Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Big fluffy towels

I like big fluffy towels. I enjoy using them when I need to stay in an upscale hotel for work.

I saw an American student steal one from a small hotel we stayed at in England years ago. Her parents were picking up the tab for her to attend Ithaca College and participate in their semester in London. They had rented a harpsichord for her so she could practice that semester but had apparently neglected to provide her with a big fluffy towel.

For three years in Senegal I used pagnes, two meters of cotton fabric that serve as skirts, bathrobes, and towels. They dried me successfully after every bucket bath I took as a Peace Corps volunteer and shower I took as a Fulbright fellow.

In the US I use towels I buy at thrift stores. Sometimes I find two that match.

My mother found a barely-used big red fluffy towel in a dumpster. Its only crime seemed to be that it had gotten wet. She washed it and offered it to me when I visited the next summer; I gladly accepted.

I enjoyed the big red fluffy towel until it disappeared the same day the maintenance crew calked my tub. When I couldn’t find any sign of either my towel or greater dementia over the next few days, I stopped by the apartment manager’s office and mentioned the missing big fluffy towel. I learned that the maintenance workers had used it to clean up the tub calk. “Instead of the small, worn out, torn one hanging next to it"?! The manager bought me a big tan fluffy towel as a replacement.

My neighbor at the time made frequent trips across the landing with plates of high fat comfort food. He occasionally brought other things: pots and pans after he bought a new set, various jugs of cleaning supplies that didn’t meet his high standards, and a big white fluffy towel. Its only crime seemed to be shedding white fuzz during its first few washings.

I loved my two big fluffy towels. But I was doing laundry more frequently: each towel took up almost half of a load of sheets and towels. This took more water, more soap, more electricity, and more time. My washing machine developed a tendency to become unbalanced, thump like a blown front tire, then expire into fixed and damp silence. When I went to resuscitate it by rearranging the now very heavy towel, I smelled the strain that washing my big fluffy towels put on the washer’s belt.

Pagnes did a fine job of drying me after bathing in Senegal. Thrift store towels do a fine job of drying me in the US. Big fluffy towels are resource intensive, move perfectly lovely people to crime, and are irresistible to maintenance workers.

If anyone would like two big fluffy towels, only slightly used, they are at the Idaho Youth Ranch Thrift Store on Orchard Street.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Two Channels vs. Five Channels

In a discussion of different perceptions of climate change, and change in general, on the Ecological Society of America listserv, a reader posted a link to Jonathan Haidt’s talk at the 2008 Ted Conference. In it he shared a social psychologist’s view of the moral roots of progressives and conservatives.

Jonathan Haidt started by describing the great difference in openness to new experiences between progressives and conservatives; what I call their ability to live with ambiguity. Progressive embrace new experiences and conservatives avoid them.

Haidt and a coworker then identified five aspects, or channels, of moral decisions:
Caring for others
Respect for authority
Group loyalty

They polled 23,000 people in the US to describe the moral foundations of progressives and conservatives (You can learn about your moral foundations at

I’ve reproduced Jonathan Haidt’s graph of the differences (below). Progressives scored high in Caring for others and Fairness, but low in the other three aspects. Conservatives scored high in all five aspects. Haidt described the pattern as “Two channel” versus “Five channel” approaches to morality.

Everyone agrees that Caring for others and Fairness are important apsects of moral decisions, but only Conservatives also value Respect for authority, Group loyalty, and Purity/Sanctity. Haidt makes the case that both approaches to moral decisions are important and that each balances the other. Progressives “want change, even at the cost of chaos”; conservatives “want order, even at cost to those at the bottom.” Progressive speak for those at the bottom of society and conservatives speak for institutions and traditions.

Both progressives and conservatives contribute to improving our society through their different and complimentary views on change and tradition.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Climate deniers should be understood

The Ecological Society of America listserv has been discussing climate deniers. I share a recent contributor's concern that climate deniers have “stopped thinking.” I believe that this is the crux of the issue and that it’s rooted in their discomfort with ambiguity. The contributor also described climate deniers as “angry.” I believe that this is their quite rational response to the threats they feel. I'm glad that the contributor reminded us that we need to understand WHY climate deniers act as they do. I agree that we need to understand their apparent intransigence in order to meet them in the middle to solve the serious challenges facing us.

Climate denying tends to be linked with opposition to health care reform and both are seen more frequently in conservatives than in progressives. Conservatives are more reluctant to change than are progressives, who conservatives see as indecisive creatures without clear value systems: after all, they change their minds whenever better data are available!

Conservatives are conservative because they prefer things the way they are, good or bad, to unknowable change. But I believe that the even larger boogey man in the climate debate is the possibility that the government will tell them what to do (but it had better not touch their Medicare).

Progressives are progressives because they envision a better world and want to move toward it. This means that they modify their approach as they learn more, which compounds the poor conservatives’ fears: they were just getting comfortable with the first approach and now everything has changed again!

Both progressives and conservatives change, they just make decisions in different ways. For example, compare the Republican Party’s current role as the champion of Medicare with Ronald Regan’s 1961 speech that described Medicare as the first step down the slippery slope to Socialism. Conservatives simply needed more concrete evidence than those flighty progressives, who rushed headlong into government health care before all the facts were in.

I believe that conservatism stems from discomfort with ambiguity, apprehension over change, and fear of government intervention. Further, I believe that the conflict between these values and progressives’ acceptance of ambiguity, enthusiasm for change they believe is for the better, and vision of a compassionate government caring for its citizens are the basis of conflict over climate, health care, and other issues.

When someone is uncomfortable with ambiguity they look for solid, unambiguous answers that are part of a cohesive framework that will answer a range of questions. They would rather hear, “It’s not true, don’t believe any of it” than a mealy-mouthed mish mash of, “Well, some things we’re very sure of, other things we’re sort of sure about, and then there’s a bunch of stuff we’re still scratching our heads over.” Unambiguous, far ranging answers provide comfort and reduce the amount of thought required to understand complex issues. Thinking is hard work: when is writing the Discussion section of a manuscript easy?

Ecologists can help ease fears over climate change by clearly stating what we know, painting vivid scenarios of expected future conditions, and listing concrete actions that we can take now to deal with climate change and its consequences. Climate change will still be very frightening because there WILL be tremendous change and the government may need to place limits on both industry and citizens. But neither anger at the idea of climate change nor anger at people’s refusal to recognize the process will slow the pace of climate change.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Quivira Coalition Conference, 2009

In Spanish Colonial America, “Quivira” described unknown territory, where an elusive golden dream was waiting to be discovered.

The Quivira Coalition was started by a rancher and two environmentalists. The group does not litigate or mediate between sides in the debate over livestock grazing. Rather, they demonstrate and participate in sensible and sensitive ranching and farming. The Quivira Coalition focuses on “grassbanks, dormant season grazing, planned grazing, restoration, collaboration and education.” We “QuivireƱos” are nearly alone in the “Radical Center” -- radical because it’s ground breaking to refrain from taking sides in this polarized issue.

Quivira Coalition’s Conferences are a mix of conservation, ranching, science, and art. You can ponder statistical minutia while hearing about research findings, think about the role of grazing when hearing about managing invasive plants, and find yourself tearing up and sniffling during readings from literature about the US West.

At this year’s conference, November 4-6, 2009, we learned about dung beetles from Patricia Richardson, a professor at the University of Texas. I hadn’t thought much about dung beetles since I got back from Senegal, where I found them delightful and entertaining creatures. At the conference I learned that many species of dung beetles are rarely seen, as they live underneath cow pats and bury the manure from below. Only the show-off species roll the dung balls that I saw in Senegal.

We heard about the Desert Ranch's large operation in northeastern Utah. In addition to raising cattle and forage, they provide guided hunting and fishing trips and are a popular birding spot.

Randy Udall, from the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE), warned us that we’ve pumped 2/3 of the world’s oil. He illustrated this with a slide of four beers gone from a six pack. He also pointed out that “Cheap energy of any kind can subsidize stupidity.” Ouch! I’d flown from Boise to Albuquerque for the conference.

Tim and Katie Kline are raising kids, crops, and animals organically on their 80 acres in Ohio. They’re primarily dairy famers and enjoy the opportunity to work through issues while milking together in the evening while the children do homework. Or, as Tim hastened to add, they would work through issues, if they had any. As Amish farmers, they use animal traction for farm work and have no tractors.

I lurked with intent after Linda Hasselstrom read from her work and scored a spot next to her at lunch. I hoped that my writing would improve through the process of osmosis.

An innovative approach from a grass-fed beef farm in Wisconsin showed how collaboration can provide rewards on all sides. In return for hunting access, hunters each contribute six hours of work on the farm. Over the years hunters have roofed the barn, filled the basement with fire wood every year, taken care of the cattle while the owners travel, dug fire line for prescribed burns, and painted the buildings. The original groups of hunters now bring their children to work on the farm, as it’s also their family’s farm.

Craig Allen, with the USGS in Los Alamos, NM described cutting juniper trees, lopping off the branches and spreading them across sites degraded by erosion in Bandelier National Monument. The branches provide “safe sites” for native seeds to germinate and grow sheltered from the sun and drought. Both the new seedling and plants already growing on the site take advantage of water caught by tiny dams formed by the branches. Reestablishing vegetation on the previously depauperate sites fills in the bare areas that had spread across the sites in the past. Criag hopes that the vegetation will become healthy and abundant enough to fuel prescribed fires to keep juniper at bay in the future and to allow fire resistant Ponderosa pine to recolonize the sites.

The writer, conservationist, and thinker, Gary Nabhan, described new seeds of collaboration sprouting in Arizona. At the annual meeting of the Diablo Trust, a collaborative land stewardship group, The Arizona Wildlife Federation apologized to the Trust for the destructiveness of their past negativity (page 5). The two groups are looking forward to working together to manage natural resources in northern Arizona.

Gary’s story reminded us that change can happen in unexpected places and prepared us to welcome more into the Radical Center.

Breakfast at the Flyswatter Diner

I passed purple clematis flowering in weed-free beds as I walked to the door. The screen door caught on the ground as I opened it and the wooden door needed a shove to open. No one was sitting at the tables in the dark and chilly lean-to, but walking up two steps I found the main part of the diner cozy and light.

Three locals in Wranglers and big hats went silent as I crossed to a stool at the counter. The proprietor, a woman of no few years or pounds, poured me a cup of coffee and conversation. I ordered a Denver omelet.

I looked across the galley way behind the counter to blue sky through the upper corner of a window behind a coffee maker, a malt machine, stacks of dishes, piles of to go cartons and bags, a brace of toasters, and a mixed herd of ketchup and mustard bottles in various stages of completeness. Calendars on the walls, refrigerators and cupboards announced several different years.

The big-hatted locals in the corner discussed baling hay, debated the merits of several trucks and also those of Karen. “You know, she built most of that pole barn by herself”! They agreed that she was quite a worker and that her husband had made quite a catch.

The proprietor brought me a plate mounded with hash browns, toast, butter, jelly and a Denver omelet nearly hidden under a slab of a cheese-like substance. She cleaned up spilled coffee grounds next to me with a wad of sticky gray dishrag.

The breakfasting Big Hats finished eating and cleared their dishes. They wiped off their table with the gray dishrag, got out a deck of cards and started their first card game of the day. I finished my hash browns and continued the struggle with my omelet-with-cheese-substitute.

Another Wranglers wearer came in, poured himself a cup of coffee and topped off mine. As he talked with the card players a fly darted around his face. He took a fly swatter from behind the counter, sent the fly to meet his maker, then brushed its mortal remains from the swatter into the trash. The owner came out from the kitchen in back, her face twisted in disgust. “Give it to me,” she said, reaching for the flyswatter “I’ll wash it.” Holding the object at arm's length, she returned to the kitchen.

I gave up and scraped the remaining cheesy material off to the side and worked on my now naked omelet. I tried, unsuccessfully, not to picture the woman spraying the fly swatter off with the dish washing sprayer over a sink full of dishes. She returned after an absence that suggested great attention to detail, buffing the flyswatter with a wad of paper towels the size of a poodle.

I surrendered to my naked omelet and paid my bill. As I left the diner I noticed that the purple clematis had recently been watered.