Monday, July 22, 2019

Let’s learn how to live well, before we live forever



“The man who has lived the most is not he who has counted the most years but he who has most felt life. Men have been buried at one hundred who died at their birth.” - Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Emile

Why prolong life if life is barely worth living?


I'm thinking of all the futurists out there, who talk about developing technologies to prolong human life or end the process of aging.

Joe Rogan has these guys on his podcast all the time. Harvard professor David Sinclair says we should consider aging a disease, as if it's the flu or tuberculosis. “It’s only because we all tend to go through [aging]," Sinclair said, "that we think it’s acceptable.”

Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, spends a good portion of his sequel, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, talking about the future of humankind. Harari points to a number of emerging initiatives, like the Gilgamesh Project, which aims to make humans immortal by eradicating all diseases. He predicts that we will become higher-functioning cyborgs (with computer implants and robotic enhancements) and that we will have far more control over our children’s genes. Harari excitedly writes on his website that, “Humans are going to upgrade themselves into gods. That is, humans will acquire abilities that in the past were considered divine, such as eternal youth, mind reading, and the ability to engineer life.”

Zoltan Istvan, a transhumanist, advocates for technology that will allow us to upload our consciousnesses into machines, so that our minds, if not our bodies, can be immortal.

I am not against even the whackiest of these endeavors, but I am a bit bothered that these thinkers and their followers are entirely focused on prolonging human life before we’ve done the good work of improving human life. They talk about being transhuman before we've figured out how to best be human. They talk about living forever before we've learned the art of living well.

I realize that life has improved for many. Technology has helped to reduce global poverty and we've pretty much done away with wars. Steven Pinker says humankind, in many ways, has never had it better. I acknowledge that we’ve raised the standard of living, but I’m skeptical that we have done well to improve the quality of living. We're more peaceful, more literate, and fewer infants die at birth. But our long lives are often empty. Our cities are safer, but our communities are dead. Our peaceful times lack meaning and adventure. Our kids grow up depressed and addicted to screens.

Fertilizers, vaccines, GMO crops, and a thousand other technologies support almost 8 billion people, many of whom are rapidly advancing out of poverty. But I wonder if this is a bit like the Neolithic Revolution (a term that describes our species's transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer-herder). Historian Jared Diamond calls the transition to farming humanity's "worst mistake." Yuval Noah Harari says the farming/herding livelihood kept "more people alive in worse conditions." When hunter-gatherers were compelled to begin domesticating crops and animals, they lost their egalitarian societies and their varied and nutritious diets. They were suddenly exposed to slavery, taxation, epidemics, and grueling labor. In becoming sedentary subjects of the state and masters of the plow, they gained a lot, but they lost arguably more.

My point is that peace and prosperity and technology do not automatically lead to the good life. Progress can be existentially fatal.

Let’s look at the quality of life for the average American. Yes, he can vote, he’s free to buy his own home, and his doctors will keep him alive longer. But this is still a person who has bad habits, bad health, bad character, bad education, bad work, bad relationships, and bad deals.


1. Bad Habits 


- The average American spends ten hours a day looking at screens, including 4.5 hours watching shows and movies.

- The average American household watches 7 hours and 50 minutes of TV every day.

- Americans spend 7 percent of their life outdoors. (87 percent is spent indoors, 6 percent in vehicles.)

- 47,000 Americans committed suicide in 2017, the highest rate in the last half century.

- 70,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2017, which is four times as many deaths from overdose since 1999.


2. Bad Health


- According to a 2012 study by The Lancet, 41 percent of Americans qualify as sedentary for not getting the recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week.

- In 2015, the National Center for Health Statistics reported that, among Americans over twenty years old, 71 percent are overweight and 38 percent are obese.

- More than 100 million Americans have diabetes or prediabetes.

- Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. — 43.8 million, or 18.5% — experiences mental illness in a given year.

- In the 2015–2016 school year, “half of all students surveyed reported having attended counseling for mental health concerns.” (Quote is from Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind, which cites a 2016 report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health.)

- According to Jonathan Haidt in The Coddling of the American Mind, the percentage of college students who describe themselves as having a mental disorder increased from 2.7 to 6.1 for male college students between 2012 and 2016 (that’s an increase of 126%). For female college students, it rose even more: from 5.8 to 14.5 (an increase of 150%)… One out of every seven women at U.S. universities now thinks of herself as having a psychological disorder, up from just one in eighteen women.


3. Bad character


- 62 million Americans voted for Donald Trump.


4. Bad education 


- I’m just going to quote this paragraph from Slate. I don’t mean to make this a partisan issue by pointing out Republican stupidities, but the Slate piece provides a nice summary that does the work for me:

As recently as 2016, 45 percent of Republicans still believed that the Affordable Care Act included “death panels”... A 2015 poll found that 54 percent of GOP primary voters believed then-President Obama to be a Muslim… Only 25 percent of self-proclaimed Trump voters agree that climate change is caused by human activities. Only 43 percent of Republicans overall believe that humans have evolved over time… Almost 1 in 6 Trump voters, while simultaneously viewing photographs of the crowds at the 2016 inauguration of Donald Trump and at the 2012 inauguration of Barack Obama, insisted that the former were larger.


5. Bad Work


- According to author Matthew Crawford of Shop Class as Soul Craft, American workers are increasingly experiencing “manual disengagement.” We aren’t growing crops, or making or manufacturing products anymore. Many of us now are cashiers and clothes-folders, which are jobs that many of us consider monotonous, meaningless, and unfulfilling.



- According to David Graeber, author of Bullshit Jobs, “a YouGov poll found that in the United Kingdom only 50 percent of those who had full-time jobs were entirely sure their job made any sort of meaningful contribution to the world, and 37 percent were quite sure it did not. A poll by the firm Schouten & Nelissen carried out in Holland put the latter number as high as 40 percent.”


6. Bad relationships 


- The AARP reports that 42 percent of Americans over age 45 experience chronic loneliness.

- 40 percent of U.S. adults report feeling alone, 47 percent feel “left out,” 27 percent feel misunderstood, 43 percent feel they’re relations are not meaningful, and 43 percent feel isolated. Generation Z (born after 1995) are the loneliest generation.


7. Bad deals 


- According to The Motley Fool, almost all of us are in debt. (81 percent of baby boomers are in debt, plus 80 percent of Gen Xers and 81 percent of Millennials.)

- If America's 2.2 million prison population were a city, it would be the fifth largest in the U.S., behind Houston and ahead of Phoenix.


***

What's all that about living forever? Who would want to live forever with lives like these? Perhaps a healthy, wealthy, well-educated man or woman from the Bay Area.

But I don't wish to shame these futurists for their prosperity or their desire to create history-changing technologies. And I'm no Luddite. If someone wants to upload their consciousness into their Toshiba, I won't unplug the power cord. I myself wouldn't mind an anti-aging vaccine or another 100 years.

I'm not against the futurists. But I think it might serve the futurist movement well if they did a better job acknowledging how life isn't all that great now, and that their beloved technologies haven't always improved it. They ought to say upfront that, in addition to researching mind-blowing technologies, we should also vigorously address the many problems people face today. And they should probably be less cocky and more cautious, and their government regulators should be substantial and scrupulous.

And I suppose I wish there was a well articulated and well packaged modern-day movement (that has nothing to do with these futurists) that outlines and calls for a mastering of the art of how to live.

I respect these innovators and I do believe they mean well. But I'm skeptical that the future is our best future. I believe we'd learn more about how to live well, not from the mind-bending visions of futurists, but from the examples of our ancestors. We need tighter communities, fewer screens, healthier foods, more nature, more fulfilling work, more physical activity, and more equality. No app will provide these things. I believe we would be more likely to find inspiration for what makes our lives most livable, not 20 years in the future, but 20,000 years into the past.

Monday, July 15, 2019

A trip to the Alps



A few weeks ago, I found myself near the town of Berchtesgaden in the German Alps. The following is my account of a two-day solo hike. 

Day 1: Berchtesgaden to Stahlhaus

I struck out at 10:30 a.m. for Stahlhaus, one of several sleeping huts for hikers in Berchtesgaden National Park. Berchtesgaden is in southeast Germany on the Austrian border. Designated as a national park in 1978, it’s 81 square miles and home to Kehlsteinhaus, or the “Eagle’s Nest,” a Third Reich building once used as a getaway for Hitler and Nazi top brass, but which now solely functions as a top-of-a-hill beer garden for tourists.  

I began my hike in a European heatwave. The temperature was around 38°C (100°F), so I generously applied sunscreen and glugged water. At the Berchtesgaden tourist center, where I picked up a map, a whole bunch of Chinese people got off a bus and crowded around the bathroom entrances. 

I wouldn’t see any of the Chinese tourists on the hiker/cyclist trail. Apart from a few guys speaking a Slavic language, I seemed like the only foreigner, and my American nationality, to everyone I’d meet in the hills, would be a novelty. 

The first thing I noticed about the German hikers was just how steady they were. Normally I cruise past middle-age women on a trail, but out here if I took a moment to snap a photo or eat a protein bar, I’d soon be overtaken by those whom I’d just overtaken. There are lots of really good looking and in-shape Germans, but many of these hikers didn’t look like they were in amazing shape or anything. There are plenty of lumpy, soft-bellied Germans, yet here they were, gliding up the steep trail with little difficulty. I’ve also noticed plenty of German men with sizable pot bellies (probably from too much sausage and beer), but the rest of their bodies seem hale and hearty, and I’d see plenty of them in the mountains, too. If there is such a thing as a healthy obesity, this is it.  

I arrived at the Stahlhaus shelter at 3 p.m. I’d planned to climb a mountain peak, but that would mean I’d miss the three-course dinner meal in the beer garden, so I sat on a bench and did a sketch of the mountains. I tried to write some thoughts down in my journal but my mind, because of the heat, was mush and my memories were melting.  



I was, though, quite impressed with the shelter. These German huts aren’t like AT shelters, where you get three walls and lots of mice. The Stahlhaus was well-constructed, offering three-course dinners, a breakfast, showers, and electricity. Camping is prohibited in the park, so if you want to do an overnight hike, you have to rely on these shelters, which cost $27/night. Breakfast, dinner, and my rented cotton sleeping bag liner rental was another $40. That’s $65 for a night of camping! Some people spend five days hiking out here, where nature is definitely not free. 

When I arrived, I was surprised to see that the beds were sandwiched together shoulder to shoulder. Four Slavic men were whispering loudly on my bunk level. Two middle-aged German woman came in and took their clothes and bras off in front of us to change into their sleepwear.  

I nodded off to sleep quickly, but the Slavic men snored horribly, waking me after an hour. They were on the far side of the bunk, but I found the volume intolerable, and I wondered how they weren’t waking up one another. It was a symphony of snores. (An awful symphony!) There were grizzly growls and grunts. Sniffles and snorts. Whimpers and wheezes. I found it uncivilized, and I thought that if someone knows that they snore that bad, then they ought to stay at home and leave the rest of us unafflicted. But I too was committing remorseless sins in my corner of the bunk, softly farting into the fabric of my rented cotton sleeping bag liner. 

Thoughts and Reflections from the Day

  • Expecting fathers can expect a 34% decrease in testosterone levels when the baby comes. This has me concerned for all the obvious reasons. Will I lose my hair, my muscles, my, umm, drive? Will I eventually get my testosterone levels back? I suppose I don’t want to become what I fear becoming: another unambitious, overweight, and sedated man. I don’t want to lose what I most like about myself. Statistics and hormone levels seem so scientific and therefore inescapable. Would this happen in a tribal setting, where parenting duties are a bit more spread out? Is the testosterone drop typical to men in small, atomized nuclear families in industrialized countries, where the father takes on 50 percent of care-taking duties? Is this an example of how my culture may affect and alter me on a profound (hormonal) level? It should also be said that, as the article states, new fathers also see boosts in loving and bonding hormones, such as dopamine and oxytocin. I suppose I do like the idea of experiencing the world with a new perspective (and body to some degree). (Hell, I’d try out being a woman for a week if such a thing were possible.) There are many lives to live in one life, and there is indeed a part of me that welcomes a new one for a time. Plus, I suppose I was heartened to see so many fit older German men on this trip--something I don’t really see in America. [1] A few days later, on a train, I sat across from a man who must have been in his mid sixties and who was probably capable of kicking my ass. The men here, at least in this corner of Germany, age remarkably better than men in my home countries of the U.S. and U.K. Perhaps physical activity, and hikes like these, are part of the solution, and perhaps statistics and studies can, to a degree, be defied. [2]     
  • I developed an idea for a children’s book about a little tree growing up. 
  • Home sapiens, as a species, suffer from amnesia. A giraffe of today lives pretty much the same life as a giraffe of a million years ago, and therefore the giraffe would have little use for a generations-long memory. But we as Homo sapiens, in our 200,000 years, have lived such varied existences, from hunter-gatherers to retail store clothes-folders. Yet we have no real memory for our past lives as hunter-gatherer, farmer-herders, or warrior-craftsmen. No real memory beyond two generations of relatives. No real memory for living in the wild, living according to seasons, looking up at the stars. We've forgotten so much. You might consider our collective unconscious, or our "ghost psyches," as sufficient substitutes for ancient memories, but I think it would do us a world of good to remember well beyond our individual lives. 
  • German strangers look at you longer. It’s not quite a stare; it’s more a gaze. They hold their eyes on you for an extra second or two. A Brit might consider this rude, but I don’t mind. The German gaze contains a mix of curiosity, indifference, and sometimes a little bit of warmth. 
  • This paragraph is not going to help me if I’m ever a suspected of a homicide, but I’d say that several times a week I impulsively and mentally rehearse acts of violence. It often occurs when I’m walking down a vaguely unfriendly city street that gets my stress levels to increase. I’ll imagine a man or a group of teenage boys attacking me or my partner, and I’ll dispatch them with artful moves or just a burst of bloody head-butting animal rage. I should clarify that I never fantasize about striking someone without good reason. And I should say that I’ve never actually been in a fight, and I’m happy to go the rest of my life without getting into one. Yet, during these rehearsals, there’s a part of me that is relishing the sensations of mentally delivering a savage beat down to someone. I consider these “rehearsals of violence.” They mentally prepare me for unlikely events. It keeps me on my guard. It’s not very different than when I imagine ground balls hit my way, which are supposed to help me be a better short stop on my softball team. I’m pretty sure this is all perfectly normal, maybe more so for a man. These things just go unstated.  




Stahlhaus

Stahlhaus


Day 2: Stahlhaus to St. Bartholomew's haus

“German sounds, how do you say, harsh?” asked Michael (pronounced Mick-A-ell). 

I told Michael that I thought spoken German, to my ear, sounds beautiful, and that Americans only think it sounds harsh because our exposure to the German tongue comes mostly from WWII movies, where steely-jawed Germans speak their language with an authoritarian bark.  

When I told him I was from New York, Michael told me he’d went on a tour of the American West Coast, where he visited lots of parks, but that he saw very few people hiking the trails. 

“American are very….” said Michael, searching for a word. 

I made a wide parenthetical gesture with my hands around my belly to communicate “fat.” 

“Not very active,” he said. 

I only had a cartoon map of the mountains with me, so I’d asked Michael for navigational advice. He took a suspicious look at my pack and map and worn-out hiking shoes, and asked me where I was headed for the day. I told him I was going to hike the circumference of Lake Kรถnigsee and arrive back in town by tonight (which looked manageable on my cartoon map, but was perhaps a bit too ambitious). 

Michael let loose a horrified and disgusted, “Nooooooa!”

I thought quietly, “yes.”

It was a bit too ambitious, but I was feeling ambitious. I had glorious sunny weather with no chance of rain in the forecast. I had a super light pack (that was lacking warm clothes and basically everything except a half a day’s worth of snacks), but it was super light and therefore wouldn’t slow me down. And I had a full and expendable German pot belly that I wanted to burn off. And I felt invigorated and up for an overly ambitious challenge.

Michael asked me if I had a head torch. I said no. He involuntarily shook his head, swallowed his disgust, and proceeded to help me out with my route planning as well as he could. 

At these elevations, I’d have to walk through a number of ice fields. These were fields of hard-packed snow along mountainsides. If I slipped, I could slide all the way down into a cluster of coccyx-bashing boulders, so I took my time and grabbed two pointy rocks, which I thought I might use as ice picks should I slip and slide feet-first down the mountainside. I crossed paths with two German women wearing fashionable hiking garb and carrying trekking poles. They didn’t bother to slow their gait over the ice fields, and I felt, with a stone in each hand like some uncouth and barbaric caveman. Later, in the woods, I’d break off a pair of branches from a fallen tree, which I’d use as makeshift trekking poles. In just 24 hours, I felt like I was hurdling back into a different time, and it felt fantastic.   

As I walked downhill into alpine woods, it reminded me of everything that Scottish forests are missing. There were insects everywhere. Butterflies fluttered in front of my advancing feet. The forests, mixed with pine and broad-leaf trees, were alive with birdsong. Look closely and there are probably lines of ants marching perpendicularly across the trail. The alpine meadows were a healthy green with pink and blue and yellow flowers. A chamois (a tawny mountain goat-antelope hybrid) heard my footsteps, hid in a tangle of the forest understory, and, when I passed it, sprinted down the rocky slope at a speed that would have been life-ending if it had tripped. This was a forest alive and well and reasonably ecologically whole (though Germany still lacks the presence of brown bears). 

The path was well posted with signs advertising the next mountaintop and sleeping hut. I took note of how accurate the time indicators were. If the sign said it would take four hours to get to the next destination, it would take me four hours. If I took a fifteen minute break, it would take me four hours and fifteen minutes. Trails that had a blue dot meant they were easy. Red meant difficult. Black meant challenging. I thought this was all worth noting because in the U.S., if you were to pick up a trail brochure at your local state park, “challenging trails” are designated that way if they’re merely over an hour on a rocky uphill path. Here, a challenging trail might require ice picks, crampons, and a helmet. And it’s actually challenging. In Allegheny State Park, an uphill two-hour hike, might be accomplished in 45 minutes by someone fit.  

I thought about my nighttime sins, and I wondered if anyone has ever been killed due to a fart. I’m guessing it’s happened at some point. Maybe, in an earlier civilization, you’re marching with a prisoner or slave or someone you hate, and they let out a defiant boiled cabbage fart. When it comes to being angered by a fart, the smell, I think, is secondary to the impertinence of the emission. Sometimes a fart is emitted, not as a consequence of natural body rhythms (in which case it's mostly forgivable), but to purposefully annoy or rebel or defy, and that’s when I think someone has probably been clobbered over the head with a heavy club. If it’s hot and humid, and the smell is prolonged and amplified, that’s all the more reason for an execution. I’m sure it’s happened in Florida. 

The fart that most riled me was released on a winter’s day in Coldfoot, Alaska, in my dorm room, which was small and very warm. I was playing Scrabble with a male friend and a female coworker. My friend let out something silent and toxic and didn’t claim ownership of it, leaving the girl to possibly imagine that it was me. I was revolted by the smell, but more by the thoughtlessness (or purposeful mischievousness) of his emission, for I suspected that the expulsion was more voluntary than involuntary. In a formal setting, in a room with three people, it’s impolite to leave ownership unclaimed. I kept my mouth shut, thinking that I ought not embarrass him, while leaving, in the air, the humiliating possibility that she’d attribute the unclaimed smell to me. I asked him after she’d left the room, and his mischievous grin confirmed everything. I never found out to whom she’d attributed the sin. 

Back on the trail, I walked past a thin middle-age man named Christian, also a solo traveler, who enthusiastically initiated conversation and who helped provide more advice. “Are you telling me a joke?” he asked when I told him where I planned to hike by the end of the day. “Do you have a torch?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. 

The German language is not harsh, and Germans are not all preoccupied with  discipline and efficiency. That’s how most Americans think of them. Oftentimes Germans and their trains are late. And the people are warm, convivial, and cheery. They're sensual: they love to eat and drink and be out in nature. On my three trips to Germany, I’ve taken note of the fact that I get smiled at here by women far more than usual. It’s a twinkly smile that opens up from their initial curious gaze. I might call it flirtatious. Amorous, even. Is there something about me that is appealing to German women? I never get this look in the U.K. I never got this look in Central America. Almost never in the U.S. For a happily taken man, there’s nothing to be done with such a smile, but it nevertheless brightens my day.  

I’d hiked from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., arriving at St. Bartholomew's haus just before dark. On my map, I saw a squiggly black line (black denotes a challenging trail) that would lead me back to civilization, but it was too dark and clearly too dangerous, and this section alone was another 3.5 hours, and I knew from experience to trust the time estimates, and that 3.5 hours meant 3.5 hours. 

The church grounds were empty, and I planned on sleeping on a bench outside for the night and catching a cheap ferry back to town the next morning. I found a couple of hikers in their mid-twenties in the same predicament, and they warned me that, if I was caught camping in the park (with or without a tent), I’d be fined $1,000. A pair of unhelpful rangers showed up in a boat, with flashlights and binoculars, searching for would-be campers, and they said we had to either continue walking or call for an emergency rescue boat to pick us up.

This seemed crazy! It was perfectly legal to risk death on a steep mountain trail in the middle of the night, but it was a $1,000 fine if I slept in the woods or on a park bench. 

The young man called emergency services for a boat ride without determining how much it would cost (we heard $280 from the ranger), and I was left with the options of illegally (and probably successfully) sleeping in the woods, or shamefully taking the emergency boat ride and splitting the outrageous bill with the couple. 

“I should have never called them,” the young man said, reflecting on all the money he’d have to dish out for a five-minute boat ride. 

They were young and kind and I’d developed a bond with them when we discussed why we shouldn’t embark on a late-night death climb. I wanted to selfishly abandon them so I could keep my money and figure things out on my own in my own thrifty way, but I thought there was something wrong about leaving a younger and more cash-strapped couple, with whom I’d felt a sense of fraternity, with the whole bill. 

An hour later, the boat arrived, shining bright lights onto the shore that made me turn my face away. The whole situation was absurd. There was a rescue boat here where none of us truly needed rescuing. I felt weirdly compelled to pay for something I certainly didn’t want or have to pay for. The couple climbed the ramp and entered the boat, negotiating the rescue price down from $550 to $280. I could have turned away and had a memorable night out in the woods, but out of a sense of what was right, I hopped on, and, with great grief, paid a third of the ticket home.  

Thoughts and Reflections from the Day

  • I had an idea for a memoir, written unlike any other, that comprehensively collects all thoughts, flowing from one to the other, sort of like those of Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses. But actually comprehensible. I won’t do it. I like to keep good portions of my life private. And most of my thoughts are mundane and nonsensical. But I think someone ought to undertake the project because there’s a need for such a book. I don’t think any art form has really ever captured how meandering and mundane and amazing the flow of human thought is. In memoirs, or blog entries like these, we only get a carefully curated selection. We don’t get the sad memories, the rehearsals of physical violence, the humiliations, the grand dreams, the amazingly random stream of unconsciousness, the nonsense. I can’t think of one book or movie that’s close to capturing this. Montaigne? Joyce? Maybe, but even with them there’s plenty of careful curating and narrating.       
  • I’ve never seen a solo traveler from China. I’ve seen plenty in large groups in European cities and American national parks. But never an independent man or woman. Group travel (especially when you’re crammed in a bus with members of your own homogeneous country) seems like a pretty lousy way to travel. They’re not trying to talk in English. They’re not engaging in a personal way with Americans or Germans. I suppose they’re at least soaking in some views and making cultural observations, but it seems like an impoverished form of travel. (The Chinese, by the way, are now visiting more international countries than any other nation.)
  • ”You’re scaring me,” is a good way to successfully deter an overzealous suitor. 



Dangerous-seeming ice fields










[1] To my surprise, there are actually plenty of obese Germans. About 24 percent of the adult population.  



[2] It may not matter if there is a 1/3 drop in testosterone levels since there is a wide range of what’s considered normal (about 300 to 1,000 nanograms per deciliter of blood). Apparently there’s little benefit to having high testosterone within this range; all that matters is that you stay within it.  

Friday, July 12, 2019

The National Park Service in the Anthropocene

"The imperfect is our only paradise." - Wallace Stevens

A few years ago, I was hiking on a trail in Death Valley National Park, thinking about a book I’d just finished called After Nature by Jedediah Purdy. 

Purdy's book is mostly historical. It looks at four different phases of the "environmental imagination" in American history: 1) Providential, 2) Romantic, 3) Utilitarian, and 4) Ecological. From one phase to another, Americans' thoughts and feelings about nature evolved. During the romantic period, for example, we attached symbolic and aesthetic importance on unspoiled natural features, such as mountains and waterfalls. The romantic environmental imagination influenced the movement that created the National Park Service.  

The fifth phase (our phase) might be called "Anthropocentric," a term used to describe how everything has been affected by humankind, from the climate, to species extinction, to the very architecture of our omnipresent industry. 

Here in Death Valley, I was thinking about the world with Purdy’s thesis in mind: that we need to advance to this new stage of environmental thinking and adapt our imaginations, aesthetic preferences, and policies to it. If we're going to have an anthropocentric environmental imagination, we need to re-imagine what’s beautiful, what needs to be learned, and what we ought to be visiting.

How shall we imagine our national parks (our present and future national parks) in light of these questions? 

Our parks, since the beginning of the National Park Service, have been designated and designed for viewing based on romantic notions of nature that were prevalent through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (Almost all of our parks celebrate and preserve and showcase mostly-undisturbed natural beauty.) As Purdy would argue, we ought not discard the values of our old environmental imaginations, as these values and cravings (such as a romantic idealization of wilderness) are still alive in us. But what sort of new parks should we be designating in the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries? Should we keep trying to buy up scenic land to celebrate more beauty? Or do we need to develop a new ecological imagination and visit new areas accordingly?

One idea I thought up is to designate parks in areas of awesome human destruction, like the chain of removed mountaintops in West Virginia and Kentucky. Although this area is scattered across the Appalachian Mountains, it roughly covers 1.5 million acres, which would make it among the biggest national parks in the Lower-48. 

At Mountaintop Removal National Park, visitors could visit a park that focuses not on pristine beauty, but on human-made destruction, which no doubt would be beautiful in its own wayMaybe it’s not beautiful, exactly, but it’s something that evokes awe. Waterfalls and mountains do not have a monopoly on awe, after all. The meticulously-planted Big Ag rows of hay can evoke awe. Same with a marvel of engineering, like a dam, refinery, city, or pipeline. Personally, I was awed by the vastness and complexity of the Alberta Tar Sand pits and the Port Arthur refineries in Texas. I don’t think feeling awe for these places is tacit approval of them; rather, I think it's just acknowledgment of rare amazingness and of the fact that these places are a part of our world that can't be wished away. In Mountaintop Removal National Park, we could learn about our destructive past, see the gradual rehabilitation of the land, and come to regard all aspects of nature (not just the pristine places) as nature.

I was surprised to see so many visitors at Death Valley. (In 2018, Death Valley was the fifteenth most-visited national park, with 1.6 million visitors, placing it in the top-fourth of national parks.) That’s amazing because Death Valley is a place that annually gets two inches of rain, that is deadly-hot for good portions of the year, and that has natural features that do not fit within our common perceptions of natural beauty. How many people would drive through Death Valley if it was just a road going through nameless BLM land? Not many. Give it a cool name and designate it as a national park and people will come. You could do the same with a lot of other areas in the country that we typically wouldn’t seek out.

I have no idea if a Mountaintop Removal National Park, or a Tar Sands National Park, or a Love Canal National Monument is even remotely economically feasible. (Who owns that land and how much would it cost?) But it’s not a ridiculous idea. Every year, thousands of people visit Chernobyl, the site of a nuclear meltdown in modern-day Ukraine. (Don't tell me people don't want to see ugliness. At Chernobyl, people are visiting a place where there are higher than normal levels of radiation.) Over a million tourists visit Auschwitz every year. Pompeii, Wounded Knee, and hundreds of battlefields are flooded by tourists every year, and especially in the cases of Wounded Knee, Little Big Horn, and other Native American historic sites, they’ve probably done great good in educating folks about the struggles of Native Americans and the injustices they’ve faced. 

Landschaftspark in Germany. Credit: Duisburg.de. 

In Germany, there’s Landschaftspark, a park that includes the ruins of a twentieth-century ironworks, where they’re interpreting the industrial past and watching nature take over. Could we turn some abandoned Ohio rustbelt town into a park? Or what about the old grain elevators and silos of Buffalo, New York, which I’ve seen, and which are visually arresting? These places are darkly beautiful and they could tell a rarely told story about our industrial past.  

Ideas for national parks for the Anthropocene

Silo City National Park - Buffalo, NY

I took a boat ride down the Buffalo River and saw these amazing silos, which tell the history of early industrialism in America. The place has been called Silo City, and while I believe there are ways to actually get in and see the silos, it's not a park and it's all relatively unknown. 

Tar Sands National Park - Alberta, Canada

The Tar Sands make up about 54,000 square miles of land. I took a flight over the devastation in 2012. 

National park of a slavery plantation - South Carolina

 I'm heading into sensitive territory here, but it seems reasonable to acquire old plantation land for the purpose of telling an important story. I lived in the South for many years, and I was always troubled by the fact that there is very little public acknowledgment of our slave-holding past. I googled for "biggest slave owner" and it seems it was Joshua John Ward, who owned the Brookgreen Plantation in South Carolina. Such a place would be suitable for a national park. Credit: Wikipedia.

Dust Bowl National Park - Great Plains

This could tell a story of what happens when we mistreat the land. It's also a story of collective action through government-supported relief and shelterbelt projects. 

Love Canal National Monument - Niagara Falls, NY

 I grew up near Love Canal. It is bizarre and disturbing and interesting to look at. There ought to at least be an interpretive center here, plus walking tours around the ghost town. Credit: The Buffalo News.

Mountaintop Removal National Park - Appalachian Mts.

Credit: Desmog Blog. 

Soil Erosion National Park - Iowa

This refreshingly honest and non-promotional display at an Iowa rest stop shows how much topsoil has disappeared in the last 170 years. Perhaps Soil Erosion National Park can be our first entirely underground park, where we can walk alongside depleted soil levels and aquifers, and beneath the roots of corn and soy. Credit: Wikipedia. 

Passenger Pigeon National Park - Eastern U.S.
This park will commemorate all the animals in North America that have gone extinct or become endangered since European settlement. If I let my mind wander, I might even suggest that we could have a park like the suggested Pleistocene Park in Siberia, where scientists intend to genetically reinvent (or de-extinct) the woolly mammoth and give it habitat. There are efforts to do as much with the passenger pigeon. Credit: Wikipedia. 

Refineryville National Park - Port Arthur, Texas (title borrowed from Andrew Blackwell’s Visit Sunny Chernobyl)

I took this photo in the refinery area of Port Arthur, Texas. Should we ever have access to abandoned industrialized spaces, they could serve as places for contemplation and rewilding. 

Stampede Bus National Historic Site - Healy, Alaska

I've written about formally designating and protecting the Stampede Bus site, from Into the Wild, in my tiny book, The McCandless Mecca. This monument can tell a story of not just McCandless, but the bus: which, for about 3/4ths of a century, has alternatingly served the mining industry, hunters, dreamers, and now pilgrims. It can tell the McCandless story, or something bigger. It might be wiser for this to be swallowed by nearby Denali National Park or to become an Alaska state park, but I feel it's very deserving of protecting and monumentalizing. Credit: Josh Spice. 

Take me seriously, but not too seriously. The above ideas come from the top of my head, and have been proposed with little research or serious thought about feasibility. But it doesn't hurt to think playfully about the idea and I encourage more ideas. I’m sure there are many, many more. (Just google for sites of U.S. environmental disasters.) Plus, I’m sure there are much snappier names that can be given to lure people, just as Death Valley does. (And obviously some of these are very impossible since they’re still in use.)

Our world will soon have over 10 billion people. There are fewer and fewer places of unsettled, majestic beauty we can set aside. Our most profound human creation -- climate change -- affects everything. For the twenty-first century and beyond, we need to continue to fight to reverse our past mistakes, but, for our own well-being, we also need to come to terms with what we have, and that may mean finding enjoyment, stimulation, and even beauty in places we never thought we would. 

Monday, June 24, 2019

This Land Is Our Land, updated research

Credit: Wikipedia
One of the unpleasant realities of traditional book-making is that authors don't get a chance to edit their finished work unless they're lucky enough to get a second edition. At present, none of my books have second editions. 

(I am, however, able to easily edit my two self-published e-books, at least the e-versions of them.) 

I've come across some juicy research lately that would've helped me make a stronger argument in my book, This Land Is Our Land, which critically examines modern-day private property and calls for an American right to roam. 

1. For starters, NYT published a lovely piece about land ownership in the West, where Texas billionaires are purchasing huge parcels of land and closing off historic public access points. I discuss this at length in my book, but the author of this piece did some admirable reporting that shows just who these landowners are. 

2. As I discussed in my last blog post, NYT also published an Op-Ed about how much land has been taken from black people (11 million acres). African Americans own and have access to very little private land. (Minorities own only 3 percent of agricultural land despite making up more than a third of the U.S. population.) These numbers add legitimacy to the claim that a lot of land in the U.S. has been acquired through fraud, deception, and theft. Therefore, landowners, I'd argue, shouldn't have as much power as they do, especially with regard to their right to exclude. I argue in my book that a "right to roam" is one small but significant way to correct historic wrongs, as it has in Scotland. 

3. Mike Huckabee and a bunch of rich people in Florida are trying to turn public beaches private. Stories like these can help illustrate the problem and appall readers. 

4. I was once told by a smart person that gated communities are now the most common type of housing development being built in the U.S. Through my research, I could not confirm that statement, but I did learn that gated communities are indeed being developed at a rate never seen before. This troubles me for all the reasons you might expect. From the linked article: 
Across the United States, more than 10 million housing units are in gated communities, where access is 'secured with walls or fences,' according to 2009 Census Bureau data. Roughly 10 percent of the occupied homes in this country are in gated communities, though that figure is misleadingly low because it doesn’t include temporarily vacant homes or second homes. Between 2001 and 2009, the United States saw a 53 percent growth in occupied housing units nestled in gated communities.

I'm writing this blog post, in part, to create a list of updates I'd like to add if I'm ever so lucky to get a second edition.