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Posts published in February 2024

Instead of Claws

David Ruekberg 0
Deer tracks mark the powdery snow out back and in front. They don’t often come up so close to the house, but it was cold outside last night, 15 degrees. A stretch of cold after a stretch of unusual warm for February. How do they keep warm? Worse is when it's freezing rain, and they huddle under any shelter they can find—bare thorn trees down by the creek, hemlocks on the hill, the cold wet soaking their backs, layers of fat still no match for the soak that mats their fur. Birds fluff up their feathers to create a down coat. Some huddle in nests with others, trading places through the night from the cold outer shell of the ball of bird they make in towards the toasty interior. Shivering warms them, the vibrations making friction between their own tissues, but it burns up a lot of energy. They wait until late morning to flock to our feeders, until it’s a few degrees warmer and they can wait no longer to restock their stores. Evolution has done the best it could to help them survive, but evolution is not intelligent, not purposeful. It works by subtraction: if your genes haven’t delivered the right combination of attributes to get you through cold nights and long droughts, you're done, you’re dropped from the equation. The ones who happen to survive through some lucky combination of alleles or mutation make it. People mistake Darwin’s notion of “survival of the fittest” for “survival of the most brutal." Fit doesn’t necessarily mean physically strong. The human species, like other apes, like dogs, have succeeded through cooperation, language being one of the most important tools of that function. Elephants can run faster, hear better, and rip up big trees out of the ground way more easily than we can. Bears have claws and bats have echolocation. But we have advanced language skills and ingenuity. We get farther as a group of people, a tribe, a town, a civilization, by collecting, preserving, and passing down a set of instructions for how to survive: what foods to eat and which to avoid, how to build a better shelter, how to make a cart move easier with wheels than by dragging, how to burn material to run engines that can do the work of a hundred men. We collect that wisdom in books and libraries and now the Internet. Now we’re at the crisis point of our civilization. We’ve consumed so many materials and burned so much of them that we’ve created the conditions for cataclysmic change that threaten us and all species, in addition to the privations we’ve perpetrated on nature to cause the extinction of almost nine-hundred species in the last five hundred years. That rate is due to increase fantastically—between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the background rate—if we don’t change the way we live. We can make that change the same way we got to this point, by cooperation and ingenuity. I don’t believe people are strong-willed enough to do what we need to do on an individual basis. Look at the trouble people have sticking to a diet. But we can use one of the best tools of civilization, government, to guide us towards the behavior required to succeed. A government can say, “You can’t dump toxic waste in a canal that runs next to people’s homes.” It can create the conditions for businesses to build and manufacture in a way that supports health, rather than the wealth of a few mercenary capitalists who care mainly about power rather than health, about their own well-being over the well-being of those they live among. We already have the technology to swiftly make a transition away from a fossil fuel economy and towards one that runs clean and cheap. Government is the parent who can restrain the unruly child who threatens to burn down the whole house. It is the ultimate mechanism of cooperation. [caption id="attachment_2514" align="alignright" width="300"] One of several decorated rocks that appeared in my neighborhood during the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown. (Click to enlarge.)[/caption] That’s not the perfect analogy, as we are the ones who empower government, which isn’t the same relationship as children have to their parents. In reality, it’s up to us to tell government how we should be governed. Unlike some who see government as an interference (except when they want government to make it more profitable to run a business), I have always seen the primary purpose of government to be to save us from ourselves. We use it to act as the prefrontal cortex to rein us in when the amygdala is screaming at us to fight or flee. Instead, the message from the forebrain is, “We can do this.” My way of accomplishing both goals—working to save life on earth as we know it, and to enlist the help of government to accomplish that, is to be an active member of Citizens' Climate Lobby. But there are many ways. What's yours?