Monday, July 30, 2007

Blog-o-mat: Continuing continuing service

To the reader,
I'm pleased and impressed by the responses I've read to previous questions. I'm glad to see such heart-felt and articulate comments. Since I'm still up to my eyeballs in journal articles and CRS reports, I'll throw out a few more questions on ethics and environment:

Do we have any responsibility for the well-being of future generations of humans? Is such a responsibility dependent upon whether or not we have children of our own? Do we have any responsibility for the well-being of non-human species? Does the aesthetic quality of nature have any tangible value? Does the spiritual or metaphysical quality of nature have such value? Who or what should get to determine what those values are?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Blog-o-mat: Continuing service

Another series of questions to the reader:

Does religion (or a particular religion, perhaps your own) mandate service to other people? How about people outside the faith? Does protecting or improving the natural environment honor such an ethic? Does knowingly harming the environment violate that ethic?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Introducing the Blog-o-mat: Some questions for the reader

As I near the end of an engaging but tough course on environmental law and policy, I’ve regrettably let the weeds grow up around The Influence Machine. Rather than yet another post of accidental art or what amounts to a "Will return in…" sign, I’ll turn intellectual control of the blog over to the reader for a while. I am well-aware that this is analogous to when banks got rid of most of their tellers, installed ATMs, but still charged everyone the same fees (or more) for self-service. To the reader, whether well-read and opinionated or casual and curious, I pose these questions and ask for comment:

Can the United States win the war in Iraq? If so, how do you define victory? How do you think the US can achieve that? What happens to the Iraqis and the region if the US withraws in the immediate future?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Term-paper cynicism, or a Thoreauvian aside

As I dig through Congressional Research Service briefs, I hear Thoreau in the back of my mind:
"No man with a genius for legislation has appeared in America. They are rare in the history of the world. There are orators, politicians, and eloquent men, by the thousand; but the speaker has not yet opened his mouth to speak who is capable of settling the much-vexed questions of the day. We love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any truth which it may utter, or any heroism it may inspire. Our legislators have not yet learned the comparative value of free trade and of freedom, of union, and of rectitude, to a nation. They have no genius or talent for comparatively humble questions of taxation and finance, commerce and manufactures and agriculture. If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonable experience and the effectual complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among the nations. For eighteen hundred years, though perchance I have no right to say it, the New Testament has been written; yet where is the legislator who has wisdom and practical talent enough to avail himself of the light which it sheds on the science of legislation."

Friday, July 13, 2007

All this useless beauty

Prague is not so much a city full of art as one expansive, living work. Cobbled streets wind through a thicket of old shops and homes with terra cotta roofs, and places of worship so ancient that they almost defy understanding- here a synagogue from the 12th century, there a basilica from the 10th. Tycho Brahe lies interred in one grand church, Wenceslas in another. Art has so long been the way of life in this city in Bohemia, that it becomes immediately obvious why the word "bohemian" has come to be affixed to creative types. It's hard to return from my week there without some remnant of that gothic and baroque drama.
A former student of astronomy and a former professional cartographer, I was most enamored of the Pražský Orloj, the Prague Astronomical Clock, in the Old Town plaza. This device measures time of day, the positions of the sun and moon, dawn and dusk, time of year, and other quantities useful to astronomy and astrology, all using clockwork and kindred technologies characteristic of the middle of the last millennium. It displays several pieces of moving sculpture that ring bells and deliver blessings on the hour. The clock embodies Pirsig's ideas of both classical and romantic beauty.
Praguers seem to appreciate all of this art and its (and their own) relationship with the natural world. So far north, the city enjoys and suffers the fickle economy of long summer days and unrelenting winter nights. Tucked so far from the sea and so close to mountains and hills, weather is even more protean. Owing to this physiography, Praguers seem to understand the value of every moment of sun and warm air; as soon as the clouds part, they are reading in public greens or having coffee or pilsner at sidewalk cafes. Conversely, clouds and rain mandate trips to museums and galleries and seem to tap the kegs that serve friends philosophizing in cellar pubs.
"What shall we do, what shall we do..."

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

If you've never stared off in the distance

The hounds and I hike five miles and in this travel run across a fawn, hiding among the ferns. We find a good quarter-acre of wild blueberry, though there is not a ripe berry to be found.
The mountain is a living thing, its trees, its lichens, its millipedes breathing in and out. Loose stones and water relaxing toward the Potomac speak on its behalf. The sound of my own voice, reciting Flavoparmelia caperata and Punctelia rudecta for the benefit of the dogs’ education, seems trivial for a moment, but in the end I see is no less a part of the mountain. I consider for a moment that both "psyche" and "chi" come from words that mean breath.
I ruminate on Emerson:
"These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most requests is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs."
In the next few days, make some time for walking, for woodland pools, spring holes and ditches, for the solace of open spaces.

Monday, July 02, 2007


It's been overcast the last couple of nights, a fact that has me thinking about the night sky, rather than looking at it. The people have been on my mind more than the numbers, the tall-tale factoids, and the Weird Terrain.
I recall those who set about modeling the sky: Newton with his audacious claim and his big letter G; Einstein with his hip trick for the orbit of Mercury; Kepler and all of those ellipses, spheres, and cubes. I remember my freshman year heroes: Oort, Kuiper, Carolyn Shoemaker, and Hyakutake (that lucky cat).
This lineage of thinkers finally drifts past Copernicus and pauses at Galileo. I see in the life and legacy of Galileo Galilei a parallel with present debates about the origins of the world we know. Galileo was branded a heretic for his assertion that the Earth orbits the Sun, a fact that the Church disputed based solely upon their interpretation of religious writings.
People should believe as they will- many traditions of belief hold insight. (For my own part, I find Christianity, Western science, and Taoism to be particularly apt.) Moreover, we should engage in a meaningful dialogue over differences in our paradigms and should avoid mindless dogma. Belief should remain sincere.
I see an unfortunate trend among my friends and family who choose a literal interpretation of the creation story in the Abrahamic faiths. There is a pattern of extrapolating pararational dissent over the sciences that speak of evolution to those sciences that discuss climate change. Indeed there are relationships between these trains of thought, though there are similar linkages to the sciences that find fossil fuels and the sciences that develop new drugs and biologics. Leading a selective theological assault only against those scientific conclusions that are socially or politically unpalatable lacks sincerity in practice.
Perhaps more theologically important, I fear this debate undermines the core values of some of the world’s most populous and influential religions. Just as a literal interpretation of biblical cosmology against Galileo’s (and Copernicus’) conclusions continues to detract from the relevance of Christian thought, so too does the debate over origins, and more urgently, the antagonism toward climate science. This hostility erodes an opportunity to improve peoples' lives.
More than three centuries after the Church condemned Galileo for suggesting that the Earth did indeed orbit the Sun, and more than two decades after humans walked on the surface of the Moon and saw this with their own eyes, Pope John Paul II, speaking for the Roman Catholic Church, observed:
"In the last century and at the beginning of our own, advances in the historical sciences made it possible to acquire a new understanding of the Bible and of the biblical world. The rationalist context in which these data were most often presented seemed to make them dangerous to the Christian faith. Certain people, in their concern to defend the faith, thought it necessary to reject firmly-based historical conclusions. That was a hasty and unhappy decision...It is a duty for theologians to keep themselves regularly informed of scientific advances in order to examine if such be necessary, whether or not there are reasons for taking them into account in their reflection or for introducing changes in their teaching.
"The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world's structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture..."
(A full transcript of the English translation of the Pope’s remarks is available here.)
Religion and the sciences are not inherently mutually antagonistic. Moreover, these two wisdom traditions complement one another: The scientific method does not explicitly contain an ethical framework. It asks questions like "can we do this?" but often fails to ask, "should we do this?" Contrarily, religion generally lacks systematic natural inquiry and technique. It handily foments discussion over the ethics of creating a vaccine, but offers little or no insight on how one might accomplish this.
The turf war solves no problems and succeeds only in creating hostility and dividing people. It also ignores what each of these systems of belief actually want: understanding and a better world.