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A simple case study: How propaganda works


There are very few exceptions: Right-wingers and the Republican Party cannot win elections or have their way without lying and cheating. Without a sophisticated propaganda system (and, increasingly under Trumpism, the demonization of the responsible media), the right wing would be exposed as what it truly is: A radical minority with a highly unpopular agenda, and no principles, that gets its way only insofar as it can get away with lying and cheating.

This is an interesting case study, because Ken recently had an article in High Country News (a newspaper for the western U.S.) that explains what is really going on. The article is here:

‘No trespassing’ laws create personal playgrounds for the wealthy

The video above shows how right-wingers and Republicans use lies to enact laws that benefit the rich while pretending the opposite. This video — unlike more sophisticated right-wing propaganda with more subtle or hard-to-detect lies — actually is an example of bad propaganda because it’s relatively easy to detect the deception and the attempt to use fear to manipulate people.

In the video, we have a typical American family of three going about their morning routine in a typical American home. Clueless hippies and hikers are encamped on their front lawn, even though there’s a white picket fence. Sheila is out in the yard cooking hot dogs on someone else’s Coleman stove. A man is fishing in their swimming pool. We are given to understand that this is what will happen to typical Idaho families unless the Idaho legislature approves what may now be the most radical trespassing laws in the country.

But the easy-to-see truth is that a typical suburban Idaho family (are there even suburbs in Idaho?) is at no risk. Existing laws already have got them covered. The real story (as Ken shows in the article) is that this is a billionaire’s law.

There are more subtle messages in the video that are very disturbing. One is that nice people don’t camp and fish. Those who do camp and fish (that is, if they’re liberals) are careless and clueless and utterly disrespectful. Nice people, of course, stay in their atomized suburban homes and see the world only on their televisions, or maybe through a window if they ever open their shutters and curtains. The young daughter of the family raises her hand and starts to wave to the fisherman. But her dad pushes her hand down and says, “No; no, no.” The message is that nice people don’t even associate with people like that. That is probably the ugliest and most subtle message contained in this 47 seconds of propaganda: Civility can be dangerous if extended to the wrong people. Civic involvement is one of the last things Republicans want (unless its done through an organization controlled and financed by right-wing money, such as the Tea Party). Nice people stay home, watch television, believe what they’re told, and don’t get involved. Liberals are not only clueless, they’re also a threat to nice normal people. Why doesn’t the dad of the family just go out and ask the campers to leave, or call the police? Because the ad wants people to believe that, unless a new law is passed, the dad has no right to do that — a rather blatant falsehood.

Contrast this with how progressive political elements try to get their message out. This propaganda video is a nice contrast with something I posted two days ago, Environmental justice: The people fight back. The method used in that case was to leverage the media power of famous people to tell the stories of poor people who otherwise are ignored. The most important part of the news conference that I wrote about was not the speechifying by Al Gore and the Rev. William J. Barber (though they gave great speeches). The most important part, rather, was the parade of ordinary people who told true and verifiable stories of devastating illnesses and early deaths caused by living in proximity to coal ash.

For progressives, the challenge is how to draw attention to the truth. That’s what Ken was doing with his op-ed in a Western newspaper, on a subject on which he has done a great deal of research and written a book. For right-wingers, the challenge is designing effective lies, connecting those lies to an emotion such as prejudice or fear, and pumping those lies into the propaganda system.

I propose a game. The Nov. 6 election is coming up. Soon, television screens all over the country will be full of right-wing political ads. Analyze the ads as propaganda. Look for the lies. Were the lies obvious, or was some research required to expose them? Keep your list of fallacies handy. How many fallacies can you identify? What does the propaganda assume that people don’t know, so that it can take advantage of ignorance? What emotions does the propaganda try to stimulate? Whom does it demonize? What is the propaganda’s overt intention? Are there also disguised intentions? Is divisiveness intended? If so, who is being played against whom, based on what element of distrust or fear? Who paid for the ad? Whose interests does it serve? Google them and see if you can follow the money (that may be hard!). Feel free to apply the same checks to ads for liberals, and do your best to apply the same methods to scoring liberal vs. right-wing political ads.

Environmental justice: The people fight back



Al Gore

This is a rather long photo essay. I hope you’ll bear with me.

People sometimes ask me why I choose to live in a rural and seemingly backward place like Stokes County, North Carolina, after 18 years in an urbane place like San Francisco. Stokes is a poor county in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s mostly white, and it’s mostly Republican. But it’s also a beautiful, green, un-suburbanized place with mountains, a river, and forests that — as far as I can tell — reach all the way up the Appalachian chain to Quebec. It is an unspoiled — and also very livable — piece of rural America. I love rural America and refuse to cede rural America to Trump deplorables, because rural America can be better than that.

I also learned pretty quickly that I am needed here. The progressive people in this county are greatly outnumbered. But we are fierce, and we stand up for ourselves. We have become so effectively organized that we caught the attention a few years ago of progressive forces outside our little county. That’s why Al Gore and the Rev. William Barber were here today. For the Rev. Barber, it was his second time in Stokes County.

Many of the readers of this blog are in Europe, so you may need to be reminded that Al Gore was vice president of the United States from 1993 until 2001, with President Bill Clinton. Gore ran for president in 2000 and won the popular vote nationwide by half a million votes. But because of peculiarities in the American constitutional system and a disputed vote count in the state of Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court gave the presidency to George W. Bush. Gore, a true statesman, said in his concession speech, “[F]or the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.” Since then, Gore has made environmental activism an important part of his life.

Readers in Europe, and some American readers as well, may need to be reminded that the Rev. William J. Barber II has been president of North Carolina’s NAACP since 2006. He is a theologian with degrees from Duke University and Drew University. I consider him the Martin Luther King Jr. of our day. With his “Moral Monday” resistance tactics in North Carolina, he has become a thorn in the flesh of the right-wing and utterly despicable North Carolina legislature. If rich people want it, the North Carolina legislature is for it. The rest of us don’t matter, except insofar as we can be made to pay for the things that rich people want, such as tax cuts.

The environmental justice issue here in Stokes County is a huge coal ash impoundment at a coal-fired electricity-generating plant operated by Duke Energy. The pollution of ground water, and the air, near this plant have sickened many people and caused many premature deaths. Most of those people are poor and black. They still are fighting for clean water. But they have gotten organized. (There is little need to worry about the residents of the abbey. Luckily we are some miles from this problem, and we are both upstream and upwind. But we care about our neighbors downstream and downwind.)

But this is a photo essay, not a political post.

Photojournalism is in my DNA. So I am very mindful of how photographs can be used to tell a story. I love taking photographs of people, so public events are a great excuse for pointing my camera at people’s faces and getting away with it. I shot 932 photos today, but I selected those that I thought told the story best, those that represent the main characters, and, hopefully, those that contain a bit of emotion.

This is my county. And I love it.


Karenna Gore (daughter of Al Gore) with one of our local activists


A local activist (and excellent fundraiser)


Al Gore


Rev. William J. Barber II


Local activists (and good friends)


A local activist and, I hope, a future candidate for political office


A local activist (and son of a local activist) and Al Gore


A local activist


A local activist


Karenna Gore, daughter of Al Gore


A local activist


A local activist


Stacks of the Belews Creek Steam Plant. The lake is primarily for cooling the steam plant’s water.


A local activist


Rev. William J. Barber II


Al Gore


A local activist


Hands during the breakfast invocation

You can’t have too much abelia


The bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies would agree: You can’t have too much abelia.

Abelia shrubs bloom almost all summer long. There are thousands of little dime-size blooms. Abelia is an old-fashioned and out-of-style relative of honeysuckle, though it’s not as fragrant, and (thank goodness) it doesn’t climb.

This abelia bush, now nine years old, stands in front of the abbey’s bay window.

Nearby, under the front porch, the hostas are in full bloom. ⬇︎


⬆︎ Hosta blooms. Click here for high-resolution version.

If only we had more of these


My guess would be that there are very few stiles remaining in America, though I also would guess that there were never that many in the first place, except possibly in New England. Most Americans probably don’t even know the word. Even I, born and raised a country person with roots in the Appalachian Highlands, know the word only from English literature.

I encountered this stile yesterday on one of the hiking trails at Rocky Knob, which is one of the camping areas along the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s near Floyd, Virginia. The guide sheet for the Black Ridge trail calls it a “ladder.” Had the guide sheet used the word “stile,” few would have understood the instructions for getting across the fence (though the use of a stile is pretty obvious once you see it).

The near-loss of the word says a lot about our cultural loss. I’m guessing that city people these days walk far more than country people do. Cities have walking infrastructure; rural places have lost it. In my day, I’ve gone over and under my share of fences. But yesterday was the first time I’ve ever encountered a stile outside of a novel. Needless to say, I was delighted. There actually are two stiles — one leading into the pasture, and the other leading out.

The Black Ridge trail at Rocky Knob, by the way, is a remarkable little trail. It’s only 3.5 miles, but it has some of everything — deep woodland beside a small stream, a wee ford where you might find stepping stones if you’re lucky, highland meadows, cows, old farm roads worn deep by erosion and by the wagon traffic of many years ago, and the crossing of a ridge with views to both north and south. It’s all very Shire-like and picture perfect. I could imagine running into Frodo (out gathering mushrooms) or even Gandalf (surveilling the trouble afoot caused by Saruman’s agents inciting Trump supporters by telling them lies) at any moment. We’d have plenty of work for Gandalf in these parts these days.

Speaking of words, the Park Service employee who gave me the guide sheet and pointed to the trailhead said, “If you come across any cows, they’re innocuous.” That pleased me greatly, though it might have frightened those with poorer vocabularies. Probably as few Americans are familiar with the word “innocuous” as with the word “stile.”

Scratch a Park Service employee, bless them, and you just might find a lover of literature.

The word “innocuous,” by the way, comes from the Latin word innŏcŭus, which means “un-noxious,” or “harmless.” French cognates include noceur and nocif. But I suspect that the word “innocuous” came to us directly from Latin, since the words sound just the same. Related English words include “innocent,” and, of course, “noxious.”

While we’re at it, “stile” derives from the Old English word stigel, which is related to the word “stair.”

Readers in Britain: If you have nearby stiles, please send photos!


⬇︎ Update 1: A reader in the South Downs of England has sent these two photos of stiles, which she says are common in that part of England. I can’t say that I have ever seen anything like it. I think I’d call them plank stiles. Thanks for the photos!



Update 2: This Mother Goose rhyme has been running through my head all day:

There was a crooked man, who walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.


Reviving Asimov’s Foundation series


I regularly search for promising new science fiction to read. It’s shocking how little I find — based, at least, on reviews and on-line lists. When I can’t find new science fiction, I return to the classics. At present, I’m rereading Isaac Asimov’s 1951 classic Foundation.

Now is probably a good time to read (or reread) the Foundation series, because Apple is reported to be developing a series based on the Foundation books for the new Apple streaming service that is to start up next year. It was reported in 2014 that Jonah Nolan was working on a Foundation project for HBO. But, as far as I can tell, that never happened.

Just intuitively, I suspect that Apple’s focus on the high-end market is more likely to get Foundation right than would HBO (or, heaven forfend, Netflix). HBO would try to make an action spectacle of the story, and Netflix would dumb it down. Though there certainly are opportunities for visual spectacle in Foundation (it was Asimov who first thought of a vast galactic empire with an imperial capital planet that was one huge city), what’s remarkable about Asimov’s novels is that there is very little action. Mostly, the story consists of very smart and very powerful people sitting in offices or conference rooms and having highly intelligent conversations. That’s not exactly HBO or Netflix material.

Foundation is as timeless as any science fiction I’ve ever read. One of the few things that make the story feel dated is that Asimov seemed to assume that nuclear power would be the future’s answer to its energy needs. Asimov got that one wrong. Otherwise, Asimov’s imagination has held up brilliantly for 67 years. I believe it was Neil Goble, in the 1972 book Asimov Analyzed, who says that Asimov came up with the idea of the galactic empire after reading Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the first volume of which was published in 1776. (Newer histories of Rome, I suspect, would have led Asimov in somewhat different directions.) It was certainly from Asimov that “Star Wars” got the idea of galactic empire. It’s an idea that has dominated fictional views of the galaxy ever since then (though often there are backwaters in the fringes of the galaxy where galactic power is weak and where outlaws and rebels can hide).

And let it not be said that I am the only science fiction writer who stomps on religion (a good way to get vindictive 1-star reviews on Amazon). In Asimov, religion is useful for manipulating the ignorati into doing what elites want them to do (ahem), but otherwise Asimov uses a wide range of insulting words to describe religion. Asimov is often quoted as having said, “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.” On the other hand, “Star Wars” took the galactic empire in a very different direction, with an elite mystical cult based on “the Force.” Asimov is 100 percent free of such magic. I’ll even venture a prediction here. The day will come when “Star Wars” will begin losing its mythical power, as the idea of “the Force” becomes increasingly dated and hokey.

As we learn more about the galaxy, and as we try to understand our failure to detect intelligent life on even one other planet (let alone a vast galactic civilization), I suspect that the idea of a vast, high-tech, militarized galactic empire is another idea that science fiction writers ought to be re-imagining. As we try to understand, even on our single planet, the dangerous consequences of globalization, specialization, unsustainable exploitation, and long supply chains for the necessities of life, the more it seems likely that a galactic empire, if there is one, might be too wise for all that.

Asimov understood the dangers of dependency on long supply chains. In Foundation, he writes: “All the land surface of Trantor, 75,000,000 square miles in extent, was a single city. The population, at its height, was well in excess of forty billions. This enormous population was devoted almost entirely to the administrative necessities of Empire, and found themselves all too few for the complications of the task…. Daily, fleets of ships in the tens of thousands brought the produce of twenty agricultural worlds to the dinner tables of Trantor…. Its dependence upon the outer worlds for food and, indeed, for all necessities of life, made Trantor increasingly vulnerable to conquest by siege. In the last millenium of the Empire, the monotonously numerous revolts made Emperor after Emperor conscious of this, and Imperial policy became little more than the protection of Trantor’s delicate jugular vein.”

What might a sustainable galactic empire — and its laws and regulations and technologies — look like?

A portrait of the deceased


Not infrequently, living things from the garden are almost too beautiful to slice and eat. And yet, that’s why we grow them. Their existence is ephemeral. They’ll soon be lost and return to dust whether we eat them or not. The existential implications of that are horrifying. We share about 20 percent of our DNA with plants such as our cousins the tomatoes.

I was about to slice this tomato for supper, but, because it was so beautiful, at least I took its portrait first. In an image, it lives on. The background is cashmere.

Setting hens


It doesn’t happen all that often, but every now and then a hen takes a notion to set. This young lady is a year and a half old.

There are a number of remedies for “breaking” hens of setting. Having tried it, I would testify that it’s not worth the fight. Broody hens are remarkably fierce and are not to be messed with. Eggs get broken in the fight. Plus, I figure that allowing the hens to live according to their instincts is part of the deal. She should get over it in another couple of weeks. I’ll throw the eggs away, but I can afford the eggs.

There is no rooster here, so she is wasting her time. Not that she’s ever in a hurry about anything.

Dieting without being hungry



Rump roast plus some less-guilt-inducing things. Click here for high-resolution version.

In eleven years of blogging here, I don’t think I’ve ever written about cooking beef before. I’m 98.6 percent vegetarian, but diets change things (for a while).

During my adult life, my weight has bounced back and forth from about 147 to 157 pounds. Why it bounces is easy to explain: If I weigh 147, I gain weight. If I weigh 157, I feel fat, and I start dieting. My motivation for my current diet, however, though I did feel fat, is getting ready for doing some traveling and hiking in the Scottish Highlands near the end of this summer.

As an experienced dieter, my rules are simple: Keep carbs down. But keep protein, potassium, and fiber up. Concentrate on low-inflammation foods (beef is not one of those). My maximum daily calorie consumption while dieting is 1,200. The calorie rule could be honored, of course, on my usual lacto-ovo vegetarian diet. It would just mean eating less of the usual things. But I’m afraid that a 1,200-calorie diet of the usual things would leave me deficient in protein, potassium, or fiber.

Fortunately, I don’t have to diet often. Once I’m at the lower-level marker of 147 pounds, it takes me more than five years of eating whatever I want to get me back up to the red line of 157 pounds. Nor do I have to obsess about weighing myself. My belt tells me all I need to know. I resort to the scales only to confirm that I’m back at 147 again. Then I eat whatever I want and repeat the cycle.

The easiest healthy way I know to get 60 grams of protein a day while meeting a reasonable potassium and fiber target is to concentrate on fish (or meat) and low-carb vegetables. After eating enough beef to meet the protein target, and enough broccoli and fresh tomatoes to meet the potassium and fiber target, I’m foundered long before the calorie maximum is reached. Grilled salmon is my main source of protein on this diet. I grill two pieces at a time — one for today, and one to put in the fridge for a salmon-vegetable curry tomorrow. Beef is just a novelty. After one meal, I’m sick of beef, even though I have leftovers to deal with.

Since I’m also hiking to train for the Highlands, it won’t take long to get back to 147. Then, once I’m in Scotland, it’ll be all about oyster bars, ale, and potatoes, calories be damned. And I’ll be on my way to 157 again.

Walnut pâté



Raw walnut pâté in pocket bread, cucumber slaw, homemade refrigerator pickle, garden tomato. Click here for high resolution version.

A good maxim for good health would be, eat more walnuts. Believe it or not, here in the Blue Ridge foothills, I can sometimes find local black walnuts for sale in late summer. You have to know whom to ask. Walnut trees are common. There are a few people in these parts who (like me) hate to see walnuts go to waste (though the squirrels rely on them) and who (unlike me) are willing to do the work of shelling them. They fetch a good price, too.

Otherwise, if you buy walnuts from California, you need to buy from a source that sells a lot of them, to be sure that they’re fresh. Whole Foods sells excellent walnuts in bulk. Trader Joe’s has them pre-packaged, and at affordable prices. Store them in the fridge, and keep them sealed against oxygen.

To make walnut pâté, first soak the walnuts for at last an hour to soften them. Purée them in a food processor. I add a dab of tahini to hold the purée together. After the walnuts are mushed up, pulse in some onion and celery and seasonings, but leave the onion and celery a tad coarse.

I love bread, but if I always had it, I would gain too much weight. When the craving for bread becomes irresistible, I sometimes make myself one flatbread. It’s easy. The people of India are the best at it. Just watch a YouTube video to see how it’s done. I use nothing but flour and water, and I bake the flatbread in a dry skillet. It doesn’t always “pop,” but I’m much better at that than I used to be.

Though the pâté in the photo was incredibly tasty, it was the tomato (one of the first ripe ones of the summer) that blew me away.

The evolution of morality



The Evolution of Morality, by Richard Joyce. MIT Press, 2006. 272 pages.


Our best universities have philosophy departments, but what the heck are philosophers — particularly moral philosophers — up to these days? Is it mischief? Certainly some think so.

Occasionally, a philosopher from some university or other writes an op-ed in the New York Times on some narrow subject. But, as far as I can tell, academic philosophers seem to have very little to say to the public, though they write quite a lot for each other. It wasn’t always like that. During the Enlightenment, according to a book I recently reviewed here, How the Scots Invented the Modern World, the oyster bars of Edinburgh were packed with people eating oysters, drinking ale, and talking philosophy (and politics and science). Even we dull Americans have quite a lot of dialogue with, say, our scientists and historians. As evidence, just check out the number of documentaries on science and history available on Netflix or Amazon Prime. But with philosophers, not so much. Why might that be?

I can think of a possible reason, though I can’t testify to the truth it. It’s that philosophers know that we might not like what we hear.

Recently, I asked a friend in academia if he could point me toward a good starting source for a survey of contemporary moral philosophy (and to heck with historical moral philosophy). He sent me this link from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy with the comment, “Well, the big breakthrough of the last 20 years, it seems to me, is the marriage of evolutionary biology and morality/ethics.” (Thanks, DCS.)

This work was popularized back in 1995 with a book by Robert Wright, The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, which I read at the time. Wright is more a journalist than an academic, but his 1995 book was on the mark and, though I have not reread it, it probably holds up well today.

The history of moral philosophy interests me very little. Immanuel Kant is near impossible to read, but, based on secondary sources, I dismiss him as just another Christian who thought he was being rational and scientific. Philosophers such as David Hume made progress, but David Hume died before Charles Darwin was born. It was Darwin who started the work of upending everything.

More than a hundred years after Darwin, moral philosophers are still working out the consequences of evolutionary psychology. But Joyce tells us that even some of Darwin’s contemporaries understood the disruptiveness of what Darwin had done. Joyce quotes Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904). She was an Irish social reformer, and she was clearly kind and brilliant:

A Darwinian explanation of conscience, she wrote, “aims a … deadly blow at ethics, by affirming that, not only has our moral sense come to us from a source commanding no special respect, but that it answers to no external or durable, not to say universal or eternal, reality, and is merely tentative and provisional, the provincial prejudice, as we may describe it, of this little world and its temporary inhabitants, which would be looked upon with a smile of derision by better-informed people now residing on Mars.”

But it wasn’t just Darwin who shook things up and smashed the furniture. E.O. Wilson, who is often called the father of sociobiology, finished the job that Darwin had started. Wilson studies social insects, the class hymenoptera — bees, ants and wasps. From Wilson and those who followed him, we have learned a great deal about social species and the genetics of social behaviors. Human beings are highly social animals, so much of the work that applies to hymenoptera also applies to human beings.

Frances Power Cobbe, who died in 1904, pretty much anticipated what Richard Joyce has to say a hundred years later in 2006. That is that our moral sensibilities and capabilities are products of our evolution; that nature accomplished this by working with our emotions; and that the point of it all was to enable our evolution as a social species primed to cooperate with other human beings.

“Social Darwinists” get it wrong about “the survival of the fittest.” Evolution is not that simple and brutish. Altruism and cooperation (and cheating) exist in nature, and altruism and cooperation (and cheating) serve important purposes in social species. Cooperation and keeping the peace (and punishing cheaters) are — and have been for ages — critical to human thriving. Happiness matters — a lot. Nature, it seems, encourages altruism and cooperation (and the punishing of cheaters) through the genetics of kin selection and group selection. Evolutionary biologists have worked out the mechanism of kin selection and group selection, and those mechanisms are no longer controversial. Where behavior is concerned, these mechanisms are especially important to social species. The work on kin selection and group selection was just getting under way in the 1960s. The implications were enormous, so moral philosophers went to work on it. These developments in moral philosophy are relatively new, which is why anyone with an interest in moral philosophy has some catching up to do. Today, reading Hume or Kant or John Stuart Mill is largely just reading history.

Where does this leave us? As Frances Power Cobbe suspected, does it mean that our human sense of morality is completely arbitrary? Would it mean that a species that evolved in a different way on another world might have a completely different moral framework that is very different from ours, but just as valid?

Who knows! The work is ongoing. But it gives us a great deal to think about. I have neighbors who write letters to the editor saying that, without biblical morality, human beings would revert to being savages and cannibals. That, of course, is bunk. There is plenty of work in even historical moral philosophy that (in my view) far surpasses anything ever achieved by theology. That’s also a reason why the work of John Rawls (A Theory of Justice) intrigues me. It’s entirely possible to do abstract moral reasoning with an entirely decent level of confidence.

Joyce also has got me thinking about whether I need to modify my claim (see my posts What’s wrong with conservatives and The paradoxes of purity) that the moral “foundations” of conservatives are inferior to those of liberals. I don’t think I would have to modify my claim much, though. I might end up claiming that the moral foundations of conservatives are inferior because they serve only a privileged in-group and the status quo, while the moral foundations of liberals are applicable equally to all human beings (indeed, to all living things) and lead to moral progress.

There is a point or two about which Joyce is adamant and about which I would quibble. He seems to me to be too keen on drawing sharp lines between humans and animals. He believes, for example, that a moral sensibility requires language, and that thus animals cannot be said to have moral sensibilities. I am not convinced. We know, for example, than animals have a sense of fairness. If food or other rewards are not allocated equally, animals know, and they protest. I strongly suspect that cats not only are skilled at intentionally evoking human pity, but that they feel pity (a moral emotion) for themselves (as when they are abandoned).

For those who crave, as I believe Frances Power Cobbe craved, a morality with claims to principles that are universal or eternal, must they abandon all hope? I’m aware of one possibility. I’ve written a number of times about Roger Penrose, the Oxford mathematician and philosopher of science whose work intrigues me. Penrose is a Platonist, and he has proposed a theory of consciousness in which our minds are not just computers. Rather, Penrose proposes that consciousness arises from quantum effects within the brain and that the quantum capabilities of consciousness give our minds access to a Platonic world which contains elements that we might say are universal and eternal — the truths of mathematics, for example. In Shadows of the Mind (1994, pages 416-417) Penrose writes that, though abstract concepts such as ethics, morality, and aesthetics are not a part of his argument, that there is no reason to dismiss such moral axioms as not being as real (in a Platonic world) as mathematics.


Now let’s use our imaginations!

As a reader and writer of science fiction, I find it impossible not to apply ideas and their consequences to imaginary worlds. I was delighted to come across the Frances Power Cobbe quote about Mars in this book, because I already had perceived the extraterrestrial consequences of a morality that is human-specific and not universal. E.T. morality may be nothing at all like ours, for better or for worse. In a galaxy with thousands or millions of different, and possibly conflicting, systems of morality, how would it be possible (for example) to write galactic law? Would the differences and antagonisms be so great that we might as well abandon the idea of such a thing as a galactic government?

I came across another fascinating concept with galactic implications in a book on the commons that I was reading. The quotation comes from E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973):

“The cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom. It is also the antithesis of freedom and peace. Every increase of needs tends to increase one’s dependence on outside forces over which one cannot have control, and therefore increases existential fear. Only by a reduction of needs can one promote a genuine reduction in those tensions which are the ultimate causes of strife and war.”

This is a warning about what happens when communities, when they are deprived of their commons and lose the knowledge that allowed them to be self-sufficient, become dependent on money and distant trade to meet their needs. They find themselves in great danger if they lose access to money, or if trade is disrupted. They will find themselves exploited. Just ask Trump voters.

Science fiction (as in Star Wars, for example) almost always imagines a galaxy with advanced technology, high levels of trade with rich trading centers, and a capital planet that is one great city. Inevitably in such a galaxy, some will have great power, but many won’t. There will be war, dangerous politics, and rebellion. To maintain order, galactic police forces and a military would be necessary. In other words, the history of these imagined galaxies would look like the sorry history of earth.

I can imagine a galaxy in which interstellar travel is possible and in which advanced civilizations share knowledge and cooperate. But what if the E.T.’s are too wise (their morality may be entirely different from ours, after all) to have allowed things to go wrong in the way that things have gone wrong on earth? What if they foresaw that if a planet gave up its self-sufficiency and became dependent on money and trade, then even temporary disruptions might starve and destroy entire civilizations? Maybe they learned that not everything should be “monetized” and traded. Maybe they applied their moral philosophy to the almighty market and reached different conclusions than we earthlings. I can imagine how good galactic law might actually prohibit, rather than encourage and regulate, trading among planets. If, say, food cannot be traded throughout the galaxy without the risk of dangerous consequences, then is there anything that can be safely exchanged? If so, what? (In my novels, earth’s cats are traded and exchanged throughout the galaxy, and the cats, at least, seem to do no harm.)

I can imagine a future — and wiser — earth in which globalization is reversed. I can imagine the relocalization of needs that are essential to people’s livelihoods. I can imagine a far smaller population, with much greater quality of life. I can imagine, as E.O. Wilson has proposed, half the earth set aside as a natural reserve.

We have looped back, haven’t we? It was E.O. Wilson who is heavily responsible for the furniture-smashing discoveries that are leading to sweeping changes in moral philosophy and therefore to sweeping changes in how we see ourselves in relation to each other, to the planet, and to other species. Wilson probably was among the first to see the desperateness of our predicament, moral and otherwise. Maybe we have no choice but to smash some old furniture, and to go home and rethink our lives, if we are to save the earth. Regular readers here know that I put religion at the top of the smash list. In any case, in proposing solutions, E.O. Wilson is way ahead of us. His Half Earth idea is breathtaking in its boldness and beauty. I’d almost think that he is in touch with aliens who are far, far wiser than we are.

Count me among those who dare to hope that a rethinking of everything that is important will lead us not to nihilism or cannibalism but to new ideas good enough to save the planet, and maybe even to ideas good enough for us to hang out in oyster bars with E.T.’s.