Sunday, May 24, 2020

Op-Ed in The Washington Post


I have an Op-Ed in The Washington Post today, arguing for my favorite thing--the right to roam. If you're interested in learning more about the subject, check out my book, This Land Is Our Land.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Essay on pandemic life

Illustration by Astrid Jaekel
[I've written an essay for the Wigtown Book Festival on my pandemic experience, where I've found myself marooned in North Carolina, living among preppers, doomers, and survivalists. Here's a few paragraphs, or just read it in full on the website.]

I’m an American who lives in Scotland and who got stuck in America because of the pandemic. 
I was on a short speaking tour at high schools and colleges in North Carolina when America was locking down and my flight home got canceled. It just so happened that I used to live in North Carolina and that I had a friend here, so I suggested to my wife that we head to my pal David’s home in a half-rural, half-wild part of the state in the forested foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. I knew it would be the perfect spot to hunker down. 
David lives in Stokes County, near the Virginia border, about an hour from the mid-sized cities of Greensboro and Winston-Salem. Here, there are about three “No Trespassing” signs per capita, the median age looks like it’s about 67, and one-syllable curse words are drawn out into raspy haikus. Imagine rolling country roads, woods colored every shade of green, clay-red soil soon to sprout rows of cabbage heads, and farmer-tanned arms dangling out the windows of well-polished pickups. It’s thoroughly Southern, Christian, and conservative. In 2016, 76 percent of Stokes voters voted for Trump. 
On a dead-end gravel road, David has five acres of land. He moved out here about thirteen years ago to live out his retirement in a small, steep-roofed Gothic revival cottage that he built, which he calls “Acorn Abbey.” 
Acorn Abbey has the feel of a monastery, if a heretical one. Books have been written here (including all three of mine), periods of silence are voluntarily observed, and the names of Augustine and St. Patrick are frequently mentioned, but only with contempt. There are teetering towers of books, a Rodgers organ that booms Bach and show tunes, and a vegetable garden and orchard. [Keep reading.]

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

More depopulation panic


In his latest column, NYT's Ross Douthat sounds the alarm about the travesty of reduced human fertility rates. I'm not sure why so many pundits are sounding alarms over the world population, which is 7.8 billion people, a number that's increased by roughly 800 percent in the last 200 years and which is projected to rise to 11.2 billion by 2100. Many of these billions of people consume at unsustainable rates. (Americans, per capita, consume four times the amount of the earth's carrying capacity, according to an estimate.) Yet Douthat worries that this “global fertility crisis" will result in "ever-slower growth." He writes that in this "age of stagnation" "growth prospects will dim." And even though we produce an additional 83 million people every year, Douthat quotes someone who worries that our population will "gradually vanis[h]."

What fascinates me about these depopulation critics is just how anthropocentric their thinking is. Why not try to imagine how positive human depopulation will be for the millions of other species that we share this planet with: the wild plants, the non-domesticated animals, and the bugs, as well as ecosystems and the climate? Instead, Douthat seems most concerned about the state of countries' GDPs.

Douthat does include a throwaway paragraph about the supposed environmental benefits of depopulation, but he seems to believe that we need to maintain population levels to "innovate" our way out of the climate crisis, which seems absurd to me as most of these 8 billion people are working on farms, in factories, and in retail. They’re not in labs inventing more effective photovoltaic solar panels. He also insinuates that depopulation proponents are extreme misanthropes, who want an earth without people. I don't think that's the case at all: my vision of a depopulated earth involves a sustainable population of humans, who have little concern for their country's GDP, and who thrive on a planet that's given a chance to heal and rejuvenate.

[If there's a weakness in my argument, it's that I'm being flippant about the difficulties to be faced by older generations. I just can't seem to summon the sympathy because the health of the earth and the good of the species seem immeasurably more important than the comforts of one generation in their twilight years.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Movie Reviews: "The Two Popes" and "Thunder Road"



During the first 45 minutes of The Two Popes, I thought I was watching a classic-to-be. That should have been the whole movie: two great actors, whether in a sunny garden or a marbled chamber, trading quips and confessions and building their unlikely friendship. It was as if another director directed the second half of the movie, when the film resorted to extensive expository flashbacks that build up to Pope Francis’s heroic and crowd-pleasing anointment. The flashbacks (which would have been effective if used sparingly) seemed to want to add complexity to Francis (this could have been just-as-well achieved during their garden conversations), but it all feels cheap in the end, as the movie veers toward what seems like hagiography, at best, or a Vatican-endorsed PR job, at worst.

I have nicer things to say about Thunder Road, which was highlighted by a very weird performance by Jim Cummings, who somehow manages to make tragedy-induced anguish feel both real and funny. I usually think rage-induced rants and screaming matches are usually desperate ways for filmmakers to manufacture “high drama,” and while Thunder Road has its share of these, they always seemed fresh, even a bit subversive. It’s an unfair universe where someone like Adam Driver (who’s in his own meltdown movie) will likely get a nomination for Marriage Story while Jim Cummings will likely be ignored. My main criticism is that the daughter character, and the supporting cast in general, couldn’t keep up with Cummings.