Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Agony and the Ivory

From the current issue of Vanity Fair, a must-read article on elephant poaching:

Another carcass has been found. On the Kuku Group Ranch, one of the sectors allotted to the once nomadic Maasai that surround Amboseli National Park, in southern Kenya. Amboseli is home to some 1,200 elephants who regularly wander into the group ranches, these being part of their original, natural habitat. More than 7,000 Maasai live in scattered fenced-in compounds called bomas with their extended families and their cattle on Kuku’s 280,000 acres. Traditionally, the Maasai coexisted with their wildlife. They rarely killed elephants, because they revered them and regarded them as almost human, as having souls like us. Neighboring tribespeople believe that elephants were once people who were turned into animals because of their vanity and given beautiful, flashy white tusks, which condemned them, in the strangely truthful logic of myth, to be forever hunted and killed in the name of human vanity. And Maasai believe when a young woman is getting married and her groom comes to get her from her village she musn’t look back or she will become an elephant. “But in the last few years, everything has changed,” a member of the tribe told me. “The need for money has changed the hearts of the Maasai.”

Saturday, July 2, 2011

In praise of tacit knowledge: lessons in listening part 2

For someone who lives by words, I have a surprising proclamation to make: we rely too much on language. Hear me out, because I know what it is to rely on language. Years of philosophical training encourage such reliance but ultimately reveal its limitations.

There are multiple ways of knowing, thinking, and communicating—sensation, emotion, movement, sound, shapes—and it is impossible to reduce all that is worth knowing to factual statements. In fact, most of what gets communicated even in speeches is conveyed at the level of gesture, posture, vocal tone, and so on. (Which is why email is notorious for sparking misunderstanding; it is too easy to misread...or, perhaps, too easy for the actual meaning to poke through the veil of words.) I was discussing this sort of thing recently with a very interesting woman from Wyoming whom I met at a cafe last week. 

I had been reading the New York Times and was annoyed by yet another article touting some quality that purportedly makes humans superior to other animals. I wondered aloud why we expend so much effort delineating difference rather than recognizing our kinship.* My accidental lunch companion, who works with horses for a living, responded by telling me about Buck, a Sundance Festival award-wining film about a cowboy named Buck Brannaman who “helps horses with people problems.” He learned natural horsemanship from Tom and Bill Dorrance and Ray Hunt, who inspired a new way of engaging with the animals. There's a brief trailer clip for the film at the link above that gives you an idea what all this is about, but at bottom it's about respecting the horse's tacit knowledge of the world.

As my Wyoming companion waxed poetic about these horsemen, it became clear that as much as she enjoyed visiting Manhattan—she had, in fact, grown up here and was back to help care for her 91-year old mother—she also felt alienated by an implicit dismissiveness toward the beauties of rural life and subtly demeaned by a contempt toward nature her urban counterparts didn't realize they had. That, perhaps, is the most difficult thing about contempt: it's a moral prejudice rather than a language statement we consciously believe.

It was only after we parted company that I re-discovered Verlyn Klinkenborg's New York Times column about the rural life. In honor of my lunch companion, then, as well as a more humble and open way of living, I’m going to quote an obituary Klinkenborg wrote in 1999:
There is no such thing as a horse whisperer. There never has been and never will be. The idea is an affront to the horse. You can talk and listen to horses all you want, and what you will learn, if you pay close attention, is that they live on open ground way beyond language and that language, no matter how you characterize it, is a poor trope for what horses understand about themselves and about humans. You need to practice only three things, patience, observation and humility, all of which were summed up in the life of an old man who died Tuesday in California, a man named Bill Dorrance.
Dorrance was 93, and until only a few months before his death he still rode and he still roped. He was one of a handful of men, including his brother Tom, who in separate ways have helped redefine relations between the horse and the human. Bill Dorrance saw that subtlety was nearly always a more effective tool than force, but he realized that subtlety was a hard tool to exercise if you believe, as most people do, that you are superior to the horse. There was no dominance in the way Dorrance rode, or in what he taught, only partnership. To the exalted horsemanship of the vaquero —the Spanish cowboy of 18th-century California—he brought an exalted humanity, whose highest expression is faith in the willingness of the horse.
....what you could learn from Dorrance was a manner of learning whose subject was nominally the horse but that extended itself in surprising directions to include dogs, cattle and people. If you learned it, you would know it was nothing to boast about.
There is no mysticism, no magic, in this, only the recognition of kinship with horses. Plenty of people have come across Bill Dorrance and borrowed an insight or two, and some have made a lot of money by popularizing what they seemed to think he knew. But what he knew will never be popular, nor did he ever make much money from it. You cannot sell modesty or undying curiosity. It is hard to put a price on accepting that everything you think you know about horses may change with the very next horse.
“You cannot sell modesty or undying curiosity.” You can’t buy them, either, and that’s actually good news. It means they are within the reach of every single one of us, if we are willing to practice.

It seems to me that our culture actively encourages us to mistrust others, to adopt a "moral prejudice" that is inimical to curiosity, let alone honesty, respect, compassion, love, and understanding. The pervasiveness of manipulation by the advertising industry, politicians, media moguls, and corporations demands we become more discerning, not less; the manipulation is blatant, so ubiquitous that it has become invisible. (The Union of Concerned Scientists says that the average American is exposed to three thousand ads each day.) Is this why we simply shut down, shut away, shut off? How do we protect ourselves from harm and yet remain open to one another? For starters, we need to be curious, and we need to

Considering a recent
kerfluffle on a New York Times comment thread, it seems to me that we get into trouble precisely because 1) we assume we already know what we need to know about a situation, and 2) we are quick to assume that others, in general, are ignorant. In the first instance we foreclose our own curiosity; in the second, our humility. We would do far better to assume that we have limited knowledge and others might have something to teach us, even in areas in which we have expertise. But the very same belligerent, self-satisfied incuriosity that dominates our public discourse —c.f. the comments beneath virtually any YouTube video clip— reinforces the notion that other people are uninformed or worse. I would argue that ideological intransigence is much more dangerous to democracy than simple lack of knowledge.  As long as our arrogance-cum-ignorance keeps us from questioning ourselves or others, all it will take is a comely face or the mere appearance of confidence to disguise intellectual and moral rot. 


* Subject for another post. Here I'll simply note that the leading candidates (language, the ability to recognize oneself in a mirror, etc.) all fail the task, and that looking to define humanity by selecting one quality that appears to be unique seems to me to be a pretty muddle-headed way to prove superiority, which itself is a muddle-headed project.

Friday, July 1, 2011

In praise of curiosity: Evelyn Glennie

Evelyn Glennie is probably the leading percussionist of our day—and she is profoundly deaf. Listening to her TED talk could be one of the best things you do with the next eighteen minutes: 

Culling geese

The New York Times reported recently on the generosity shown toward turtles nesting at JFK. Apparently there is a bitter dispute going on in the NYC community about how officials treat geese, however, and a comment had led me to look further into the issue. The comment thread revealed some of this bitterness, and I had wanted to give a fuller response than I could fit into the comment box, so I post it here:
Brian (#47): I appreciate your responding to clarify your position. You seem firm that the geese must be culled. This was not clear from your earlier comment, which didn't even mention culling—in fact, I didn't know about the culling until Ellie's comment prompted me to wonder what she meant by saying that "geese are a whole different story." (So at least one person here did not know what she was talking about.) It seems the debate is, at root, a conflict between moral perspectives on how we interact with the rest of our ecosystem.
As for your implicit accusation that people who object to the culls are mawkish sentimentalists, and that "the real problem" lies with them, I'd like to point out that the New York Magazine article quotes the president of the Humane Society as agreeing that there is a problem (and even helping with the egg-addling) but also criticizing the USDA for being historically inclined to kill animals. He then notes a successful relocation program that took place with gulls near JFK in the 90’s.
Here are some facts from the same article, which I'll assume for argument's sake are correct: in 2010, the geese numbered ~257,000 in NY state. 15,000-20,000 Canada geese currently live year-round in the metro region. Over the past three decades, there have been “as many as” 315 bird-plane collisions each year.  The USDA decided, by methods not described, that a mere 5000 birds is an “acceptable” number.  If they mean to leave 5000 in NY state, that’s quite a massacre they propose; if they mean only in the metro area, that’s still a significant cull. The article doesn’t mention the number of planes that fly over the city, but 300 collisions actually isn’t much—and even if you kill birds that are nesting near the airport, this doesn't do anything to reduce the risk of migrating (non-NY-resident) geese getting sucked into plane engines. In fact, the famous Sullenberger landing in the Hudson River was forced by just such migrating geese.  
Furthermore, it is valid to ask whether culling birds on Riker’s Island and Prospect Park is going to do much to reduce an already-low risk: a report covering 1912-2002 estimated that bird strikes cause 1 human death per 1 billion flying hours. Air travelers face greater danger from a plethora of other possible events. Needless to say, the birds come out much worse.
I have several objections to the culling described in the article, some moral, some practical, and some a mixture of both. The most salient here is the tremendous waste of it all: as the article notes, there are “...alternatives which are probably much cheaper and more environmentally friendly than sending hundreds of adult geese to suffocation chambers, double-bagging their carcasses, and dumping them in a landfill.”  (You know something is morally objectionable when "suffocation chamber" becomes an acceptable euphemism for "gas chamber.") Apparently I’m not the only one troubled by this waste: a June 15 cityroom article in the NY Times informs us that this year, the culled geese are at least going to be sent to slaughterhouses in PA and distributed to food banks. 
One last point. We define “pest” rather arbitrarily as anything that competes with us. Yet humans are responsible for soil degradation and contamination, massive deforestation, the eradication of 50% of ocean-dwelling species in just the past half century, the slow suffocation of trees* and a host of other environmental catastrophes. We have also shown remarkably poor prognostic ability when manipulating species to try to control some small part of nature in one region, which invariably has profound and unpredicted consequences elsewhere.  I’m not sure we can afford to be killing off massive numbers of animals when we have no idea what the effect on the ecosystem will be. In any case, if we wait long enough, the geese will die off on their own through some combination of effects of toxins in the environment and climate change. Then again, so will we. So maybe we should be focusing on bigger problems.

*The entire earth has effectively become a gas chamber for trees: go to Wit's Endclick on links for research about dying trees, and get very, very depressed.