Monday, March 31, 2008

A plague of frogs

I came across an interesting article in the newspaper this weekend. It was in the comics section, actually, as one of the local papers carries a section in the middle of the comics that's like a miniature newspaper for kids; you've probably seen them before.

Apparently, various species of frogs are going extinct at an alarming (to whom?) rate. According to the article, "Experts believe half of all frog species are now facing extinction." The culprits? Well, there are actually a number of factors, but apparently most of them tie in to global warming in some manner. The conclusion of the piece was essentially that it is our job as caretakers of the earth to do what we can to stop this massive frog genocide.

This reminded me of a question I've often pondered in one form or another. Let me give a disclaimer that I'm all for doing what we can to avoid damaging the environment. Frogs, along with so many other animals, are really great, and I think it's good to have them around for various reasons. But the question...well, it's really two questions, and the issue of how they interrelate.

#1 - Is there something inherently wrong with driving a species of animal to extinction?
#2 - Is it our responsibility to keep such a thing from happening?

See, while the disclaimers I give above hold, it seems to me that the answer to neither of these questions is self-evident. I examine here the specific case of frogs, since it was what drove me to question these assumptions again.

Suppose frogs simply disappeared from the face of the earth. There's nothing inherently great about frogs per se. One of the most vital items that is actually pointed out in the article is that frogs eat insects. Get rid of the frogs, and the insect population gets out of control. Now, aside from the fact that frogs obviously are eating insects that share their ecosystem, and if they died due to loss of a viable ecosystem, the insects probably are not to far behind, there are various problems with this still. Similar to the assumption that losing frogs is inherently bad is the assumption that gaining insects is inherently bad. How can we really place a value on one species over another?

Of course, the net effect goes beyond that. The bigger picture is that when a piece is taken out of the puzzle, well, it's sort of like the ecosystem is akin to a game like Jenga: if you pull out a piece, it may lead to a total collapse of the system. Insects grow out of control, and those animals that subsisted mainly on a diet of frogs will start to dwindle. The impact of the loss of the frogs has a ripple effect on everything around. But is this wrong? Nature has a tendency to restore that balance eventually. While in the short-term, chaos may reign, eventually either something else will eat the insects or the food supply of the insects will run short. Probably both.

Look, the dinosaurs died out, right? Science tells us that 65 million years ago, the dominant life form on the face of the earth went away. This was after existing as an order of life for 160 million years. During those millions of years, I don't know the numbers, but it is my understanding that wave after wave of species of dinosaur came to be extinct, only to be replaced by later generations of dinosaurs. Of course, once the last of the dinosaurs were gone (either completely wiped from existence or evolving into birds as some suspect), the world kept on going fine without them. Sure, I'd miss frogs because I have lived with them, but I somehow don't miss dinosaurs, mammoths, or dodos. Dinosaurs were definitely not wiped out by humans; dodos definitely were. Mammoths? Humans hunted them, but the final cause of their extinction is unknown. Does the manner of extinction make for more or less of a tragedy, and why?

Anyway, what I'm driving at is that whether or not a species may be dying out due to our own actions or due to natural changes beyond our control, in the end, species simply die. We can't say with complete accuracy when, but it seems to me that it's fair to say from an evolutionary standpoint that eventually every species existing today will cease to exist. For many, it will take millions of years, but for some others, I imagine they will die out within the next month or so, many due to no action on the part of humans. That's just nature.

Maybe you might want to argue that if we know or at least highly suspect that the imminent extinction of a species is due to our own poor choices, we might have a responsibility to clean up our own mess. I'd buy that from an emotional standpoint, but really, it's not much more than an emotional argument, is it?

Okay, let's talk penguins one more time. In the movie Happy Feet, (no major spoilers here, but maybe minor ones) the main character is a penguin who eventually realizes that part of the reason he and his fellow penguins can't find enough food is that there are these strange alien creatures (humans) that are eating all of the fish. He eventually decides that the best thing to do is try to communicate with the aliens, and convince them that the best thing to do is share the fish with everyone. The idea is sweet and all, but there's a built-in assumption that I don't buy: that penguins (and perhaps by extension other animals) are somehow morally superior to humans. While certainly any penguin being aware of the fact that they are contending against humankind for the fish supply would not like the idea of giving up all the fish to the humans, does anyone really think that out of the options of sharing the fish with humans or eating all the fish themselves, any penguin would choose the former? We're not morally inferior, we're technologically superior. Whether or not the power of our technology requires a moral temper to it is a matter of opinion. If you don't think so, then explain why humans hunt whales? Obviously someone feels that we owe no moral debt to our harpoonally-challenged sea dwelling cousins.

This is the hard part of relative morality, but to be honest, absolute morality has problems here too, in that it's fair to assume there will always be moral dilemmas that are not clearly covered by a given moral code. There are few religions or philosophical world-views that will tell you what to do about the frogs. Even Buddhists--who no doubt would advocate avoiding any actions that would harm frogs, penguins, whales, or elephants--do not to my knowledge address the issue of what to do for a frog that dies of natural causes. Really, not even the newspaper has a definitive answer. If only we could ask the frogs, what do you suppose they would say?

Friday, March 28, 2008

Paperless office of the mind

I was thinking last night about blogging. I was thinking about what it is that appeals to me. Thank heaven that it's not the publicity, because among the few hits I do get on this blog, the majority of them still seem to be looking for penguin sex.

See, I've always done this, even before the world wide web existed. I used to journal. You know, I'd get one of those little books with blank pages, and write whatever was on my mind in it whenever the mood took me. It even had some limited amount of readership, as I would always encourage friends who visited me to feel free to pick up a journal and peruse it. (I girl I was dating once read one cover-to-cover, which led to a few interesting conversations.) Someone once told me that largely what computer technology does is not so much make new things, but make electronic versions of things that already existed. Blogs are really electronic diaries.

But there's a difference that for me is key. I think what started me thinking about this last night was hearing someone say something like, "There's nothing scary about an empty piece of paper." I have no recollection of where I heard it or if that was anything like an exact quote. But I remembered that back in my journaling days, there was indeed something quite scary to me about a blank piece of paper.

I actually even once wrote a journal entry about it, and while I don't have it with me now, I remember it pretty well. I'd bought a new journal, and I began to write about an intense fear I had at the very moment the pen touched the paper. Here was a whole book full of empty pages, and while I tended to think those journals were overpriced, the actual value of the thing was as yet to be determined. An empty book held infinite promise, like a block of marble, waiting for the artist's chisel. It could be a book of recipes, a novel, a scientific thesis, a portfolio of sketches, an autobiography, anything was possible. However, once the pen met the paper and the writing began, all those infinite possibilities would disappear, and the result, no matter how great it might possibly be, could never possibly live up to the infinite promise of the empty page.

Of course, there's nothing rational about it. An empty page is, in a more tangible sense, nothing at all. To say that an empty page is somehow better would of course make no sense, the promise of anything without actualization is the delivery of nothing at all. Yet it stuck with me, every time I went to write.

There also was the fact that I felt since the page was a certain size, my writing had to fill it. It always surprised me how many times I ended up writing a snippet of fiction or a personal reflection that was worded so that it would just exactly fit the page size allotted. I was a slave to the physical medium of my writing.

And THAT'S what makes blogging so great. The medium of the web is pure information. There is no paper sitting there before me with the promise of anything. When I start a new blog entry, there is no space to fill: you can't scroll down the page to see the blank space below, as there is a presentation of nothing but a cursor, blinking and waiting. There's no permanence of the medium, and if I'm not happy with my writing, There's no ripping out of pages, crumpling them up and throwing them in the waste basket, there's just the click of a button, and all is gone! Or better yet, I simply can decide not to press the "Publish post" button.

There's no pressure to create greatness when nothing is being wasted but time. The internet is pure information. Our writing need not be stacks of dusty forgotten journals, our music need not be piles of CDs in cracked jewel cases, our photos are not limited by the quantity of film we can afford to buy. Hey, how many times have you seen this?

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.
Who would bother to write that out longhand? But in an electronic medium, we toss out a page of gibberish just to fill imaginary space. Here; I'll do it again, just because I can:
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.
There's something oddly freeing about that.

And what's my point? (Does it matter if I have one?) This blog is a journal in a sense, yes, but it is a journal that shares very little in the way of the physical properties of a "journal" as was known in the classic sense. Just as Scott McCloud wrote years ago about the idea of comics on an "infinite canvas", so all electronic forms of media have no limits in the digital world. Isn't a blog a journal with an infinite number of pages? Isn't a live webcam a documentary film of infinite length? Isn't 3D modeling sculpture with an infinite-sized lump of clay? The web allows media within it to be everything or nothing, all at once. It's exciting, but perhaps most of all, it's fun.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

One government, two worlds

Many years ago, I had a pastor that was giving a series of sermons on hot topics of the day. Of course, many of those topics are still big, not least of which is the topic of abortion rights. You can probably guess what side of the issue he came down on, but many people might be surprised how he approached it.

Rather than simply standing up and blasting the opposition to his personal view, he took time to point out some things that most people don't think of. A person's views on abortion are really formed largely upon their opinion of the nature of what an embryo/fetus really is. If you believe it's a human being, then you're most likely going to want to see it protected. If you believe that it's just a lump of tissue on the wall of a woman's uterus, then removing that lump and disposing of it is no more of a moral issue than getting a wart removed. Until you take the time to understand those two viewpoints, you'll never understand those who stand on the other side of the issue from you.

My main point here is not about abortion, but about understanding the opposition on many, many issues. I find myself so often confused as to why the Republicans and Democrats seem to have so much animosity towards one another when there really seems to me to be very little difference between them. Where does this animosity come from?

I was thinking about the Libertarians, and I remembered something one of them once told me. (I have a lot of respect for Libertarians, although I myself am not one, because I tend to see them as perhaps the least hypocritical party for reasons that may become clear here.) This Libertarian pointed out that Democrats seem to think we can use government to solve all our problems, and openly admit it. However, while Republicans say that they are against "big government", if you watch them, you'll realize that they simply want a different kind of big government than the Democrats. I think there's a deep truth there.

We're not talking about a fetus now, we're talking about our government; what is it that Republicans and Democrats view the government to fundamentally be? I think that it's that view of government's fundamental purpose that not only forms the two parties' policies, but is the root of the animosity they have toward each other.

Take two issues; taxing the rich on the one hand, gay marriage on the other. Generally, Democrats are for both of these, and Republicans are against them. Why? The Republicans look at the government and ask, "What can the government do to protect me from things I think are wrong?" We don't like to see our money being taken, so less taxes for everyone. We have a moral system that says homosexuality is wrong, so we're not going to budge on that. The Democrats look at the government and ask, "What can the government do to create situations that I think are right?" We need money for social programs which the rich can afford to fund, so more taxes for everyone, especially the rich, and whatever my personal views on homosexuality may be, equal rights for everyone is a good idea.

So many Republicans and other conservatives seem to have this idea that liberals feel that wealth is evil. Why? Because they seem to want to just tax that evil right out of the rich. Now I'm sure there are a few people who do believe that, but not the majority. Where do Republicans get this idea? It's from their view of the purpose of government. The action of raising taxes on the rich implies to them that rich people must be wrong. That is not why Democrats do it.

Likewise, Democrats seem to feel that conservatives feel it's right to squelch the rights of others. Why? Because they don't take every chance possible to expand equal rights to everyone at every time. Once again, I'm sure there really are people who enjoy stopping those they dislike from enjoying their full freedom, but the aim of most conservatives tends to be different. They just want to stop what they view as being immoral. Democrats assume hatred of freedom and hatred of the poor on the part of Republicans because of a refusal to see eye to eye with them. But Republicans are just following their moral conscience, just like Democrats.

How do Libertarians view the government? To them it's just a tool for people to force their own morality on others, which is exactly what the Democrats and Republicans both do, albeit in different ways. My view? Does it matter? The fact is everyone thinks they're right, and the opposition is wrong, and it's all based on opinion. All I hope for is that people will stop mistaking a difference of opinion for a lack of morality, because there is nobody who is completely moral or amoral. We're all just trying to make things right.