Bullying Nature

It is a bright spring day in Shepherdstown and I am gazing out my window at my self-inflicted folly – the swimming pool in my back yard. Nature wasn’t on board with the original happy plans behind this water-filled hole. Instead, nature wants to use it to grow all sorts of bacteria and algae, and allow mosquitos, toads and any other interested party to lay eggs and spawn their young. Ah, but we have the answers for nature, right? Engineering, pumps and chemicals. Every summer with much effort and money thrown at the problem, we win – temporarily. But let up a moment and nature inexorably overcomes our efforts. A swimming pool is a fool’s errand to push a large rock up a hill.

A swimming pool is an apt metaphor for what I am trying to say in this piece. Humans are the most intelligent animals ever to walk the earth. But at some point we got a little too impressed with our abilities and began to bully nature into doing what it didn’t want to do. That’s when the trouble started.

Most of our attempts to bully nature have involved water.  Although essential for life in the right amounts, water has developed a bad reputation.  It has the nasty habit of accumulating in huge amounts and sweeping away everything in its path. English and American common law alike have declared water a “common enemy.”

When our engineering know-how and the power of our machines reached a certain level in the 19th century, we engaged water in what amounted to an arm-wrestling match. This contest has not been without its fits and starts, its wins and losses on both sides. But we have begun to realize that when we overcome nature with brute force, there is always an unexpected price to pay.

I just returned from a short trip to the Everglades in southern Florida. The Everglades are really nothing more than the overflow from Lake Okeechobee, which flows in a sheet down a very slight grade to the Gulf of Mexico. Early Florida pioneers saw immediately that if the Everglades could be drained, thousands of acres of rich land would become available for cultivation.

The 19th century saw one failed scheme after another to drain “the swamp.”  But it looked like success was at hand until 1928 when a hurricane filled the Lake and caused it to burst through a dike, drowning 2500 people. Corpses were stacked and burned by the roadsides. The Army Corps of Engineers then changed the rationale for draining the Everglades from reclamation to flood control. The Hoover Dike was constructed, which cut off Lake Okeechobee from the northern Everglades. This solved the flooding problem but created many others.

What once was a swamp dried out and became like a desert. The absence of fresh water allowed salt water to invade the water table, ruining farms. The stress of low water wreaked havoc on the food chain. Sawgrass invaded water-lily sloughs, while other species invaded parched sawgrass marshes.  Populations of wading birds rapidly declined. Then in 1939 one million acres caught fire and burned. Now conservationists and environmentalists have a seat at the table and a serious effort is underway to restore the Everglades.

The April 1, 2019 issue of The New Yorker chronicled a similar example. For millennia, the Mississippi River has over-flooded its banks and deposited silt and soil debris all over southern Louisiana, building up and extending the land in all directions. Because these floods had obvious harmful effects for humans, we built levees along the river for hundreds of miles. Now there are few catastrophic floods that breach the levees. This is a good thing, right?

Well, yes and no. The problem is that there are no further soil deposits to build up the land. The land that was formerly deposited through flooding has begun to compact and subside, allowing the Gulf to retake large areas. At present southern Louisiana seen from a satellite is nothing more than the snake of the Mississippi bounded by levees and a few hundred acres of land on either side.

Believe it or not, the current solution to this problem is more engineering on a massive scale to be paid for with mountains of tax money. One part of this solution is to dredge up silt from the bottom of the river and use massive diesel pumps to redeposit it into areas that would otherwise subside into non-existence. Another part is to cut holes in the levees and during flood periods allow water and silt to inundate areas that have heavily subsided.  The New Yorker piece rightly concludes that humans have so altered nature in an attempt to take control that now we are attempting to take control of our efforts to take control.

All this says to me that when we consider the so-called problems that nature creates, we need less hubris and more wisdom.  We need fewer brute force solutions and a more harmonious approach that doesn’t struggle so much with the way nature works. Maybe through taxation and other policies we could encourage the depopulation of places like New Orleans and Phoenix, where people simply cannot be protected from nature. Brute force may succeed in the short run, but at a huge cost with harmful consequences to environmental balance. And because of entropy and our human fallibility, the brute force solutions always fail in the long-run.

But what could I possibly know? I’m the one who built a swimming pool. Could you excuse me while I go empty the skimmers?

Lying in Politics

From time to time the Washington Post publishes a tally of the “false or misleading” claims President Trump has made since he has been in office.  The tally is up to 8,718 as of February 12, 2019. I am no fan of Trump, but the large majority of these are assertions that contain some grain of truth and are then exaggerated and embellished by him for effect. Trump seems to have a need to be always right, always the best, always superior to his opponents.  But I wonder how different his assertions are from the puffery one expects from any salesman who has a second-rate product.  Are Trump’s exaggerations and misstatements lies?  Do we even expect politicians to tell us the truth?

Admittedly, we can probably never know the whole truth about anything.  Plus our means of receiving and evaluating information is subjective and biased. But whether something is a lie does not start or end with whether the information conveyed is truthful.

A lie is an intentionally deceptive message in the form of a statement.  The liar communicates something he does not believe in order to make the other believe it.  That means that whether Trump is telling lies depends upon what he intends by his statements.  If Trump truly believes that climate change is a hoax, then he is not lying by stating as much to get us to support his environmental policies.  That would simply be advocacy.

Moral philosophers are generally in agreement that any lie – even white lies – are culpable and to be avoided.  Those who disagree make distinctions on the basis of the seriousness of the lie’s consequences or the circumstances producing the lie.  But the best way of thinking about lies is that they all have some corrosive consequences.  We may excuse some lies because of the circumstances but they are still lies if they are statements meant to deceive.

What are the corrosive consequences of a lie?  Obviously the person lied to will experience some adverse consequences.  The lie is designed to convince her of something the liar himself doesn’t believe.  Lies are usually told to produce or avoid some behavior on the part of the person lied to.  A lie gives power to the deceiver through eliminating a choice of action that might have been made by the deceived.  When she realizes the lie, her relationship with the liar is changed and she becomes wary and mistrustful of others who may lie to her.  When politicians lie to us, we become mistrustful of politicians in general, even those who do tell us the truth and are sincerely interested in helping us.

A lie also harms the liar.  Telling the first lie makes it easier, and sometimes necessary, to tell the second lie, and then the next.  At some point a liar will be exposed, leading to damage to his reputation for integrity and the trust others place in him.  When the trust of the community is removed from the liar, he ends up having less, not more, power to influence events around him.

Lies, particularly when told by politicians, have serious consequences for the health of society.  As Sissela Bok noted in her 1971 book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, a society unable to distinguish truthful statements from lies would collapse.  The general level of trust in government would be eroded.  People would become unwilling to work together for the common good out of reluctance to be deceived about the bona fides of government’s goals or means.

Trust in our leaders was damaged by Eisenhower’s plain lie that we did not have U-2 spy planes flying over the Soviet Union.  Next the explanations given by Lyndon Johnson and his cohort about the objectives and success of our war effort in Vietnam were exposed in the Pentagon Papers as a long series of stupendous lies.  In The Imperial Presidency, Arthur Schlesinger noted

Up until the year 1965 most Americans most of the time had believed the word of their government. Within a decade thereafter, the proportion of Americans who assumed as a matter of course that their government was lying was greater than it had ever before been in the nation’s history.

Now we should be especially wary of the drumbeat for war — even one necessary for our own security.

If by some magic Trump would admit that many of his statements are lies — statements intended to deceive – I can imagine that he would attempt to excuse them in one of two ways.  He would argue first that the rules of politics anticipate lying, that Democrats and others in politics lie, and that the public expects politicians to lie.  He would suggest that political speech is akin to going into the souk in Cairo to buy a rug.  Do you expect the rug merchant to tell you the truth?  Does he expect you to tell him the truth?  No on both counts.  So Trump would seek to excuse himself by relying on the Latin phrase caveat emptor – buyer beware.

Of course, this exercise of shifting fault to the victims of the lie (“they should have known I would lie to them”) requires the liar to undervalue the harm caused by the lie.  Liars quite often argue that their lies really didn’t harm anyone.  But the consequences of a lie look entirely different when you take the perspective of the ones deceived.

In some ways, we do invite being lied to.  Our press begins dismantling the skill, competence and motivation of any politician the moment she is elected.  Incompetence, misbehavior and scandal make news.  For politicians, admitting fault or mistake is perilous.  If we could simply realize that politicians are human beings, which means they have faults and make mistakes, we wouldn’t contribute to the environment that leads to many political lies.  I don’t suggest this is a valid excuse for the lie, but it does make some lying more understandable.

The other excuse that Trump would offer for his lies is that he tells them for our own good.  We are too uninformed or limited in capacity really to understand what policies are necessary, while he is not.  This is often referred to as “the noble lie.”  An example would be Franklin Roosevelt’s promise that “your boys will not be sent off to fight in any foreign wars,” all the while making preparations to enter World War II.  I have some sympathy for Roosevelt’s lies, but none for the lie Lyndon Johnson told about a fictitious attack on a U.S. warship in the Tonkin Gulf that he used to justify entering the conflict in Vietnam.

Many public servants maintain that government cannot be properly run without the freedom to create illusion, which necessarily involves deceiving its own people as well as foreign adversaries. Take, for example, what we say publicly about our intentions in hard bargaining with the North Koreans, or the whereabouts of U.S. troops in the field.  But the noble lie concept can’t be stretched to cover domestic matters, where such a practice is noble only in the eyes of the liar.  It is certainly undemocratic and dangerous because it arrogates power to the lying government official that bypasses the consent of the governed.  And it certainly undermines trust in our leaders.

All this brings me back around to whether Trump is lying to us.  Since a lie necessarily involves the intent to deceive, which is a state of mind, we cannot know for an absolute certainty.  But we can reach a conclusion about Trump’s intent in the same way that questions of intent are determined in a court of law – by evaluating the circumstances.

If Trump is not lying to us, he is at the very least being tremendously reckless with the factual accuracy of his statements.  Continually popping off with factually incorrect statements can’t be just carelessness or incompetence.  And when publicly shown to be wrong, Trump repeats the same false statement many times over.  For example, Trump has asserted 127 times the falsehood that the recent tax cuts are the largest in U.S. history, even though Treasury Department data shows it would rank eighth.  There are many other similar examples.  It is hard to escape the conclusion that Trump intends to mislead others into believing statements that he himself does not and cannot believe.  That means he is lying.