Kill things or South Dakota will go to hell

Wear Fur Sign - South Dakota

Wear fur! If we’re not all wearing fur like the OH-so-modern model on this billboard, we’ll all be run over by furry beasts.

The title of the blog post? That’s my takeaway from the billboards that have been on our two main interstates for YEARS…ever since we moved here 25 years ago.  I know of two signs, and I believe there are more.  One is on I-29 in the far southeastern edge of the state. That sign states that South Dakota will face “Economic Ruin” if we don’t hunt and trap animals in the state. Because as you know, this is the 1700s where fur-trapping is the major economic driver of the state.  Take that away, and our economy will fall apart.

The second is a sign on I-90 near a favorite rock-hounding site in western South Dakota near Kadoka.  My son and I were out there today so I thought I’d share the wisdom of this second sign.  In short…we all need to kill furry critters and wear their fur. Otherwise we’ll be inundated with the little furry bastards.  Grab your shotgun (this is South Dakota…you KNOW you have one), grab your traps, and get the hell out there and kill as many as you can.

Or else!

Economic ruin. Ecologic ruin. Thank GOD South Dakota has these thankless heroes out there killing all the animals in the state, saving us from disaster.

Remind me again…why the hell do I live here???

Killing Science, $1 at a time

Landsat Image - Garden City, Kansas

A Landsat image near Garden City, Kansas, depicting the view of irrigated agriculture using center pivots. Monitoring agricultural change and productivity is one of but many applications of Landsat data, providing scientific and economic benefits to the Nation. The latest move by the Department of Interior to potentially begin charging a fee for Landsat data would devastate Earth science activities around the globe. (click for a larger view).

Nature today published a story about a Department of Interior committee studying the possibility of charging fees for data from the Landsat satellite program, data that are currently available for free.  The first Landsat satellite was launched in 1972, with 6 additional satellites launched since then. The latest was Landsat 8, launched in 2013, while Landsat 9 is scheduled for launch in late 2020.  Landsat satellites have provided continuous Earth observations for the last 46 years (!!!!), an invaluable and unmatched record for recording changes on the Earth’s surface. The number of applications of Landsat data is astounding, including monitoring forestry activity (forest harvest and regrowth), agricultural productivity, monitoring urban sprawl, quantifying changes in surface water extent in response to flooding or drought, assessing the impacts of natural disasters, mapping geologic landforms, and a host of other uses. As the Nature article notes, a 2013 committee commissioned to assess the economic costs and benefits of the Landsat program found that while the program costs the US government approximately $80 million a year, economic benefits for the country are staggering…well over $2 billion per year.

Management of Landsat has changed over the years, but USGS and NASA are the two Federal agencies currently managing the program. Until 2008, the data came at a cost to the user...a cost that historically could be quite high.  A disastrous attempt to semi-privatize Landsat data distribution in the 1990s led to costs for each Landsat “scene” (an area approximately 115 x 115 miles) of up to $4,000!  While highly valuable data for a number of applications, the high cost was a major roadblock for usage of the data. In 2008, the USGS made the decision to begin distributing the data free of charge…and usage of Landsat data grew exponentially. Before the policy change, USGS distributed a mere ~50 scenes per day.  Once the data were made freely available, usage jumped more than 100-fold, with thousands of Landsat scenes downloaded per day.  Having freely available data from the world’s premiere long-term observation platform of the Earth’s surface has since transformed Earth science.  Applications once hindered by data costs were now free to tap into the entire Landsat database.

The Nature story notes that under the current administration, the committee is considering again re instituting a fee for access to Landsat. Given the other actions of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and other administration officials with roles overseeing environmental science, it’s easy to speculate as to the real purpose of the committee.  DOI, EPA, NOAA, and other scientific agencies and programs in the Federal government have been targeted for draconian reductions by the Trump industry.  Elimination of environmental science and privatization of traditional government activities has been a major focus of this administration.  My own personal interpretation…this is a move to 1) curtail the vast array of environmental monitoring and analysis that’s occurred since Landsat data were made freely available, 2) bow to the will of industry lobbyists who wish to continue the push towards privatization of Earth observations and increase corporate profits, and 3) eventually extricate the US government from running the Landsat program and other similar Earth observation systems.

Any truly unbiased analysis of the Landsat program would label the 2008 move to freely available data as a smashing success, both in terms of economics and the scientific benefits. Returning to the 1990s and charging high fees for Landsat data access would result in an immediate, sharp decline in environmental and economic applications that use the data.  Given that the one overarching theme of the Trump administration is “corporate profit above all else”, it’s impossible to view this potential move with anything other than a highly cynical eye.

 

Birds Under Systemic Attack in the U.S. Under Trump

Young Whooping Crane - Grus americana

A researcher at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, dressed in white garb designed to emulate an adult Whooping Crane, and a young, 2-month old Whooping Crane “colt”.  Researchers only interact with the young while wearing such outfits, to avoid any human imprinting on the young.  Patuxent has played a vital role in conserving Whooping Cranes and bringing them back from the edge of extinction. Thanks to the GOP and this administration, the entire Whooping Crane program and its minuscule $1.5 million cost is being eliminated.

There are around 600 Whooping Cranes in the world, with about 30% of those in captivity. Of the few hundred birds in the wild, most breed near Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, while a smaller and more recently established breeding population is found in central Wisconsin. The species has become reestablished in the wild only due to strong conservation measures and to the diligent and long-term efforts of captive breeding and reintroduction programs such as the 51-year year effort at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. When the program started in 1966, only 42 Whooping Cranes were left. The dedicated efforts of Patuxent scientists were vital for bringing the species back from the edge of extinction.

In 2016, Patuxent scientists developed a plan that would wind down their captive breeding program, with a plan to end the program in another 10 to 15 years.  Thanks to the Trump administration, that program is now in the process of being disbanded immediately.  In a multi-TRILLION dollar federal budget, the $1.5 million U.S. Geological Survey budget for the Whooping Crane program was a minuscule drop in the bucket.  But with a GOP political ideology that’s focused on corporate profit and short-term financial gain over ANY environmental concern, the death of the USGS’s Whooping Crane program is just one small part of a sinister, death-by-a-thousand-cuts to wildlife conservation in the United States.

The proposed cuts in both the proposed fiscal year 2018 and 2019 Trump budgets are more a declaration of war on the environment than they are a sound, fiscally responsible means of streamlining federal programs. The Ecosystems mission area of the USGS is responsible for an array of wildlife research and management programs: The Trump budget proposes a 30% cut in those programs for the coming fiscal year.  Many programs are slated for complete elimination, including the popular Cooperative Research Units, a network of an onsite USGS presence on academic campuses across the US.  Designed to foster local cooperative research on wildlife issues, the entire $25 million budget for the Coop units for 2019 is likely to be eliminated. The Climate and Land Use program is being forced to change its name to “Land Resources”, with nearly ALL climate-related research eliminated (as well as much of the landscape research).  Eliminating even the WORD “climate” is a common theme in proposed budgets across ALL Federal agencies. The “Energy and Minerals” Mission Area is the one USGS mission that maintains most of its funding, but the proposed changes are startling in scope.  While funding would remain stable or even increase for mineral resource exploitation, the entire “Environmental Health” program, designed to assess potential environmental consequences of resource extraction on Federal lands, is slated to be eliminated.  In other words…we want to exploit the Federal lands that YOU AND I own, but we don’t want to even look at the environmental consequences of that exploitation.

Other agencies in the Department of Interior are also slated for severe cuts, including cuts to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service. The GOP goal is to transition the primary focus of DOI to the exploitation of our natural resources, with environmental concern and conservation efforts being severely curtailed.  The Endangered Species Act, originally championed under the GOP and the Nixon Administration, is similarly under attack, with multiple efforts in Congress underway to undermine the law.

600 Whooping Cranes on the planet.  600 birds, found in only two concentrated breeding areas, and thus extremely susceptible to some disturbance or disease event, yet while the GOP attempts to raise our military spending by a ridiculous $70-80 BILLION a year, they have the gall to point to the $1.5 million Whooping Crane cost as a “luxury” that our Nation can’t afford.  Not to mention a trillion-dollar tax cut for corporations and the rich at a time when corporate profits are at record levels.

There’s so many disgusting things happening in Washington right now that it’s hard to stay on top of all the latest headlines.  Russia-gate, potential impeachment, obvious racism and bigotry emanating from the president himself (no, this president doesn’t get a capital “p”), mass killings and gun control issues…it’s overwhelming.  Conservation stories such as these are having a hard time getting any play in the mainstream press.  With the damage that’s being done RIGHT NOW, it will likely take decades for us to recover, after what’s shaping up to be four years of continuous and widespread attacks on our Nation’s wild resources, and the long-established programs designed to protect and manage them.

I just hope birds like the Whooping Crane can weather the storm until Americans come to their damned senses.

Small-town America and New American Values

Brandon, South Dakota

Brandon, South Dakota. Small-town, USA, population 10,000., “Midwestern Values”, But we’re not immune to what’s happening in the country over the last year.

Brandon, South Dakota. population 10,000. Small town, USA. Yet our High School has a new and growing problem with racism and bigotry. That’s the message we got this week, when our son started as a freshman.  We attended a question and answer session, with members of the senior class responding to questions from parents of incoming freshman.  After one question about potential fighting or bullying at Brandon High School, the principal stepped in and sadly announced that last year, for the first time, Brandon High School had experienced notable confrontations related to racism. Small-town USA, in the heart of the Midwest, where people claim to take pride in their “Midwestern values”.  Yet here we were being told that our little town’s high school was having issues with racism over the last year.

The principal has been in Brandon for many years. He didn’t say these words lightly. In fact, he rightfully seemed rather ashamed of the fact that it had become and issue.  The fact that he’s been in Brandon many years, and that racism hadn’t cropped up in an widespread, overt way until 2016? It’s not exactly a mystery as to why overt racism is becoming more common, even here in Brandon, South Dakota.

As a scientist, and particularly as a scientist who touches on climate changes issues, the last year can only be described as “soul-crushing”. We now have state-sponsored attacks on science, and even on basic logic and empirical proven TRUTH.  They are attacks on the very paradigm by which I’ve led my career and life.  However, even as a scientist, there’s been one characteristic of presidency of Orange Hitler (sorry, the SOB is like Voldemort…I can’t say his fucking name) that’s been even more troubling…the bigotry and state-sponsored HATE that emanates from the Oval Office.  Beyond what happens in DC however, is how that hatred and intolerance is trickling down even to small-town America (or perhaps FROM small-town America).

The Texas coast is currently dealing with a disaster of epic proportions…Hurricane Harvey.  Thanks to the predictions of government-funded scientists and research from NOAA (ironically, some of the same scientists ostracized for climate-change related work), we’ve had several days notice of the likely progression of the storm. Hopefully loss of life and property is held at a minimum thanks to those warnings. It’s a time where the nation’s focus rightly is with the people suffering through the storm.  And what was Orange Hitler doing just as the storm was hitting? Using the office of the Presidency to spread his own personal bile, bigotry, and hatred.

As the storm was beginning to lash the Texas coast, Orange Hitler issued the first pardon of his presidency. There have been sickening abuses of Presidential pardons in the past…Ford’s pardon of Nixon, and Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich are the two cases most commonly cited cases. None can top Orange Hitler’s pardon of fellow bigot and hate-monger Joe Arpaio.  None tears at the very soul of a nation more than this action, particularly as it was accompanied by a near-simultaneous executive order instructing the Pentagon to to ban transgender service members. Ford’s pardon of Nixon was presented as a means of ending the traumatic events leading up to Nixon’s resignation and help a nation heal. Clinton’s pardon of Rich?  Likely even more disgusting, given that it’s primarily viewed as a tit-for-tat favor to a man who donated heavily to the Clintons.

But Trump’s moves last night? They go behind personal political favors or misguided attempts to move a nation past a crisis.  They DIRECTLY flout the very principles on which the United States was established.  We’re 240+ years beyond the Declaration of Independence. We’re 240 years past the point where we had established that “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights“. However, after 8 years of a (gasp!!) black President, Orange Hitler tapped into the bigotry and HATRED of vast numbers of Americans, and has used the Oval Office as a platform for spreading hate and intolerance.  The founding fathers of 240 years ago would be aghast at the events of last night.

Joe Arpaio is a hateful bigot.  He was convicted on criminal contempt of court charges after ignoring directives to stop his abusive and discriminatory targeting of…well…anyone not lily-white.  There’s no gray area here, no logical grounds for pardoning such a man. Pardoning a man such as this sends a clear message…that the kind of government sponsored bigotry and hatred practiced by a small man like Arpaio has now graduated to full-fledged sponsorship by the Federal Government. Moments later, the same message was sent when Orange Hitler went against the recommendations of his own military commanders, and banned transgender citizens from serving their country in the military.

Orange Hitler is what he is. It was obvious during the 2016 presidential campaign, when he used his thinly veiled dog-whistle calls to the millions of hateful, bigoted Americans that long for a return to the days where White Power was unquestioned, where anyone who wasn’t white and Christian “knew their place” in society.  Americans KNEW they were voting for a bigot.  They KNEW they were voting for a man who advocated for hatred and intolerance of their fellow Americans.

Confederate Flag in South Dakota

Yes, this is good ol’ small-town South Dakota. Taken near Corson, just outside of Brandon. A new feature since the election, just like the house in Brandon who put “Get on board the Trump Train!” in big block letters across their fence. Small-town values. Small-town hatred and bigotry.

And they voted for him anyway.  Or more accurately, they voted for him BECAUSE of those views.

The dismissal of logic and reason, the outright rebellion against science in Orange Hitler’s administration is sad and disheartening.  But that’s nothing compared to the knowledge that not only is the American President a hateful bigot, but that SO many millions of Americans sympathize with his beliefs.  It’s fundamentally changed how I view the country in which I live. When I go out in public now here in very “red” South Dakota, I can’t help but look at my fellow citizens with a mix of bewilderment, sadness, and even fear.  That hatred and intolerance is showing up even in our own high school, no doubt being “passed down” from South Dakota parents who share those views. Thanks to the election of Orange Hitler, racism, intolerance, and bigotry is now “OK”. It’s OK to express those views in public.  It’s now acceptable to hate your fellow man, to discriminate and abuse them if they happen to be a different color, creed, or sexual orientation.  For many, it’s now evidently OK to even express those views in a public school setting.

Soul crushing.  Orange Hitler is an odious, despicable human being, but he’s one man. It’s the knowledge that so many millions of my fellow Americans share those views that is difficult to take.

 

Mitch McConnell’s Tumor – John Thune

John Thune and Mitch McConnell

Senate Majority leader and eunuch, Mitch McConnell, and the ever-present tumor of his left butt cheek, John Thune, talking today about their refusal to support an independent investigation into TrumpGate.

I’m pissed. Yes, after the news of the last 24 hours, I am genuinely, 100%, down-to-my-core, pissed. Who am I pissed at? Yes, I’m pissed at Trump, who has the gall to fire the very man tasked to lead an investigation into RussiaGate.  I’m even MORE pissed at enablers like Mitch McConnell, a eunuch who CLEARLY lost his balls decades ago.  Republican leadership who continually look away from potentially unethical and/or illegal behavior are even worse than Trump himself, since unlike the completely clueless Orange Hitler, THEY KNOW BETTER. THEY KNOW THE STAKES.  They know the threat to our government institutions and people’s faith in government, yet they continually put politics (and their own hides) above the country. Who am I most pissed at?  Trump supporters, the most hypocritical group of human beings on the planet. They couldn’t have been more vocal in criticizing James Comey for supposedly not pursuing Hillary Clinton more vigorously (a laughable criticism to begin with), but then they turn around and support Comey’s firing when he dares to investigate one of their own.  As I’ve stated before, Donald Trump was right during the campaign when he said he could walk down the street and shoot someone, and still his clueless supporters would cheer him on.  The only thing that enables the destruction of a democracy is a ignorant, apathetic populous whose only interest in life is their own selfish pleasure, and that’s exactly what Trump supporters are, given their aversion to FACT and their intellectual and moral laziness.

There are plenty of Trump enablers to share the blame, but three of them are from right here in good ol’ South Dakota. Our congressional delegation has one overarching commonality…they are simply 3 empty suits, 3 people without an original thought in their collective minds, 3 people whose only purpose on the planet is to serve as 100% guaranteed votes for whatever their Republican leaders tell them to vote for.  One of the three holds a special place in my heart though.  It’s not Senator Mike Rounds, our former governor who is most likely the least visible member in all of the Senate. It’s not Representative Kristi Noem, although her laughable, misguided defense of her TrumpCare vote does give her extra points.  No, it’s Senator John Thune who receives most of my wrath.

John Thune and Mitch McConnell

McConnell’s tumor has been present for quite some time. Here McConnell and his tumor address a ceremony honoring Muhammad Ali in 2016.

There’s a history. Over a decade ago, we met with the Thune multiple times.  Our very young son was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes at a very young age, and we wanted to talk to Thune about health care bills making their way through Congress.  One of those was a stem cell bill, a bill that offered tremendous hope for Type-1 diabetes research.  We talked for 15 minutes, discussed the merits of the research and how it would help Type-1 children, and expressed our hope he would vote for the bill.  His answer, the VERY FIRST WORDS he spoke, are word that I’ll never forget…”I can’t be expected to vote for that bill, I’m a Republican!“.  It wasn’t even “I (myself) can’t vote for that bill”, it was “I can’t be expected to vote” for the bill, a phrase that perfectly describes Thune’s lack of original thought and inclination to do whatever he was told by party leadership.  HE DOES WHAT PARTY LEADERSHIP EXPECT HIM TO DO.  In the many years since, it’s become painfully obvious that this mentality is what has driven his entire career.

Given Thune’s mechanical performance when we met with him, and given his lack of original thought or ideas in the years since, I’ve had a revelation. At first I thought….could Thune not be “real”? Could be be an android, or some other artificial being, purposely created by the Republican party to do their bidding?  But then it dawned on me. John Thune isn’t human. John Thune isn’t an android or artificial being.  No, John Thune can best be described as a tumor…specifically, a tumor of Mitch McConnell’s rear end.

John Thune and Mitch McConnell

Dear god, the tumor is even starting to DRESS like it’s master…

Think about it…when do you see photos of John Thune?  Do you EVER see a photo of him by himself?  For such a senior Senator, you’d THINK there would occasionally be a press conference, a hearing, or some other government function where he has a lead role, where he appears at a podium by himself.  Do we ever see that? NO!! When is the ONLY time we see a photo or video with John Thune?  When he’s standing directly behind Mitch McConnell, staying completely quiet like a good little (mindless) Republican soldier.

Perhaps Thune WAS once human.  Perhaps Thune DID once have a mind of his own.  Over the years, however, he’s kissed Mitch McConnell’s butt cheeks so many times that I believe he’s now become permanently attached.  John Thune has now been assimilated into Mitch McConnell, and sadly, is no longer anything other than a tumor of Mitch McConnell’s left butt cheek.

Mitch McConnell’s Tumor, much like Mitch McConnell himself, came out today with a statement stating we don’t need an independent investigation of the Trump / Russia link. Not exactly a surprise, since as a tumor, he shares the same DNA as McConnell himself.  Sadly, and ironically, it’s unlikely the tumor will be excised from McConnell’s rear end at any point in the near future, given the Republican focus on destroying the very health care system that could assist medical cases such as his…

John Thune and Mitch McConnell

It’s been a long-standing relationship! The tumor budded from McConnell’s butt cheek almost immediately upon Thune’s arrival in the Senate. Historical footage from 2013, shown here, indicates the close relationship between the tumor and McConnell, even predating the time before McConnell became servant to Beelzebub and lost his ability to even provide a fake smile such as this.

Actually, NO, Trump supporter…we can NOT be “friends”

Unfriend - FacebookLast week I got a direct email at work from someone I had unfriended on Facebook several months ago.  She (finally) noticed that I had unfriended her, and seemed a bit bewildered why I would do so after so many years. She was someone who was a friend / buddy while in high school and early into my college years, but someone I’ve not otherwise seen or communicated with over the last 30 years (other than Facebook). Over the time we were Facebook “friends”, it was obvious that our political beliefs were vastly different, but any political posts or comments to each other weren’t antagonistic or inappropriate.  However, late in the campaign her behavior  took a nasty turn, and the transformation was complete after the election was over.  It was a shocking and abrupt change in behavior that I also noticed with other “friends”, who now seemed empowered by the Trump election. It wasn’t acceptable, and I unfriended her.

As a result of last year’s political campaigns and the aftermath, my “friends” list on Facebook is decimated. I literally have half the Facebook friends now than I did when 2016 started, with some “unfriend” actions taken by others, but most taken by myself. None of these were people I actually physically interact with (which as my wife brings up…why were they Facebook “friends” in the first place?). They were nearly all old high school classmates or other acquaintances I haven’t seen or talked to for many years / decades, such as the old high school friend who contacted me through email.  The reasons I unfriended so many?  Their disgusting posts during and after the campaign.  The easiest choices?  The racist posts.  When 4 former high school classmates shared and joked about a cartoon showing Michelle Obama as a gorilla? A pretty easy (and fast) choice to immediately unfriend them. Other reasons were across the spectrum, as shown below, but were all because of online conduct and posts that any “friend” of mine simply would never dream of. It doesn’t matter if you’re an old, distant acquaintance, or if you’re one of the people closest to me today, there are certain lines that are unacceptable for any “friend” to cross. The former high school friend crossed that line, but it goes beyond just her. Frankly it’s ANY Trump supporter.  Some may howl and scream at some perceived lack of respect for other viewpoints, but I’m sorry, if you support Trump and his policies, we simply cannot be “friends” in any way. Why, you ask?

Let’s start with item number one…bigotry and racism.

If this past election revealed anything about our nation, it’s that there are still some incredibly deep racial divides. Trump did the unthinkable…he actually CAMPAIGNED on a platform of racism, something no other politician dared to try.  And sadly…it worked.  Analysis after analysis show the same thing… no driving force was a better predictor of a Trump vote than a person’s racist or bigoted attitudes.  I have ZERO tolerance for bigots. Supporting and actually electing an open bigot to the most powerful position in the world?   From the treatment of immigrants, intolerance towards any religion other than Christianity, and an open war on LGBT rights, Trump and his supporters have shown a shocking degree of bigotry that many thought was in our past after the Obama election. If you support this man, you’re supporting hate. I’m sorry, but that’s not something that I could ever overlook.  It was shocking how many Facebook “friends” (again, many former classmates who never left southeastern Nebraska) I cut based on an outpouring of bigoted comments over the last year.

Item number two — Attitudes towards helping those in need.

This is the issue highest on my mind at the moment, and the reason I’m writing this blog post to begin with, given that today Republicans are about to pass “health care” legislation (more accurately referred to as tax-cut legislation for the wealthy) in the House.  20-25 million Americans will simply lose coverage, while the sick, the elderly, and needy will effectively lose health care access after being priced out of the market. No other developed country uses a health-care system based on corporate profit. No other developed country fails to cover the health care needs of its citizens.  No other developed country bases the quality of your health care on your ability to pay. I have a son with Type-1 diabetes, a disease we’re managing rather well, but a disease he’ll be grappling with for the rest of his life. The REASON we are managing it very well is because we’re fortunate enough to have 1) good insurance, and 2) a level of income that allows us to utilize the most advanced treatment regimes that have been developed. Given that good blood sugar control is LIFE for a Type-1, with drastically lower chances of complications (eye and kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, nerve damage) as blood sugar control improves, having access to the best treatments available literally means a much longer, healthier life.  While we’re fortunate, other families facing Type-1 diabetes are not.  Some simply can’t afford an insulin pump.  Some can’t afford a continuous glucose monitor that constantly reports blood sugar levels.  Some can’t afford frequent doctor visits.  To put it simply, Type-1 children whose families can’t afford quality care will have much harder lives, with more health complications, and a much shorter life span.  Children are DYING sooner than they need to, because of the basic greed and selfishness of Americans who value their own short-term prosperity above all else.  If you’re a Trump supporter, if you’re someone who believes health care should be more of a personal burden and responsibility rather than a shared societal responsibility, I’m sorry, there is NO way I can call you a “friend”. It’s a direct slap in the face to a father with a Type-1 child.  It’s you telling me that all you care about is yourself, that helping the sick and the needy isn’t something you want to be bothered with. It’s an issue that goes FAR beyond health care, as the Trump / conservative ideology simply refuses to recognize that there’s a societal, moral IMPERATIVE to help those in need.  It’s a shocking indictment of the basic greed and selfishness of Americans.  “Friend”? I think not.

Item number three — Attitudes towards science, towards logic and reason

I’m a scientist.  I monitor, assess, and predict changes to our earth’s landscape. The very real, observable, and predictable impacts of climate change are a big part of my life’s work. More than that, my very persona and belief system is based on logic, and reason.  The Trump movement is a threat not only to climate change, not only to science, but to logic and reason itself. When Trump says climate change isn’t real, it’s a lie, and he knows it. When Trump states the GOP health care bill will lower costs, cover more people, and cover pre-existing conditions, it’s a lie.  When Trump states that he lost the popular vote to voter fraud, it’s a lie.  Trump supporters have no use for fact.  They have no use for evidence, for data. They have no use for reason, for logic. In a shocking (and disgusting) recent poll, 80% of Trump voters say they believe Trump’s lies are less important than “fake news” distributed by mainstream media. Only 3% (!!!) believe Trump’s own lies are the bigger issue.  The poll question itself irritates the hell out of me, as it presents Trump’s lies and supposedly false media coverage as equal choices in the eyes of poll participants. They’re not. There’s simply no question that climate change is occurring, and we are the primary cause.  They’re simply no refuting the fact that the new GOP health care bill will cover fewer people and hurt the sick, elderly, and poor.  There’s simply no refuting the fact that Hillary convincingly won the popular vote and there was no widespread voter fraud.  We have evidence, we have data, we have analysis that disprove the Trump assertions, yet his mindless followers continue to believe everything that’s spoon-fed to them by the Trump administration. I’m sorry, if you support Trump, if you are a climate change denier, if you think of scientists as “elitists” rather than dedicated professionals who devote their lives to serving humanity?  You’re not my “friend”.  You’re effectively calling my career, and indeed my entire LIFE, as the “lie”, rather than confronting the evidence right in front of your eyes and reconsidering the Trump positions.

Item number four — A life built on hate

Basically a culmination of the prior items, I refuse to be “friend” to anyone who bases their life on a platform of hate.  Hate of people of “other” races. Hate of people of “other” religions. Hate of people of “other” sexual orientations.  Hate and disdain towards the poor, the sick, the needy.  Hate towards “elitists” and “experts”, those with knowledge, skills, and positions in life that you yourself don’t have. The Trump doctrine is based solely on the TEARING DOWN of others…not building a happy, healthy, prosperous society.  HURTING immigrants through cruel policies. HURTING LGBT people through discriminatory practices.  HURTING the “experts” through government-sponsored misinformation with an underlying political agenda.  What’s been proposed by the Trump administration to truly HELP people (other than those who are already wealthy?)?  It’s an agenda, a doctrine, seemingly built solely on revenge, hatred, and greed.

Facebook “friends”? These are the reasons I’ve unfriended you. In short…I have no problem with my well-reasoned conservative friends.  I have no problem with my well-reasoned Republican friend.  Trump supporters, you are anything but well-reasoned. I don’t need the hate, the bigotry, the callousness towards the needy, the abandonment of reason.

The economics of climate change

Norfolk - Hurricane storm surge risks

A map showing downtown Norfolk and the surrounding areas, and likely storm surge inundation areas under different categories of Hurricanes. Should a category 4 ever strike the area, most of the region will be flooded. However, coastal flood risks in the area go well beyond the risk of hurricane-related storm surges. Coastal flooding events are becoming increasingly common as sea levels rise, with huge economic impacts on the region. Map Source: Source: Virginia Department of Emergency Management, Commonwealth of Virginia Storm Surge Inundation Maps.

This is the the week the Trump administration may announce their intentions to stay or abandon the Paris climate agreement. There’s some indication that Trump may actually be getting cold feet about abandoning the agreement. However, given the other moves the administration has already made, stating they’re sticking with the agreement may just be window dressing, as reversing Obama’s Clean Power Plan likely makes it impossible that the U.S. could actually meet the agreed upon levels of greenhouse gas reductions. With an administration full of climate-change deniers, it may not seem like there’s a lot of long-term hope that the U.S. will be a meaningful player in trying to mitigate the worst potential climate-change scenarios. However, there is hope…

The New York Times had a great piece yesterday about the Norfolk, Virginia area, and the potential impacts of climate change. What makes the piece wonderful is that it localizes the impacts of climate change and shows how it’s already changing people’s lives. Norfolk, like most coastal cities, is likely to be heavily impacted by climate change and the resultant sea-level rise in coming decades. In the case of Norfolk, however, those impacts have already arrived. Sea-level rises, coupled with sinking coastal land overall in the area, means that the relative sea-level is now 18 inches higher than it was at the start of the 20th century. As the story notes, locals have become accustomed to learning the “dry” spots for parking their cars, avoiding parking in areas where wind-blown tides may bring water inland. The impacts go far beyond the minor inconvenience of finding a dry parking spot, however.

As stated in the New York Times piece, Elisa Staton bought a house in the Larchmont-Edgewater area of Norfolk in 2005.  There were never any records that it had been flooded. Her flood insurance was reasonable, and although the house was within the 100-year flood zone, she wasn’t worried. In the last 10 years, her house has twice flooded. Her flood insurance rates skyrocketed, and the house she purchased for $320,000 was worth perhaps half of that original value. The story notes that flood insurance premiums are rising by as much as 25% a year, and that for every $500 annual increase in flood insurance cost, the value of a house goes down by about $10,000. Short-term remedies include “re-purposing” lower-level rooms to “low value storage space”…in effect reducing the habitability of lower-level rooms in order to get breaks on insurance premiums. Longer-term remedies typically involving raising the house and allowing for increasingly frequent coastal flood waters to flow under the habitable space of a home.  However, even those measures are likely doomed to fail, as relative sea levels in the area may rise by an astounding 6 feet by 2100.

So why did I say there’s some hope regarding climate change, after pointing out the damage Trumps administration has done to U.S. efforts to mitigate greenhouse gases? The current administration may be completely inept on climate change issues, but eventually, basic economics is going to force the hand of government.  The Norfolk story quantifies economic impacts for just one small coastal area in the U.S. In 2008, Norfolk hired a Dutch team (a country well-versed in dealing with coastal flooding and inundation) to develop a climate-change adaptation plan for the city. The price tag? At least $1 billion. That “100-year flood plain” that Elisa Staton’s house was found, where 2 coastal inundation events have occurred in just the last 10 years?  There is over $1 trillion in property in 100-year coastal flood plains along the eastern seaboard of the U.S.  The story does a great job talking about insurance and other economic impacts as well.

Economics.  That’s why there’s hope. Politicians are too short-sighted. As politics has become more partisan in the United States, governing for the long-term welfare of the people has been replaced by governing for the next election cycle.  Climate change impacts? When the next election is a year or two away, climate change is the last thing D.C. politicians worry about.  At a local level however?  With coastal home prices plummeting in areas like Norfolk, you can certainly imagine that local politicians have to address climate change and the resultant economic impacts in their area.  Local residents who feel their livelihoods and homes threatened by climate change will demand it.

That’s where there’s some hope, in the local-level, aggregate response to the economic impacts of climate change. As stories like Norfolk’s become more and more common, the sheer economic impacts of climate change will have to be addressed at the larger state and national scales. Business interests increasingly recognize the devastating impacts climate change may have on their bottom dollar, and realize they can’t ignore the issue.  Our own Defense Department recognizes the threat of climate change to disrupting populations across the globe and introducing instability. At some point, D.C. politicians are going to have to follow suit.

 

Tracking Fed Science Agency Websites (hint…NOAA…you’re screwed)

This week social media outrage briefly focused it’s attention on the Bureau of Land Management, from within the Department of the Interior.  BLM manages a variety of Federal lands, mostly in 12 western states, including over 200 wilderness areas, 23 national monuments, and many lands for the management of grazing and mineral access. A “minor” change on the front page of the BLM’s website was noticed and publicized on social media.  Previously, the banner image was a pair of young people, backpacks on, gazing out across an open, wild landscape at sunset. A beautiful image, representative of some of the wild lands managed by BLM in the West. The replacement image?  A photo of a strip of a coal seam in a coal mine.  Woo-hoo…energy!! Money!  Environmental destruction!  Everything a Bureau of “land management” should be focusing on.

BLM isn’t alone in terms of having their website presence scrutinized since the Trump takeover in January.  The Environmental Protection Agency didn’t beat around the bush on their webpages...they simply eliminated any actual references to the word “science” on the page for the EPA Office of Science and Technology.  The USDA removed materials from their website that identified animal welfare threats. Much of the information on the Department of Energy’s website simply disappeared a couple of days after the inauguration.  It’s not paranoia that has had science-interests frantically copying over science data from Federal websites, given the possibility of that information simply disappearing.

Given the frantic activity and radical changes on Federal websites…Who will prosper and thrive? Who will wither and die?  Current website layouts offer some clues on who will likely be the winners and losers under the Trump administration:

WINNER — U.S. Geological Survey

WELL played, USGS, well played. USGS is a non-regulatory science agency within the Department of the Interior. Given the lack of regulatory responsibilities, they perhaps are less of a target than a group like the Environmental Protection Agency, but those wise souls aren’t taking any chances. Leadership and web gurus from the USGS are doing their best to ensure USGS survives…nay…THRIVES…under a Trump administration. The USGS has perhaps the widest range of scientific research in the Federal Government, including not only geologic research, but also research in hydrology, biodiversity, energy resources, ecosystems, and (gulp!)…climate.  Yes…they have a “Climate and Land Use” Mission Area that partially assesses the impacts of climate change.  How does a science agency that deals in climate change distract a Trump administration that has a laser-like focus on eliminating ANYTHING with the word “climate in it?

PUT A FREAKIN’ FIGHTER JET ON THE FRONT PAGE OF YOUR WEBSITE!!

Brilliant, USGS, brilliant. You may not have a DAMN thing to do with the military, or fighter jets, but by placing a completely irrelevant piece of military hardware on your front page, on the very day we’re bombing the hell out of Syria, you’ve secured your future under a testosterone-driven Trump administration.

USGS Website - Front Page

LOSER — National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

To whoever is manning the controls of the NOAA website…what the hell were you thinking?!?!? Have you not been paying attention to the rhetoric over the last several months? NOAA falls under the umbrella of the Department of Commerce, now led by billionaire (of course) Wilbur Ross.  Ross claimed during his confirmation hearings that he’d let “science be left to the scientists”.  However, he also is someone who has refused to attribute climate change to human beings.

In the bigger picture, even as head of Commerce and defacto head of NOAA, Ross’s opinions on climate change mean very little.  Cabinet members under the Trump administration haven’t exactly had a lot of sway with the boss, a man who prefers to go by his own “expertise” and gut instinct rather than listen to the people who actually are the experts. Even should Ross see the light and acknowledge the dire threat of climate change, NOAA…you’re completely screwed.  Brush up on your interview skills and start polishing that resume, NOAA personnel. With a front page like this, one that DARES to highlight recent climatic extremes…you’ll all be gone by the end of the year.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric (NOAA) Website Front Page

LOSER – U.S. Fish and Wildlife

Is the web guru at NOAA also running the US Fish and Wildlife website?  It’s pretty.  It has some birds…who doesn’t like birds?  They do get a FEW “Trump points” by having a screaming Bald Eagle on the right side of the image.  DAMN…that’s American patriotism right there!  But look at the rest of the USFWS front page.  A big banner on the top saying “Conserving the Nature of America”?  What the fuck?  USFWS, why don’t you just take the more direct route and all directly send in your resignation letters right now?

And having the first tab be “endangered species”?  If you’re going that route, you might as well take all the bird photos away from the banner and instead pop up a picture of Jim Kurth, the (acting) head of U.S. Fish and Wildlife. He’s the only thing “endangered” with a web page like this. I’d recommend a few changes to your website if ya’ all hope to survive, USFWS.  Keep the Eagle, but photoshop in a “Make America Great” hat.  Get rid of most of the birds, but keep the photo of the endangered Whooping Crane.  Then, on the left side of the banner, put in a photo of the hunting-happy Trump sons, showing them taking aim at the Whooping Crane. Better yet, make it an animated GIF, showing the Trump brothers killing the last Whooping Crane on the face of the planet, and thus freeing up the U.S. budget for more important things, like cruise missiles, border patrol guards, or hair tonic for Trump. Make those changes, and you MIGHT survive what is now a disaster of a website.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife - Website Front Page

WINNER – Environmental Protection Agency

The EPA, a winner under the Trump administration? Hear me out here.  Yes, there’s little doubt that environmental regulation is enemy number one for Trump, and with the EPA currently slated for at least a 25% cut and the loss of thousands of jobs.  There’s hope, EPA.  Keep on doing what you’re doing with your website, and I’d expect that cut to shrink substantially.

Yes, there’s no doubt Trump and environmental villain Scott Pruitt hate the environment with the same vehemence that the GOP hates Obama or Hillary.  But there’s one personality trait that “trumps” even that environmental hatred for Trump and Pruitt…pure ego and narcissism.   Touting Trump’s executive order on Energy Independence, right at the top of your home page? Sure, EPA, energy independence has NOTHING to do with your mission, but it’s a brilliant move, highlight a Trump action and playing to his ego.  Even better…placing a PICTURE of Scott Pruitt right at the top, along with a (admittedly completely bullshit) quote from the man.  Keep stroking their egos, EPA. For tiny-penis, insecure little men like Trump and Pruitt, it’s the best path to getting what you want.

EPA Website - Front Page

LOSER – Bureau of Land Management

NO!!  NO, BLM…what the hell!??! Why did you do it?!!?  You had it MADE!! Changing your banner to a photo of a giant band of coal?  The Trump administration’s obsession with the promotion of coal may be akin to a doctor giving a baby aspirin to a patient with Stage IV pancreatic cancer, but you RAN with that obsession and turned it into a social media headline.  The anger it generated from snowflake liberals (ahem…like myself)?  TOTALLY worth the angst, knowing that pissed off liberals means a happy Trump.

And…then you blew it.  Just this afternoon, I see you’ve replaced this god-awful, ugly photo of a hunk of coal with the second banner below, with a gorgeous photo of a guy enjoying  fly-fishing on a pristine mountain stream.  What…the…HELL!?!?!?  Those budget cuts in the original Trump budget? The cuts were COMPLETELY off the book once the coal photo was posted. Posting this crap, of a happy outdoorsman in nature?  Both you and your NOAA friends will have a lot of free time on your hands in the near future.

Bureau of Land Management - Website Front Page

Bureau of Land Management - Website Front Page

GOP House Passes Bill to Legislate Away Science

Endangered ScientistsSince the November elections, I have had exactly one day where my inner “chi” was restored to where it was before the election. I have a pretty damned low opinion about my fellow man as it is. That’s what happens when you’re a news junkie and you read about the stupidity and outright cruelty mankind displays on a constant basis. But last Friday, when the GOP imploded and TrumpCare spectacularly crashed, I felt temporarily at peace.

That peace was short-lived. I should have just stopped reading any news, there and then.  But alas, since Friday, the GOP seems to feel the need to reassert their testosterone-driven, fuck-the-truth, pedal-to-the-metal drive towards the destruction of our country.  Yes, there’s Russia-gate and the incredible corruption of a party more worried about elections than the country’s very survival.  There’s the blatant nepotism that flouts all traditional ethical standards in government, where we’re no longer bothering to pretend Trump’s family is playing a major role, and Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are being handed official government positions. There’s another potential effort to derail Obamacare.  But when you touch my science? You’ve gone too fucking far, GOP.

The House today voted on a bill laughably called the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act.  Or just “HONEST” for short.  What the hell?  Why not? Why not call it that? The GOP has a constituency comprised of ignorant rednecks who believe anything they’re spoon-fed, so why NOT go ahead and label something corrupt and dishonest as “honest”?  White is black, black is white, up is down, who the hell cares any more?  The bill claims to reign in an “out-of-control administrative state” that (GASP!!!) DARES to use actual science in their decision-making.  SCIENCE!?!?!? Using it to actually make informed, logical decisions!??!?  SCREW THAT!!  We can’t have those uppity scientific experts telling us what to do!!!

Lamar Smith, laughably the head of the House’s Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, even dared to give a lecture about how to conduct science while touting this tremendous accomplishment:

“The days of ‘trust-me’ science are over. In our modern information age, federal regulations should be based only on data that is available for every American to see and that can be subjected to independent review,” he said. “That’s called the scientific method.”

Yeah, who wants to trust science, when you have corrupt, ignorant politicians like Smith to TELL us what the truth is?  The “scientific method” evidently is no longer based on objective analysis. It’s no longer based on empirical evidenced to support a theory.  The “Scientific Method” under Trump and the complicit GOP is to squeeze the life out of the science itself, and replace it with political ideology. The “Scientific Method” under the GOP is to replace “science” with “corporate profit” when making any kind of regulatory decision.

The GOP’s utter disdain for science, for TRUTH, for INTEGRITY, has become to be so absolute that we’re becoming desensitized to it.  The ignorance, the cruelty, the lack of awareness of what MADE America what it is…we’re becoming numb to it all. With the constant stream of absolutely ridiculous news coming out of Washington, stories such as this one get lost in the noise, yet it’s legislation like this that poses the greatest threat to our prosperity and well-being.  What makes it so devious is the presentation of the bill, as opposed to the content.  The concept that’s dishonestly pushed by Smith and others in the GOP? That we’re NOT using open, honest science in making decisions, and legislation such as this is needed to officially restrict what information is used to support regulation.

In reality?  Science is science.  It’s peer-reviewed by fellow experts in a process that ensures a self-regulation of the results. Scientists have egos!  Trust me, for many scientists there’s nothing more they love than to tear down the work of another scientist. If the science itself isn’t valid?  There will be a reckoning, from those with an actual understanding of the science.  If the science isn’t valid, it will collapse under the immense weight of the scrutiny it receives from others in the field.

This bill isn’t meant to make science more open and “honest”. SCIENCE BY DEFINITION IS OPEN AND HONEST.  This bill is meant to strangle federal science. This bill is meant to inhibit the use of science in driving regulation. It’s meant to throw so much red-tape in the regulatory process that it becomes effectively impossible for an agency like the EPA to regulate industry.

Ivanka Trump’s new “official” role?  Confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court? Another attempt to replace Obamacare?  Aggravating, damaging in the short term, but it’s legislative efforts such as this, proposed by WEAK, insecure, foolish little men like Lamar Smith that are the the longer-term danger.

“Weakness is what brings ignorance, cheapness, racism, homophobia, desperation, cruelty, brutality, all these things that will keep a society chained to the ground, one foot nailed to the floor”. – Henry Rollins

Hearing Neil deGrasse Tyson — Science in today’s world

Neil deGrasse Tyson - Sioux Falls, SD

Neil deGrasse Tyson, speaking at the Boe Forum at Augustana University in Sioux Falls. All science related of course, getting sidetracked on some amusing other issues at times, but a great speech. My biggest takeaway…the need to restore humanity’s sense of wonder about the universe (and our own world).

We had the GREAT pleasure last night to hear Neil deGrasse Tyson speak at the “Boe Forum” at Augustana University in Sioux Falls.The Boe Forum on Public Affairs was founded in 1995, with a goal “to provide access to individuals who can address events, issues or problems of worldwide or national concern and of broad public interest.”  They’ve certainly had some wonderful speakers (and some less wonderful speakers…think Newt Gingrich and Rudy Guiliani) over the years. They’ve managed to draw some very big names, including Colin Powell, Mikhail Gorbachev, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, Desmond Tutu, Vicente Fox, Sandra Day O’Connor, Pervez Musharraf, and Madeline Albright. Augustana University has just opened their new “Froiland Science Complex”, and said they wanted a “moonshot” science speaker to coincide with opening of that science center.  They certainly succeeded by managing to draw Neil deGrasse Tyson to Sioux Falls.

Tyson ended up talking for two hours, and while my son was getting a wee bit antsy towards the end, I must say that it was a very engaging, surprisingly funny, and interesting talk that kept me very engaged the entire time. There were a few things that surprised me a bit, things I disagreed with.  Given today’s political climate and how it’s affecting science, I was hoping for more content on the intersection of the two, but overall it was a terrific talk.  Some of the takeaways for me:

1968 – 1972 – Birth of the Environmental Movement — The highlight of the talk to me was a section where he specifically talked about the period of 1968 to 1972 and the profound effect it had on humanity and our country.  Apollo 8 was the first mission to orbit the moon, in 1968. As they rounded the moon, astronaut William Anders took the iconic “EarthRise” photo (bottom of this post), looking across the moon’s surface back at Earth.  The next year we landed on the moon. As Tyson noted, these events totally changed humanity and how we view our own planet.  Some very simple observations noted how little we understood our earth up to that point.  He showed a photo from Star Trek, of the Enterprise orbiting the Earth. Their depiction of Earth had the continents, the oceans…but no clouds!  Tyson gave other examples of artwork and even scientific renderings of Earth up to that point, and none of them portrayed the clouds that are always present! The sense of wonder during the space race, the first looks at our planet from space…it changed how we viewed our planet.  In the period from 1968 to 1972, you thus ended up with the establishment of the first Earth Day. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was founded.  We started cleaning up our air, our water.  We noticed the massive decline in our national symbol, the Bald Eagle, and banned DDT to save the species (a resounding success!).  The Endangered Species Act was founded in 1973.  This period STARTED the environmental movement.

Reinvigorating interest in science — The take-home point from the examination of the 1968-1972 period?  All that sense of wonder…that feeling that our Earth is a special place…that’s GONE, or at least incredibly diminished right now. Many people today simply can’t see past their own short-term guilty pleasures to even THINK about the future.  At the end of Tyson’s talk, he had a question-and-answer period. One of the questions was related to these points, and how we can get back to those days of the 1960s and 1970s where environmental conservation, where caring about our planet, really was part of the American consciousness. The answer from Tyson wasn’t related to politics, it wasn’t related to things like the March for Science coming up on April 22nd, it wasn’t related to need for better PR.  No, the answer was much more basic, and was rooted in k-12 education. We just don’t value science as much as we should in those formative years. As Tyson stated, what’s going to end up giving us a kick in the butt isn’t just a change in k-12 education, but a realization that we’re losing our economic competitiveness.  With education driven not by national-scale policy but local and state policy, the States that embrace science and technological innovation, starting in k-12, are the ones that will be competitive for industries that drive our economy. Given how much of a focus their is in this country right now on economics, money, and growth, the cynical side of me believes that it will be economic competitiveness that will end up re-igniting the interest and science and innovation, rather than any pure desire to invest in science for science’s sake.

Star Trek depiction of Earth

Prior to the famed “EarthRise” photo from 1968 and our landing on the moon a year later, humanity had little awareness of how to even portray our Earth. As Tyson noted, up until the late 1960s and the space race, this was a typical depiction of Earth (from the original Star Trek) series. Continents…check! Water…check!! Atmosphere, clouds, and weather…something’s missing! The space race had a profound impact on the way humanity viewed our own planet

Intersection of Science, Culture, and Politics — Speaking of the March on Science on April 22nd, one of the questions he received was about scientists and their role in activities such as this. Overall for the night, he really avoided politics, although there were a few timely, light jabs thrown in.  When the audience member asked this question, I thought we might finally hear his thoughts on the impact of politics on science right now. He did touch on that intersection, but it was different than I was expecting. He’s an educator, some may view him as an entertainer, but at his heart, he’s a scientist through-and-through.  His answer began by saying he was on the fence, that in his own mind, he’s still trying to decide how scientists should react in this kind of political environment.  But for the March itself, he said what he really hoped was that such an event wouldn’t be necessary.  As he hammered home all night long, science isn’t political.  Science provides its own truths, as as he stated, it doesn’t really give a damn what you think about it, what your personal, cultural, or political beliefs are.  In short, you can tell that what he’d like to have happen is that the science would speak for itself, that the knowledge and understanding we produce would stand on its own, and that humanity would return to a time where we’d base our decisions on that knowledge.  You can tell he’s struggling a bit with the issue, and is likely as bewildered as many of the rest of us as to how truth, how fact, are being ignored in the face of cultural, political, and ideological attacks. He definitely didn’t seem to have a clear answer on how scientists respond.

Human ego and science — Tyson ended his talk with a theme similar to his discussion of the 1968-1972 period, and its effect on humanity.  He talked about the “Pale Blue Dot” images, the first from Voyager One in 1990, where the instrument looked backed towards Earth and took an image representing our planet as tiny, pale blue dot in a sea of stars and emptiness.  The Cassini satellite studying Saturn provided a similar view more recently, with a 2013 image that shows Earth as a tiny blue dot hiding in the shadows below the foreground image of Saturn and its rings. The end of the talk itself was a reading of material from Carl Sagan, from his 1994 book “Pale Blue Dot”.  The following summarizes that material (a bit revised, from a talk Sagan gave that year):

We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

 

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

 

To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

"Pale Blue Dot", Cassini

‘Version 2″ of the Pale Blue Dot photo, if you will. This is from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn, looking back at Earth (the small dot in the bottom right).

Religion and Science — Tyson touched on topics related to the Sagan reference all night long. In the overall scheme of the universe, we’re insignificant. We’re not “special”.  At one point he listed the 5 most common elements in the Universe.  He then listed the most common elements in a human body. The list is identical, with the exception of helium (given it’s pretty much non-reactive, it doesn’t form elements found in the human body).  The point he makes…we’re just “stardust”, made up of the same common elements found throughout the universe.  On a night when he would occasionally brush up against the edge of talking in depth about the intersection of culture, politics, and science, but never really dive into the deep end of that pool, this may have been the most “controversial” part of the talk (particularly given that the talk was at a University associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and was speaking in very “red” South Dakota). When touching on politics or culture, you can tell he tries very hard to avoid offending anyone, and he barely mentioned religion.  But as I listened to this part of the discussion, I did wonder what some of the more religious people in the room were thinking.  We’re not “special“.  We’re almost certainly not alone in the Universe, given that we’re made up of the same material as is found throughout the rest of the Universe. We live in a country, however, where a huge swath of the population is unable to separate the science, even the empirical world staring them in the face, from their religion.  In the end its a personal ideology that ends up driving the behavior and interactions of so many Americans, science (and reality!) be damned.  Overall for the night, in what would be interpreted to be a tough cultural and political setting for a science purist like Tyson, he did a great job walking the fine line of informing, without offending.

If you ever get a chance to see Tyson speak, it’s well worth your time.  He’s a wonderful speaker, with a rare ability for a scientist…he knows how to connect with people.

Apollo 8, William Anders' "Earthrise"

The iconic “Earthrise” photo, taken by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders on Christmas Eve, 1968.

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