In the mud flats
I found my perch on a fallen branch,
to catch the winter afternoon sun
blazing in perfect refraction
off the blue-black skin of Lake Accotink.

Fatigued by fluorescent lighting and
fractured into shards
by screens in square rooms
I come here, as I often do,
to put myself back together
in the company of water and birds
on a lowly log in the thicket.

Here, winter’s emptiness is fulsome–
The loose sharp air
The softly rocking water
The staccato crackle from the marshy island in the middle
where black spiky birds fuss
and erupt periodically in crescendos.

From her high nest on the tulip poplar
the Bald Eagle plunges into her grand circle
slicing through the air,
scattering a retinue of wing birds,
steely eye on the still snake
sunning in the brush.

Below, mute turtles poke their silhouetted necks
in different directions,
alert but indifferent
to the scolding Canada geese.
The Great Blue Heron lurks
at the lake’s edge
imperceptible almost, among grey rocks,
until sudden, immense spring uncoiling,
she stretches her wings into waves of flight.


Northern Cardinal at Lake Accotink

An amber ant, tiny and translucent,
ambles down a blade of last year’s dried grass.
A red cardinal’s gaudy flash appears in the golden brush.
Finches leave traces of whispers
moving air in the dried leaves.

The kerfuffle in the rookery,
sweet trills, hidden rustling in the brush,
beak knocking bark,
feathered flutters–
Wash me in wordless comfort.
Animal senses piqued
in pulse, gut, cells, and sinew,
from ancient imprints in the throat and ear
evolved over eons
in this same sunlight.

A few genetic removes apart, all of us
swelling in giddy delight
in the afternoon rays,
longing for longer days,
sniffing for spring,
The unobtrusive, spirited lives of the lake
seeking refuge in this space,
mud yielding to water,
a cordoned vestige of what was once
infinite majesty
a natural world that inhaled deeply
and held out hands of grace.

Across the lake a leaf blower’s roar
rips out from beyond the thickets,
where the suburbs have straightened out wooded hills
into square lawns
and black tar miles
of squat, concrete obtrusions
with glass facades
that offer tricky imitations of sky and trees,
so birds fearlessly fly to their hard deaths.

This rectilinear world
that men have remade in their image
technological muscle flexed,
respecting no natural grace,
employs any violence for endless taking–
levers primed to bend and bow nature down,
blow out its bowels for ores and oil
upend forests
and  blanket endless acres in bitter chemicals.

Cordoned inside glass walled palaces
that glower with light at all hours,
men sit, removed from their own nature,
tapping out calculations of value on keyboards
their ears deadened to bird song;
pulses lethargic; forgetting to race
at the mighty flight of the heron with delicate wings.


Great Blue Heron on a stone

If they could, they would
send in heavy machinery
to drain the lake, dig up the trees,
eviscerate muddy islands of bird chatter;
slash the tulip poplars’ sway
build out lines of concrete walls
blocks of houses
for sale in three model choices.

All the houses in the world are no home
when we have stripped
the majesty of sunsets on the water,
the rustling of birds and the quiet ants;
No refuge remains
when we unmake our home.
We would imagine ourselves proud kings,
with machines and guns,
But we are only
in the eyes of our beholders–
rude dominaters, uncaring, unmoored from our own nature
as vulnerable
as the smallest bees we poison.

In the mud flats by the lake,
my refuge,
I cannot turn
from the hawk holding up the sky,
the eagle’s flight through dazzling, tumbling planes,
the quiet mysteries of birds and turtles


Bald Eagle at Lake Accotink

When the cardinal sings irrepressibly,
it is to the invisible, spirited lives, and to us,
lifting the song coiled up in my heart.
To be human is animal,
self is every species borne
of the same womb,
our blood of this same soft substrate,
soil, water, cell, and sinew
drawn by hands of grace
A mother’s endless wellspring of love.
Her ancient calculus tends to limits
of reciprocity and respect.
She offers infinite wealth,
that we would cut, and ravage,
and imagine we are richer
in the taking.

This poem is dedicated to my friend Mark, enthusiastic hiking companion, wily-eyed bird identifier, and the best kind of ally who puts his feet and money where his love is: in nature.   
Posted in Environment, Nature, Poetry, Urban Environment | Tagged | 2 Comments

Island of History and Mountains: Beyond the Beach in Cyprus

Between the gentle seductions of its hospitality and its rich history, Cyprus left me with an impression of a culture that reinvents itself anew with a self-confident resilience.  In Cyprus, the glories of antiquity are juxtaposed against commercially-vibrant cities with modern infrastructure, financial muscle, and hip restaurants and bars.  Diversity and multi-lingualism are seamlessly woven into the fabric of commerce and administration. Just as in history, the island’s eastern Mediterranean location at the cross-roads of Europe and the Middle-east continues to attract huge swaths of travelers, now compounded by new-interest from the Far-East (China), and Russia.  Most are attracted to its mild climate and sea-side opportunities: tourists swell the island’s population by double during its prolonged high season from April to November.

The construction boom on the southern coastline of the island, was driven by tourism; you can see almost continuous ribbon-like colonies of holiday homes, apartments and hotels along coastal roads.  And where once stood isolated old stone-built villages, with a modest village square and a church, now there are endless commercial strips that blur erstwhile village boundaries.

But Cypriots would be quick to stress that there’s more to Cyprus than its azure waters, yacht harbors, beachside resorts and party towns.  On my recent visit, I found other secrets in the interior of Cyprus that sun-and-sand seeking tourists largely don’t venture towards.  There’s a world of exploration among the cobbled streets, wines, UNESCO World Heritage churches and monasteries, traditional sweets, and delicious tavernas of Cyprus’  mountain villages.  The geographic setting of the villages is equally notable and vivid.  The topographic diversity and elevation changes are so dramatic in the interior of the island, that it’s possible to hike on alpine trails among conifers to lush waterfalls and downhill ski at resorts that are literally an hour or two away from the Mediterranean coast.

I found both history and geography in plenty on a tour that took me from the beaches of Limassol on the island’s southern coast to the Troodos mountain range in the interior of the island.

The best kind of cultural travel is with a local friend who can bring you to know a place at a more personal, intimate level.  Niki, a college friend, was the first Cypriot I knew and made Cyprus real for me way before I even landed here (we go back to our common path as fellow international students in a mid-western American liberal arts college).  She also brought professional qualifications to this visit, as she has worked as a government official on the administration and strategy of Cyprus tourism for many years.  I was in good hands for being steered to the off-beat, unique spots of the country.

As is characteristic of the Cypriot culture, Niki is firmly ensconced in the intimate and extensive social associations that span generations and families, so she had cast around a net for a suitable guide to take us around.  Maria Achniatou came up as an option, and also happened to be Niki’s school friend’s older sister. We rendez-vous’d with Maria at the luxurious lobby of the Four Seasons hotel in Lemesos (in English, Limassol) and the two ladies had some catching up to do on Niki’s school buddy.


Maria (left) and Niki (right).  Maria is the officially certified Cyprus tourism guide who could speak to any topic including the intricacies of antiquity. Niki has worked on tourism strategies for the Cyprus government.

We started out by visiting an archaeological site with predominantly Roman period structures located on cliffs, high above the southern coast.  As I found out from Maria, the layers of history that go back behind the Roman-era physical structures, span the scale of the history of mankind itself.  Way before the Romans, this site was where an ancient city kingdom, Kourion once flourished.  The Kourion kingdom was one of several interspersed throughout the island of Cyprus in the late Bronze Age (1,000 BC).  Amathous to the east of the modern city of Lemesos (Limassol) and visible from the highway, is another city kingdom of similar historical origin.

Other ancient city kingdoms of the late Bronze Age were dotted around the capes of the Mediterranean Sea and extended up to the mountains of the Troodos range that runs through the heart of Cyprus.  These city kingdoms were built atop earlier human occupation and settlements.  They continue an already established civilization traced in this area from the Late Neolithic period (referring to stone tools implements) and Chalcolithic period (referring to copper tools), as well as the Early and Middle Bronze Ages that succeeded them.  (While there are no architectural remains of these historical periods at Kourion itself, archaeologists have found structural signatures that are resonant with others from the earlier periods.)

When the Greeks invaded and conquered the island, its city kingdoms became satellite states of the centralized Greek empire.  (Alexander the Great was one of the most famous heads of state of this empire.)  Hellenic age (500–300 BC) cultural imprints are found in Cyprus, in the classical Greek style in statues, art and architecture of this period.

I began to appreciate the scope of Maria’s background knowledge on Cyprus history.  She explained how she was specially certified for guiding the antiquities of Cyprus: the certification involved having to complete a year’s course that spanned, geography, history, archaeology, and etymology.


On the stage in the theater at Kourion

Back to the physical archaeology at Kourion: its oldest physical remains date back to the Hellenistic period (circa 300 BC), and most of its notable features are from the subsequent Roman period.  Cyprus was absorbed into the Roman Empire as a colony in period around 50 BC.  At the turn of the millennium (1st–3rd century AD) a series of devastating earthquakes in this area required building and rebuilding of structures.  It was also during this period that the new religion of Christianity took hold in this area.  These features are evident in the archaeological excavations at Kourion that took place largely during the 1930s.  Among Kourion’s highlights, the restored semi-circular arena stage, with stadium-style hierarchical seating that faces the sea is notable.  During the (earlier) Hellenic age, the theater would stage plays.  As Maria instructed, I whispered while standing at the center of the circular orchestra at the base of the theater.  The acoustics were astounding—from the central part of the stage, a whisper carries around the whole structure and echoes audibly in my ear as feedback.  Back in 300BC, a choir might perform narrative songs on the stage.


The semi-circular theater at Kourion dates back to the Hellenistic period but was converted by the later Romans into a gladiator fighting arena

The Romans converted the Greek theater into a fighting ring where gladiators wrestled with wild animals (an escape hatch was built for wounded gladiators).  This theater tradition left us a curious, modern socio-political legacy.  The audience of the Roman period would include sophisticated, rich, urban people who would enter stage right and be seated high in the stands (where they would also have cover from a roof structure that extended out over the top rows).  Other audience members–agricultural workers who were poorer and less refined– would enter stage left. This traditional legacy is found in politics today where the less well-off common-folk and workers are usually pressing for more equal distribution of wealth and workers’ rights from the ‘left’, while the rich people who are interested in preserving their political and social power with a more conservative outlook are from the ‘right’.  As the audience viewed performances on stage, they would also see out and be able to survey the sea horizons behind (the better to pick out any approaching ships?).

Several visiting tour groups from around Europe, Russia, and China were testing out the acoustic fun at the center stage of the theater.  Maria mentioned she is fluent in Greek, English, Russian, and Spanish, and (She noted that they were having difficulty finding guides who could speak both Greek and Mandarin.)  In addition to being an expert in all things Cypriot, Maria was also a licensed, practicing architect and she was rich in spirit and humanistic understanding.  She encouraged me to sit in the audience bleachers and feel how it must have been to watch performances here through the ages. Being in the theater, with its commanding cliff-view of the sea far below, just like Cyprus’ ancient citizens who sat watching spectacles at that same spot, made me feel connected to the energy and spirit rooted in the history of this place.  The ancients would have seen the same perspective of waves breaking on the shore and the green expanses below them, the sea always reminding them of their island geography.


This native plant that grows on the cliffs of Kourion is said to have root bulbs that make you “forget”.  Traditional lore has it that after death, people walk through a field of this plant to help them pass into the next world with a clean slate.

Near the theater is a magnificent arched structure built with massive curved wooden girders, installed to protect another archaeological monument known as the House of Eustolius.  This is a noteworthy Roman nobleman’s villa, a five-star luxury hotel of its time.  Its room layout shows different functional uses and key to understanding them are the surviving footings, water harvesting structures, and remnants of floor mosaics. The surviving floor mosaics illustrate the attitudes and themes of the day, including inscriptions about the nobleman’s largesse and importance as well as tributes to Roman precepts of wise living, and homages to Christian principles.  For example, one floor inscription notes that the nobleman extended hospitality to poorer neighbors after a devastating earthquake.


Roman nobleman’s house at Kourion preserved under a massive arched covering

There is a gorgeous surviving mosaic showing a woman carrying a measuring scale, to depict the veneration with which living “in moderation” or in “right measure” was valued.  The ancients understood that living well required people to moderate themselves and find balance in all things.  It seems that such values have been callously swept aside as anachronistic in the modern age, characterized by an economic system of endless growth built on unsustainable use of resources and waste pollution, where socio-cultural, spiritual, and aesthetic values are subordinate to the value of monetary profit and revenues.


Floor mosaic showing a roman female figure holding a measuring device, to symbolize the wisdom of living with moderation.

The Roman nobleman built a series of spa rooms into his home complex, powered by heat from a room source which was transmitted to a “steam room” in the crawl space underneath a false raised floor.  A  cold water dipping pool was part of the complex, purportedly to recover from the steam heat treatment. The mosaic at the pit of the pool is perfectly preserved showing a geometric repeating design.


The floor mosaic of the cold water dipping pool — part of a ‘sauna’ complex in the Roman nobleman’s house in Kourion– survives intact

Leaving Kourion behind, we drove on towards the winding, mountainous roads into the interior of the island, into the rising Troodos mountains.  Soon we were surrounded by stone-terraced hillsides planted with wines.


Terraced plots to grow vines in the Troodos mountains, with goats

At the Linos Winery

Driving up into mountains, we began to see the stone-terraced fields where grape vines are grown.  These stone walls had been constructed over hundreds of years to stabilize plots on hillsides, by local villagers and farmers.  I noticed that these radial grape vines were low to the ground, looking almost like pygmy shrubs with stumpy low stems, and unlike in the California, New York and Virginia wine regions, were not supported by wooden posts with wires strung in-between.  Maria explained that Cyprus’ famous, signature sweet wine, “Koummandaria”, has its historic roots in the Byzantine time when the Knights of St. John lived on the island.  They lived in a military housing barracks known as “Koummanderia” and they produced an eponymous wine.  Currently the specific appellation is regulated for a specific region, but wineries from other areas may also make official “Kuommanderia” after barreling grape juice grown in this area for no less than three years.


It was March and we noted the almond trees were flowering, in the still nippy, early-spring mountain air.  There’s a symbiosis between the almond trees and vines: bees that pollinate the almond tree’s flowers are also beneficial to the grapes.  We stopped to look more closely at a big sign of Saint Ephraim, legend has it that he was a young novice monk, murdered by Turks as a Christian martyr.  The sign is erected near a church dedicated to him and appears to be looking over a field of vines.  At that point, Maria received a call and went into an involved conversation.  She then told us it was the doctor, letting her know that her blood test results were clear and her cells looked good…she is in remission from cancer.  We all said a quiet prayer of thanks.


Vines watched over by Saint Ephraim in the Troodos Mountains

A herd of goats tumbled into the road and were shooed off to the side by a shepherd.  We decided to stop at a winery overlooking a panoramic view of a valley expanse below filled with vine fields.  The Linos winery seemed fairly quiet.  We hung around enjoying the view until a field worker who noticed us went to get the boss.


On the road in the Troodos Mountains

Nikolas came right off the field, looking sun-kissed and a little exhausted.  He drew back the barn door, and invited us in apologizing for his disheveled fieldwork look.  He showed us the steel fermentation vats inside and described the family ownership and history of this winery and its production scale.  Linos is a fairly large operation with 300 hectares of vines, carefully managed as organically as possible, and exported to Austria, France, and Italy, in addition to being sold in domestic markets within Cyprus. Nikolas’ family has owned this winery and this land (with acquisitions over time) since 1825

We gathered around for a tasting of about nine wines ranging from dry white, to rose, to dry reds, and then sweeter reds and whites, ending with a moscato and their Koummanderia which are their sweet desert wines.

One of the wines we tasted called Archangel led to an amusing story about tradition and family.  In this family the birth of a son is marked by giving a title deed for a plot of land in his name (girls inherit houses).  Nikolas’ own son’s plot was the site of a curious series of mistakes in production that yielded a uniquely-named, and now award-winning “Archangel” wine.  The first mistake was that the planting instructions from Nikolas’ father got mixed up and two different kinds of grapes were planted instead of just cabernet grapes.  Three years later, once this mistake was determined they accepted that the harvest would be a mix of varietals rather than pure; and decided to proceed even though they didn’t quite know what to expect. They pressed the grapes.  The second mistake involved another blunder during the fermentation process when the wine was barreled too soon.  The mounting accidents resulted in a deep red with woody and earthy notes.  They went with it.  The Archangel wine won distinction awards at a wine competition in Lyon, France.  Currently it’s one of their in-demand bottles.  I personally thought their Syrah was noteworthy.

The Linos family tasting barn also had long strings of “Soutzouko” or Suchuko hung out to harden.  This Cypriot sweet is made from the fruits of both almonds and grapes, and uses the tradition of growing almond trees adjacent to wineries.  Maria explained how suchuko was traditionally crafted over a period of days after grape harvesting at her aunt’s house.  After the first press of the grapes for wine (and sifted off for holding in fermentation tanks), a second press is done to squeeze out the last of the grape juice; it’s not a good fit for wine-making but sugary juice is not to be wasted.  The ‘second press’ liquid is collected (traditionally in a large brass pot) and (traditionally) set on a wood fire to be stirred for hours to concentrate it.  Meanwhile almonds are strung in long threads in preparation and, once the grape juice is sufficiently syrupy and thick, are dipped in the concentrate to coats the nuts.  The process is done many times over, to create a thick cylindrical coating of syrupy concentrate around the nuts. Then the strings are hung to dry during which time the syrup coating solidifies.  The strings become really heavy and are traditionally hung off branches of trees or on poles set up between support stands.


Sochuko (concentrated grape juice syrup hardened over chains of almonds) is hung to dry at the Linos winery

As we got ready to leave, I perused their small store and picked up a couple of single-serving wines.  Nikolas said that there was no way he would take payment.  He said that Cyprus has a long tradition of hospitality to visitors and he wanted me to enjoy the family wines.  It really stunned me that after spending so much time with us, strangers who had just driven up interested in learning more about their winery, that we would be treated with such generosity.  I was almost speechless.

Another happy moment at this winery was when Nikolas’ parents drove up in a truck and Niki who was playing with the winery dog started chatting with them.  She learned they had Kyrenia roots. Kyrenia is in the north of the country now occupied by Turks.  She mentioned that her grandmother had determinedly stayed in the north even as they Turks attempted to starve her.  Her grandmother had been a business woman with multiple properties and shops in Kyrenia.  Turns out she was memorable and that the old folks knew her and recounted some quirky tales about her, particularly her golden tongue and quick wit. It seems Cyprus is all connected with each other.

I noticed the field workers and asked about them.  Nikolas explained that the winery employs seasonal agricultural workers from Pakistan and Bangladesh, through an official program under which they are paid an EU-regulated minimum wage.

The Village of Omodhos


Approaching the village of Omodhos from the south

The village of Omodhos is a charming stop on the Troodos trail.  They are set up to accommodate tour buses in a large receiving parking lot outside the village, from where you can climb into the cobbled-streets and narrow winding gulleys of this medieval-era village.  Entering the village, we passed little bakeries and shops selling delicacies like pomegranate molasses-encrusted almonds, local jellies and honey, and hand-crafted products including lace.  Lace making is a rich traditional heritage here.  Maria stocked up on arkatena at the George bakery. (It’s a twice-baked hard bread crusted with sesame nuts which is served with some olive oil to nibble as an appetizer, or with soup.)

The main square of the village extends down a sloped cobbled street, lined with little tavernas and houses, with tables and chairs that spilled into the street.  We went inside a restored communal village wine press which is how farmers from the region would extract juice from their grape harvests.  A massive beam anchored into a stone cylinder with a spiraling groove was used to press a large flat stone disk that crushed grapes and sent the juices into a large mud pot set into the earth.  Each family would then scoop out its wine from the receiving vat using hollowed out gourd ladles.


A little by lane in the village of Omodhos

We settled in, to eat a lunch meal at a restaurant called Sto Kyr Yianni, a delightful covered patio restaurant with the traditional stone walls of this medieval village.  Niki ordered her favorite, and ‘carb free’ “lamb kleftiko”. It consists of lamb slow-baked in a partially buried stone oven that is sealed and packed with mud.  Kleftiko is the root word for “stealing” and I heard different stories about why the name is used for this dish.  One, it represents a time when Greek Cypriots resisted paying Ottoman taxes and so the lamb was effectively stolen and second, more visceral, describes how the dish was made from goats stolen from the Ottoman army.  The lamb was prepared in slow roasting sealed oven where the aromas would not waft into the air and alert the Turks that their goats were being cooked up for a Greek feast.  Personally, I felt that the most amazing part of this meal was the Greek Salad (lightly doused in lemon juice and the herbiest, freshest olive oil), mixed with some of the spiced cream cheese served alongside, along with some sesame seed-crusted Greek crostini brushed with olive oil.


Lamb kleftikos is slow-baked lamb and here, dusted with Greek oregano

I was pretty knocked out by this amazing meal, and actually began snoozing as soon as I got in the car.  I’m not used to eating this kind of meat! It was about time for me to wake up with a vigorous activity.  We drove to Platres, a small mountain resort, which in the seventies, used to be visited by middle-eastern dignitaries and leaders seeking respite from the summer heat. Here, we hiked up to a lush waterfall, and there was nobody else there.  I felt I had experienced some shy, hidden parts of the Cyprus soul, that are quite magical and connected to an essence I would never have found on the beaches and coffee shops of Lemesos (Limassol).  And that’s really the best kind of trip isn’t it.


Hiking on mountain trails to lush waterfalls is part of the Cyprus experience as much as frolicking on its famed beaches

Posted in Anthropological, Cultural Commentary, Ethnicity, Mountains, People | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Scientific Rationality: Comforting Illusion in a World Falling Apart

Science is viewed as synonymous with progress, however in reality science is easily reduced to an impotent handmaiden of power and ideology.  As we face planetary crises, we need a deeper engagement with our humanity—both individual and collective— using spiritual and political consciousness.  Because, ultimately scientific rationalism is not a supreme human faculty, it is one of many. And rather than being value-neutral, it always finds itself in a political context. 

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protests in 2016 thrust a huge spotlight on resistance to fossil fuels.  Indigenous tribes and their supporters sent a loud message that oil was not only going to leak from pipeline cracks and pollute their water source, but was the wrong investment at a time when renewable sources of energy were growing in leaps and bounds worldwide.

As winter set in on the northern plains, two developments in late 2016 confirmed what the DAPL protesters had been protesting.  First, a peer-reviewed, scientific study published by the EPA confirmed that fracking, as a technique for excavating oil reserves from rock formations does indeed contaminate aquifers.  Second, an oil pipeline, not two hundred miles from the DAPL protest site in North Dakota, cracked and released nearly 180,000 gallons of oil into Ash Coulee Creek. The disaster, euphemistically referred to as a “spill”, effectively rendered the creek dead.  Rather than a living ecological structure, it became a channel for toxic water that doesn’t support life.  This latest oil disaster—exactly what protesters feared would happen to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation’s water source—added to numerous oil pipeline breaks which, although cataloged by North Dakota state authorities, go unreported in the media.  (The North Dakota Department of Health has recorded more than 100,900 gallons of crude oil, waste oil, bio solids, natural gas, and brine spilled in the state, since January 2016 alone, not counting this latest. Another agency, North Dakota Industrial Commission calculated a total of $4.5 million in fines for spills in 2015 and 2016.  These fines are negotiated around the costs of clean ups.)

Both the scientific study and empirical, real world evidence pointed to unmistakable conclusions that (1) fracking for oil poses unacceptably high risks to irreplaceable water resources; and (2) breaks or cracks in pipelines that cover long distances are almost inevitable and cause irreparable damage to water resources.

In spite of this, as often happens sadly, the powerful men in the U.S. government who direct decisions about fossil-fuel economic activities don’t blink.

The newly-elected state Governor Doug Burgum issued a video statement that the state government would continue to support the oil pipeline regardless of the past year’s protests, because, “…it’s the safest way to transport North Dakota products.  Failure to finish it would send a chilling signal to those in any industry who wish invest in our state and play by the rules.” Newly-elected President Trump has directed the Acting Secretary of the Army to set aside the full Environmental Impact Statement required to do a proper cost benefit analysis of DAPL, and grant the easement for Energy Transfer Partners to drill under the disputed section of the Missouri River, right at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

Trump, an avowed climate science denier, also threatens to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreements, even as NASA and NOAA scientists continue to demonstrate temperature warming trends across the globe, and recently presented alarming updates that Arctic sea ice is disappearing and thus causing faster warming trends in the Arctic than the rest of the globe through a positive feedback loop.

The logic behind the decision to push forward on additional, risky fracked oil pipelines?  Trump thinks it’s good business. It’s that easy for power to make arbitrary decisions that shun and dismiss meticulously peer-reviewed science and real-world evidence.

Progress or Political Ping Pong?

Our culture appeals to science for “reason”, “information”, and “evidence”, but as the North Dakota problem illustrates and as happens throughout the world, political or ideological interests easily hijack and sideline its offerings.  Time and again, clear scientific evidence is reduced to an impotent handmaiden of power and authority.  It is bent to economic agendas, or twisted to fit specific political purposes.

Decision makers can, on the one hand, exhibit a blind spot for atmospheric science that demonstrates rising global temperature trends while on the other hand, embrace mechanical engineering to develop cost models of extracting fracked oil from subterranean reserves.  Climate change naysayers who deny the science will still embrace the technology—produced by other parts of science—that suits their outlook.

The course of our lives, and the ecological survival of the planet, can be decided by people who wield the power to pursue cherry-picked, selective science based on capricious whims, economic agendas, or ideology—as suits them.  Science is too easily used as a political pawn.

Science itself however, remains an enormously potent force in our culture.  People call for more science and for better science communication with sincere hopes that it will guide and promote better public discourse and decision-making.  The Pope (trained in science himself) is quoted as saying that there has “never been such a clear need for science” to guide human actions “to safeguard the future of the planet,” at a gathering of scientists at the Vatican in the winter of 2016.

How do we reconcile our appeal to science for “reason” and “good judgement” while acknowledging that we negotiate within a complex socio-political world with (powerful, rogue) actors who may often be anything but reasonable?  How is it we hold on so blindly to an illusion that we are on a path of progress guided by science, when we are clearly on a path that is shaped by the complex negotiations of social power, by patriarchy, by a history of colonial occupation, and human impulses of tribalism and domination?

Technological Domination is Self-Affirming

Many thinkers on the subject of how power subverts science, distinguish science from technology and technocracy. Technology is derived from science but distinguished from its academic practice.  Technology shapes tangible reality, but manifests in the intangible human spirit: through our language, daily transactions, our fears, and our collective ethical and moral transactions.  Technology can be exploited opportunistically by specific actors to accumulate profits and power, for example.

Philosophers like Mary Midgely have pointed out that technological dominance of the planet is enabled by chauvinism about our own power and might.  She quotes Julian Huxley the evolutionary biologist who wrote that Scientific Man has become “the growing point of evolution”.  This view says that human intelligence, working through scientific rationalism, has emerged at the apex of evolution, and it makes human beings the top of the heap on the planet.  Scientific rationality makes human beings masters of the universe.  With science to explain the workings of the universe God as a notion, at least of a higher power, has itself been sidelined–left as an anachronistic artifact.  Mary Midgley has described this human omnipotence, as “not just anthropocentric but effectively anthropolatrous, self-worshipping.”  We are Gods because of our (specifically human) scientific minds.

Scientists might be the first to bring some humility into the self-aggrandizing arrogance of the scientific enterprise because they are constantly reminded they don’t have all the answers, and that their conclusions are mis-used or used in ways that they would not ethically approve of. But they are drowned out in the domination of technology.

In a worldview of scientific rationalism and technological domination, we are bound up in normative ideas that scientific advancement and new technology equates to progress. The assumption is that science points the way to “common good and universal goods”.  There are books devoted to how much we need the rationality of science to actually overcome the vagaries of socio-political jockeying.

Naive Optimism: A Blinding Preoccupation With Technology

A technological worldview that asserts that human intelligence is supreme and can shape the world.  We hold on to the comforting, yet delusional, discourse that scientific rationalism will help us technologize our way out of the maelstrom of ecological devastation, itself caused by industrial technology.  We are unquestioningly optimistic about technology, ever hopeful that there will be technological developments and solutions for every environmental limitation and disaster, even as we irrationally perpetuate unsustainable lifestyles, wars, and environmentally-destructive policies on a finite planet.

Indeed television channels dedicated to science fiction serve up stories of self-aggrandizing, limitless human enterprise based on scientific advancement.  There is no end of Sci-Fi TV shows whose premise is that humans, in our technological advancement, have left nature behind.  We are so advanced that we are actually able to create improved humans with artificial life, or we can go to other planets and galaxies and conquer life over there.

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An imaginative view of colonizing a new planet, say for instance, Mars.

There is a rub however, in the problematic reality, that, at the dawn of 21st century, nature collides head on with the discourse of scientific rationalism and technological muscle.  The “anthropocene” is a geologic classification that describes the characteristics of the planet’s soil, air, vegetation, climate, and water cycles resulting from the cumulative impact of human technology.  As we forge forward into the 21st century, we are coping with the social and ecological fallout of humanity’s colossal imprint on the planet, caused by technology and industrialization that permeates every aspect of our lives and is a pollution-based model of prosperity.  Energy and mineral ore extractions, and the endless production and waste of consumer goods and electronics now threaten life on the planet because of the resulting environmental pollution and toxic by-products.

Technological domination and the supremacy of scientific rationalism is so deeply embedded in our collective cultural mindset however, that it gives us a kind of a naive optimism.  This naive optimism says we can technologize our way out of a dead planet; that we can find solutions for food production, adaptations for changes in climate, human-nature interactions and any other constriction we face. This optimism focuses on the intrinsic qualities of the technology, which may be wonderful, yet, can fail because its situated always in political context: technology is controlled by specific actors, its price is exacted by specific profiteers, its implementation is manipulated by others.

To put this in Sci-Fi TV terms, technology has made a mess of our own planet, but we are so convinced of our superiority that we have illusions of coming up with technological fixes for the mess.  And better still, we can simply become masters of another planet—one which we have yet to find, that would offer conditions that sustain life.  All the while we assume that just because the technology exists, it will translate into access and solutions for all.  Naive.

Old Fashioned Moral and Cultural Negotiations: What Technologists Pooh-Pooh

The excessive focus on scientific rationality and technology divorces us from questions of responsibility, choice, and insight into our moral obligations to the world. This mindset doesn’t require us to check how technology is used: who benefits and who loses.  It doesn’t ask what values we bring and carry forward as a species on this planet. And, this is a dangerous omission.

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A boy on his bike in front of oil fields in Mosul Iraq, set on fire by fighters symbolizes a world in which technological advancements are consistently undermined by the fundamental human impulse to negotiate social power, often through brute means.

As my introductory story about DAPL illustrates, the real world practice of science may aspire to be, but is anything but “rational”.  The pursuit of meaning, purpose, and morality is done by people in complex negotiations with each other and with power imbalances.  How quickly science is subverted to power should teach us that science and technological innovation don’t exclusively determine the shape of our lives.

Remove the technological optimism lenses and look more closely at how we operate and you will see that the powerful drivers are human faculties of belief and social negotiation of power.  Scientific rationality is seen as somehow superior to the many, essential human faculties of social negotiations, spiritual yearnings, ecological connections, the feminine principle of love between mother and child, desire, love, and beauty.

Why would scientific rationalism in fact distinguish itself as ‘superior’ to those essential qualities of being human?  What is wrong with those aspects of being human that makes scientific rationality superior?  I question why we value an enterprise that eschews and isolates itself from such core faculties of what it means to be a human being.  The discussion about “progress”, “reason”, and “universal good” has to be on what we care about.  Science doesn’t produce answers about what we care about, and our scientific worldview is obscuring our insight into our own souls and the moral decisions we need to make there.

Every Technology Has Political Strings

Yes, we need science to explain the world and to describe how things work or break down.  But social negotiation is the context of how we use science.  And in this we need a stronger critique of power and profit. As we see repeatedly, powerful actors/leaders hoard wealth and profits, rig the game, and use technology to benefit their own enterprises, at the expense of others.  What struggle with power will we have to undertake, to consciously shift towards collaborative and cooperative models of living, rather than exclusionary models based on powerful people hoarding wealth and resources? How do we use social pressure to reign in those who use science as a handmaiden of power to advance their own profits, while violating ecological principles of balance and compassion, and social principles of justice?  These are the questions that will help us survive into the future.

We might have to confront historical and colonial oppression and recognize how power consolidates itself through the use of specific economics and technology.  Every technology is politically situated. Too often we default to technological solutions to address the world’s problems.  But we would have to recognize technology as an instrument of violence against communities.  We ought to examine the underlying models of economic power that have created technology, that benefits some while leaving others behind.  It’s time to deliberate about the relative advantages of technology, rather than to assume that technological fixes will produce what it is we value.

Scientific rationalism and technological innovations are vital tools but, contrary to the aspirational claims of their enthusiastic, are hardly able to replace the complex socio-political negotiations within which they are developed.  Ultimately, technologism and scientific rationality cannot obscure the negotiations of social, political, and moral values and choices that we are constantly bound to wrestle with.

Epilogue: Machine Men! With Machine Minds and Machine Hearts! You Are Not Machines!

The brilliant irony of Charlie Chaplin expresses these ideas better than I ever could. In the film “The Great Dictator” (the  1940 American political satire comedy-drama film that Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, and starred in) he plays a poor Jewish barber who is mistaken for a dictator of a similar appearance.  In the role of the Dictator he gives a speech about rejecting autocratic power, rejecting technocratic control of the human being and rejecting a bleak vision of a militaristic and mechanistic world.  The message is amplified by his brilliant use of contrast and visual irony.  It holds true today.


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The U.S. Army Corps Environmental Impact Statement on the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline

President Obama ordered an Environmental Impact Statement to be conducted on the full length of the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline (DAPL) in his final days in office.  This would allow a full cost-benefit analysis to be done and consider input from tribes who would be impacted by the pipeline.

President Obama’s mandate for a full Environmental Impact State (EIS) reversed an earlier U.S. Army Corps approval process that emboldened Energy Transfer Partners (the fossil fuel firm conveying fracked oil from the Canadian border across the Dakotas to a refinery in Illinois) to begin construction of the pipeline in anticipation of a full approval.  As a result, over 90 percent of the pipeline is already constructed.  That earlier process, President Obama concluded, was a flawed and accelerated one that did not sufficiently evaluate the nature of the pipeline infrastructure in full, nor include, with sufficient weight, input from tribes.  (This was a direct reference to protests by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe to protect their lands and waters which were directly in the pipeline trajectory. The one section of DAPL that has not yet been constructed runs under a stretch of the Missouri River called Lake Oahe, which is right at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation).

Rather than considering the over 1,000-mile pipeline across the heartland of the United States as a single entity, the U.S. Army Corps treated the pipeline as a series of mini sections. This is considered a fast-track, easier way to permit projects; individual permits are less onerous to secure for smaller sections.  The mini sections qualify for a ‘nationwide permit’, a type of permit used for a discreet development (say, a residential neighborhood).  This circumvents the true nature of the project: massive infrastructure that ties the nation to a carbon-linked future, with massive air and climate consequences, and potential consequences for rivers and drinking water.

The EIS is an honored, legally-codified, “American Democracy” way of including civic voices and civil service voices in decisions about commerce and infrastructure construction in the nation. Once a full EIS is put in motion, the process is legally protected and must be carried out in full.  It is a time-consuming effort that allows/requires many stakeholders to weigh in on the merits and demerits of the proposed infrastructure.  Multiple government agencies such as Agriculture, the Department of Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Energy Regulatory Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency whose jurisdictions are touched by the pipeline, are consulted.  Each provides a detailed analysis of how their constituents are impacted.  Public comment is also included in the effort.  Citizens of this nation are invited to express their concerns and thoughts about engineering infrastructure that will install thousands of miles of pipeline to convey crude oil across our farm fields, suburbs, parks, archaeological sites, and through our waterbodies–rivers and aquifers–that sustain millions of people and precious wildlife and natural resources.

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Supporters of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and thousands of demonstrators attend a protest against DAPL in Los Angeles, United States on December 10, 2016. (Photo by Aydin Palabiyikoglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

My friend Mark prompted me that I had until February 20, 2017 to write input to the U.S. Army Corps’ EIS, because he knew how much I cared about the river especially after my visit to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Just as I finished composing my letter (below) to the U.S. Army Corps, I read news breaking on social media that President Trump’s acting Secretary of the Army announced he would set aside the entire EIS and give Energy Transfer Partners the final easement they need to drill through Lake Oahe and complete the pipeline.  What a blow!  Even though we knew something like that was coming!  I felt disappointment and heartache for the people of Standing Rock and for millions of Americans who resist the pipeline and have fought valiently, putting their bodies in harm’s way, to prevent exactly such a thing.  So with heavy heart, and armed only with words, I am putting my letter out on social media, on the Internet, into the universe, and sending it to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  I send it in the hope that this letter will join with thousands of others to birth a different story for this country, where dirty oil profits do not trump every other value and every other concern for life.

As I contemplated the crushing sadness of yet another crude oil pipeline that will inevitably crack and leak toxic pollution in our waters, another news feed popped up, this time announcing the Standing Rock Tribe’s statement which challenged the ‘go-ahead’ on the DAPL easement. It said, “The Army Corps lacks statutory authority to simply stop the EIS and issue the easement.”  Those simple words lit up some hope.

The following is my written contribution to the EIS on DAPL.  I hope my words create a space for broader thinking about leaving behind fracked oil infrastructure, and moving to a clean, non-carbon future filled with jobs and prosperity that don’t leave a legacy of pollution.  Please file your own letter to the EIS, there are online forms which allow you to do so with just a mouse click.

Mr. Gib Owen
Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works
108 Army Pentagon
Washington, DC 20310-0108

Re: NOI Comments, Dakota Access Pipeline Crossing
Dear Mr. Owen,

Thank you for including my following comment in the EIS on the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline (DAPL).

The fundamental point I want to make is that U.S. energy futures and employment in the energy sector, lie in renewable sources rather than oil and petroleum.  Fortune magazine reports in January 2017, that the solar and wind industries are each creating jobs at a rate 12 times faster than that of the rest of the U.S. economy.  In the electric power generation sector according to the US Department of Energy, the solar industry employed nearly 374,000 people in 2015-16 — double the number of jobs in oil, coal and gas combined.  Internationally, given that the world is moving towards climate friendly economic transformations, the focus on renewable energy will help keep us competitive with nations such as China, which has spent over $360 billion on renewable energy taking global climate leadership as well as creating millions of jobs.

The chase for oil from dirty, fracked sources solely benefits fossil fuel companies and the politicians they have bribed.  DAPL’s fracked oil is too dirty and not profitable enough to be sold here in the U.S. It is solely intended for foreign markets.  Yet, the United States bears all the risks and costs associated with the pipeline infrastructure.

The continued investment in fracked oil, with long-term industrial infrastructure and pipelines, serves no greater good in this country. The greatest assets in this nation are our great protected natural resources–our soils and waters. Piping fracked oil has been shown again and again to inevitably, irreversibly, pollute precious freshwater aquifers and rivers.  It makes no sense that we return to a world of burning rivers and toxically polluted waters.  Other countries which have polluted theirs pay a high price in terms of quality of life and human health.

The impacts of the inevitable spills and disasters from DAPL will be too dreadful to want to imagine. First to suffer will be the sovereign native nation in this land, whose people have been here for thousands of years. This pipeline is an insult both to them and to us because we are now one joint family and community. We bear a shameful responsibility for the lethal repression that European colonizers used on the native people’s ancestors, barely 100 years ago.  Beyond Standing Rock, U.S. citizens down the entire Mississippi River basin will suffer, be forced to buy expensive bottled water to drink and bathe in, while the fossil fuel companies who plan to make cheap profits off this pipeline will wring their hands and feign distress for T.V. cameras. Energy Transfer Partners CEO and his crony Board members don’t care if millions of people have to suffer; they don’t care if they wipe out beautiful birds and fish; they don’t care about our nation.

But you, our valient civil servants in the U.S. Army Corps who defend this nation, do care. There has to be more value to our nation’s heritage and culture than the cheap profit that this fossil fuel company plans to make by endangering and polluting our nation. Stop this DAPL.  It is an outrage and an insult to the United States.

I am saddened to hear that the Trump administration has arbitrarily circumvented this entire EIS.  In the time I have written this letter, the entire history of the United States has been shafted in the direction of regressive, dirty oil policies.  Please do what you can to bring progress to the United States, and turn us away from regressive dirty oil.


Ansu John

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Driving While Technologically Drunk

We need a healthy critique of the dominant role of science and technology in the modern world to avoid crashing the planet.

Based on a few centuries of scientific rationalism and the ensuing technological muscle its given us human beings today live with a sense of domination over the planet. But at the dawn of the 21st century, nature itself collides with this dominance model as we are threatened by erratic climate, interruptions to the food production system, disease, fires and exaggerated natural disasters due to weather.  Our pollution-based prosperity has made a toxic mess of the planet.  This blog post is inspired by my reading of various (unrelated) science writing that, each in their own way, challenges the popular perception that the scientific worldview has all the answers for our modern civilization to find its way forward.  Picking our way forward requires vision and adaptation, but reliance on the western model of scientific inquiry and technological innovation would, by itself, drag us only into a deeper hole.

Let’s be clear on the terms first. What exactly is science? Science might be defined as the pursuit of a style of rational inquiry that yields insights into how the world works. By using specific methodologies the scientist, himself or herself, is separated from the insights and conclusions. Scientific knowledge is viewed as “disembodied”.  The popular perception is that, unlike other human endeavors, science produces independent truths about the properties and relationships of things (“the laws of nature”).  (Scientists themselves have a much more nuanced and humble view of their understanding of a vast, infinitely complex and intelligent universe into which scientific inquiry provides a partial and often fuzzy lens, but popular culture uses this convenient notion that science produces truths about how the universe came to be and how it works.)

Science is an enormously potent force in the modern world. We valorize the scientific approach as a kind of supreme achievement of human beings.  Over and above politics, art, or the search for meaning, purpose, and morality, modern man hangs his hat on an orthodoxy of belief that says “scientific rationalism”, as a mode of thinking or an organizing principle, is at the top of the hierarchy of human enterprise. Julian Huxley, the evolutionary biologist asserted that Scientific Man has become “the growing point of evolution”.

The points I have assembled together challenge the notion of science as disembodied” or objective knowledge independent of a social context of values, financial interests, and power relations. The investigations of science are themselves, critics say, a complex skein of purpose and intent.  Other critiques direct focus on the fact that the tradition of scientific investigation is rooted in culturally-specific, historically-situated, notions of personal identity and moral beliefs about the world.  Finally, some critiques relate to the importance given to science and its excessive weighting at the expense of other types of knowledge and human faculties such as ethical negotiations, spiritual belief, aesthetics, kinesthetics, compassion, intuition, and cultural understanding.

  1. As a product of human social institutions, science reflects their prejudices and interests. In particular, scientific inquiry reflects where power is located.  John Horgan writes about how American science is shaped by the capitalism and militarism of its culture.  More than half of the U.S. budget for research and development is allocated to military agencies according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The science on genetically modified foods is influenced by its sponsorship by large agri-chemical business conglomerates (e.g. Monsanto, now Monsanto-Bayer after the merger between the seed and the chemical firm).  Their conclusions, not surprisingly, promise that GMO foods are safe for consumption and will provide bigger yields.  Independent scientists in Europe challenge claims that GMO seeds lead to lower herbicide use and higher yields.

  2. Professional and academic scientific associations, responsible for the peer-reviewing process, are in theory committed to the freedom of scientific inquiry, but in practice subject to competing political positioning. Scientists are conscious of socially acceptable norms, corporate funding of research, and competing interests and have frequently jockeyed to marginalize and discredit scientists who challenge norms with unusual conclusions and unpopular associations.  Societal values, funding agreements and restrictions, and power struggles curtail scientific publishing (and autonomy) all the time.

  3. “Culture” refracts the investigations of science and sometimes blinds it to the contributions of other ways of knowing. Patriarchy, male chauvinism, and sexism have interfered with the contributions, lines of inquiry, and insights put forward by (all but the most tenacious) women scientists in history.  Stories of research questions biased towards men rather than women are frequent in the history of medicine and pharmacology.  When Rachel Carson challenged the male-dominated, scientific establishment that disregarded the links between environmental and human health as they used military aerial technology and chemicals to spray agricultural chemicals indiscriminately in the 1960s, she was undermined, discredited, demeaned, and threatened in all kinds of ways including at a personal level.  As a result of her indefatigable persistence in science research and writing, she is viewed as the mother of the modern environmental consciousness in the United States. (Read more in Fire Ant Wars: Nature Science and Public Policy in Twentieth Century America by Joshua Blu Bluhs)

  4. The capitalistic model produces a plethora of technological development based on science. Technology innovation drives profit in industry and commerce. Therefore science research is often focused on technological tweaks, to gain a leading edge.  But few people ask critical questions about how the technology will be implemented.  New technology has become an unquestioned addiction and has been associated with growing inequality in the U.S. because it often works in the interests of some groups of people over others. (Erik Brynjolfsson co-author of The Second Machine Age has written about this.)

  5. Science in health care illustrates some contortions of research in which funding is channeled towards science research that serves specific goals of technology and pharmaceuticals (which are directly associated with greater profit). In the United States spending per capita on health care is more than 50 percent higher than Norway, the second biggest spender, yet results and outcomes of care in terms of patient healing and wellness are no better. Cancer treatment and psychiatry are two branches of medicine that demonstrate the perversions of the health care science in the United States, focused on expensive drug treatments, technology, and administrative costs over the focus on preventative care using diet shifts, life-style shifts, and so on.

  6. Scientific inquiry is somewhat of a victim of the phenomenon of a diffuse modern media. Science journalism helps to keep scientists honest and open debate about science research in civil society at large. In the context of social media where ill-informed public comments feature as highly as, and sometimes more highly than, the actual content conveying science research, thoughtful science journalism is the loser. Shouty voices that either laud or criticize scientific conclusions on the basis of beliefs and special interests prevail.  Who loses? Long-form and meaningful critical treatment of the ramifications of research.  Science is all too often subject to popularity contests just like any other commodity in a commercially driven society. (Check out the How Do We Fix It podcast #35 “The Backlash Against Science” featuring Alice Dreger)

  7. Cultural superiority and cultural domination have conveyed as a kind of normative superiority of western science over other forms and ways of knowing. One example of this is in the field of ecology where traditional ecological knowledge held by indigenous people is diminished as “traditional” or “folkloric” or “specific to a place”, while ecological science is recognized by western institutions of research, education, and governance as “real science”.  The assumptions of the western ecological approach went long without critical examination, for example, the historical bias that kept the human realm distinct from the realm of animal and plant communities. This bias had long blinded western ecologists to the possibility that plant and animal communities have adapted to take advantage of human participation/interference for their own evolutionary advantage.  For example, the health and vigor of certain plants communities such as American native sweetgrass is related to the selective harvesting done by traditional people.  The propagation of certain plant communities is linked to fires intentionally caused by humans.  The western scientific predisposition was to not acknowledge plants as having their own “intelligence” and rational “agency” in directing the course of their own development. Ecological scholars who have recognized the limits of western science are now doing groundbreaking reconciliation to point out the rewarding complementarities with knowledge from the indigenous way of understanding ecology. (See Traditional Forest-Related Knowledge by Parotta and Trosper (eds), Springer 2012. And read more about the intersection of indigenous wisdom and traditional science in “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer)

  8. Just as sexism and cultural imperialism/racism influenced the practice of science, species-ism also has blinkered science. The Christian creation myth sets up ‘mankind’ as an inherently superior being that God created above all else in creation. Western scientists operate from a fundamental species chauvinism that denies the animated, rational intelligence of other non-human beings. Animals are frequently measured against a human yard stick, through reasoning such as “Animals are incapable of moral reasoning in the same way as a human being” (so consequently they don’t deserve the same treatment and protections as humans nor is there any other moral standard of respect for animal life). The cultural belief that the only “intelligence” which counts is our own is reinforced by a scientific worldview (or in other words, the scientific approach reflects the cultural underpinnings of the scientists).  In contrast, consider indigenous creation myths that do not rank humans as superior to other species on earth, rather asserts that humans are part of a democracy of species in which other species are viewed as ‘distant relatives’ with whom humans have co-evolved in nature.  This has ramifications for language, cultural ethics, and scientific research.  It sheds light on the sadistic and fatal outcomes for non-human species as a result of science. Science feeds industrial resource extraction and commercial activities that have resulted in the mass extinction of millions of species and continues today, seemingly unstoppably. Science feeds the complex of systemic, torturous, captive breeding program of animals, in the service of animal agriculture for modern humans to consume grotesque quantities of meat.
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    An abattoir that gets its products from a factory farm processes chicken into consumer friendly breasts and thighs.

  9. The scientific worldview is married to specific spiritual beliefs and values. The cultural values we hold about the terrestrial substrate of our lives—the earth itself—has ramifications.  In the Christian belief, corporeal life on earth is viewed as a temporary, transitive phase while true eternal life is found in heaven, the spiritual realm.  And for the duration of your time on earth, the earth itself is viewed as an inert platform for human activity; its resources free to be used, cultivated, and exploited for the benefit of humankind.  Consider the extraordinary emphasis in scientific and technological research on mechanizing extractive resources to get at earth’s ores, biological gene manipulation, and innumerable efforts to replicate natural systems with artificial ones.  Consider that western science has given us technological developments to destroy entire mountain ranges to strip coal from the soil beds within the mountains. We have the most advanced science and technology to dam rivers and straighten them into canals for all kinds of human purposes.  Yet these technological ‘developments’ destroy the functions of life for myriad other species that are interwoven into the natural course of mountains, watersheds, and rivers.  These ‘developments’ display an underlying ethic of exploiting the earth for its resources purportedly (and self-justifyingly) for human beings to exploit. Contrast this ethic, with another spiritual understanding of the earth, held by indigenous people, as an animated being with her own intelligence and rationality, “a mother”.  Indigenous people view their relationship with the earth as a heavenly gift of life, which comes with a sacred reciprocal responsibility to be a good steward for future generations.  Wrapped into the idea of a sacred relationship between humans and an animated, intelligent earth are values of ecological compassion, caring, and limits that help protect the longevity of earth rather than a short-sighted resource cultivation and profit.  Consider the kind of science that might flourish if this cultural view were held as dominant.

  10. The practice of science is descended from a specific cultural history and set of beliefs about what it means to be a human being and our place in the world. It stems on a particular western European notion idea that the individual human mind was created with special faculties (restricted to only human beings) that give a unique cerebral capacity to understand the physical world. William Whewell who first coined the term “scientist” in 19th century England believed that God created the universe in accordance with certain divine ideas, and God created capacity in the human mind in accordance with those same divine ideas. He felt that knowledge of science—geometry, mechanics, chemistry—originated in “ideas” in the human mind rather than empirical observations of the world. Human beings used their divinely created, exceptional, scientific mind to explore those “ideas” and thus arrive at ‘necessary truths’ about the physical world.  Scientific development was a process of “discovering” more and more of these necessary truths, progressing towards a complete understanding of the natural world and a deepening conviction in the existence of a Divine Creator.Although much has evolved in our understanding of the universe since the 1800s, there is no denying that scientists’ culturally inherited beliefs inform their science.  The fissure between the practice of science and all other human faculties—the pursuit of meaning, purpose, and morality, is indefensible and false.  Scientists are a product of historically and culturally transmitted beliefs about what it means to be a human being.  They inherit ethical constructs and specific outlooks on personal identity and spirituality from families and social groups.  They develop complex linguistic and kinesthetic abilities from these groups. There are real consequences in terms of our knowledge throughout the history of science that persist today, because the scientific worldview has been informed by such beliefs about human exceptionalism. The value of dominance of humans on the planet translates into an arrogance of outlook, the opposite of humility. If we held humility high as a value, we would understand that we have to learn the language in which other species express their intelligence and learn how they find their place on the planet.  We would not swagger scientifically-derived truths as the most important truths of the universe, and acknowledge wisdom in other ways of being and knowing.


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A Last Christmas: Ode to George Michael

Christmas Day 2016 didn’t end well.  The news of George Michael’s death flashed across my social media and stopped my evening.  It stung.  His songs were integrated into the soundtrack of my youth.  I felt like a part of my own life had just been wrenched out.

I was also filled with regret.  For the countless times that George Michael’s songs and passionate on-screen persona had filled me with feelings, I had left business unfinished with him.  I had taken so much from this star as he put his music out into the world.  By not expressing gratitude, telling him–in some way–how much his effort and artistry meant to me, I squandered a chance to make this one-sided relationship whole.  Now I was left only hoping he—in some way—felt the gratitude and attachment I felt in my heart.

The horrible irony of his death at Christmas made this ending more sad.  For as long as I can remember, Christmas is only complete when I’ve heard his emotional rendition of the story-ballad “Last Christmas” being played at least once, somewhere.  When it was first released, in 1984, I was a fledgling, gawky, brooding early-teen, awaiting life in a changing body.  To top it off, I was growing up straddling three cultures: I was Indian, living in Berlin, Germany, and going to a British school.

I must become particularly sodden at times, because I remember my mother forcing me to go run around outside because she felt I needed to expend physical energy and shake off a bad mood.  I trudged through the snow to the park and did a round there.  I remember singing “Last Christmas” to myself.  I plotted that when I grew up, I would have a fabulous set of friends who would rent a ski chalet with me for a holiday.  And there, I’d exchange shy glances of affection and intimacy with a special someone by a fire place, in a cosy room around a softly twinkling Christmas tree.

In the 1980s, George Michael was a broad-mouthed, gorgeous, Mediterranean-looking man, who practically jumped out of the screen with his vervy, flopping, big hair and sexy dance moves. His vibrant energy was sufficient to sanction my own tenuous circumstances sanction.  He gave all the meaning and color to a thirteen year old’s misplaced life. I latched on to him.

I picked up my second-hand acoustic guitar and finger-picked the melody of “Careless Whisper”, repeatedly pressing rewind and play on the tape recording that I had made from the radio.

My sister, with whom I shared a bedroom, felt the same way.  We played his songs on our silver cassette deck over and over, and danced around the little space, whiling away time.  We had lots of it, then.  I’m convinced that his songs are embedded deep in my subconscious, in my amygdala at the base of my head where the brain and spine fuse.   On my death bed, as my cerebral faculties fade away, and I can no longer speak or be rational, if someone were so kind as to play George Michael songs, I probably will respond by instinct. His songs will stir my emotions and give me pleasure.  I will still be able to anticipate the phrases and crescendos.

The name Wham! itself, was bold and brash. Their music pulsated with the synthesizer.  Their beats were infectious and fresh. Just hearing the name makes me smile to this day, at the happy, excited feeling it brought on in my youth.

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Wham!s music takes me back in time to a world in which Europe was divided by an iron curtain and Berlin was walled.  I was a teen, in a walled city, making up a future, anticipating life.  Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael dancing with Pepsi and Shirlie (their back-up singers) in an easy, seamless, inter-racial ensemble seemed to present exciting possibilities then.  They sent a message of a vibrant, out-loud life, inspiring me to feel my own such aspirations in an unknowable future.

At the time many male performers often wore a veneer of edginess, a disaffected, tough sneering perhaps (think Billy Idol or the boys of Duran Duran) but George Michael was different.  He was characteristically, unabashedly expressive.  He appeared on his sumptuous videos with an out-sized articulation using his angular Greek jaw, big eyes, and thick eyebrows.  He was a sex symbol sure, but his masculinity was not oppressive.  It seemed fluid and easy.  Although I had no such words to describe his style at the time, looking back, I was drawn by his emotive qualities.  At the time I didn’t have eyes to see that he was more gender fluid and didn’t come in the mold of a traditional man.  He seemed like a man who was respectful of women.  I noticed that in the way he danced.  He didn’t objectify the girls, rather he was a partner.  He danced with the girls.  To a teenage girl this mattered.  He spoke to our female spirit.

I had heard he was of Greek origin, and I appreciated that.  I recognized that he too knew what it was like to speak a different language at home and not fit in seamlessly with the culture at school and the world around you.  I felt he might share something of what I felt.

Over the years I moved to the United States, began working, and lived in Washington D.C.  In the 1990s I didn’t have a television and was no longer captive to the “Top of the Pops” curated playlist.  In the more diffuse American world of the 1990s and 2000s, I had a wider repertoire but I still heard his music, and listened to his later CDs.  I admired his evolution from afar. I heard him grow up.  The new songs were more jazzy, syncopated, and spiritually-alive.  “Faith” and “Father Figure” were profound and emotional in a way that the shouty-guitar sounds of the 1990’s couldn’t begin to reach.

In his adult transition, he brought the sensibilities of soul into jazz and worked them both into pop.  The songs were masterful and moving, whether in irrepressible dance-y numbers, or in deeply personal ballads.  In his lyrics he let us know he never forgot the working man, he never eschewed working class sensibilities.  The songs about loss and attachment (to his mother, to lovers) were unflinching.  His perky, upbeat songs got onto my gym play list.  Always, his trademark, pure vocal touch stirred a chord of resonance.  He gave it all without the overbearing, didactic clobbering of a Beyoncé.  The production was masterful.

As a star, he effortlessly sang duets that dazzled with their piques and purity.  He could stand toe to toe with Aretha Franklin, Mary J. Blige, Stevie Wonder, and Whitney Houston with a kind of self-possession, and humility that both showcased them, and displayed his own brilliance.  As he wove in his voice and body into songs with these powerful divas, I again saw that respectful, real way he had with women.  The dancing was delightful.  There was honesty.  There was a touch of angelic purity in his voice.  It was so, so beautiful.

He evolved in his own path, as I too changed, inevitably buffeted by life.  I wondered how that lively, hip-shaking George Michael had become a mature, man.  I saw how time deals life, punctuated by meaning and growth, destruction and disappointment. I saw slivers of the former young star but largely, I didn’t know this mature man. Once, I caught an interview with him. I heard his rich voice saying he was grateful for all that he had in life.  His words connected me back to him.  I trusted that spirit.  (And I was glad he was finding peace and truth.)

I know the universe doesn’t work in a lop-sided way.   When you receive something, you have to complete the circle by giving something back.  A gift is also a responsibility.  Of course, in the consumerist, fast-paced world of today, that may seem lost.  However, these principles are still beating in heart of life. When Michael Jackson died in 2010, I felt an enormous loss that I had taken so much pleasure and excitement in the music he made and devoured it without finding a way to say, “Thank you”.  It especially hurt that this man who was rather vilified by the press and seemed often misunderstood, might not have known the love that millions of fans such as myself felt for him.  I made up my mind then, to write a letter to George Michael.  I abstractly composed it in my mind, while driving sometimes.  But shame on me, I didn’t put it down on paper.

For decades, I consumed his musical gift, his toil, thought, and energy.  He gave, and I took.  I suppose the commercial music model has an exchange mechanism for that. Yet music lifts us and defines our lives in invaluable ways that the price of a CD can’t begin to capture it.  Innumerable times, I have felt uplifted, comforted or smoothed over by George Michael’s music as invaluable medicine, and there is no way to “pay” for that.

I knew that life was full of hard knocks.  I knew he strove to maintain a private life that he didn’t like to have pried open for the rest of the world.  I knew that his voice had been choked with depression and darkness caused by a too-prurient world in which social suffocation and profit-motivations got the better of well-meaning souls.  But this person, who just like the rest of us, had struggled, had given me so many wonderful moments that I wanted to give something back.

The only thing I had to offer was language and words.  My friend Michi suggested I still write the letter to him, even though he was no longer with us.  Back in the 1980s, the inner fold of the cassette tape had a mailing address of the record company-managed fan club, and that’s how you could send a fan letter.  But today, it would have been so easy to tweet him or send him a letter on the Internet. It was so easy in fact, that I didn’t find the time.  Send it to him in heaven, Michi said, he’ll get it.

So here is my late letter.

To: George Michael, Singing Angels Way, Amazing Light, P.O. Box: L.O.V.E. Heaven

Dear George Michael,

You don’t know me from millions of others whose lives have been touched forever by your profound and beautiful music.  I wanted you to know, that I, like others, heard and appreciated the effort, hard work, thought and artistry you put into perfecting your productions.  Your voice was instantaneously recognizable and listening to you gave me a range of feelings: happiness, melancholy, empathy, and love.

No matter how weighty or full of drivel the world could be, your music that took me into a sublime place. You voice gave us insight into beauty and love, the things that let us know we are alive.

I especially like the fact that you stayed true and close to the material that hurt you, the social constructs which choked people, searching for the truth of emotion between people, laying out the vulnerabilities of personal change, and about getting older.  I felt you when talked about running out of time, letting go, of mothers, of father figures, of angels, and of misplaced love, of aspirations, and of trying to get to a better life.  “Strange”, is a word, you used exquisitely, to let us know we aren’t alone in the unease of living slightly askant from what was expected. Thank you for putting it all out there, in your unique style.

I am grateful that you expressed your compelling, inner thoughts with your poetry and lovely voice.  Thank you for not playing it safe with your music, but for sublimating pain and love to something we could hear and enjoy.  Thank you for not hiding behind shouting thrashing loud guitars, and abstracted words that hid behind a veneer of remove.

Thank you also for your infectious, instantaneous dance sound, your syncopated rhythms, and melodious tunes.  I ran a lot of miles to your music, and sweated off pounds!

Your fans are now pouring out their hearts with stories of how you touched them, and how you helped them.  You touched my heart.  It was real.  It was my life. Your music helped formed my dreams, my sense of beauty, my sense of what was possible in life, my sense of how I saw the world.

It’s a little late to have to write you from my silly computer on earth, but I hope your spirit will always feel how much we cherish you, with deep love and abiding regard.



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The Deep North: Civil Rights Protections for Native Americans

Native American lawyers advising the Oceti Sakowin camp and the elders at the pipeline resistance movement are encouraging all #NoDAPL supporters to call on the Department of Justice’s agency called “Community Relations Services” to intervene on the ground in North Dakota to mitigate the abuses, life-threatening physical attacks, and human rights violations that native Americans and their supporters are facing from State and Local authorities.  E-mail or call the Federal office: (202) 305-2935, or the regional office: (303) 844-2973 and speak to them directly.

A sample statement of request:
“The Oceti Sakowin camp is one of the largest settlements in North Dakota, and it is led by native Americans. People from this camp are facing harassment and life-threatening physical assaults from state and local police because of their cultural and religious positions about protecting water. We urge Community Relations Services to mediate with State and Local authorities to deescalate and prevent the dire physical threats that native Americans and their supporters are facing in the middle of North Dakota’s winter.”

Historical precedent

The vindictive and violent abuses of native Americans in North Dakota by state and local authorities in 2016 have a long precedent in the United States.  They are rooted in harassment and colonial violence based on racial and cultural differences.

The southern states of Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas offer a sordid parallel for these types of abuses, intimidation, and harassment based on race.  During the 1960s, as the winds of modernization and progressivism swept through the Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations, the growing “civil rights” movement was met with great resistance in these southern states.  The Civil Rights law was passed under Johnson’s administration in 1964, followed by the Voting Rights Act.  State and Local officials flexed their muscle against communities of African-Americans who were technically able to exercise their now legal rights to equal treatment in stores, hotels, county offices, schools, and colleges. Things got ugly.  Entire communities of African Americans faced difficulties, while individual African-Americans faced physical threats and attacks on personal safety.  State and Local authorities were implicated in these abuses both directly, and indirectly, by their unwillingness to fully implement civil rights guarantees in the manner in which they were intended, and by allowing crimes against African Americans to go unpunished.

The Federal government’s Department of Justice (DOJ) created a special division called “Community Relations Services” to intervene and mediate in conflicts between authorities and communities caused by race, color of skin, religion, and the other provisions governed by civil rights.  In their own words, Community Relations Services (CRS) “works with all parties, including State and local units of government, private and public organizations, civil rights groups, and local community leaders, to uncover the underlying interests of all of those involved in the conflict, and facilitates the development of viable, mutual understandings and solutions to the community’s challenges.  In addition, CRS assists communities in developing local mechanisms and community capacity to prevent tension and violent hate crimes from occurring in the future.”

This DOJ agency acts as a Federal government watchdog on State officials and organizations.  In dire circumstances (as in the 1960s deep south) it can have the effect of mitigating excessive abuses and threats by State authorities.

We are now at a time when native Americans are facing an incredible range of harassment from the local police and local community, including police advising local businesses not to sell fuel to the native Americans in the middle of brutal North Dakota blizzard conditions.  The aid and monitoring provided by exactly such a Federal watchdog cannot be under-estimated.

The threat of an official State emergency evacuation order on the camp

The latest action by North Dakota state and local authorities to harangue and harass Native Americans and their supporters into backing down from the Dakota Access Pipeline protests came from the Governor of North Dakota on Monday November 28.  Governor Jack Dalrymple issued an “emergency evacuation notice” to the thousands of water protectors camped out near the Cannon Ball River at the Oceti Sakowin camp. It didn’t deter the good Governor that the camp was on federal land, so technically, not entirely under his jurisdiction.

The North Dakota Governor’s evacuation notice was purportedly in the interests of the safety and wellbeing of people who are outside camping in snow and sub-zero temperatures.  The protesters would, he said in bald-faced hypocrisy, be able to congregate in a ‘free speech zone’ a few miles away, as if the dangerous snow and sub-zero temperatures would be magically erased there.

To add more confusion and threat, Morton County Sheriff’s Office told media outlets that the Governor’s evacuation notice would be accompanied by state police stopping and issuing fines of thousands of dollars to anyone bringing food and other supplies to the camp.

The evacuation notice created confusion and fear. It became an opportunity for local law enforcement to create threats and generate harassment against the thousands of native people (and their supporters) congregated in Oceti Sakowin to physically stand between the river and the proposed oil pipeline.  Later press conferences with state officials offered more clarification on the initial communication, saying that an emergency evacuation indicated that the State is ‘advising’ people to leave the area because it is a dangerous area and that there are threats to their health and safety. The Governor’s evacuation order didn’t specify any action to be taken against protesters who wouldn’t comply and a spokesperson said no action would be taken to enforce the eviction order.

This latest action follows on the heels of multiple confrontations with unarmed native people and their supporters in prayer ceremonies and peaceful protests, during which State and Local authorities have unleashed violent physical attacks.

Embed from Getty Images

Unarmed, facing a six hour-long military assault in sub-zero conditions

On Sunday November 20, 2016, unarmed water protectors had been protesting a blockade made of barbed wire and concrete blocks by state police on a state highway, intended as a barrier for people trying to reach the camp.  This blockade also blocks anyone traveling on the road, the most direct route between Bismark, ND where there are hospitals, shops, and services, and a number of rural outposts and communities to the south, including the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. The state blockade directly impacts the safety and well-being of the people at camp and of nearby communities.

That night, State and Local militarized police units used highly dangerous weaponry, including Specialty Impact Munitions (SIM, also known as Kinetic Impact Projectiles or KIP), explosive “blast” grenades, other chemical agent devices, mace, and a water cannon and water hoses in freezing temperatures, directly aimed at people, at point blank range. Rubber bullets were aimed at people’s heads.  Percussion grenades which are supposed to be shot into the air were instead, diabolically, aimed and shot directly at people. For six continuous hours, State police sustained their water cannon and high-velocity munitions attacks, ripping people’s skin off, causing hundreds of cases of hypothermia, and causing some near-fatal injuries which will result in permanent disabilities.  400 people were triaged by the “Medic Council” of the Oceti Sakowin camp.  During this assault, State police deployed an arsenal of dangerous implements and devices, including SIM (such as lead-filled, shotgun-fired ‘beanbags’ and high-velocity plastic and foam rubber ‘sponge rounds’); explosive flashbang-like grenades such as “Instantaneous Blast CS grenades” and Stinger grenades; other chemical agent devices; and a high pressure water cannon and fire hoses, despite the subfreezing temperatures, on unarmed people who defended themselves with plywood.

A month previously in late October, another State police confrontation with Native American and their supporters resulted in hundreds of violent arrests during which unarmed protesters were beaten and chased by police, and medical personnel tending to hurt protestors were shot in the back.  During the arrests, native Americans were strip searched in humiliating ways (for example, male police officers involved in strip searches of female native Americans), kept without cover in dog kennels, inscribed with numbers on their bodies, manhandled with unwarranted force and violence, and subject to traumatic abuse.

There have been numerous instances of native people being harassed by police while driving the roads of North Dakota around Bismarck and Mandan.  People have been aggressively treated for routine traffic stops and even taken to jail and strip searched.  Native people have been stopped by local authorities while driving, simply for the subjective judgement by police of the appearance that there may be some potential illegality.

Given this litany of abuses, it is particularly galling when the North Dakota Governor cites safety concerns for native people, who remain, as they have from the beginning, without weapons, unarmed, standing in prayer in solidarity with earth and with nature against polluting, extractive fracking, and oil pipelines.

It’s the law to protect the human rights of native Americans.  It’s the law to protect the first amendment rights of people enshrined in the United States constitution, to be able to gather and express their opinion, express their religion and spirituality, and assert their right to free movement.  The Department of Justice must be on the ground.


Posted in Anthropological, Environment, Fossil Fuels, Indigenous, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment