Saturday, August 25, 2018

A Professor's Environmental Humanities Summer

Dear Students,

Do you know how your professors spend their summers? In a few days I will shift from my summer work to the work you're more familiar with: my work in the classroom. As you and I prepare to make that shift, I thought you might appreciate a glimpse at what I've been up to this summer. 

When I was a student I knew very little about my professors' lives outside of the classroom. They were people I saw for a few hours a week, and whom I rarely saw outside of lecture halls. Every now and then I'd see one in a grocery store or walking down the street, and it was a bit of a surprise to see them living ordinary lives. On the one hand, I think it's good thing to give my students space apart from professors. It is helpful to have some boundaries, after all. On the other hand, the way we live our lives can be part of our teaching. This is one of the advantages of study-travel courses, and it's why I invite you to come to my office for tea and not just for formal advising. I hope you will see helpful lessons (hopefully good ones!) in the way we professors choose to spend our time, and that those spontaneous and organic conversations will offer more food for thought than I have time to offer in formal lessons.

Other than the science professors who spend a lot of time doing lab research, you might think we professors are simply on vacation in the summer.  In part, you're right: we have three main responsibilities as Augie professors: teaching, scholarship, and service. And most of us are on a nine- or ten-month contract; we've chosen a life that pays us less in money than we might make in other jobs, and in return, we have significantly more flexibility with our time.  That's a nice tradeoff for most of us, and it's one of the delights of being part of an academy.While most of us do use some of that time for rest after working hard for an academic year, we also use the summer to catch up on our scholarship, to learn more, to find new resources that will help us to serve our community, and to prepare to be better teachers.

Since I teach a wide range of courses (in philosophy, classics, religion, environmental humanities, Ecology, study abroad, and more) my summer is usually spent in study. This summer was no exception. This isn't a complete list of what I did, but it'll give you the big picture anyway:

One of the lycaenids I photographed in my garden this summer. Actually a very small butterfly, but some small things can give you a big picture nonetheless, if you know what to look for.


After grading exams and Commencement, I started a week of meetings. The big picture: wrapping up the school year, and getting ready for the next. Meetings may not sound appealing, but we tend to get a lot done that makes the rest of the school year possible. This is also often a time when I get to meet with alumni, community leaders, and people who need my help with various projects. File this under "service," I suppose.


The first week: I taught a weeklong graduate class in philosophy for our Sports Administration and Leadership Master's program. This was an intensive 40-hour seminar on Plato's Republic and Augustine's Confessions. We discussed a number of things, like the roles of a leader; the difficulties of knowing anything with confidence and of making decisions when one doesn't know with certainty; and the important place of sports and playfulness in the ethical development of individuals and communities.

The second week: As soon as that class ended I hopped on a plane for Sweden, so I could participate in the EAT Forum in Stockholm. This was a remarkable experience, unlike any academic conference I've attended. EAT is a non-profit based in Oslo that aims to make science-based changes in the world's food systems. The EAT Forum is a place to meet and network with a number of influential, thoughtful people from diverse backgrounds, with the aim of making sure everyone on the planet has access to safe, sustainable, healthy food. They aim high, and I found the experience to be very helpful for me as a teacher and practicioner of sustainability; as someone who researches salmonid fish (salmon, trout, and charr, especially); and as someone who aims to improve our policies concerning those fish and their habitats. Three highlights of this Forum: (1) I met people I wouldn't likely meet anywhere else, mostly working on fishing policy; (2) The presentations were well-crafted, all of them aiming to teach briefly and to introduce a positive possible solution to a well-defined problem; (3) Chance conversations with people like Shafinaz Hossain, a woman from Bangladesh whose Business professor gave her an assignment: go home and look for a problem no one has solved, and regard it as an opportunity to start a business that helps people. What a great assignment! And what an impressive solution she came up with! (Well done, Shafinaz! I'm glad to have met you!)

The third week: Shortly after getting home from Sweden I was on a plane again, this time to Chicago, where I spent a week with 25 scholars - mostly religion professors - and with Dr. Eboo Patel and Dr. Laurie Patton. Dr. Patel is founder of the IFYC, and  Dr. Patton is a scholar of religion and President of Middlebury College. This was a seminar put on by the Council of Independent Colleges.  If all I did this summer was the EAT Forum or this week in Chicago studying Interfaith Understanding, it would have been a summer well spent. I learned a lot (ask me about it!) but here are some highlights: (1) Again, I met people I wouldn't have met otherwise, and that in itself is valuable; (2) rather than teaching how religions can debate one another, this seminar helped me think about how we can help our communities bridge differences without diminishing the importance of faith traditions and theology. To put it in the terms of my own tradition, it helped me to think about how to love my neighbor as myself. That's a vast oversimplification, so look for more from me about this in coming months. I'm really grateful for this opportunity to be a student learning how to help other students.

The fourth week: I had a little downtime at home, but not much. More meetings, and preparation for a long trip in July. I packed up my little Subaru with books and camping gear and started driving west.

The first week of July I spent studying Alaska Native Law at the University of Montana Law School in Missoula.  No, I'm not an attorney, and I probably won't become one. But when I can, I audit law courses on environmental law in order to be a better teacher, scholar, and pre-law advisor.  A few quick facts to help you see the complexity of the matter: there are 229 different tribes in Alaska; Alaska is the largest state in the United States, but one of the smallest by population; and the history of how the federal government has dealt with Alaska Natives is quite different from the way that history developed in the contiguous 48 states. Want to know more? Take my classes! Once this class ended, I was back in the Subaru, headed south.

The next two weeks were spent in Boulder City, Nevada, a city that was built as a home for the workers on the Hoover Dam.  I was there on a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on the Hoover Dam. We spent two weeks working in archives, touring the interior of the dam, visiting sites of importance around the dam and in the Lake Mead and Valley of Fire parks; hearing lectures by experts from around the country; and reading and discussing historic documents and scholarly works about the dam, water, the desert, Native American history, geology and geography, and much more. As with just about everything else I've mentioned so far, it's hard to summarize all this without doing a great injustice to the value of this Summer Institute. Instead, here are a few more highlights: (1) As before, the people. Dr. Anthony Arrigo and Dr. Michael Green, who led the Institute, and the 24 other scholars from around the country who attended with me are some of the best parts of the institute. (2) Not much can beat direct experience for learning. As Aristotle said, 
 “Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of the admitted facts. Hence those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena grow more and more able to formulate, as the foundations of their theories, principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development: while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of the facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations.” Aristotle, De Generatione et Corruptione, 316a5-10 (Basic Works, McKeon, trans.)
Let me assure you that when you're studying the history of the dam and it's 115F outside, you have a better understanding of how the workers who built that dam (often in heat up to 140F!) suffered. (3) I spent a lot of my time researching the environmental history of the place, focusing - as is my wont - on fish and insects.

The fourth week was a little more relaxed: my wife flew to Nevada from a meeting she had in California, and we drove home together, visiting some National Parks (my first visit to the Grand Canyon!) and some favorite places in New Mexico, where I did my first Master's degree at St John's College. We didn't take too much time on the road, since I had the privilege of helping to officiate at the wedding of two beloved alums in the Augustana Chapel of Reconciliation. This is one of the joys of teaching: we get to watch our alums live and grow, and sometimes we get to participate in that growth in delightful ways.


I'll spare you the week-by-week of August, and instead I'll tell you some of the other things that have made my summer rich. 
Family: I probably spent too much time away from home this summer, mostly as a result of having an abundance of good opportunities that only come around occasionally. It has been good to spend August at home with my wife and sons. 

Reading: For most of the summer, I've read about a book a day.  If you wonder at that, then you should ask me how I do it. I'd be glad to teach you. Or have a look at this Twitter thread, where I give a quick overview.

Observing: If you follow me on social media, you know I like to look at the small things in nature. I learn from experience, and it is my hope that when we post simple images on Twitter and Instagram we are producing a searchable phenology database. Anyway, feel free to see some of what I have seen this summer here.

Tending my garden: This is both figurative and literal. Two months away from a garden allows a lot of weeds to grow, so my literal garden has needed work.  There is great value in working with one's hands, especially if one's main job is theoretical and based in an office. I like growing some of my own food. As preparation for the coming year, I've also been catching up on home maintenance that I've had to put off during the past school year; and I've been making time to reacquaint myself with natural areas around Sioux Falls where I intend to do some more environmental studies teaching and research this fall. 

Getting ready: I've been meaning to write this blog post for a month, but much of the month has been spent preparing syllabi, working on new projects, finishing up old ones, doing scholarly writing, and many other small things.

Sustainability: the last thing I'll mention is that I've taken on a new role at Augustana, that of Director of Sustainability. I've only been at this for a few weeks, so I''m still figuring out what this will mean for the coming year, but the short version is that I am looking forward to developing some new academic programs in Environmental Studies and Sustainability, and to making the whole campus culture and our practices more sustainable. What does that mean? Short version: I want our descendants to be glad we lived as we did, and I want us to be glad, too. This is another version of "love your neighbor as yourself." Want to know more about this? Let's talk.

When you get back to campus, (or if you're new to Augustana) please feel free to come by for a cup of tea or a quick chat. I look forward to hearing about the new things in your life.

Wishing you all joy in the new academic year,

Dr. O'Hara

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Bristol Bay and Pebble Mine: Mutual Flourishing or Midas' Touch

My latest article on salmon and mining was just published in Ethics, Policy, & Environment. A proposed gold mine in Alaska offers a lot of financial wealth, but it also poses significant risk of environmental loss to the salmon population downstream, and to everything that depends on the salmon for food.

In this brief commentary I argue that we should prefer long-term mutual flourishing over the prospect of short-term financial gain for a few. The myth of King Midas offers an illustration of what is at risk: the gleam of gold can blind us to the importance of being good stewards of nature, and of being good neighbors and good ancestors:
"Not all mining is bad, but to choose a mine that offers gold in exchange for life and mutual flourishing is to display a clear symptom of Midas’ malady. In the ancient myth, King Midas wished for the power to turn all he touched into gold. Half a trillion dollars in ore under the tundra might make us forget what Midas suffered when his wish was granted: he gained great wealth at great cost. When he reached out for food, it turned to inedible gold in his hand. In the case of the Pebble Mine, the risk is not to the PLP, but to the people who are sustained by a four-thousand-year-old tradition of salmon harvesting, and to all the other birds, animals, and plants that depend upon the salmon."  
I'm reminded of a hand-painted sign I recently came across at a ranger station in El Zotz in Guatemala's Maya Biosphere Reserve.

It reads "When you pollute the last source of water, cut down the last tree, and kill the last animal, you'll realize that you can't eat money." 

It would be good to learn that lesson before it's too late for the salmon - and for everything that depends upon them.

You can read my article here.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Contemplation, Conversation, Commentary

Education is not one thing. It is not mere memorization, for instance. And it isn’t just training in the use of tools or the impartation of skills, nor is it indoctrination.

To paraphrase Plutarch’s famous line about education, the mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled. A jar that is filled by someone else only contains what is put into it; it becomes a place of storage. It is a useful tool, but it does not increase what it holds. A fire, on the other hand, gives off heat and light, and that heat and light can kindle other fires and illuminate distant obscurities.

I think education should be like this, a process that pays continual returns if it is well tended.

Of course, unchecked fire can do great harm, and education without boundaries is like a fire with no hearth or stove.

Should Education Have Boundaries?  A Reflection On My Own Classrooms

But how can we put boundaries on education? One way, of course, is to limit education to memorization, tool-and-skill training, or indoctrination. But each of these amounts to filling a vessel. That is, it amounts to filling students’ minds with facts, opinions, or skills, without giving the students what they need to examine or improve what they are given, and to teach others what they have learned.

My aim as a teacher is to offer students liberal arts in such a way that they gain both practical skills and the means to improve those skills as the use and teach them. I say liberal arts because I do not wish my students to be the servants of others, but to be people who practice responsible liberty and who help others to do the same.

Of course, unchecked liberty can do great harm, and liberal education without boundaries is like a fire without a hearth. In one direction lies the restraint of being the mere vessel of others’ doctrines; in the other direction lie the perils of life beyond the bounds of ethics.

Fortunately, this is not a new problem, but a very old one. This means that there are some old and time-tested means of education that help us to find the mean between the extremes.

What I try to practice in my classes is something I see – in varying degrees – throughout the history of education. I will summarize it in three words: contemplation, conversation, and commentary.


By “contemplation” I mean the practice of examining what is already understood by the community of inquiry. What do we know? What are the tools we have at hand? What are the problems we wish to pursue together, and what solutions have been put forward so far? Learning these things is the first step, akin to learning the language when you move to a new country. It involves some memorization, and it involves learning the rules by which others conduct their lives and research. This is like learning the basics of a science, plus the methods used by scientists; or it is like learning the basics of poetry, plus the methods of reading and writing. Each discipline has its content and its tools, its history and its methods, its canonical texts and its rules and rituals for learning those texts. In my philosophy classes this means reading the assigned texts thoughtfully so that you come to class ready to ask good questions about them. In my language classes it means working through grammar and translation exercises, and memorization of vocabulary and inflections. In my environmental studies classes, this means learning basic taxonomy, ecology, geology, law, and policy, so you can discuss these things with others who know more than you do. In each discipline it will involve different things, but the general rule holds: if you want to join the community, you’ve got to learn these things first, just as you have to learn grammar before you can converse with others. And conversation is the next step.


By “conversation” I mean coming together with others to think about the rules and tools we have been given. This is more than speaking with friends; this involves serious grappling with issues in the company of our contemporaries. In my philosophy classes, this means asking good questions about what you’ve read the night before class. It means exposing your ignorance and asking others to help you to correct it. It means taking others seriously as people who might see what is hidden in our blind spots. In my environmental humanities classes, this means going into the field with your classmates in order to examine the world together. In my philosophy of religion classes, this means engaging in the hard work of talking about the divine in a way that takes others seriously. Their questions might just be the questions you need; their insights might serve you well. It would be unwise to decide in advance that others have nothing to teach you; in each discipline, you’ve got to take time to do research, whether in the lab, in the field, in convivial conversation and deliberation with others. And then, when you’ve done that well, you’re ready to offer commentary on what your new insight means for us all.


This is what I mean by “commentary,” then: the slow consideration of what consequences we might expect from what we have learned so far, and the offering of that consideration to others, so that they can contemplate and deliberate on them, and offer new commentary of their own.

Learning As A Cycle, And As A Shared Process

If you’ve done a good job with the first two steps, the third step leads you back to the first step. Good researchers who publish what they have learned contribute to the body of knowledge that others can use to kindle new fires that warm new homes and light new paths.

Another way of thinking about these three steps is that it concerns thinking about different times.  The first step is the consideration of the past; the second involves taking seriously the present time and our contemporaries as fellow learners; and the third step is mindful of the future.

You might also think of this as a process of thinking at different speeds, and from different perspectives. The first step is often quite slow at first, and it requires us to learn to see as others saw, even if their way is not our own. The second step might happen quite quickly, whether in a sudden insight in the laboratory or in a fast-paced debate. The third step often requires the very slow work of painstakingly careful thinking and clear writing.

Of course, these three steps are not discrete. Often, they overlap and intermingle. We might discover in debate or in the field that we have failed to learn something important. Or our contemplative work might send us back to reexamine our research, or even to start over with new tools and insights. But on the whole, I think these three facets of learning wind up being repeated over and over in each field, and by connecting us to other people in the past, present, and the future, they offer a sort of bounded liberty to our learning.

Slow Thinking, Quick Writing, and Slow Assessment: On The Importance Of Self-Discipline

Much of what I hear and read about education has to do with metrics intended to assess the value of certain kinds of practices. I see the merit in many of those metrics. Sometimes, though, it seems that the metrics become a quick substitute for other kinds of evaluation that are harder to put into numerical or measurable form. We don't like the slow process of contemplation, or of commentary. We do like it when others put things in simple forms that we can quickly compare.  There's value in that, but if we don't do our own contemplation and commentary, we abdicate a good deal of our involvement in our own learning, and we shift from being fires to vessels.

I am writing this piece fast, because I have a discipline of trying to write all my blog posts in less than fifteen minutes. (I do sometimes return to them to edit them for clarity or to add relevant information.) My aim here has been to write quickly about something I have thought about slowly. In other words, I've contemplated this for years, and today I'm writing a bit of quick commentary to contribute to our shared conversation. My quick writing is intended to be a moment of distillation of a cloud of contemplation. Too much time with my head in the clouds can obscure my vision; at some point I need those clouds to precipitate into more concrete thoughts. Writing helps me to do that.Your thoughtful replies and insights will hopefully help to kindle new fires.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Teaching Tropical Ecology in Belize and Guatemala

Two out of every three January terms my colleague Craig Spencer and I teach a course on tropical ecology in Central America.  Right now I'm in the midst of preparing for our next trip there.

Sunrise on the Barrier Reef in Belize

In this post I'll try to answer some of the questions that we are often asked about the course.  Probably the most common question is "What do you do in your course?" The second most common must be "How can I teach a course like that?"  I'll start with the first question:

What do you do in Guatemala and Belize?

The short answer to this question is a lot. I'll try to summarize.

Our approach to tropical ecology includes the standard elements you'd find in any ecology course: our students read a lot about the ecosystems and the prominent species of plants and animals they're likely to encounter.  We teach them what we know about the systems we think we understand, and we tell them about the big gaps in our knowledge that we're aware of - knowing full well that we likely have blind spots we aren't aware of.

In Guatemala this means learning about the ecology of a dense forest growing on a karst plateau, and a deep lake where the water does not circulate much.

In Belize we study the mangroves and the barrier reef.  The mangroves are like a porous filter between salt and fresh water, like a cell wall on a macro scale.  They serve as a buffer against hurricanes; they keep topsoil from eroding into the sea, and they are a rich and colorful nursery for thousands of species.

The Importance of Human Ecology

We want our students to learn much more than the plants, animals, soil, air, and water, though.  Perhaps more than anything, we want them to learn the human ecology of the places we visit.  Ecology is not merely an academic study; it is, at its heart, the study of both the world and of our place in it. We don't just look at macaws, jaguars, vines, and ceiba trees; we look at the way our lives - even our visit to these amazing places - affect and are affected by these plants and animals.  We don't stay in hotels; we rent rooms in local homes, and we eat meals with local people.  We hire local teachers to teach us Spanish and the Itzá language. We study the history of the Itzá people, and we visit ancient ruins.  We walk through the forest and camp overnight with local guides who can teach us what they know of that place. We spend time playing soccer with a local youth group, we talk with and listen to local teachers, nurses, physicians, forest rangers, ecologists, NGO volunteers, government officials, town elders, and children.  If the ecology of the place matters, surely it matters because these people whose ancestors have lived there for so long matter.


The church in San José, Petén, Guatemala

In fact, even if you think they don't matter to you, if you're reading this post in North America these people do matter to you. If their ecology suffers, they will be forced to move to look for new sources of income and food.  Simple-minded and disingenuous politicians will tell you this is a problem to be solved by erecting a wall on our border, but walls are a partial solution at best, and at worst, they are blinders that keep us from seeing the source of the problem; walls ignore the real illness and conceal the symptoms, as though willful ignorance were good medicine.  The real question - in my mind, anyway - is why anyone who lived on the shores of Lake Petén Itzá would ever want to leave.  The answer is that people leave beautiful homes when those homes cease to be liveable.  Which means the medicine that is needed is one that treats the illness itself, and not just the symptoms.  My students (I hope) return from our course no longer able to see Guatemalan immigrants to the United States as a mere abstraction.  Break bread in someone's home and you will see that they are human, too, with lives as particular and intricate and important and rooted as your own.  Only when we disturb those roots and strip away the soil must the lives be transplanted.

This is what I mean by human ecology.

One of my students examining and being examined by nature

Where do you go?

Our time in Guatemala is chiefly in central and northern Petén. Until recently, the landscape of northern Petén was dominated by dense forest, mostly old-growth lowland forests.  Surface water is mostly wetlands that vary considerably from one season to the next. There are several small-to-medium-sized rivers, and small streams, but I think a good deal of the water flows underground in karst formations; the Petén has thin soil over a wide karst plateau.  There is not much water flowing on the surface.  In the center of Petén there is one very deep lake, Lake Petén Itzá.  This is a gem in the forest. Flying over it on a sunny day you can see the shallows fade from pale green to rich emerald, and the depths along the north side of the lake plunge to amethyst and dark sapphire. The lake has no obvious inflow or outflow, except a few small streams flowing in from the south and west, and a little creek flowing out in the east.

My students leap into Lake Petén Itzá to cool off.

In Belize we spend most of our time on one of the barrier islands that have no permanent residents.  We use that island as a home base from which we can boat out to patch reefs, mangroves, turtle grass beds, deep channels, and the fore-reef.  We snorkel with our students in all these places, slowly gathering experiences of similar species in diverse environments, so that the students (and we) can see both the ecology of small places and the web of relations between those small places. In mangroves, for instance, we might see juvenile caribbean reef squid that are a few inches long.  When we see them on patch reefs, they might be five or six inches long, and in deep water they might reach eight inches. Each location gives us a glimpse of another stage of their life cycle.

My students watch the sunset in Belize

Why do you do this? Aren't you a Humanities professor?

Even if people don't often ask me this, it's obvious that quite a few people think it.  Yes, I'm a professor of philosophy and classics, and I teach religion courses, too.  But for my whole life I have been fascinated by life underwater. My most recent book was the result of eight years of researching the lives of brook trout in the Appalachian mountains, and much of my research now has to do with ocean and riparian environments in Alaska.  I don't do much of what would count as research in the natural sciences, but I do spend a lot of time observing nature. This is both because I find it beautiful, and because I think it's a bad idea to try to formulate ethical principles about things I haven't experienced or seen firsthand. Of course it's not impossible to write policies about things one hasn't done; one needn't commit larceny before writing a law prohibiting theft.  But experience teaches me things I might not learn in other ways, and that can keep me from trusting too much in my own opinions.  As Aristotle put it,
“Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of the admitted facts. Hence those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena grow more and more able to formulate, as the foundations of their theories, principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development: while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of the facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations.” Aristotle, De Generatione et corruptione, 316a5-10 (Basic Works, McKeon, trans.)
I want to "dwell in intimate association of nature and its phenomena," and being able to formulate better principles is a nice side effect of doing so.

How Can I Teach A Course Like This?  Can others participate in this trip?

The answer to the second of these questions is both yes and no.  When I'm in Guatemala and Belize, I'm teaching. Unfortunately, this means I don't have time to bring others along and act as their tour guide.

However, the people I work with in Guatemala - the Asociación Bio-Itzá - would be happy to have you come for a visit. They're in the small town of San Josè, Petèn, Guatemala, right on the north shores of the lake.   And this is the answer to the first question.  Want to teach such a course?  Get in touch with Bio-Itzá and they can help you set it up. 

You can get to San José by flying or driving to Flores, then going around the lake by bus or car to San José, about a twenty minute drive. 

Flores, Petén, Guatemala

In San José they have a traditional community medicinal garden. Just north of town  is the Bio-Itzá Reserve, where you can go for guided walking tours or overnight stays. It's rustic and gorgeous. (Visits to the Reserve must be arranged in advance through Bio-Itzá.)

When you stay in San José you can easily take a launch (a wooden motor boat) across the lake to Flores, the seat of Nojpetén or Tayasal, the last Maya kingdom that fell to the Spanish.

Flores is a pretty place as well, and I like to take my students to visit ARCAS to see their animal rehabilitation center. (There's a great documentary about that place that was on PBS this year called "Jungle Animal Hospital.")

Scarlet macaws being rehabilitated at ARCAS so they can be released back into the wild

If you stay in San José, you can also take a short trip (about a half hour by car) to Tikal, or to Yaxhá, both of which are amazingly well-preserved Maya ruins. A little further past Tikal is Uaxactún, where you can see more ruins, and you can also visit a community that is trying to practice sustainable forestry.

This region is not like the tourist areas of Western Guatemala; it's more like the rural frontier of Guatemala, a long-neglected place that is now at risk of being overrun by slash-and-burn forestry, cattle farms, and oil development. It makes me think of the Dakotas over the last century; the population is small and indigenous, and most people in power in Guatemala seem to consider the forest to be a wasteland that is better burned down than preserved. I do not share that view, and while I know that more tourism will bring development and other risks to both culture and forest, the risks are already there in other forms. I hope that ecotourism will offer some counterweight to the other kinds of development that don't seek to preserve the biological integrity or cultural history of this place.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Butterflies In My Stomach

This week I’ve been helping a student with a lepidoptera project.  The project is hers, and she's not in one of my classes, though she did take the Tropical Ecology class I teach in Central America this year.
Kentucky roadside butterfly banquet. Can you see the little one?

Here is the danger of becoming a professor of Environmental Humanities: people begin to assume that you care about nature, and that you are willing to share what you know.

Both of these things are true, by the way. (Many of my photos of wildlife and nature are here, on my Instagram account.  I do care, and I am delighted to share the little I know.)


Over the years, I have come to love insects. This has come about partly through my years studying trout, char, and salmon, and of the places they live.  I've spent a good portion of the last decade walking Appalachian waterways from Maine to Georgia.  Over that same time, I've walked hundreds of miles through the remaining forests of northern Guatemala and Nicaragua. As both a researcher and teacher I've walked through the mountains of the American West; and I've made similar excursions to the foothills of the Brooks Range, the Kenai Peninsula, and Lake Clark National Park in Alaska. 

The fish that I love depend upon the insects, so, like so many people who gaze at salmonids, I have come to know many riparian insects.  

Once you study the insects along the streams, you start to notice the other plants and animals that depend upon them, too.  In Kentucky I have come upon a steaming pile of bear scat that was full of half-digested cicadas.  I've started to notice the wings of insects, left behind by the birds that only eat the fleshy bodies of the bugs they catch.

Butterfly wing, left behind by birds. Guatemala.

From there, it's not a big leap to realize that if the fish and the birds and the plants need the insects, then so do I.  Butterflies and other insects feed the larger animals my species eats, and they pollinate the plants that feed us. All of us have the actions of butterflies in our stomachs. Can you see the lepidoptera in this next photo?  There are quite a few of them, resting on the bark of this tree in Petén.

Gray cracker butterflies, Petén, Guatemala.

Little six-legged creatures feed us all.  The small things matter.

And so do my students, even if they're not currently enrolled in one of my classes.  

So in the past week I’ve gathered a few hundred of my best butterfly photos to share with my student. This photo is one of the worst in photo quality, but it’s a great image nevertheless:

Butterflies on the ground in Kentucky, 2008.

I took this nine years ago in the mountains in Kentucky while working on my book on brook trout.  Three distinct species of butterflies are gathered here, sipping minerals from the ground.  My coauthor Matthew Dickerson and I came upon this arboreal banquet by chance.  

I wish I'd had a better camera with me. For now, the blurry image is enough to bring to mind that memory of hundreds of lepidoptera sipping and supping together on the forest floor, filling their bellies with the bare earth before flying off to pollinate flowers that, through a complex net of relationships, would someday fill my belly too.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Wicked Problems in Environmental Policy

When I first started teaching environmental philosophy courses I used anthologies of helpful articles for my core readings.  These included articles about topics ranging from environmental ethics and philosophy of nature to animal rights, land ethics, and pollution. 

The more I read, the more I realized how hard it is to do more than a simple survey of problems in a single semester. From early on, I started adding narratives to my classes, using texts by people like Wendell Berry, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Henry Thoreau, Kathleen Dean Moore, and Vandana Shiva. I've also included sacred texts and poems from around the world, because while many of those narratives and poems don't solve the problems, the form of writing they use makes them a flowing spring of renewable thought-provocation. 

Recently I've taken on an even broader approach to teaching environmental humanities courses by designing a course I call "How To Begin To Solve 'Wicked Problems' In Environmental Policy."

I won't explain everything here, because the topic is too big to explain in detail now, but I will try to explain what I mean by the title of the course.  

The previous sentence is a picture of what the course is like: there's too much to cover all at once; there are too many elements to explain to do them all justice in a short space; so it's often more helpful to begin the process and to keep it before you as an ongoing matter than to treat it as a simple problem to be solved with a simple solution.

This is the nature of "wicked problems," after all.  It's not that the problems are wicked or evil, but they are immensely complex, with many changeable parts or situations, and any solution that is offered will change the situation.  An example might help to illustrate what I mean.  Let's consider world poverty.  

If we take poverty to mean simply the lack of funds on the part of the impoverished, then it is a simple problem to solve (even if it isn't an easy one.) All you have to do is find out how much money the poor lack, and give it to them. If poverty were simply a lack of funds, then filling that lack with funds would be the solution. But this solution fails to ask what caused the lack of funds in the first place, or why it matters. And it fails to acknowledge that handing over money changes the situation into which the money is given. Economists know that economic predictions are not a precise science. There are simply too many factors at play in human economic systems.  As the 17th-century philosopher Mary Astell put it, "single medicines are too weak to cure such complicated distempers." [1] Some medicines have side effects, after all, and the same is true in economics, and in many other disciplines.

So how do I teach this course?  I start with some problems I understand too poorly and some narratives that I know will be incomplete, focusing on two places where I teach and do research: Guatemala's Petén Department, and the headwaters of the Bristol Bay region of Alaska.  In both cases, there is competition for certain resources, and the use of one resource can threaten or permanently impair other resources. 

I don't expect my students can solve these problems for other people, but they are problems I've come to know more and more intimately over years of firsthand experience of the regions in question.  So I tell my students stories about those places, and I try to introduce them (often by video calls) to people who work in those places.  I want my students to get to know as many different stakeholders as possible, and to hear their stories in the context of those peoples' lives.

You might justifiably ask: if I don't expect my students to solve the problems, and if I myself don't have the solutions, what justifies teaching such a course?  My answer is, first, that it is better to try than not to try, and second, that in looking at problems in which we don't feel a personal investment we can often learn to tackle the problems that are closer to home.

There's an ethical and political upside to this, too: once you see that certain problems are "wicked problems," you can start to see the ways that policy-touting charlatans try to pull the wool over your eyes. It is a very old political trick to win votes by claiming that wicked problems are simple ones, and that only you or your party can see the simple solution. This gives a strange comfort to voters who have been perplexed by complexity, and that comfort wins votes on the cheap, at the expense of humility, neighborly care, mutual struggle, bipartisan collaboration, and seriousness of thought.

I have more to say about this - some of it no doubt will be mistaken - but for now I'll wrap up this piece with a rough outline of what I propose to my students as a way to begin to solve wicked problems in environmental policy.  Here it is:  

1) First, identify the community of stakeholders. 
a. Do so for their perspectives, for their interests, and for their tools.
b. Ask: Who are the stakeholders?
i. Go beyond the financial stakeholders or stockholders. 
ii. Include everyone who affects, or is affected by, the policy under consideration.
c. Remember Charles Peirce’s idea: science is the work of a community, not of an individual.
d. Make concept maps, and use other kinds of visualizations of the problems.
i. This is a way of utilizing a broad range of tools. Don’t just use the tools others tell you are relevant; include the arts and the sciences alike.
ii. Drawing and sketching pictures will help you to see better. As Louis Agassiz said, “the pencil is one of the best eyes.” It is often better than a camera.
iii. Music, literature, poetry, and the visual arts may be just as helpful as the tools offered by STEM fields and policy-making professions like law.
iv. If you include the arts, you wind up including the artists; similarly, if you exclude the arts, you exclude the wisdom and insight of the artists.
v. Include ordinary daily practices. Learn to fish, even if you don’t plan to fish. Hike in the woods, even if you don’t like the outdoors. These are, in a way, practices of paying attention to the world.
e. Include other voices and texts in the conversation, not just the shareholders, but all the stakeholders. 
f. Define “stakeholders” as broadly as you can. Include a community across generations. Include the departed and the not-yet-born if possible.
i. Traditions might be full of wisdom, so don’t ignore them, especially if they are specific to a place. Traditions may be inarticulate wisdom that is tested by time.
ii. Plan for seven generations. I sometimes think of this as the difference between planting those crops you will harvest this year and planting hardwood trees so that they will be old-growth trees long after you are dead. Humans – and other species – need both kinds of plants. 

Bear scat along a salmon river, Katmai Preserve, Alaska

2) Second, fill your toolbox—and your community’s toolbox—with bear poop.
This is an inside reference my students will understand by the end of the semester, but I'll fill you in briefly: I take the time when I am in the wild to look at animal scat, because it is often a picture of what food is available to the animals, and that, in turn, is a picture of the problems the environment is facing.  Paying attention to scat over time gives you a long-term picture of changes to the environment.  Poop is a tool that is free, that is right in front of you, and that is easy to overlook as unimportant or distasteful.  Bear poop that is full of salmon bones tells me one story; bear poop that is full of berries tells me another.  I don't literally fill my toolbox with bear poop, but paying attention to negligible things like bear poop gives me new tools I wouldn't have otherwise. What does this mean for us?
a. Identify the community’s tools, perspectives, and skills, and seek to integrate them into a tool-wielding community. 
b. See the problem as broadly as you can. We tend to frame problems based on our perspective, so do what you can to gain the perspectives of others.
Emerson: move your body so that your eyes see the world from a different angle. 
c. Try to gain as many tools as you can 
d. Value experience and first-hand knowledge 
i. Go underwater – that is, look at the world in new and unfamiliar ways, from unfamiliar vantage points. 
ii. Travel – get to know the world differently, and get to know how others know the world. Don't just do tourism, but saunter, as Thoreau puts it.
iii. Learn the languages you can – even a little bit will make a difference. Words are tools, and they are lenses through which to see the world anew.
iv. Study “unnecessary” knowledge, and not just the knowledge others tell you is necessary – don’t let others tell you what tools are worth gaining. 
v. Foster your curiosity. Don’t let it die of neglect. 
e. Engage in labs, even in the Humanities – learn experientially. 

3) Third, have what Peirce calls “regulative ideals” 
a. Aim high, and have a direction. But 
b. Recognize that the direction will change; this is like taking bearings while navigating. You have to keep adjusting as you move and as you discover the landscape

4) Fourth, don’t expect perfection 
a. and don’t expect ultimate solutions. Expect that truly ‘wicked’ problems will continue to be problems, and that they will continue to change and to spawn new problems. Such is life. 
b. Instead, expect meliorism, growth, improvement 
c. Peirce uses some odd words to describe all this: tychism, synechism, agapism: chance, continuity, love. Someday, look these up, or ask me to define them for you. Vocabulary is a powerful tool.
5) Fifth, do expect growth, and strive to cultivate good things. This is the work of ethics.

6) Sixth, do expect to be part of a community that continues to work on the problems for a long time. 

7) And seventh, don’t give up! 

Of course it is possible to solve environmental policy problems apart from a community; once you’re no longer a part of a community, “policy” takes on a simpler meaning, and so does “environmental.” But merely redefining words—or merely divorcing yourself from a situation—doesn’t solve the problem. Rather, those decisions only blind us to the problem. This is satisfying our own irritation rather than satisfying the needs generated by the actual problem. 


[1] Mary Astell, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Sharon L. Jansen, ed. (Steilacoom, WA: Saltar's Point Press, 2014) p.65.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Ethics of Automation: Poetry and Robot Priests

Philosophy professor Evan Selinger posted a question on Twitter yesterday about whether there are jobs that it would be unethical to automate.

As I am a Christian, an ethicist, and a philosopher of religion, this is something I’ve been pondering for a few years: is there a case to be made for automating the work of clergy?

A German company recently automated a confessional. On the one hand, this might have great therapeutic effects. On the other hand, it raises a number of ethical, legal, and theological questions. 

In terms of ethics and law: who has access to the information confessed, and what is the legal status of that confession?  Is there anything like the privilege of confidentiality enjoyed by clergy who hear private confessions from their parishioners? 
On the theological and ecclesiastical side: can a meaningful confession be heard by someone who cannot sin, or does confession depend on making a confession to a member of one’s own community and church?  Can a machine be a member of a church, or does it have something more like the status of a chalice or a chasuble – something the community uses liturgically but that does not have standing in the deliberations and practices of the community? Another important question: can a machine act as a vicar? That is, can a machine stand in as a representative of God and proclaim the forgiveness of God as we believe those who have been ordained may do?

Despite the many weaknesses of religion, one strength of religion is that it moves slowly. Yes, this too is a weakness at many times, but it is good to move slowly when declaring sainthood, for instance.  That’s a decision that we should make carefully. Think about it like this: if we are saying that person X is an example of good conduct, shouldn’t we consider that person very carefully, from as many points of view as possible, and do so after that person’s life has ended and all testimony has been heard?  Similarly, most religious traditions take time to consider carefully whether someone should be ordained as clergy. In my tradition, we speak of this as the “process of discernment,” and it is a process that can take years, and that involves the whole community.  The downside is that this process is slow.  The upside is that it keeps us from making rash decisions, or at least it helps us to make fewer rash decisions. We aren’t perfect.

My first, gut response to Selinger’s question was that we should not outsource the writing of poetry to machines.  My concerns here are twofold: one has to do with the danger of persuasion: not much moves us as powerfully as poetry does. My second concern is about the importance of having out arts be the expressions of the heart of our communities. But I could be wrong: maybe robots should be writing poetry – their own poetry, from one machine to another.  I do not wish to deprive anyone of the right to artistic expression, nor do I wish to deprive envy community of the right to have its own forms of beauty. Still, I worry about the way a machine could be used to produce arrangements of words, sounds, and images that would persuade us to act as we should not.

My second response to Selinger’s question is related to the first: poetry is at the heart of most religions, and I find myself with a hesitant uncertainty about whether we should allow robots to be priests.

It’s not that I think we should be unwilling to automate the tedious parts of clerical work.  In fact, that might be a real boon to the community.  We have allowed automation in many areas that has benefited us: bank tellers and airline pilots have given up portions of their work to reliable machines, and the result has been convenience and increased safety. Why could a robot not also tend the sick and the needy, read to those in hospice, visit those in prison, and so on?  As I've written before, my wife is an Episcopal priest, and her work can be very demanding. There might be some parts of it that could be automated, freeing her up for other work that only people can do.

My concern is not about the feasibility of having machines do this work. On the whole, I’m in favor of it. But I do worry that if we hand over caring for others to our machines, we might do so to our own detriment. We should use the technologies we have to serve those in need. Of this I have no doubt.  But we should not pretend that in so doing we have done all that we must do.  I agree with Dr. King and Gandhi on this: we ourselves need to care for those in need. Caring for those in need is not a one-way transaction that serves only the sick and the poor; it is something that the powerful and hale need as well.

I have more to say about all of this, so this post is a too-hasty start, but I want to risk continuing Evan Selinger’s conversation rather than risk neglecting it.  Evan has raised for us one of the more important questions the current generation will face, I think.

For right now, I will end this post by returning to poetry and mythology, which is, as I said, a powerful resource for thinking about how we will act. We need poetry, and we need to reflect on it together to sort out the good poems from the bad. I’ll mention it here for your reflection:  J.R.R. Tolkien reflected on the poems of Genesis by creating his own myth of creation in the Silmarillion. One element of that creation story that my co-author Matthew Dickerson and I often return to is the story in which one of God’s creations imitates God in making more sentient beings, without God’s explicit permission.  Here’s the passage I have in mind:
“The making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father.”
Might it be possible for us also to make sentient life in imitation of God "without thought of mockery," and, if so, might it be that those lives we make could write poems and become priests? As anyone who has read Tolkien's myth knows, this raises a new set of ethical questions that now have to be resolved.


Update, 22 May 2018: Irina Raicu just published a very thoughtful reply to this, entitled "Parenting, Politeness, Poets, and Priests" at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Her article is very much worth the time it will take you to read it.  You may find it here.