Tag Archives: environment

Science in a Postmodern Age

by Matt McKinnon


I am not a scientist.

Just like many prominent, mostly Republican, politicians responding to the issue of climate change—trying their best to refrain from losing votes from their conservative constituencies while not coming across as being completely out of touch with the modern world—I am not a scientist.

Of course, if you ask most people who are in fact scientists, then somewhere around 87% of them agree that climate change is real and that it is mostly due to human activity (or at least if you ask those scientists who are members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as reported by the Pew Research Center).


Then again, if you ask average Americans (the ones who are not scientists), then only about 50% think that human activity is the largest cause of climate change.

That’s quite a disparity (37 points), especially since getting 87% of scientists to agree on anything is not all that easy and arguably represents what we could call a scientific consensus.

This, of course, provides much fodder for comedians like Bill Maher and Jon Stewart as well as many liberals and progressives, who have come to see the problem of science and a skeptical public as a characteristic of contemporary American conservatism.


And this characterization is buttressed by the even more overwhelming discrepancy between the public and scientists on the question of evolution. A 2009 study by Pew found that only 54% of the public believe in evolution (22% of whom believe that it was guided by a supreme being) versus 95% of scientists (where only 8% believe it to be guided by a supernatural power). And that more recent 2014 Pew study bumped the public percentage up to 65% and the scientific consensus up to 98%.

That’s a gap of 33 points, a bit less than the 37 points on the issue of climate change. Sure there’s something to be said for the idea that contemporary conservatism is at odds with science on some fundamental issues.

But not so fast.

For while there is a large discrepancy between scientists and the American public on these core conservative questions, there is also a large and seemingly growing discrepancy between the public and science on issues that cross political lines, or that could even be considered liberal issues.


Take the recent controversy about immunizations.

Just as with climate change and evolution, a large majority of scientists not only think that they are safe and effective, but also think that certain immunizations should be mandatory for participation in the wider society. That same 2014 Pew study found that 86% of scientists think immunizations should be mandatory, compared to 68% of the public.

And the very liberal left is often just as vocal as the conservative right on this issue, with folks like Jenny McCarthy who has claimed that her son’s autism was the result of immunizations despite clear scientific evidence that has debunked any link. At least one study by Yale law professor Dan Kahan shows that those who fear childhood immunizations are pretty much split between liberals and conservatives.


Still, with an 18-point gap between scientists and the public on this issue, that leaves a lot of progressives seemingly in the same position as those conservatives denying the role of human activity in climate change.

Just as interesting, however, is the discrepancy between scientists and the public on building more nuclear power plants—a gap that is greater (20 points) though scientific opinion is less certain. Pew found that 45% of the public favors more nuclear power compared to 65% of scientists.

But what is even more intriguing is that all of these gaps between scientific consensus and public opinion are far less than the discrepancy that exists on the issue of biomedical science, from the use of pesticides to animal testing and the most controversial: genetically modified organisms (GMOs).


That same Pew study found that a whopping 88% of scientists believe that it is safe to eat genetically modified foods, a larger consensus than agree on human activity and climate change, compared to public opinion, which languishes very far back at 37% (a disparity of 51%!).

And 68% of those scientists agree that it is safe to eat foods grown with pesticides, compared to 28% of the public (a gap of 40 points).

But you won’t find many liberal politicians wading publicly into this issue, championing the views of science over a skeptical public. Nor will you find much sympathy from those comedians either.


It seems that when the proverbial shoe is on the other foot, then it is either not problematic that so many plain old folks diverge from scientific opinion, or there is in fact good reason for their skepticism.

Which brings me to my point about science in a postmodern age. For while it is true that there are good reasons to be skeptical of the science on the use of pesticides and GMOs, as well as some of these other issues, the problem is: who decides when to be skeptical and how skeptical we should be?


That is the problem of postmodernism, which strives for a leveling of discourse and has more than a bit of anti-clerical skepticism about it. For if postmodernism teaches us anything it’s that the certitude of reason in the modern age is anything but certain. And while this makes for fun philosophical frolicking by folks like Heidegger, Foucoult, and Habbermas, it is problematic for science, which relies completely on the intuition that reason and observation are the only certain means of discovery we have.

But in a postmodern age, nothing is certain, and nothing is beyond reproach—not the government, or business, or think tanks, or even institutions of higher learning. Not scientific studies or scientists or even science itself. Indeed, not even reason for that matter.


The moorings of the modern era in reason have become unmoored to some extent in our postmodern culture. And this, more than anything else, explains the large gaps on many issues between scientific opinion and that of the public.

And in the interest of full disclosure: I believe human activity is causing climate change and that immunizations are safe and should be required but I am very skeptical of the use of pesticides and eating GMOs.

But what do I know? I’m not a scientist.

Chew on This: The Ethics of Carnivory

by Matt McKinnon


Let me start by being perfectly clear: I like meat. No, I love meat. And I eat my fair share of it. As the one who does most of the cooking for my wife and three sons, I cook a lot of it. Almost every night in fact.

Meat. Starch. Vegetable.

Just like most every meal my mother cooked us when I was growing up.

And aside from a brief foray into vegetarianism when I fancied myself a Buddhist monk, or the year I tried to abstain from meat during Ramadan when I was attempting to be a Muslim, or the meatless and fast days I put my wife through whilst contemplating becoming a Russian Orthodox priest, I have always been a meat-eater.

Tyrannosaurus Rex ain’t got nothin’ on me to be sure.

Oh, I have often wished I was a vegetarian, mostly for the health benefits — cooking and then consuming a rather large meal of fried animal muscles and skin and fat, only to push myself away from the table at the end of the engorging, and bemoaning out loud (much to the annoyance of my wife), “Sickness and death. Nothing but sickness and death.”

But also in view of the way we treat the animals we eventually consume. Especially after watching a documentary or news report on the latest scandal within our industrialized food industry.


I just have never been able to commit to it, and I don’t intend to do so now.

To be honest, I have never been all that convinced by the moral argument against killing and eating other animals, finding it the height, in fact, of anthropocentric thought. After all, nature, as Tennyson reminds us, is “red in tooth and claw,” and no other species of animal that I am aware of refrains from killing and consuming other animals based on moral principles.

There is thus a disconnect from nature in the moral argument against eating animals. A version, I think, of Hume’s Guillotine whereby normative claims (what ought to be the case) are made based on positive premises (what is the case). The idea that we ought not to eat animals has absolutely no basis in observable nature. And in fact, the opposite may be true: We evolved to the point of having such large brains able to come up with ideas like vegetarianism and the is/ought problem as a direct result of the large amounts of protein our pre-homo sapiens ancestors got by virtue of eating meat—from eating other animals.


But arguments for or against vegetarianism aside, the manner in which we treat the animals that we eat is beyond unsettling. It is downright inhumane and, I would argue, unnatural (thus steering clear of my own is/ought dilemma).

As a student of religion, I am aware of and even sympathetic to religious convictions about why humans are superior to other animals. Whether we humans have a “soul” and are made in the image of God, or whether we humans are in a better position to reach enlightenment, or whether we humans are just better adapted to do things other animals cannot, I can accept the idea that, for the most part, we are at the top of the food chain, and thus are in the same position to cows and chickens and pigs as grizzly bears are to salmon or chickens are to bugs and worms or pigs are to, well, absolutely anything that wanders into their pen.


As humans, we define ourselves, for better or worse, in relation to the rest of nature and the rest of the animal kingdom, and we define ourselves, for the most part, as superior to it.

Okay, that’s all well and good (though it is also the cause of the environmental destruction we have wrought over the past few hundred years).

So we are at the top of the food chain and are, using nature as our model, free to kill and cook and eat whatever we find tasty and/or nourishing.

I get that: For Christians, all other animals are not created in the image of God and, a few crazy cat people notwithstanding, are not endowed with the same inalienable rights that humans are. Or for Buddhists, who forbid the killing of animals by their adherents but nonetheless allow them to eat animals that someone else (presumably a non-Buddhist) has killed, and for whom those other (non-human) sentient beings are not in the same position as humans to work out their karma and achieve enlightenment in this lifetime. Or even for scientific materialists, who merely see this behavior as that of a dominant species in a given food chain.

But what I don’t get, and what I don’t think I have ever come across, is a discussion of how it must feel to be one of those animals unfortunate enough to be trapped in the middle of our industrial food complex.


For that, I would argue, is where the real issue lies.

Those who would argue for human superiority often go too far in distinguishing us from the rest of the animal kingdom, based upon our possession of souls, or higher-order reasoning, or what have you. But likewise those who would argue against the eating of other animals go too far in asserting an egalitarianism, an equality, that simply does not exist or is not respected anywhere else in nature.

But what rarely gets discussed in arguments about the superiority of humans is what we sentient beings all hold in common: Sentience itself. The ability to feel. And more to the point: The ability to feel pain.

After all, do we really think that animals, while not possessing the same quality or degree of reason and consciousness that we do, therefore do not feel pain? Or feel it any less or differently than we do? Indeed, science tells us that animals do feel stress—direct evidence I would argue that they do in fact feel, and process sensations, in a similar manner to humans.

But why then does it not matter that the vast majority of animals that we end up eating live lives where their pain and discomfort is not taken seriously? And if it does matter, why then do the vast majority of us continue to support such practices by turning a blind eye, effectively supporting the system and perpetuating the problem?


Well, the biggest reason is probably the cost of buying organic meat in the form of grass-fed cattle and free-range chickens. Availability is also an issue. And yet, most of us are not up in arms about any of this, instead seeking out the weekly specials on flank steak or chicken wings or baby back ribs, oblivious at best and unsympathetic at worst to the plight of those animals’ lives before we eat them. Complicit just the same.

Indeed, why is it ever alright to participate in this brutality by excusing it, supporting it, or simply ignoring it?

Thus it seems to me that this is the important and defining issue: Not lauding ourselves over the rest of the animal kingdom as possessing an inherent right to treat our food source any old way we choose. But neither in simply equating the value of a human life to be the same as that of any and every other animal in nature. Most of us simply don’t equate the lives of other animals with that of humans.

But both positions seem wrongheaded to me.

The issue is not whether or by what right we eat animals but how we treat them before we eat them. The solution, I contend, is simply to treat animals in a way that is conducive to a natural life—to the manner in which they would live naturally if they were not part of an industrialized food factory (the way, arguably, humans have done since we domesticated these animals for our own consumption thousands of years ago). Whatever it costs in terms of higher prices or lower profits.

And then eat them. Presumably with a smile on their faces as well as on ours.


Earth Day Is a Sham

by Matt McKinnon


I am very fond of the earth. I live here, and have now for almost five decades. It’s the only home I have ever known, and I plan on retiring here and someday giving back to the earth by, well, decomposing and becoming dirt.

Ashes to ashes and all that.

I also love to garden. I love the feel of dirt between my fingers: the rich, dark stardust that collected after the Big Bang and has nourished the origin and descent of our species, of all species, since the beginning of life.

In fact, my favorite part of gardening is not the planting, which is a close second. Or the harvesting, though I enjoy the fruits of my garden immeasurably. No, my favorite part is composting: Meticulously collecting all the bits and scraps from the kitchen as well as the garden to supply generous amounts of “greens” for nitrogen, shredding junk mail (and when I taught face-to-face, unclaimed papers) to add the proper amount of “browns” for carbon, assembling them all in my composter, and religiously turning and stirring to get the desired result of rich, black, humus.


The good stuff.

(The sweet smell of a properly-proportioned compost pile is actually quite intoxicating.)

So my favorite part of gardening is not just sticking my hands in the earth, but making it.

I have always loved the earth, literally, for as long as I can remember. One of my first memories is getting home from church on Easter Sunday, brightly arrayed in my new pastel-colored Easter suit, and making a mad dash for the dirt, new plastic bulldozer in hand to play in my beloved earth.

I must have been maybe five years old.

And all through my childhood the place my friends and I played most regularly was a lower, barren part of my neighbor’s backyard that we endearingly called “down in the dirt.” As in: “I’ll be back later mom; we’re going down in the dirt.”

And when my wife was a teacher, I would happily assist her in making the annual “Earth Day Cake,” complete with crushed Oreos and gummy worms. Not too dissimilar from the mud pies I used to make in my own backyard.

So it is with much pain and anguish that I proclaim Earth Day to be a sham. A fraud. A ruse. Perpetrated by both well-meaning environmentalists (like myself) and corporate interests with ulterior motives.


The problem, of course, is not the idea or intent: Celebrating the earth that sustains all that we are, as well as raising awareness of exactly what we humans are doing to our planet.

No, the problem is that Earth Day, far from being a rousing success, has actually been an abject failure.

Though this, of course, depends on how you look at it.

From a PR perspective (is there any other where public policy is concerned), Earth Day has been wildly successful. First proposed in 1969 by peace activist John McConnell to honor the earth as well as peace, and celebrated annually on April 22nd, Earth Day has grown from its initial celebration mostly in schools and colleges across the United States to become the largest secular holiday in the world, celebrated by some one billion people in over 192 countries.

But from a practical perspective, the movement has not had the desired effect of meaningfully arresting the manner in which we are still destroying the earth. Even more so than in 1970. Heck, it hasn’t even managed to convince most Americans that we are experiencing an ecological crisis.

Though perhaps it makes us feel better about it, at least one day a year.

And therein is the problem. Couched in terminology of honoring the earth, and even cleaning it up a bit, Earth Day domesticates what is arguably the greatest catastrophe to ever befall humanity: the impending collapse of an environment that is hospitable to human survival.

There have, of course, been other extinction events before—five in fact, with the largest being the “Great Dying” (or Permian-Triassic extinction event for all those biogeeks out there), some 252 million years ago, which resulted in the extinction of an estimated 90% of all species. The most famous, arguably, is the last major extinction, the Cretacious-Paleogene extinction event around 66 million years ago that resulted in the loss of 75% of all species, including everyone’s favorite—all those non-avian dinosaurs. This of course was followed by the rise of mammals (and birds) as the dominant land vertebrates. Which has ultimately led us to the precipice of a sixth extinction event.


Many scientists (PBS reports 70% of all biologists) predict that we are now in the beginning of another extinction event, the first (and probably last) ever to be caused by humans. (The same humans, incidentally, who celebrate Earth Day every year.) The result of this current extinction may compete in magnitude with the Great Dying, resulting in the extinction of nearly 90% of all living species. And potentially in a much quicker manner than the previous five extinction events of the past.

Of course, the data is not conclusive and the consensus is not unanimous, as it rarely is in science, or anything else for that matter.

But what is clear is that, regardless of what the population believes about “climate change” or “global warming,” we humans have polluted and destroyed parts of the earth to the extent that they may never recover—at least not in terms of being able to support life as we know it. (And by that I mean human life as well as those things that support human life.)

More so than the recent coal ash spills in our own neighborhood or the release of toxic chemicals in West Virginia, the oceans are perhaps the best example of how much humans have destroyed and are continuing to destroy the earth’s environment.


Floating islands of trash in the Pacific Gyre.

So let’s be clear in a manner that climate change or global warming cannot: the oceans are dying at an alarming rate. And by “dying” I don’t mean metaphorically. I mean literally. As in, studies suggest that all of the world’s corals may be extinct by the end of this century due to the acidification of the oceans caused mostly by the carbon dioxide emissions from human activity. And once the oceans die, well, human survival becomes more than a little tenuous.

And yet instead of debating what best to do about the great damage we have already caused to the earth, we are instead debating how to regulate fracking (if at all), whether to institute a “carbon tax,” and whether or not to build a pipeline from the oil sands in Canada to refineries in the United States. Rest assured: such debates are moot. For if we succeed in burning all of the oil available in those sands as well as the natural gas and coal we extract from the ground here in the US, then our fate is sealed. Along with that of anywhere upwards of 90% of the species who inhabit earth along with us.

6Oh, I almost forgot:

Have a Happy Earth Day.


Environmentalism and the Future

by Matt McKinnon

Let me begin by stating that I consider myself an environmentalist.  I recycle almost religiously.  I compost obsessively.  I keep the thermostat low in winter and high in summer.  I try to limit how much I drive, but as the chauffeur for my three school-age sons, this is quite difficult.  I support environmental causes and organizations when I can, having been a member of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society.

1I find the arguments of the Climate Change deniers uninformed at best and disingenuous at worst.  Likewise, the idea of certain religious conservatives that it is hubris to believe that humans can have such a large effect on God’s creation strikes me as theologically silly and even dishonest.  And while I understand and even sympathize with the concerns of those folks whose businesses and livelihoods are tied to our current fossil-fuel addiction, I find their arguments that economic interests should override environmental concerns to be lacking in both ethics and basic forethought.

That being said, I have lately begun to ponder not just the ultimate intentions and goals of the environmental movement, but the very future of our planet.

Earth and atmospheric scientists tell us that the earth’s temperature is increasing, most probably as a result of human activity.  And that even if we severely limited that activity (which we are almost certainly not going to do anytime soon), the consequences are going to be dire: rising temperatures will lead to more severe storms, melting polar ice caps, melting permafrost (which in turn will lead to the release of even more carbon dioxide, increasing the warming), rising ocean levels, lowering of the oceans’ ph levels (resulting in the extinction of the coral reefs), devastating floods in some places along with crippling droughts in others.

2And according to a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by 2100 (less than 100 years) 25% of all species of plants and land animals may be extinct.

Basically, our not-too-distant future may be an earth that cannot support human life.

Now, in my more misanthropic moments, I have allowed myself to indulge in the idea that this is exactly what the earth needs.  That this in fact should be the goal of any true environmental concern: the extinction of humanity.  For only then does the earth as a planet capable of supporting other life stand a chance.  (After all, the “environment” will survive without life, though it won’t be an especially nice place to visit, much less inhabit, especially for a human.)

3And a good case can be made that humans have been destroying the environment in asymmetrical and irrevocable ways since at least the Neolithic Age when we moved from hunter and gatherer culture to the domestication of plants and animals along with sustained agriculture.  Humans have been damaging the environment ever since.  (Unlike the beaver, as only one example of a “keystone species,” whose effect on the environment in dam building has an overwhelming positive and beneficial impact on countless other species as well as the environment itself.)

4So unless we’re seriously considering a conservation movement that takes us back to the Paleolithic Era instead of simply reducing our current use and misuse of the earth, then we’re really just putting off the inevitable.

But all that being said, whatever the state of our not-too-distant future, the inevitability of the “distant future” is undeniable—for humans, as well as beavers and all plants and animals, and ultimately the earth itself.  For the earth, like all of its living inhabitants, has a finite future.

Around 7.5 billion years or so is a reasonable estimate.  And then it will most probably be absorbed in the sun, which will have swollen into a red giant.

5(Unless, as some scientists predict, the Milky Way collides with the Andromeda galaxy, resulting in cataclysmic effects that cannot be predicted.)

At best, however, this future only includes the possibility of earth supporting life for another billion years or so.  For by then, the increase in the sun’s brightening will have evaporated all of the oceans.

6Of course, long before that, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (ironically enough) will have diminished well below the quantity needed to support plant life, destroying the food chain and causing the extinction of all animal species as well.

And while that’s not good news, the worse news is that humans will have been removed from the equation long before the last holdouts of carbon-based life-forms eventually capitulate.

(Ok, so some microbes may be able to withstand the dry inhospitable conditions of desert earth, but seriously, who cares about the survival of microbes?)

Now if we’re optimistic about all of this (irony intended), the best-case scenario is for an earth that is able to support life as we know it for at most another half billion more years.  (Though this may be a stretch.)  And while that seems like a really long time, we should consider that the earth has already been inhabited for just over 3 and a half billion years.

So having only a half billion years left is sort of like trying to enjoy the last afternoon of a four-day vacation.


Enjoy the rest of your day.

Online Learning: Accidentally Green

This is where I admit I’m a little bit of a green freak. I use an electric lawn mower, an electric weed eater, and an electric leaf blower at my house, partly because they’re less expensive to fuel and maintain, but mostly because it allows me to avoid the wasted fossil fuels and absurd emissions of small gasoline engines. I can’t afford an electric car on an academic’s salary, but I did manage to find an electric scooter that I could afford, and I ride it to work any time the weather’s not too horrible…and as an old motorcycle lover and bicycle nut, I have a ridiculously liberal definition of “not too horrible” for riding. So yeah. Green freak. That’s me. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.When I first started working with the BLS Program in 2004, our primary goal was not to provide a green method of delivering our classes. In fact, it was the least of our considerations. We were mostly concerned with meeting the needs of the nontraditional students who wanted to complete a bachelor’s degree, but didn’t have the leisure to make it to regularly-scheduled classes on campus. The people we thought about were working 8-to-5 and weren’t served by the evening offerings on campus. Or they were working parents and couldn’t afford childcare to go to class. Or maybe they worked in some field with unpredictable hours, such as emergency services, or the medical field, or the airline industry, or even the good old restaurant business (and we have since had students in all of those fields). Whatever they were doing to pay the mortgage and support their children, we wanted to make classes that they could complete from home, in the hours they could manage to carve out of their schedules. From what I hear from our students, I think we’ve been pretty successful at that goal.

What we didn’t plan was the myriad ways in which our online classes are so much more resource-conserving than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. Here are a few that come to mind.

No Driving — Instead of having each of our students burn a few gallons of gasoline getting to class (a lot of them are pretty far from campus), we use a few watts of electricity to deliver their classes electronically. They can participate in their classes anywhere they can get online, whether that’s at home, at work on a quiet night shift, at their favorite coffee shop, or from their hotel room while they’re traveling on business. It goes even further than that, because many of our faculty also teach their classes from home. Given that we have faculty who live in the Triangle, in Charlotte, and even out of state, that adds up to a lot of driving avoided by teaching and taking classes online.

No Buildings — We don’t need big spaces to gather faculty and students in the same room, so we don’t have to spend a bunch of money and resources building, heating, cooling, and lighting classroom buildings. That means fewer buildings and more green space for everyone, and it adds up to a substantial savings in terms of resource usage. Even with smart climate-control systems, classroom buildings take a vast amount of energy to heat and cool, and because of their scale, they have to be heated and cooled around the clock, even at night when no one’s around. By delivering our classes online to our students, we help reduce the pressure to build and maintain more resource-hogging classroom space. In fact, an online class full of students using their laptops at home, even if they leave them on all the time, still uses less electricity than it takes just to run the nighttime security lighting in a classroom building.

No Paper — Using online discussion boards, and writing, receiving, critiquing, and grading essays online saves reams of paper (literally) for each online class. My writing-intensive class has ten discussion boards, a prospectus, an essay, and a final revision. With twenty-five students in that class, assuming one full page each for the discussion boards, two pages for the prospectus, and ten pages each for the essay and revision, that’s (*does some math*) eight hundred pages that aren’t getting printed. Add in a syllabus that doesn’t have to get printed and handed out to the class, and that one 25-student online class has saved two whole reams of paper. Multiply that by the twenty-four classes we are offering this semester, and that’s a nice, heavy case of paper that isn’t getting deforested, pulped, packaged, shipped, and most likely ending up in a landfill somewhere at the end of it all.

So, less driving, less construction, less heating and cooling, and less paper. As a green freak, I gotta say that’s not too shabby as an accidental side effect. And here we were just trying to make it easier for you to go to class in your pajamas!