Swainson’s Thrush

They’re back! Swainson’s Thrush have returned to the North Cascades forests.

I’m not a birdwatcher – glasses too thick – so I’ve never seen this bird close enough to identify it by color or markings. But I sure have heard it

I love this bird’s song. Its lively, upward-spiraling chorus seems to echo off the trees, and it’s often answered by a like call from another thrush in another tree just a few yards away.

Listen for yourself here.

They usually arrive in late spring. I thought they might have got here a bit later this year, but I can’t be sure. By the end of July you don’t hear them anymore. They’re either too busy raising their young, or perhaps they’ve already begun their migration south to Mexico and even Argentina.

So for the next couple of months I’ll be listening for them. They always make me smile.

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Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto

Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto
By Lesley Hazleton
Riverhead Books, New York, 2016

Lesley Hazleton does not like the word “the”. At least not when it’s used in discussing matters of religion, faith, or spirituality, such as the meaning of life, the soul, the universe, the afterlife, and worst of all, the truth.

imageIn her latest book, Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto, she explains that the presence of “the” before each of these nouns or phrases implies they are well-defined, well-understood and that there is only one of each. “The” puts an end to discussion, debate and exploration. It’s quite a little tyrant, that “the”.

For an agnostic like Hazleton, this is very troubling. The definite article, she says, over-determines whatever it precedes when in fact those things are not determined at all and may not even be determinable.

Hazleton, a.k.a. The Accidental Theologist, is a psychologist and writer who lived in Jerusalem for thirteen years before eventually settling onto a houseboat in Seattle. She’s written books about the origins of Islam and biographies of the biblical figures Jezebel and Mary. (I wrote a post about one of her earlier books, After the Prophet, here. I’d also like to point out, with just a little trepidation, that I once took a non-fiction writing class Hazleton taught at the University of Washington.  I take full credit for any mistakes and ineptitude in this piece.)

In Agnostic, Hazleton explores different facets of that varied collection of beliefs, practices and traditions we call “religion”, including God, belief and faith (they are different), mystery, and meaning, all from an agnostic perspective. Hazleton weaves together history, philosophy, theology, and epistemology with colorful strands of her own biography. This combination of in-depth research and personal reflection makes each topic lively and approachable.

I liked the third chapter, In Doubt We Trust, the most. This chapter is about belief, faith, conviction and the over-riding importance of doubt.

“Abolish all doubt,” she says, “and what is left is not faith, but absolute, heartless conviction, a blind and blinding refuge from both thought and humanity.” [p. 66]

Maybe I liked it so much because my educational background is in mathematics and computer science and my career has been in software and this chapter includes a discussion of the relationship between faith, science and doubt.

If doubt is often a companion of faith, it is a critical element of science. Hazleton quotes Stuart Firestein, a neuroscientist at Columbia University:

“Being a scientist … requires having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt.” [p. 76]

And Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman:

“It is imperative in science to doubt. It is absolutely necessary to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature …” [p. 76]

Hazleton concludes this chapter with one of the book’s clearest statements of what it means to be agnostic:

“This is the agnostic’s faith: not in answers but in possibilities. It’s in the way doubt opens up thought instead of closing it off – in the vitality of a mind intrigued, challenged, dancing with uncertainty, instead of being plagued by it. That’s why, as an agnostic, I place my faith in inquiry. “ [p. 79]

“Faith in inquiry” really resonates with me. Perhaps that’s because my own beliefs have evolved over the years from my Jewish heritage and upbringing towards atheism. Faith in inquiry implies I don’t have to settle on some final answer. A final answer may not even exist. Rather the whole point is to keep looking, to keep learning.

That spirit of inquiry runs through Agnostic, coupled with the willingness to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty, and the humility to accept that “I don’t know,” might be the best answer for now. The corollary is a stiff rejection of extremist positions, either/or choices and unquestioning conviction.

Agnostic is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book, but don’t expect any sort of “complete system” of practice or belief. Hazleton doesn’t even mention the Agnostic’s Prayer.  On a more serious note, there’s no discussion of an agnostic view of morality.  I’m not sure if this an omission or a deliberate choice.  In any case, as Hazleton herself admits, the book is a rather strange kind of manifesto:

“… one that makes no claims to truth, offers no certainties, eschews briskly confident answers to grand existential questions. And if this makes it a peculiarly paradoxical creature, that is exactly what it needs to be, because to be agnostic is to cherish both paradox and conundrum. It is to acknowledge the unknowable and yet explore it at the same time, and to do so with zest, in a celebration not only of the life of the mind, but of life itself.” [p. 21]

Agnostic is also very much about language. Hazleton spends a great deal of time delving into the origins and meanings, plural, of the words we use when we talk about religion. I found this a really helpful aspect of the book. Those words – God, belief, mystery, and so on – mean different things to each of us and the lack of a common understanding of what we mean when we use them is so often a source of disagreement and conflict. Hazleton isn’t proposing that any particular definitions be adopted by everyone. On the contrary, by exploring various possible meanings for these terms she highlights the fact that they are indeed not settled, not entitled to a prefatory “the”, and more importantly she models for the rest of us the agnostic’s desire for and delight in a deeper search for understanding that acknowledges but is not bound by the beliefs and doctrines of others.

Hazleton is an exuberant agnostic. She rejects the binary choice of being either a believer or an atheist. She refuses the pity of believers who consider her a lost soul, and faces down bullying atheists who would accuse her of being a non-committal fence-sitter. She hasn’t come to this position reluctantly or out of some dour rationalism that says neither the existence nor the non-existence of God are provable therefore agnosticism is the only logical stance to take. No, instead Hazleton embraces and celebrates agnosticism for its open-mindedness, its questioning and its questing.

There’s openness, humility, playfulness and sharp wit on display throughout Agnostic. It’s a heartening change from the fundamentalism, extremism and strident certainty we see so often these days on all sides of religious and political debates. In fact, it’s one of the strongest refutations of fundamentalism I’ve ever read.

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Vibrator People

The Amtrak Cascades from Seattle to Portland slowed to a hissing stop alongside a BNSF freight train somewhere in open country south of Olympia, Washington. Through my rain-streaked window I saw this message painted on the side of the adjacent rail car.


I couldn’t help laughing.  So many questions started popping like champagne bubbles in my head.

Why would anyone want to “apply” a vibrator to the body of a rail car? What kind of vibrator would you use? What’s so dangerous about it that you have to use specially mounted vibrator brackets? And why is it done so frequently that they have specially mounted vibrator brackets in the first place? What would happen if you didn’t vibrate using said brackets? Would the car explode, or shatter, or just tear itself to pieces? Why only loaded cars? Is vibrating an unloaded car especially hazardous?

Who are these mysterious vibrator people anyway? Are they so careless about applying their vibrators that they need to be admonished to use the proper brackets? After all, if they’re in such a habit of vibrating – for whatever reason or purpose – shouldn’t they already know they’re supposed to use the brackets? I mean, come on, people!

Oh I get it! It’s one of those warnings that’s not posted to inform the reader but to protect the writer. It’s a liability thing. Have people been killed vibrating rail cars improperly? Or injured? Or has the cargo been damaged? Have the railways ever been sued for failing to adequately notify their workers about the perils of off-bracket vibrating?

When they go home to their families at night, do their hands shake and tremble with residual vibration?

You can tell I might have been a little bored on that train.

Still, how often do you see signs like this that look so important, so urgent and yet are so utterly incomprehensible that they might as well be written in another language? It’s really not much different than the graffiti you see painted on the very same rail cars. A language written by and for people we never see and whom we know nothing about.

Here’s another example from about ten years ago when my family took a ferry ride to reach remote campground on the British Columbia coast. Attached to wall of the ferry was this sign which I think is a set of instructions for lowering life boats into the water.


Complete gibberish. Clearly these instructions aren’t intended for passengers. What on earth is a davit, or a tricing pennant or a bowsing tackle? In any sort of emergency, without a crew member on hand we’re all going down with the ship.

Signs like these point to hidden worlds, to the existence of people and processes or even cultures and cults to whom these messages make sense. We outsiders are like archaeologists trying to glean meaning from the pot shards and hieroglyphs left behind by some vanished civilization.

You might feel alienated or excluded by all this, but I think it’s much more fun to be intrigued and even amused. I prefer to see these signs as tantalizing hints, like a fleeting smile or a momentary flash of exposed skin from that good looking girl or guy at the next table.

In fact they’re really just glimpses of the machinery that makes up the modern world, a world built of a complex weaving and layering of thousands, maybe millions, of highly specialized jobs, functions and systems. Most of us don’t grow our own food, make our own clothes or fix our own cars. And even if we do, it’s a hobby or a weekend activity. Instead, we trust others, mostly strangers, to do these things for us. And they, in turn, rely on us to perform our specialized jobs as mechanics, managers, teachers, coders, traders, doctors, or whatever. To keep the world going, and yes to keep the trains running on time, we’re all dependent on each other and connected to each other more than any time in human history.

Most of the time we’re unaware of all this machinery hidden behind the curtain. But once in a while we get a peek …

In all likelihood the signs and artifacts of your job are just as mystifying to others as the Vibrator People are to us.

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Supreme Court puts Obama’s Clean Power Plan on hold

Supreme Court

On February 9, the Supreme Court issued a “stay” blocking implementation of the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan rules that aim to cut CO2 emissions from the nation’s power plants until challenges to the regulations can be heard by the courts.

Here are links to various reports on this case.

SCOTUS Blog: http://www.scotusblog.com/2016/02/carbon-pollution-controls-put-on-hold/

The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/02/the-supreme-courts-devastating-decision-on-climate/462108/

Earthjustice: http://earthjustice.org/news/press/2016/earthjustice-statement-on-supreme-court-s-temporary-stay-of-the-clean-power-plan

New Republic: https://newrepublic.com/article/129556/obamas-climate-legacy-supreme-courts-hands

New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/11/us/politics/carbon-emissions-paris-climate-accord.html

Vox: http://www.vox.com/2016/2/9/10955470/supreme-court-blocks-obama-co2-rules

There’s broad agreement on a number of points:

  • The stay doesn’t necessarily mean the Supreme Court will rule against the EPA when the case comes before it, which everyone expects it will.  But it sure isn’t a good omen.
  • The final outcome of this case won’t be known until after President Obama leaves office.  That means actual implementation of the Clean Power Plan, assuming it’s upheld by the courts, will be up to his successor. 
  • The stay does jeopardize the Paris climate agreement signed in December last year.  If the United States doesn’t meet its commitments under the agreement, other countries will surely walk away too.

The next president will get to decide not just whether and how to implement the Clean Power Plan but also to appoint Supreme Court justices who will be deciding future cases like this.

Your vote in the 2016 election matters a lot when it comes to the environment and climate change. 

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Big World Small Planet

Big World Small Planet: Abundance within Planetary Boundaries
By Johan Rockström and Mattias Klum
Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 2015

Are we doomed?  Have we messed up the Earth beyond all hope?  News reports about the environment would sure make you think so.  From CO2 emissions to deforestation to species extinction; you name it, it seems like humans are totally screwing up the planet.  It’s hard to even understand the problem fully.  So many things are happening at once, all of them bad.  And everything is connected to everything else, tangled together in a great big ecological hairball.  Worse, it seems like we’ve only got about 30 years to turn things around or the Earth may become inhospitable to human life. What are we supposed to do?  Where do we even star?   

Big World Small Planet: Abundance within Planetary Boundaries aims to answer these questions.  It’s surprisingly optimistic.  Published in September, 2015, just a few months before the United Nations COP21 Conference on Climate Change, Big World Small Planet does not sugar coat the problems.  They are urgent and daunting.  But the authors, Johan Rockström and Mattias Klum, offer a brilliant framework for understanding and tackling the threats we face.  That framework is the idea of planetary boundaries

Johan Rockström  is a scientist, professor and director of the Stockholm Resilience Center.  He’s an expert on global sustainability.  He and his worldwide team of researchers are responsible for the technical and scientific work underlying planetary boundaries.

Mattias Klum is a wildlife photographer and filmmaker.  His rich photographs fill the book with stunning images that capture both the at-risk beauty of the natural world as well as the brutal ugliness of environmental destruction.

The central message of the book is that planetary boundaries – there are nine of them – form a “safe operating space” for humanity.  If we can stay within these boundaries we have a chance of a sustainable and even a just future.  Exceed these boundaries and we will cause the Earth’s ecological system to become destabilized, wildly unpredictable, and possibly even hostile to human life.

The nine planetary boundaries are:

  • Climate change:   primarily caused by CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Stratospheric ozone depletion:  thinning of the Earth’s protective ozone layer
  • Ocean acidification:  Earth’s oceans absorb most of our CO2 emissions but in so doing become more acidic. This harms coral reefs and other marine life.
  • Biodiversity loss: the number of species becoming extinct each year
  • Nitrogen and phosphorus overloading:  nitrogen and phosphorus leaching into the water supply, primarily from excessive use of chemical fertilizers, causing algae blooms and marine dead zones.
  • Fresh water consumption:  the amount of global runoff humans use each year
  • Land use/Deforestation:  the fraction of ice-free land under cultivation or development
  • Aerosol loading:  discharge of soot and other particles into the atmosphere
  • Novel entities:  manmade chemicals like plastics and heavy metals that persist in the biosphere

The research underlying the book has been going on for several years; first to identify the boundary indicators and then to determine what their threshold levels should be.  Rockström and Klum caveat that these levels are estimates, based on today’s best available research.  Some are firmer than others, like limiting atmospheric CO2 concentration to 350 ppm.  No doubt they’ll be refined and improved as research continues.

The point is, we’ve already exceeded several of them.

We must act.  Now.

Governments can use the framework of planetary boundaries to set policies and guide legislation.  The book argues pretty strongly, for example, that we need to put a price on carbon emissions.  Business and the scientific community can focus research and development efforts based on planetary boundaries.  One example: if we want to feed Earth’s growing population without cutting down our remaining forests we’ll need to roughly double the crop yields of our existing farmland.  How will we do that? 

Living within planetary boundaries will clearly require huge, disruptive changes in how we live and work, consume and produce.  Getting off fossil fuels entirely is just one of those changes. 

However, the first step Rockström and Klum urge, is a change in mindset.  We must stop regarding the planet and its resources as an “externality”, something separate from or outside ourselves, something that has “an endless capacity to take abuse without punching back.”   Our society and economy are nested within the environment and cannot exist without it.   They argue we need a new narrative,

“… a positive story about new opportunities for humanity to thrive on our beautiful planet by using ingenuity, core values, and humanism to become wise stewards of nature and the entire planet.”  [p. 11]

Here’s one new (at least for me) way of thinking about this: the Earth provides an incredibly valuable set of critical “ecosystem services,” such as CO2 absorption by the oceans, water filtration by wetlands and marshes, and crop pollination by bees. The book cites estimates that these services contribute 1 or 2 full percentage points to world GDP.  It even suggests a new metric GEP – gross ecosystem product – to track the rise and fall of this natural capital. 

Humans have been exploiting and over-using these ecosystem services past the Earth’s capacity for resilience, to the point of collapse.  It’s time we recognized the value of these services, started managing them, and in some cases paying for them. 

We must also move away from an altruistic notion of protecting the environment to becoming stewards of the planet.

“Becoming planetary stewards means recognizing that our grand challenge is not about saving a species or an ecosystem.  It’s about saving us.”  [p. 127]

Big World Small Planet is cautiously yet refreshingly optimistic about the possibilities for social change and technological innovation.  Rockström and Klum are not Malthusians by any means.  They advocate growth, but within limits, within the safe operating space of planetary boundaries. 

Unsolicited Feedback

This is one of the most important books I’ve read in years. 

The concept of planetary boundaries is one of those brilliant, compelling ideas that seems blindingly obvious after you’ve learned about it.  It’s a powerful organizing paradigm for thinking about and taking action on the environment. 

Big World Small Planet catalogs the challenges we face, warns starkly about the consequence of inaction, yet still provides direction and some much needed hope that we can rescue ourselves and our planet.

Related Links

The Nine limits of our planet …. and how we’ve raced past four of them:

A Safe Operating Space for Humanity.  Rockström’s original 2009 paper setting out the idea of planetary boundaries.  http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v461/n7263/full/461472a.html (paywall)

Stockholm Resilience Center

UN Sustainable Development Goals http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/

COP 21 UN Conference on Climate Change

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The Court and The World

The Court and the World: American Law and the New Global Realities
By Stephen Breyer
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2015

This book is about the increasing interplay between the Supreme Court of the United States and the people, laws and courts of foreign countries.  And it’s written by an extremely well-qualified expert, Stephen Breyer, Associate Justice of said US Supreme Court. 

The Court and the World covers three major areas where the US Supreme Court has become increasingly drawn into “foreign entanglements.” 

First, how does the Court protect Americans’ civil liberties in the face of national security threats from abroad?  What constitutional limits govern how far the President or Congress can go in exercising their powers to protect America from foreign actors? 

Second, when and how does US law apply to people or activities outside the US?  For example, do anti-trust laws extend to corporations’ activities outside the US?  And how can our laws be applied in a way that’s in harmony with the laws and procedures of other countries? 

The third area concerns international treaties and agreements.  How should these be interpreted and enforced when, for example, they might conflict with US law, or relate to areas that the Constitution delegates to State governments? 

In each of these areas, Breyer picks a few representative cases, traces their history and relevant legal precedents, and discusses how the Court has had to adapt over the years to a caseload with an increasingly international dimension.  His analysis is detailed, thorough and forward looking.  He makes it clear that this trend is not going away. Global interdependence, cheaper travel and technological innovation make personal and commercial interactions across borders more and more common.  This in turn makes cross-border disputes more common, disputes which the Court will be asked to settle. 

Breyer also argues that there are useful things to be learned from foreign laws and legal practices and that we shouldn’t reject them simply because they’re foreign. 

Alas, the book is dry. Soporifically dry. Perhaps I should have known better.  Perhaps the book is intended more for the legal profession than for a general audience.  Perhaps I should have just invoked the One Hundred Page Rule.  But like I said, it’s an important topic by a respected jurist, so I persisted. 

It didn’t have to be this way.  When you read the written decisions of leading judges – if you’re so inclined – you’ll often find they’re infused with the personalities and passions of their authors.  Agree with them or not, the writings of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia or Judge Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals are lively and sometimes even entertaining.

I haven’t read any of Breyer’s other books, but this one is certainly an academic treatise in style and tone.  Caveat lector

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Unsolicited reflections on 2015

Back at the beginning of last year, I wrote a post Cautious Optimism for 2015.  My overall point was about focusing on long term trends as a remedy for becoming overwhelmed by the incessant drumbeat of bad news. Was I right?

2015 certainly had its fair share of bad news. I think Syria and race relations in America were two main epicenters of bad news last year.

The continuing disintegration of Syria spawned both ISIS-sponsored or inspired terror attacks in Paris (twice), Beirut, and San Bernardino, CA as well as the refugee crisis that threatens to overwhelm parts of Europe. The widely published photograph of three year old Alan Kurdi lying dead on a sandy beach in Turkey was the saddest thing I saw all year.

Meanwhile, abysmal race relation in America, particularly relations between police and the African-American community continued to generate conflict and tragic deaths. The Guardian published a report called The Counted showing that young black men are killed by police at five times the rate whites are killed. It’s also disturbing that the FBI has no comparable reliable national data on police killings. The statistics were compiled by the Guardian itself in partnership with the Washington Post.

Still several things occurred in 2015 to justify long term optimism, especially of the cautious variety.

First and foremost is the global climate change agreement reached at the COP21 conference in Paris in December. The agreement certainly doesn’t go far enough, but the fact that 185-odd countries signed on and set meaningful, if voluntary, goals on carbon reduction is significant. Tom Friedman at the New York Times called it a “big, big deal.” Hopefully, this agreement will act as a baseline for further actions to reduce carbon emissions. Hopefully also the terms of the agreement will stiffen the resolve of world governments to tackle the problem in their countries. Activists are sure to use it to hold governments to account and this is a very good thing. Perhaps the agreement will have impact similar to the human rights provision of the Helsinki Accords signed in 1975. These were also non-binding, but they became a potent justification for liberal dissent in the former Soviet Union and Communist countries of Eastern Europe.

Second, I think the Iran nuclear agreement was a major diplomatic achievement in 2015. Here too, there’s a lot to criticize, and the agreement doesn’t settle or even address many issues with Iran. So no one should be under any illusions about a “kinder, gentler” Iran emerging anytime soon. (I imagine many Iranians think similarly about the US.)  However, the agreement removes the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran from the picture for at least the next ten to fifteen years. That’s a real positive step forward, a rarity in the Middle East.

The US Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges declared same sex marriage legal across the entire United States, a major step forward for equality in this country.

On less down-to-earth matters, 2015 was an extraordinary year for space exploration and space technology. From the New Horizons flyby of Pluto in July, to continued discoveries of exoplanets by the Kepler deep space telescope, to the vertical landing of a Falcon 9 rocket by SpaceX, 2015 was marked by amazing achievements in space. NASA has posted a great summary here. And you can find a global list of all spaceflights in 2015 here.

And finally, echoing the theme of long term positive trends, in October Nicholas Kristof wrote this column in the New York Times noting that,

“… maybe the most important thing happening in the world today is something that we almost never cover: a stunning decline in poverty, illiteracy and disease.”

Here’s hoping these trends continue in 2016!

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