"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Propaganda In College and Society: Part 2

In my last post we examined some of the most disturbing ideological positions in a college science textbook called Visualizing Environmental Science. In this post I will continue giving examples of the propaganda it contains along with some other observations and random quotes from the text. There is no particular order since I wrote these down over the course of an entire semester as I first came across them. Some of these examples have serious and disturbing ideological underpinnings, others were perhaps intended to be serious but are quite funny, so read with a lighter heart.

What does the book say about evolution? Surely here we can get the hard facts of science without any controversial politicization. “Our immensely complex and multi-dimensional brains evolved precisely because we interacted with growing things, weather patterns, and other animals” (41). Unfortunately, we aren't going to continue evolving because, “the world we have created screens us from all that. The sophisticated devices we imagined and manufactured—such as televisions, computers, and automobiles—now define our world” (41). So if you want to continue evolving you need more interactions with “weather”! Next time there is a thunderstorm get away from everything man-made and go stand on the top of a high hill. I guarantee a little natural electrical stimulus in the form of lightning will help your mind evolve!

On page 28 a large picture shows a “typical” American family of four with all their possessions grouped around them on the street in front of their house in order to show the “large amount of natural resources” they consume. Standing in the midst of this opulence, the mother of the family is prominently seen holding a large family Bible, opened to a picture of Jesus with hands raised. What this picture is meant to suggest I have no idea but no doubt a tree was cut down to supply paper for that huge Bible! These religious fanatics (from Texas, no less!) are part of the problem and should make major changes to their “consumption patterns and lifestyles” (28). The first change, if I might suggest it, would be to get rid of that useless Bible with its “environmentally disruptive” command to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”

According to the current paradigm, people are starving from overpopulation and the earth cannot sustain many more people. So... to remedy the situation in Florida, “State and federal governments are working on... the conversion of some agricultural land to marshes... Restoration will take more than 20 years and cost $8 billion” (124). Convert farmland to swamp... no wonder the models all predict that the earth won't be able to sustain any more people. If all farmland is converted into swamp at massive cost to taxpayers not one person will have enough to eat.

“Different groups propose different solutions for resolving the world's food problems, including controlling population growth, promoting the economic development of countries that do not produce adequate food, and correcting the inequitable distribution of resources” (Berg 340). We can only laud the book for giving fair representation to all (well, at least some) of the possible solutions; unfortunately, the first, which deals with world population, is clearly not a solution even by the standards of the text since just two sentences earlier it points out that current agricultural output is sufficient to feed everyone on the planet (Berg 340). In addition, everyone knows that even in the past when population was reckoned in millions not billions, huge numbers of people went hungry. The second solution is at least a valid possibility. The third solution about correcting the unequal distribution of resources is also a valid possibility that has been trumpeted for a long time by Marxist theorists. Socialism, according to a Marx or Trotsky can only be successful on a global scale through the redistribution of all resources. It is interesting that in a discussion of political solutions to world hunger the authors of the book fail to mention the competing political theory that democratic capitalism could reduce world hunger. Perhaps some mention of the theory that since hunger is greater in autocracies and warlord or communist controlled governments what is really needed is freedom to produce food and security to keep it and sell it. Or as Frances Lappe succinctly puts it: “Hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food but a scarcity of democracy” (www.smallplanet.org).

Then there is the stab into psychology and philosophy as if physical science and politics were not scope enough for a science textbook. Sounding like Thoreau meditating on the bank of Waldon Pond, the authors assert: “Wild areas—forest-covered mountains, rolling prairies, barren deserts, and other undeveloped areas—are important to the human spirit. We can escape the tensions of the civilized world by retreating, even temporarily, to the solitude of natural areas” (313). Now, I happen to agree with this statement and what it tells us about the universal human condition; however, I find it out of place in a “science” text of this nature, especially in the context of encouraging the creation and permanent management of more public lands by the federal government. In what almost sounds like an endorsement of religion the text claims that, “organisms not only contribute to human survival and physical comfort, they provide recreation, inspiration, and spiritual solace” (365).

“Slightly more than one-half of US forest are privately owned... Many private owners are under economic pressure to subdivide the land and develop tracts for housing or shopping malls, as they seek ways to recoup their high property taxes.” (322) You got the high property taxes right... but “shopping malls”? How many shopping malls are being built in the middle of the forest? Or again when talking about rangeland the text laments: “...two thirds are privately owned. Much of the private rangeland is under increasing pressure from developers, who want to subdivide the land into lots for homes and condominiums” (325). Seriously, how many condos are being planned on the rangeland of Kansas?

Deforestation. The word can freeze the blood and send an acid rain of sadness and anger pounding on the roof of the mind. Ai! Ai! O forest, where art thou? No doubt logging companies in North America trying to supply lumber to bloated consumer economies like the US account for most of the world's deforestation. Well... not really. Despite the other environmental flaws of the developed world, deforestation is not one of them. We have to give credit to the book for making the unpopular claim that, “Most of the world's deforestation is currently taking place in Africa and South America” (318). Total forests in Europe and Asia have actually grown recently (319). In less developed nations trees are cut down for fuel or slash-and-burn agriculture is practiced. If we want to stop deforestation we need to improve the energy and food supply of Less Developed Countries.

“Most Species facing extinction today are endangered because of the destruction, fragmentation, or degradation of habitats by human activities. We demolish or alter habitats when we build roads, parking lots, bridges and buildings; clears forests to grow crops or graze domestic animals; and log forest for timber. We drain marshes to build on aquatic habitats, thus converting them to terrestrial ones, and we flood terrestrial habitats when we build dams. Exploration for and mining of minerals, including fossil fuels, disrupt the land and destroy habitats. Habitats are altered by outdoor recreation, including off-road vehicles, hiking off-trail, golfing, skiing, and camping” (370).
If you don't feel guilty about that round of golf or ski trip there is something wrong with you. And whatever you do, don't dare wander around in the woods “off-trail” like some modern-day John Muir because that will drive an entire species to extinction!

But, if you read very attentively “you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free:” “the effects of many interactions between the environment and humans are unknown or difficult to predict, we generally don't know if corrective actions should be taken before our scientific understanding is more complete” (14). A strangely contradictory admission from those preaching to people everywhere to repent of their evil ways because the time is short and the imminent destruction of the Earth is near.

“The involvement of governments in childbearing and child rearing is well established” (174). Yeah, what next? “They” are already in our bedrooms and our nurseries.

One last funny and off the wall excerpt from the text:
“Contraceptive use is strongly linked to lower TFRs [Total fertility rates]” (172). No kidding! Who would have guessed!?

Linda Berg and Mary Hager, Visualizing Environmental Science. John Wiley and Sons Publishers-National Geographic Society, 2007.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Propaganda in College and Society: Part 1

Visualizing Environmental Science is a textbook used in colleges all over the country in Environmental Science classes. Printed by Wiley Publishers in cooperation with National Geographic, one would assume this book deals with environmental topics like water and air and soil. And indeed it does, to a limited extent. But what it also does is make some pointed political and ethical statements. Embedded in the opening paragraphs the authors make what could be considered the thesis for the book: “Earth's central environmental problem, which links all others together, is that there are many people, and the number, both in North America and world-wide, continues to grow” (Berg and Hager 4). While the imprecision of this statement may cause some English teachers to smile condescendingly, the message is clear enough: people are a “problem” that needs to be reduced or eliminated. Yes, that's right, the same basic premise used by Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia to eliminate “socially undesirable” elements of society like the Jews. Only, in this case, the environment--not race or ideology--is used as the justification; all of humanity is the problem and not just one small political or racial minority group.

Consider some of the other ideas that the book puts forth in explicit and implicit terms. This one also deals with population: “A single child born in a highly developed country such as the United States causes a greater impact on the environment and on resource depletion than perhaps 20 children born in a developing country” (9). The obvious conclusion the authors want us readers to reach is that having children is a planet destroying evil. Every child you have is twenty times worse than a child in a Less Developed Country. One is tempted to ask how accurate this statistic is: perhaps it is only 10 children? Perhaps 5? The end of chapter summary has this question for students: “Criticize the following statement: 'population growth in developing countries is of much more concern than is population growth in highly developed countries'” (23). We know what the answer is since we read the text. Children in developed countries are twenty times worse than in Less Developed Countries. Knowing this fact, how could anyone in the United States or Europe dare to have children: it would be immoral!

Turning from the evil of children to the evil of other groups within society, the authors ask this question: “Which groups in society are responsible for the greatest environmental disruption? How can we alter the activities of these environmentally disruptive groups? It will take years to address such questions, but the answers should help decision-makers in business and government formulate policies that will alter consumption patterns in an environmentally responsible way.” (11-12) Clearly, businessmen, entrepreneurs, and Republicans are “environmentally disruptive groups” since they are the ones logging forests, manufacturing cars, and encouraging oil drilling. They need to be stopped by whatever means possible. They are the global enemies.

Perhaps anticipating objections to these positions, the authors dismiss ethical and political counter-arguments by pointing out that, “several areas of human endeavor are not scientific. Ethical principles often have a religious foundation, and political principles reflect social systems” (15). The implication is that because these disciplines are not “scientific” they are somehow of inferior importance and, should a conflict ever occur between them, “science” should always have the final say. But in the surrounding paragraphs the authors take pains to assert the universal postmodern “fact” that even science can never “prove” anything (17). “there is no absolute certainty or universal agreement about anything in science... scientists never claim to know the final answer about anything” (15). “There is no absolute truth in science, only varying degrees of uncertainty” (18). When it comes to some of their ideas, that could be a comforting thought, because it means there might be a possibility of deterring them from plunging humanity into further misery by returning us to the technological conditions of the third-world in order to “save the planet.”

I can hear outraged voices: “nobody wants to return to the conditions of the third world!” Are you sure? On page 36 the authors bemoan the “very unequal distribution of the world's resources” (36). Rather than attempt to raise the living standard of the entire world to that of the 19% who live in industrialized nations, the solution put forth in the text is to lower the living standard of highly developed nations. Backward thinking? Decide for yourself: “Such poverty, along with the enormous pressures of human population growth and consumption rates, are global problems that can't be solved without modifying the standard of living enjoyed in highly developed nations” (36 emphasis mine). Clearly there is an agenda here that seeks to strip away the comfort and security Western nations have provided for themselves. The promotion of socialism is also unmistakable. Invoking an undefined morality (Marx's perhaps?), the text states bluntly that, “everyone must have a reasonable share of earth's productivity” (36).

Far from being a small side issue taken out of context, the evil of the Developed World is a major theme of Visualizing Environmental Science. “Perhaps the single most important lesson you will learn in this text is that those who live in highly developed countries are at the core of the problems facing the global environment today. Highly developed countries consume a disproportionate share of resources and must reduce their levels of consumption” (40). Of course this comes right out of the thinking of environmental idol Paul Ehrlich who in the 1970s said: “Most people do not recognize that, at least in rich nations, economic growth is the disease, not the cure.” (as quoted in Gerdes) How shall we reduce our consumption? The text is quick to point out that the UN could help: “The strengthening of the United Nations as an effective force for global sustainability would contribute greatly to the creation of a sustainable, healthy, peaceful, and prosperous world” (40).

Clearly, from what we have seen, the authors (or the publishers, or both) have a political agenda that includes curbing the world's population, instituting socialism, and giving trans-national organizations like the United Nations legislative authority over national governments. For such a social revolution to take place extensive propaganda must be used. The text itself gives an illustration of the type of propaganda that can be used. Large-scale public health risks are minimal, to paraphrase the example I have chosen from page 72, yet they are often hyped-up by the media. The authors of Visualizing Environmental Science admit that, “these stories are more sensational then factual” (72). Nevertheless, instead of trying to correct and educate by presenting the true facts without the sensationalism, they welcome this misinformation for its usefulness as propaganda. According to the authors, “these stories serve an important role in getting the regulatory wheels of the government moving to protect us as much as possible from the dangers of our technological and industrialized world” (72, emphasis mine).

Using science or psuedo-science as a weapon of propaganda is a powerful means of waging ideological battle. Few people are bold enough or have knowledge enough to defend themselves against “science” or “experts” who tell them what to believe. Convince people that the earth is overpopulated and they will freely give up their right to reproduce; convince people that humanity is a parasite sucking life out of “mother earth” and they will rejoice when whole segments of this parasite are “eliminated” through holocaust, euthanasia, or abortion. Convince them that they are in imminent danger from rising CO2 levels, rising temperatures, and rising seas, and they will give up their money, give up their comforts, and, ultimately, give up their freedom. In the name of “protecting the environment” they will give up protecting all their rights: the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

See also: http://bibliologicalbibblebabble.blogspot.com/2009/12/propaganda-in-college-and-society-part_29.html

Berg, Linda and Hager, Mary. Visualizing Environmental Science. John Wiley and Sons Publishers-National Geographic Society, 2007.

Gerdes, Louise I. “Overpopulation Does Not Threaten the Environment or Humanity.” Opposing Viewpoints: Humanity's Future. Ed. Louise I. Gerdes. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2006.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Christmas Carol for Christmas

Last year on this date I posted about four Christmas reads. In that post I admitted I had never read Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. This post is to let you know that that problem has been rectified. Rather than reread last years selections (delightful as they are) I decided to take my canoe down an unexplored river. Along with A Christmas Carol I also sampled Dickens' similarly ghoulish new-years tale The Chimes. And if all goes well, I hope to read A Cricket on the Hearth before the year gets much older.

So, is all the fuss about A Christmas Carol justified? Probably, although some of its popularity might stem from it being authentic Dickens in a nutshell. At only an hundred pages long it is a great way to claim you have "read Dickens" without reading one of his novels of five times the length. Luckily, some of us are immune to such a way of thinking. Since I'm probably the last person to read A Christmas Carol I won't bore anyone with the details.

Instead, I'll just quote one passage that swooped from the ceiling and struck me. When Scrooge tries to comfort Marley by saying he was a good man of business in life, Marley retorts with an interesting description of vocation:
'Business!' cried the ghost, wringing its hands again. 'Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!' (24).

Merry CHRISTmas!

Charles Dickens, Christmas Books of Dickens. New York, Black's Readers Service Co.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Character of a Hero

Ancient literature is filled with heroes. Epic tales of epic quests abound. People were looking for role-models to look up to in the past as much as people are looking for role-models today. Two pieces of literature from antiquity that follow the exploits of incredible heroes are The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Ramayana of Valmiki. Both portray a hero of larger than life exploits. Gilgamesh and Rama both have the prowess and courage to face fierce adversaries and defeat them in battle. But while physical strength and an indomitable spirit may be two of the most recognized characteristics of a hero, other qualities are just as important. Two of these qualities include moral virtue and the self-sacrifice of doing one's duty whatever the cost. Rama exemplifies these secondary qualities to a greater extent than arrogant Gilgamesh; therefore, Rama succeeds in his role of hero and establishes himself as a role-model for posterity.

In the Ramayana Rama is described as a model son whose entire life is guided by the Hindu principle of Dharma. Dharma corresponds to the Chinese Tao or Western philosophy's “law of nature” which believes an ultimate reality based on law and harmony in the universe calls for certain actions of right conduct. A hero is often forced to go on a quest for the common good or perform an action of Dharma that appears to be counter to self-interest. This means giving up comfort and security in favor of one's duty. Rama's duty, and hence, his Dharma, is to accept the authority of his father and the rule of law rather then assert his own interest.

Gilgamesh, on the other hand, is on a quest for something that is frankly contrary to the laws of nature and Dharma: physical immortality. In the end Gilgamesh sees that his quest is futile and that he has been fighting against order and the laws of the universe. Belatedly, Gilgamesh understands that his duty is not to seek after physical immortality but to be the leader of his people for the time he is alive.

In the Ramayana the moral virtue of Rama is also praised. His exemplary life wins him the respect of his father the king and all his peers. The grief and sadness they experience at his exile testifies to the goodness they see in him. By contrast, the hero's nemesis Ravana is a villain because,
The bonds of law and right he spurned:
To others’ wives his fancy turned. (Valmiki 394).

Interestingly enough, this description of a villain in the Ramayana is remarkable similar to the description of Gilgamesh. The Epic of Gilgamesh records that Gilgamesh,
Has altered the unaltered way,
Abused, changed the practices.
Any new bride from the people is his (Epic of Gilgamesh).

Clearly, when it comes to morality--respecting the rights of other people--Gilgamesh falls far short of the heroic ideal set by Rama.

Gilgamesh cannot match Rama's adherence to the duty inherent in the order of the universe nor can he match Rama's moral virtue. Gilgamesh fights against the order of the universe presented in The Epic of Gilgamesh that asserts a man cannot attain physical immortality. Also, his selfish and arrogant behavior demeans his otherwise remarkable exploits. In contrast, Rama, through his adherence to Dharma, fights on the side of order and righteousness. He sets a heroic example of selflessness and duty. Prince Rama is endowed with heroic virtues whose ultimate worth far exceeds those of arrogant Gilgamesh.

Works cited

The Epic of Gilgamesh. Trans. Robert Temple. Tablet II “Gateways To Babylon” http://www.angelfire.com/tx/gatestobabylon/temple1.html

Valmiki, The Ramayana of Valmiki. Trans. Ralph T. H. Griffith. Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/24869