, shelter and manufactured goods necessary to sustain everyone.


That leaves more and more people in a desperate scramble to find some way to make money, but with ever fewer genuine needs to fill, we must invent new wants that can then be construed as needs which we can then meet. This generates a lot of waste, and all the failed attempts to create new markets and new industries generates lots of debt which feeds back into more desperate scrambling to generate economic activity.


I'm not convinced that the sheer size of the human herd is a non-issue, but the part of the system that drives us to strive and struggle to meet artificial needs when our actual physical, social and psychological needs could be met with much less hustle and bustle seems like a prime candidate for the "system" that Eric Toensmeier blames for our toxicity.

Last summer, Olga and I drove down to Holyoke, Massachusetts to record a conversation with Eric Toensmeier, author of  The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security. We had a sit-down chat, and then we took a tour of his garden. The last question I asked him was about the concept of "anthropogenic ecosystems."

The word "anthropogenic" is so often followed by the the phrase "climate change," that it's easy to forget that the word has any other potential application. Eric started his remarks with the seemingly obvious statement, "Anthropogenic just means 'created by people,' and not everything we do is bad."

But that isn't an obvious statement, is it? Otherwise, he wouldn't have followed that up with, "Surprise! Surprise! You're not supposed to say that in some environmental circles, I think, but a lot of what we do is good. And historically, a LOT of what we've done is good."

You might say that the evidence for our inherent toxicity is manifest everywhere we look, but, Eric explains, "We are not inherently poisonous to the planet. We are stuck in a system that makes us poisonous to the planet."

When I talk to Eric Toensmeier, we tend to talk about gardening, ecology and science fiction. I don't know what his politics are, and he didn't specify which aspects of the system we live in are the ones that make us poisonous to the planet.

Could it be capitalism? Maybe, but capitalism has a variety of connotations, and not all of them get at what makes humans living under capitalism toxic to the planet.

The Soviet Union created a great deal of waste and pollution, and weren't the Soviets supposed to be the ideological opponents of capitalism? Dedicated Marxists might claim that the operating system for the Soviet Union was "state capitalism." I'm not a Marxist, and so I won't try to make their case for them, but I'm not convinced that "capitalism," whatever that is, is what makes our existence on this planet such a threat to so many of the other organisms that have no choice but to live in the same house with us.

Perhaps our civilization's dependence on fossil fuel energy is what makes up poisonous to the planet. If so, that's good news, because we won't be powering a planetary civilization at the current scale on fossil fuels for much longer. But I don't think fossil fuels is the answer. If we were blessed with a source of limitless, clean energy, like the dilithium crystal-enabled anti-matter reactors from Star Trek, we'd use that energy to turn the planet inside out extracting every scrap of iron, bauxite, and rare-earth mineral to build our gadgets.

With limitless, non-polluting energy, we would continue to strain the oceans for fish and replace the lost biomass with plastic. We would continue to pump groundwater to irrigate our crops and poison the soil with salt. We would continue to increase our numbers so that potential resource would need to be converted into something that feeds, clothes, shelters, transports or entertains us.

I don't think fossil fuels are the only thing about the system we live in that makes us poisonous to the planet. I don't expect to identify the one and only cause of our ecocidal toxicity here in this essay, but a big one seems to be the fact that we're breeding faster than we're dying. That's a good thing, right? Don't we all want to live long, abundant lives? Don't all humans deserve to enjoy the same abundance that the residents of industrialized nations take for granted?

Sure, but there are consequences.

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I'm just back from a book discussion held at the local public library. It was the first in a four-part series sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The series is called Pushing the Limits, and tonight we discussed When the Killing's Done by T. C. Boyle.

The novel is a fictionalized account of an attempt to by the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy to remove non-native animal species from the Channel Islands off the California coast and restore the ecosystem to its previous state. Their proposed means involve poisoning rats, shooting pigs, and capturing and relocating golden eagles.

Animal rights activists want to stop them, and one of those activists, Dave LaJoy, an odious character with deep pockets, uses underhanded and irresponsible means to sabotage the park service's efforts, culminating in the accidental death of a young activist.

LaJoy has a particular grudge against the biologist in charge of the operation, Dr. Alma Boyd-Takesue, who once walked out on a date with him after he was rude to a waiter and to the owner of her favorite restaurant. Someone repeatedly spraypaints racist slurs on her car, and while the author never confirms that LaJoy is the culprit, his guilt seems to be implied.

LaJoy, who is the mouthpiece for PETA and animal rights activists generally, has some valid concerns. I was torn as I read the novel because the author undermines those concerns by embodying them in LaJoy, a wealthy local businessman who is self-important, vindictive, abusive to people in service jobs, and, above all, irrationally angry. At the same time, I've had encounters with militant vegans which made LaJoy's character seem quite plausible and authentic.

The novel explores a few thorny issues that intrude on any effort at eco-system management. Is the life of a ground-nesting bird worth more than the life of a rat simply because the bird is a member of an endangered species and the rat is not? Why does the adaptability and robustness of rats give them less claim on the right to live than the inflexibility of a bird that is adapted to live in an environment devoid of ground-based predators?

LaJoy never expresses any overtly libertarian ideology, but he does bristle at the arrogance of government employees who expel the public from public lands while spending millions of dollars at public expense to murder animals en masse. One of the women at tonight's discussion group voiced similar concerns and grew visibly angry as she expressed solidarity with LaJoy's hatred of "nature cops."

I too bristle at being bullied by cops of any stripe, and it seems as though petty tyrants are feeling emboldened here at the end of the first month of 2017, but that doesn't make LaJoy and his minions right. Their bedrock belief is that humans just need to butt out. The only morally justifiable action open to us, according to their way of thinking, is to withdraw from "wilderness" areas and let "nature" take its course, regardless of what humans have done to that environment in the past.

But what is nature? What is natural? Is any human involvement with an ecosystem inherently "unnatural?" Is wise environmental remediation always and utterly impossible? Is LaJoy's conception of nature a smokescreen for misanthropy?

Do we need professional technocrats to make decisions for all of us when it comes to our interaction with non-human life? Those technocrats certainly screw up from time to time, but would anarchy (literally a lack of rulers) produce better results? If so, judged by what standard?

What strikes me in hindsight is the unconscious motivations at work in these characters and the liberal reflex to form circular firing squads. LaJoy and his nemesis, Dr. Boyd-Takesue, are both vegetarians. They both love animals and love the Channel Islands. How absurd that she should be the focus of his rage and the target of his perpetual hostility. Such is the nature of the narcism of small differences.

The next book in the series is The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi.

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