If certain ideas and emotions are expressed in these pages with what seems an extreme intransigence, it is not merely because I love an argument and wish to provoke (though I do), but because I am — really am — an extremist, one who lives and loves by choice far out on the very verge of things, on the edge of the abyss, where this world falls off into the depths of another. That’s the way I like it.
The final lines of Edward Abbey’s introduction to The Journey Home resonate strongly with me nearly four decades after the book was published in 1977. If you read his work, you might come to understand why he profoundly influenced my path.
I’ve copied below an essay originally posted in this space, verbatim, on 10 May 2009. You’ll note my incorrect, early anticipation of the collapse of industrial civilization. I was far too optimistic.
Contrary to the essay below, I’ve subsequently had five additional books published, including a book-length work of fiction. You can see the complete list here.
I’ll be signing books at the first-ever (and likely last-ever) Tucson Festival of Books this weekend, and also delivering a talk and leading a discussion titled, “Why I Write.” I’ve been thinking about this subject for a few years, even occasionally trying to explain to my colleagues why they should synthesize their knowledge for scientists and the general public. Consider this post a draft of my comments for next weekend, recognizing that these are excerpts of what I’ll actually read and I’ve modified the text slightly for ease of reading (e.g., by removing citations). Comments are welcome, of course, as well as your visit to the tent I’ll be occupying during the event.
My first book was driven by my quest for academic success, the culmination of which I believed to be tenure. The first listing in my first book, Glossary of Fire Management Terms Used in the United States, is abort. The final term, a riveting 137 pages later, is zone weather forecast. I promise not to quote from this book if you promise not to buy it.
Seven years later, after obtaining the academic prize of tenure, I sought bigger game. With full professor in my sights, the seemingly necessary round of ammo was a major synthetic work. So I churned out a book that synthesized contemporary knowledge about North American savannas. It also signaled the hallmark of my early career in that it described the interface between science and its application. Even at this early stage in my career, I didn’t fit neatly into the academic categories of real “science” and application of that science, but instead attempted to bridge the enterprises. Consider these passages, for example:
“As with any human activity, sciences shares many characteristics with everyday activities. For example, observations of recurring events are used to infer general patterns in banking and fishing, as well as most scientific disciplines. The discussion herein focuses on features that are unique to science. I assume in this chapter that science is obliged in part to offer explanatory and predictive power about the natural world. An additional assumption is that the scientific method, which includes explicit hypothesis-testing, is among the most efficient and valid techniques for acquiring reliable knowledge. The scientific method should be used to elucidate mechanisms underlying observed patters; such elucidation is the key to predicting and understanding natural systems.”
“Resource managers need reliable scientific information to effectively manage plant communities and ecological processes. Because abundant data are available in a wide variety of qualities, managers must extract relevant information from the body of knowledge to address management decisions. Additional factors contribute to the dilemma that managers face as they attempt to incorporate scientific knowledge into management decisions: much of the available information is contradictory or inconsistent, and many scientists still attempt to provide mechanistic explanations about ecosystem function based on descriptive research. This latter tendency has trapped scientists into making predictions about things they cannot predict. Adherence to scientific principles, including hypothesis-testing, will improve communication between resource managers and scientists while increasing the credibility of both groups.”
The capstone for my work on the links between the development of reliable knowledge (i.e., science) and the application of that knowledge (i.e., management) came with one of two books published in 2003. This is perhaps the most respectable of my books by the academic elite who review my publications on a regular basis. It grew from a course I developed and taught for several years.
“Some readers will undoubtedly argue that managers are not interested in hearing about ecologists’ problems, and vice versa. Although we fear this may be true, we assume that progressive managers and progressive scientists are interested in understanding problems and contributing to their solution. Indeed, progressive managers ought to be scientists, and progressive scientists ought to be able to assume a manager’s perspective. As such, effective managers will understand the hurdles faced by research ecologists, and the trade offs associated with the different methods used to address issues of bias, sample size, and so on. Managers and scientists will be more effective if they understand science and management. How better to seek information, interpret scientific literature, evaluate management programs, or influence research than to understand and appreciate ecology and management?”
The other book published in 2003 marked the end of my work on global climate change. By the time this book was published, I believed we had passed the tipping point with respect to global climate change, that we were doomed to extinction at our own hand. Ever the optimists, we structured the book as if we could prevent that fate, or at least forestall it.
“Human-induced change in global environments is one of the most important and timely topics facing society. As the effects of human activities on Earth’s climate, sea levels, and ecosystems become more apparent in the coming decade, global change issues likely will become even more important to global citizens the their governmental representatives.”
“One important aspect of global change is the potential response of terrestrial ecosystems to changing environmental conditions. Anthropogenic increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration have both direct and indirect ramifications for natural ecosystems: global increases in carbon dioxide may stimulate plant growth, but they will also increase surface temperatures and change precipitation regimes. Considerable research has described the effects of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and expected increases in temperature on ecosystems, but little research has focused on changes in the amount of seasonality of precipitation anticipated in the next few decades.”
“In short, scientific understanding and effective management of plant species and communities in the face of climate change will depend on our ability to accurately predict their response to different biotic and abiotic driving variables. This in turn will depend on a mechanistic understanding of individual and combined species response to resource limitations under changing environments. To this end, several large-scale field experiments have been designed to assess the physical and biological mechanisms that may control the effects of changes in precipitation regimes on individual plants, plant populations, and plant communities and their ecosystems. However, in contrast with carbon dioxide and surface temperature research — the sole focus of many books, journals, and scientific meetings — there has been no central forum for the discussion of information about this newly breaking arena of global change research.”
We fixed that problem, for all the good it did.
I took a job with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) at the cutting edge of development and application of scientific knowledge: I helped create, and then administered, a program for postdoctoral scholars. But the gig with TNC made me realize how fantastic life in the academy can be, so I decided to return to the life and students I love. Before I could make a graceful exit, though, I hung around in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area drowning in self-induced misery. One result was my only book-length work of fiction, written as therapy.
I strongly recommend writing as therapy. It’s so much cheaper than a shrink, or even a drink. But I do not recommend attempting to get the resulting drivel published. Consider, for example:
“‘Remember to call the nurse,’ Diane had said as we headed for our respective offices this morning. Dr. Weisner’s nurse had left a message on our answering machine regarding results of my recent blood work. Of course I had remembered. Six or seven times, in fact. But frequent interruptions ensured that I had forgotten an equal number of times. I grab the telephone and call before I can forget again.”
“After working steadily through the maze of choices and enduring a scratchy recording of Glenn Miller’s orchestra for several painful minutes, I am rewarded with a harried human voice.”
“‘Hi, this is Gary Peterson. I’m returning a call from Dr. Weisner’s nurse, Judy.'”
“‘Please hold, sir.’ More Glenn Miller. I review my e-mail messages, deleting half of the thirty messages that arrived overnight without reading them. I’ve got to unsubscribe from two or three of these journalism listserves that I never find time to read. I wouldn’t be averse to getting rid of e-mail altogether, as it’s become one more step on the road to replacing things that are important with those that are urgent. Bob Matthews peers into my open door, sees I’m on the telephone, and disappears before I have a chance to catch him. My patience is wearing thin when the human voice return. ‘Judy is not here today, sir.'”
“‘Okay, what about Dr. Weisner?’ My question is rewarded with a sudden click and more Glenn Miller. I retrieve my notes for today’s class from my briefcase. They seemed organized, logical and timely when I finished them late last night. In the harsh light of day, they appear considerably less brilliant. Maybe it’s Glenn Miller’s influence.”
“‘Sir?’ The voice seems surprised I’m still on the line.”
“‘Yes,’ I reply.”
“‘Dr. Weisner is not here, either.'”
“‘Okay, I’m just calling about the results of some blood tests. Judy left a message for me yesterday, indicating they were ready. Perhaps you can tell me?'”
“‘One minute, please.’ The voice is gone before I can reply. The big band sound of Glenn Miller scratches and squawks through the earpiece. Until today, I had no firm sentiment about Glenn Miller and his orchestra. A single telephone call, thus far characterized by few words, has irreparably destroyed my opinion of his music.”
“‘Sir?’ The voice makes no attempt to disguise her astonishment at the persistence. I can’t help thinking that she’s probably impressed by my tolerance for the raspy horns.”
“‘Yes, I’m still here,’ I reply with all the patience I can muster.”
“‘Dr. Weisner and Judy are on vacation.'”
“‘Both of them?'”
“‘Yes. They’ll be back in two weeks.’ I try to recall the last time I took a two-week vacation. I suspect it was during my sabbatical leave, three years ago.”
“‘Okay, perhaps you can help me,’ I repeat my request, which she ignored previously.”
“‘I would have to look at your chart,’ the voice says, seemingly unsettled by the prospect.”
“‘Yes, I suppose so.’ My response is followed by silence. No click. No Glenn Miller, thankfully. Just silence. ‘Hello?'”
“‘Oh, no, sir. I can’t look at your chart.'”
“‘Okay, that’s fine,’ I lie. ‘Can anybody there look at it? Perhaps another doctor?’ Even as I speak the words, I’m fearful they’ll be rewarded with scratchy blasts from my new least-favorite orchestra.”
“‘No, sir. Only Dr. Weisner and Judy can look at your chart.'”
“‘Wow, that’s an interesting policy,’ I muse aloud. I suspect the voice doesn’t share my opinion, so I feel the perverse need to offer an explanation. ‘What if the message was, “You have two days to live?” I’ll be expired nearly two weeks before Judy returns my call.’ Silence. Perhaps the voice is thinking. Perhaps she’ll even offer assistance now that I’ve survived the gauntlet and presented a compelling argument. ‘Hello?'”
“‘Only Dr. Weisner and Judy can look at your chart.’ So much for assistance.”
“‘Okay,’ I sigh in resignation. ‘Let’s assume that Judy is coming back and that I’m still alive when she does. Will you have her give me a call?'”
“‘Yes, sir. Will that be all?'”
“‘Sure. Unless you’ve got some Glenn Miller tunes I haven’t heard yet.’ Silence. ‘Hello?’ More silence. Apparently she hung up. Not that I blame her. I’d hang up on me too. Undaunted, I speak into the silence. ‘No? I guess I’ve heard his entire repertoire?’ It certainly seems that way.”
Not exactly War and Peace, eh?
As the novel was dutifully seeking a publisher, I changed careers from ecologist to conservation biologist and then to social critic. The change led to a book intended for the general public. This book, and shorter pieces of social criticism, made me realize how little society thinks of social critics. Seems nobody in society actually appreciates my criticism. Who knew?
“The evidence is simply overwhelming: The American Dream, as understood and pursued by most Americans, is killing the natives. Native cultures, native languages, and native species are vanishing from the planet at an alarming rate as a consequence of our unrelenting pursuit of the American Dream. The collective actions of 300 million Americans, procreating and shopping as if there is no tomorrow, are bringing us ever closer to the fate we’re forcing onto others. The consequences grow worse with each passing day, and — contrary to what you’re told by your government, your religious leaders, and the media — our actions pose a grave threat to you and your children.”
“This is not a doomsday book. If I was not optimistic, I could not write this book. Rather than claiming that the sky is falling and there is nothing we can do about it, this book is articulates the significant challenges we face and describes a set of solutions. Any genuine attempt to solve substantial problems must be followed by mental clarity and honesty if we are to solve them.”
Undaunted by societal disinterest and the occasional bit of hate mail, I continued my career as a social critic with a collection of letters to early-career academics. Consider, for example, these passages:
“As I have written in a previous book, American-style capitalism can be viewed as the pinnacle of mass murder. Consider the resource-extractive industries that produce much of the world’s pollution while impeding social justice (large oil and mining companies top the list, but American-style capitalism rewards the many corporations that follow their leads). These are the companies that destroy native cultures and species for the sake of financial gain (though to be fair, they wouldn’t be capable of these egregious transgressions without considerable support from the multitude of consumers in American society). Because they have the cash, these companies fund big-money research, the results of which further ensure their continued financial dominance on the global stage. Like hounds on the trail of chubby, dawdling rabbits, colleges and universities chase these companies in hot pursuit of gold. The incessant siren of commerce drowns out the occasional squawk of a sacrificial golden goose. Collateral damage is widely accepted in the bloody battle for short-term financial security.”
“I will be the first to register when I see an advertisement for the conference of my dreams. This conference focuses on the collapse of industrial ‘civilization.’ Such a collapse would wreak havoc on my 403(c), my 401(k), and my IRA. But it might save a few of the species and cultures that have managed to elude our iron fist, and that’s worth much more than the few dollars in my retirement funds.”
“But the rewards [of the professoriate] are supreme. You are allowed to live a life of leisure, in the historical sense: You choose the work you do. Through the lives of your students, you experience life and death the wonderful emotional roller coaster of youth. As such, you can choose to remain forever young, if only vicariously. You have opportunities to serve as a mentor. And, if you are worthy and fortunate, somebody might endow you with that noblest of distinctions by calling you, ‘teacher.'”
Shortly after publication of the self-indulgent collection of letters, I returned to my roots in fire ecology with a book co-authored by a graduate student. We make a nice team, if I do say so myself, because of my expertise in fire ecology and hers in fire policy. It’s more than that, of course, because I cannot stop myself from social criticism:
“As we write this in early 2007, we acknowledge that we might well be accused of fiddling while Rome burns. In the face of massive challenges that face our country, seemingly on every domestic and foreign issue, it has been difficult to focus on such a narrow, even apparently arcane, topic. We suggest, though, that the solutions we present here have the potential for much broader dilemmas. A problem seems insurmountable when we, as a nation, are unable to see the whole of it. In light of our incomplete knowledge, the perfect solution we seek is unattainable; meanwhile, we hold in our hands the very tools needed to mitigate the problem and reach a compromise solution. Perhaps as we learn to live with fire, we can learn to seek moderate solutions in other realms as well. We certainly hope so.”
My final book will be published this June, and perhaps even distributed this year (but I’m not betting on it). My contribution to this edited collection, in addition to wrangling authors and editing, includes lines such as these:
“The human role in extinction of species and degradation of ecosystems is well documented. Since European settlement in North America, and especially after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we have witnessed a substantial decline in biological diversity of native taxa and profound changes in assemblages of the remaining species. We have ripped minerals from the Earth, often bringing down mountains in the process; we have harvested nearly all the old-growth timber on the continent, replacing thousand-year-old trees with neatly ordered plantations of small trees; we have hunted species to the point of extinction; we have driven livestock across almost every acre of the continent, baring hillsides and facilitating massive erosion; we have plowed large landscapes, transforming fertile soil into sterile, lifeless dirt; we have burned ecosystems and, perhaps more importantly, we have extinguished naturally occurring fires; we have spewed pollution and dumped garbage, thereby dirtying our air, fouling our water, and contributing greatly to the warming of the planet; we have paved thousands of acres to facilitate our movement and, in the process, have disrupted the movements of thousands of species. One could argue that a fundamental problem is not that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but that the road to hell is paved. We have, to the maximum possible extent allowed by our intellect and never-ending desire, consumed the planet. In the wake of these endless insults to our only home, perhaps the biggest surprise is that so many native species have persisted, thus allowing our continued use and enjoyment.”
“If we accept that humans played a pivotal role in loss of species and degradation of ecosystems, we face a daunting moral question: How do we reverse these trends?”
I write for many reasons. I started writing books strictly out of selfishness. I took a stab at self-indulgent novelist along the way. Eventually, I moved into the realm of compassionate social critic, initially with the intent of saving civilization, then with the goal of extending the lives of people who would take my words to heart. All in all, my published output has been quite modest. And it’s been relevant only to me and a small handful of readers who use my work as one of many pieces of a very large puzzle. Looking back with the superior vision of hindsight, I wouldn’t do it again. As E.B. White pointed out, “Writing is hard work and bad for the health.”
With that in mind — and cognizant of the hypocrisy of being human — if the industrial economy had a few years left, I would write a memoir, and perhaps another novel. But instead of writing mediocre, self-absorbed, little-read books, I’ll spend the next few years reading some good ones.