The Consecrated
October 8, 2010

Weekend before last was the Prairie Festival at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Over 700 people were in attendance: students, aging environmentalists, scholars, farmers, and even a couple of Amish people, from 33 states and three Canadian provinces. As always, the Prairie Festival is a celebration of the fact that there are many people, though clearly not a majority, who really care about the Earth and the humans whose survival depends on it. This is perhaps its main value: it reminds those of us who attend that we are not alone. In rural Oklahoma, we environmentalists feel as if we are few and utterly powerless.

The Land Institute, founded by Wes Jackson in 1975, conducts research into the development of perennial crops, which can be grown in fields without having to be plowed every year, thus reducing soil erosion. If the crops are planted in combination, as a polyculture, the fields will need less fertilizer and pesticide (if any). This direction is clearly the only hope for agriculture in the future (or today, for that matter). For decades this research was considered at the fringe. And still it is largely ignored by the government and by funding agencies; even the Obama Administration has pretty much ignored it, by appointing an Iowa-big-farm-plow-it-up-spray-it-down agribusiness leader as Secretary of Agriculture. But recently The Land Institute research has been getting attention in leading science journals and in countries around the world.

Some of the best environmental scholars in the world give presentations at the Festival. (They do so at a podium in an old barn.) This year's speakers included the writer Wendell Berry; economist Josh Farley; environmental toxicologist Sandra Steingraber; writer Scott Russell Sanders; the pioneer of genetic preservation Kent Whealy; and the founding prophet Wes Jackson. A brain or a notebook could hardly contain their wisdom.
The Festival was also a celebration, with a barn dance, food, and music. However hopeless it may seem for the future of the world, in which corporations enslave a dying Earth and its helpless people, there is hope and cheer in the fact that many thousands of people-of which we hope the 700 attendees were only a small sample-who not only care about what his happening to the Earth and its ability to produce food, but who are very aware of the threats and will not sit back in ignorance and suck on whatever the corporations give us. Wes Jackson refers to us as the consecrated constituency-we are the ones (and you can be too) who keep the sacred conscience of the Earth alive.

Optimism and Hope
October 17, 2010

I recently read David Orr's book about climate collapse (a better description than global warming), Down to the Wire. He made a distinction between optimism and hope. Optimism is when you can realistically predict a good outcome, however uncertain. Hope is an attitude that keeps you working even when optimism is not a realistic possibility. He said that no rational person could give an optimistic assessment that the Earth is going to avoid climate collapse-that is, enough of a collapse to mess up human civilization. But we need to have hope, even if not optimism.

But as I read the book, it became clear that, if Orr is right, the only way we can avoid climate collapse is for everyone to do everything right, right now, even though we are doing almost nothing right, right now, in terms of reducing carbon emissions. No grounds for optimism here, and hope is a fantasy, even though it may be an essential one.

At the same time, I was reading Margaret Atwood's novel of a dystopian future, Oryx and Crake. It was a future in which humans and most wild animals are nearly extinct, replaced by genetically engineered humanoids and animaloids, and a future with brutal global warming. (Atwood is the master of dystopias, of which The Handmaid's Tale is the most famous.) She made the point that, in humans as in other intelligent animals, all it takes is for cultural transmission to be interrupted for a single generation, and the game is over forever-the most important aspects of human adaptation will be lost. Our bodies and our instincts, by themselves, will not get us very far. Climate collapse would not need to cause extinction; all it would have to do is to interrupt human culture for a generation.

In one scene of the novel, the lone surviving human walks through a wrecked city, and the vines are taking it over. I was surprised that I felt happy that plants were taking over and cleansing a ruined world. Right about that same time, a Virginia creeper vine had worked its way through our front door jamb and started growing inside the house. While none of us would rejoice at the idea of human collapse, at least there would-or will-be a cleansing afterward.

The Legacy of Michael Crichton
October 23, 2010

Michael Crichton died two years ago November 4. Am I the only one who does not consider his legacy to be very impressive?

Sure, he was a good writer, at least in his earlier days. Jurassic Park was pretty good, as was The Andromeda Strain, or so I am told by those who have read them. He wrote the screenplay for The Great Train Robbery. Well done.

But starting about 1990 Crichton descended into rants against anyone whom he considered a threat to conservative values. Because of my long-standing interest in Japan, I read Crichton's Rising Sun. The premise was little more than that Japanese are evil people trying to take over the United States, and the plot was a weak support of this premise. You want an example of Japan-bashing? You can't do much better than Rising Sun.

One of Crichton's last novels was State of Fear. In this book, Crichton creates the most far-fetched plot you can imagine. All scientists, except a few brave mavericks who also happened to be ex-military, were united into a secret plot to foist a global warming hoax on the entire world in order to...in order to...in order to do something, I'm not sure what. It is the fossil fuel corporations such as Massey Energy and Exxon Mobil who reap prodigious profits from selling coal and petroleum, while scientists are poorly paid (compared to corporation executives) and sell almost nothing but books. Perhaps Crichton really believed that scientists want to take over the world, like the super-smart lab mouse in Pinky and the Brain. And these scientists were really really really evil. They manipulated information in such a way as to assure that happily picnicking families would be washed away by a flood. And they must have done many other evil things in the second half of the book which I did not read. The plot was extremely shallow. All of the evil scientists drove around in blue Priuses. A secret list of numbers showed up in a piece of furniture. By the end of the first half of the book, nobody had figured out that the rich man did not really die in the wreck of his car at which nothing but his shoes were found. A little kid could tell you the man was still alive somewhere, wearing a different pair of shoes. It was sad to see such crap being written by a man who had proven himself, in the 1960s and 1970s, to be a good writer. But he was blinded by his hatred of the political middle and left.

The extreme right wing is unable to see how delusional Crichton's book is. Senator Jim Inhofe, from my native and current state of Oklahoma, invited Crichton to share his delusions with the Environment and Public Works Committee, which Inhofe chaired. Then the Republicans lost control of the Senate in 2006. But if they regain it again, any day now, Inhofe will be back and beastier than ever, dancing on carbon-rich air and proclaiming to the EPW committee that America is endangered by environmentalists such as myself.

P.S. to my American readers. Remember to vote Democratic on Tuesday November 2. They may not be very impressive, but they are at least not delusional.

No Political Hope
November 3, 2010

The midterm elections saw the solid Democratic majority swept away. This would seem to be bad news for those who care about the environment, and about humans (all humans) whose survival depends on it. Actually, I should say living world, not environment.

But it has not escaped anyone's notice that, even when the Democrats had a solid national majority (including, briefly, 60 senators), some of the biggest problems did not get addressed. President Obama's administration deserves credit for enacting national health care legislation and financial regulations, both of which will help to avert financial crisis. But there are two major problems that simply got ignored in the political wrangling.

First, the one least directly associated with this website: the deficit. The Bush and Obama administrations both relied on massive deficit spending. This cannot continue indefinitely. We depend on credit from China and Japan, who are now in conflict with one another. A large chunk of federal tax money goes to paying interest on our national debt. Things that Republicans like to spend money on, and that Democrats like to spend money on, are going to have to be cut-although I anticipate that the new Republican power structure will demand that their priorities, such as pre-emptive war, be fully funded.

Second, the one directly associated with this website: global climate collapse. When Bush began his presidency, even Republicans said we should make at least a token effort to control climate change (which is actually climate collapse). Now, even Democrats hardly mention it. The issue has degenerated into a silly battle of those who love polar bears and those who do not. Global climate collapse will by itself cause financial collapse, on top of the financial irresponsibility in which we are already engaging.

The fact that, especially now, there appears to be no hope whatever that these problems will be addressed, we face a frightening future regardless of which party runs the country. Will the fact that the Democrats are less of a threat to our world's future than the Republicans make any difference if these two major problems continue to worsen?

At least that is what I was thinking on election day, when much of the country was underneath leaden soggy clouds, and on which I was reading Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here, a novel about a twentieth-century American dictatorship.

The Reality of Collapse
November 8, 2010

Jared Diamond’s book Collapse has informed and convinced many people that humans have been destroying their local environments for thousands of years, resulting in the collapse of many civilizations. His examples included the one that everyone talks about, the Polynesians of Easter Island, who cut down all their trees to use as rollers to move the Big Stone Head Things (moai) from the quarry down to the seashore to stare defiantly out across the ocean which their ancestors had crossed but upon which they had forgotten how to sail; the Anasazi and Hohokam civilizations of what is now New Mexico and Arizona; and pre-Inca civilizations of South America that many of us did not know had existed. Most observers realize that Diamond was exaggerating a bit to make his point. For one thing, he discussed only environmental catastrophes such as the effects of soil erosion and human-induced drought and loss of forest resources, barely conceding the importance of social forces and wars in the collapse of those civilizations. He went a little too far in claiming that societies could “choose to fail or succeed” (from Diamond’s subtitle). Societies do not choose; individuals do; and if our society collapses, it will, I believe, be because of other people’s choices, not mine. I believe Diamond exaggerated because these other factors have already been well publicized. Charles Redman has taken a similar approach in his books, such as The Archaeology of Global Change: The Impact of Humans on Their Environment.

But the zeal with which some anti-environmentalists, and even scientists, attack Diamond’s book has led them into meaningless confusion. One such book, Questioning Collapse, is written by scholars (Patricia A. McAnany and Norman Yoffee) and published by a scholarly press (Cambridge UK). (I must admit that I have not read this book, and I rely on a review of it by Krista Lewis that was published in Science on January 22, 2010.) One of the contributors to this book speculated that the Mayan civilization did not really collapse; maybe when the people abandoned the cities and moved out into the jungles, it was a rational decision. Now, think about that statement. Moving out of the cities into the jungle would have been rational only if civilization was collapsing. Neither Diamond nor anybody else is saying that the Mayans lost their minds and went screaming out into the forest. In fact, it would be a rational decision to leave a burning house, but this does not mean the house was not burning down. Another contributor to Questioning Collapse pointed out that the Mayan people are still living in the same place as they were during the Mayan civilization. This does not mean that the Mayan civilization did not collapse. When I walked around the reconstructed ruins of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, I knew that a collapse had occurred, even though I also knew that Pueblo peoples (descendants of the Anasazi, unlike the more recently-arrived Navaho and Apache) still live, in no small number, in the vicinity.

Everything that happens in human history is the result of many complex forces. What people like Jared Diamond, Charles Redman, and myself are doing is to point out that environmental degradation has been overlooked as one of the important factors in the collapse of civilizations. In these days when all the attention is on the economy, the importance of our environment, and how it provides services that keep us alive (and provides them for free), must be front and center in our attention.

Walking in the Woods with Mahler
November 14, 2010

The autumn colors in Oklahoma are not as amazing as those in New England, but they are still beautiful-yellow hickory leaves, red red-oak leaves, and bronze post-oak leaves. On a sunny warm autumn day, it seems like a time of rejoicing. And, in part, it is.

But it is also a time of death. For the trees, it is senescence, not death; the leaves die as part of an orderly breakdown, and the buds already contain next spring's growth. Many smaller plants die, as well as small animals such as insects. Death is part of the cycle of nature. Many of the red oak leaves on the Oklahoma hillsides are covered with parasitic galls and powdery fungi, but since the leaves are going to die anyway, it doesn't matter. Autumn is a time to accept death as part of life.

It is also a time to rage against death, to feel intensely that it is a tragedy that all of the beauty, constructed so carefully during an organism's life, should come to an end and simply be decomposed. This is especially true in humans, where a human brain has built up a lifelong structure of knowledge and wisdom and emotions, and then simply stops working and rots. Autumn, therefore, is a time to come to grips with death, to accept it but also to despise it.

The perfect companion during a walk in the autumn woods is the music of Gustav Mahler, the Czech/Austrian composer who lived at the turn of the previous century. Perhaps no other composer has written music with such an intensity of sensation, as intense as the reddest leaf of autumn. His emotions were nearly always intense. Before going to his cabin each morning in summer to write his symphonies, he would swim across the lake and back; writing music was an athletic exercise for him. His music embodied the joy of nature (e.g. his Third Symphony) but also rage against death (e.g. his Second Symphony).

Even in the first movement of the Third Symphony, when Mahler depicted the coming of spring, the conflicts were unresolved. A bright and cheerful march (which he called "Summer Comes Marching In") alternates with the tragic chill of winter. Spring is a time when winter keeps coming back, at least in northern Europe, until summer has fully arrived.

Mahler never came to grips with life and death-the conflict always renewed itself in his mind and music. This is the way of the world: rebirth every spring, senescence every autumn, eternally unresolved.

If you want to know more, I suggest the new book by Norman Lebrecht, entitled Why Mahler?

The Illusion of Plenty
November 21, 2010

Our greatest national danger may be the illusion of plenty. Our supermarkets gleam with thousands of food and other products. We are living inside the cornucopia of plenty of which our ancestors, even a generation back, could not have dreamed. However, it is an illusion. This abundance is the product of an industrial food chain that depends entirely on fossil fuels, mostly imported. Even chickens are raised in factory conditions. The chickens live in massive coops in darkness, because chickens are easier to handle in the dark. Bacteria spread under the crowded conditions of chicken coops. The chicken companies tell the farmers exactly what to do, and what kinds of coops to build, at the farmers’ expense; these corporate-imposed costs almost entirely consume the profits of the chicken farmers, who often earn a profit of barely $20,000 a year. This is a time of plenty, but during this time, huge corporations have gobbled up all of food production into a gigantic machine.

What could possibly be the problem with an efficient, factory-like food production system? There are many problems, but the one I address here is vulnerability. The food production machine depends entirely on lots of fuel and equipment and transportation. Any interruption of our commercial system, even for a brief period, would cause the machine to collapse.

The old fashioned farms had a diversity of crops and animals, and the farmer knew how to raise them all. Nobody knows how to do this anymore. Also, today, most people only know one way to get food: buy it at the store. I am one of these. But even a brief economic collapse would make the supermarket shelves empty and leave most of us cluelessly scrambling for sustenance. When they were children, my parents survived the Great Depression because their parents raised food on farms and in gardens. Next time, this option will not be available to most people—including farmers, who earn their livelihoods by raising just one kind of food and cannot do so without costly inputs. Never before in history has our food production system been so vulnerable to interruption. Food production is a big machine, but it does not have momentum to continue if it encounters obstacles.

The option that the United States may choose, in the event of food shortage, is to use our military might to force other countries to sell us their food. But even this may not be possible, if we cannot afford to buy it (because of another financial crisis due to corrupt corporations) or if those other countries suffer a food collapse also.

The economic way around this problem is to encourage farmers’ markets, which will result in the spread of diverse food production systems that are more stable in the face of disaster. Widespread gardening is the only thing that kept Cuba alive after the collapse of the Soviet Union caused their sugar market to collapse; and it may be the only thing that will keep us alive too, in the almost inevitable economic collapse that will come in the near future.

November 29, 2010

In 1978, James Lovelock, an independent British inventor of scientific equipment, proposed that the Earth was a unified living system, which he called Gaia. The Earth did not just have organisms living upon it, but could be thought of as an organism in its own right. It had physiological processes that regulated its internal conditions, just as an organism does. One of the first biologists to join him in this viewpoint was Lynn Margulis, who was famous for having figured out that complex cells evolved from the merger of simpler cells. Simple cells merged together to form complex cells, and complex organisms form complex ecosystems, which form the entire Earth. It is not just cells that are alive, but life exists on all these different levels.

Some animals (the homeotherms, such as humans) can regulate body temperature. Some scientists, following the lead of Lovelock and Margulis, claim that the Earth can do this also. Five billion years ago, the Sun produced less light, but the Earth was even warmer than it is today because there was a lot of carbon dioxide in the air, causing a greenhouse effect. As the Sun grew brighter, green cells in the oceans of the Earth removed carbon dioxide from the air (through photosynthesis), reducing the greenhouse effect, and keeping Earth’s temperature about the same as (even a little bit cooler than) it was before. This is one example of Earth having a type of homeostasis, or physiological regulation. Some scientists even use the term geophysiology for such processes. (Photosynthesis cannot rescue us from the greenhouse effect now occurring, simply because it is occurring too fast.)

This does not mean that the Earth has intelligence. All it needs is negative feedback processes. If the atmosphere has too much carbon dioxide, plant cells will remove it, and if it does not have enough carbon dioxide, decomposition will produce it. No intelligence required. Of course, intelligence is not needed for most processes within animal or plant physiology. Trees losing their leaves in autumn is a physiological process involving the length of the night and a pigment called phytochrome and a shift in hormone production, all of it accomplished without brains.

The Gaia viewpoint continues to reside on the fringes of scientific thought, often because scientists take it too literally. Some dismiss it because they think Lovelock and Margulis literally believe the Earth to be a goddess, when in reality they use Gaia as a metaphor. But every year more scientists accept some version of the Gaia concept, once they realize that it is a system of negative feedback processes rather than a goddess. It may have been unfortunate for Lovelock to have chosen the name "Gaia;" then again, who would have noticed the concept if he had written about the Earth as an integrated set of negative feedback processes?

So, if I were a scientist with a reputation for big-time highly-funded research, I might hesitate to use the word "Gaia" in public. But since I am a science educator and writer (and I do research also, on the cheap) who wants to get people to grasp the major concepts of the way the world works, I decided to go ahead and throw my hat in the ring with the Gaia theorists. Once my book Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World comes out later this year, there will be no turning back. I had to write the book in a hurry, without sitting around and wondering about my reputation. Too late now; the book is in production. But I don’t think I am going to regret my decision.

A version of this essay has also appeared on my evolution blog.

Degrees of Freedom
December 5, 2010

"Degrees of freedom" is a felicitous phrase invented by Sir Ronald A. Fisher, inventor of much of modern statistical theory. It is a way of denoting sample size. But it occurred to me recently that this phrase might also reflect upon what may be the most important issue of our time: global warming.

Global warming is a reality that we (all of us) must do something about, from scientists and engineers to ordinary citizens who must decide to simply use less energy and consume fewer material things. But there are a handful of scientists, and a large number of pundits, who vigorously claim that global warming is not happening, or if it is then it is natural, or if it is not natural then it is good. Feed them plants some carbon dioxide and they will turn the world green, they say, even if there is not enough fresh water and good soil for them to do so.

And the conservatives insist that we should do nothing about global warming. The main reason that they provide for this is that taking actions to deal with global warming will curtail our freedoms. Which freedoms? The freedom to pollute as much as we want to, and to use cheap gasoline for big cars, and other similar excesses.

But in reality we will start losing our freedoms if we do not bring global warming under control. If large agricultural and urban areas start running out of water (at least in the summer due to diminishing mountain snowpacks), there may be no alternative to rationing water or to buying expensive food. There may be no alternative to heavy police surveillance if environmental refugees begin flooding across our southern border. There may be no alternative to U.S. military involvement in other parts of the world suffering environmental disruption. We may have to pay for this military security by cutting things such as social security, since China may have its own environmental problems and be unable to lend us the money that currently allows us to maintain our wars. Conservatives may fear that carbon limits may lead to gas rationing; but military and economic crises associated with global warming are more likely to do this.

Degrees of freedom. For each degree that the global temperature increases, the more restricted our freedoms will become. When that time comes, conservatives will forget that they ever told us to ignore the problem, just as they have forgotten that they once told us the Iraq War would only cost a few hundred million and would be over in a few months as the Iraqis greeted our troops with flowers.

Social Darwinist Preachers
December 12, 2010

Nearly all of the most conservative preachers today are staunch and vocal supporters of free enterprise, by which they mean that big corporations have a right to crush ordinary people. In doing so, they are directly contradicting Jesus and the prophets. What, for example, would the prophet Amos have said about this? You can read it for yourself.

Evolutionary scientists, however, are not supporters of this doctrine, which is called Social Darwinism. It is the application of an incorrect and disproven version of evolution to the social and political world. It is Herbert Spencer's, not Charles Darwin's, version of evolution. Herbert Spencer's evolutionary writings are, according to Ernst Mayr, of no consequence to modern evolutionary science.

Modern "free enterprise" preachers are not the first to have espoused this oppressive doctrine. In 1877, Henry Ward Beecher, fresh out of a scandal about the open secret of his extramarital affair, gave sermons that said essentially the same thing as modern conservative preachers. Workers' riots were erupting all over the eastern United States, with deadly conflicts between workers and the National Guard in several cities. Workers earned only enough money (a dollar a day), it was said, for bread and water. Beecher, while overseeing the construction of his Hudson River waterfront mansion in Peekskill, New York, announced that workers should be satisfied with this. "The man who cannot live on bread and water is not fit to live." The poor, said Beecher, will "reap the misfortunes of inferiority." He added, melding God and evolution together, "God had intended the great to be great and the little to be little." He ignored Amos,who said that God had not intended the great to crush the little.

In so claiming, Beecher apparently did not notice his inconsistency. His sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin which has been considered the most famous denunciation of American slavery. He did not recognize that big corporations can economically enslave the working poor. This was particularly true in 1877, and still almost as true today.

The difference is that Beecher openly admitted his doctrine was a spiritual adaptation of Herbert Spencer's evolutionary ideas. Modern preachers, in contrast, denounce evolution and claim to get their ideas straight from Jesus. In so doing, these preachers are not only just as wrong as Beecher was, but are insulting Jesus on top of it. Beecher at least claimed to take a figurative interpretation of scripture.

I obtain my historical information from Berry Werth's excellent book, Banquet at Delmonico's: Great Minds,the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America (Random House, 2009). This essay has also appeared on my evolution blog.

The Fundamental Cause of Global Warming
December 19, 2010

There is a bewildering array of possibilities for the major cause of global warming. I am assuming, for this discussion, that the major cause is human activity, a fact accepted by nearly all scientists. But which human activity is the major cause?

Is it deforestation of the rainforest? Is it carbon emissions from automobiles, or from industry? Or is it equally attributable to all of these things?

I would like to penetrate more deeply into this question. The fundamental cause of global warming, of all carbon emissions, is the human inability to be satisfied with a peaceful sufficiency. Global warming has, one could say, a spiritual cause. (If you think I am sounding like Wendell Berry, I take that as a compliment.) We always desire more than we have, even though we cannot even remember all that we have. And all of these things that we buy must be manufactured, which causes carbon emissions, and must be transported, which causes more carbon emissions. We often do it with borrowed money, which is processed expensively and oppressively through banks that produce their own shitload (now there is a word Wendell Berry would probably not use) of carbon emissions. Advertisers spend billions of dollars to make and keep us dissatisfied. We belch out massive amounts of carbon because of our boundless appetite.

If, instead, you buy half as much stuff, you reduce your carbon emissions by half. The same is true if you travel half as much. My television set is vintage 1989 and will no longer work; for some compulsive reason on my part, it is in the attic. I will avoid the carbon emissions associated with manufacturing and transportation of a television, and the electricity necessary to run it, by sitting in the back yard and watching the birds. (My bottle of dark beer required the production of less carbon than a television would. I think.) Satisfaction, besides being the true fount of happiness, is also the best way to reduce carbon emissions.

The rich people of the world have huge carbon footprints, and aspire to have bigger ones. The poor people of the world have small carbon footprints but aspire to have big ones. In the face of this spiritual reality, it does not matter how many hybrid cars or LED lights or solar panels we use. The world will smother if we do not learn satisfaction with sufficiency. It cannot be enforced, and cannot readily be taught. No technological fix will save the damned human race, if by this I mean that we have inflicted this sin upon ourselves.

There are a few Amish around; in fact, their numbers are increasing a little. While I would not want to participate in what I consider a stifling religious culture, I find their skepticism about technology refreshing. They accept new technology, but only after careful consideration. They are the only culture in the world (that I can think of at the moment) that selects technology rather than automatically gobbling it down. We will have to live more like them, and enjoy it, if our culture is to survive. And why not? They seem, if anything, a little happier than the rest of us.

What will the future bring? Obviously, we will encounter limits on how much energy and material available to us. Will we gradually and gracefully adjust to these limits, or will we roar our engines right up to the final moment? And if we have a Really Great Depression as a result, will neighbors help one another adjust to frugality, or will individuals fight with one another for the last pockets of richness? Everywhere we look, when we see localized disasters today, we see both reactions. Which of them will prevail during the future collapse of our society cannot be predicted.

I Humbly Suggest that Scientists Should Rule the World
December 31, 2010

Politicians rule the world. They claim that they know how the world works, how to get things done, how the economy runs, and that is why they should be the ones to rule the world. Well, I guess this is why everything is just fine in the world-because it is in the competent hands of politicians.

But politicians consider us scientists to be impractical. Our scientific minds focus on the natural world, whether it is human brain cells or the growth of forests. They think we do not know what "the real world" of laws and political deals is really like.

This is, however, blatantly untrue. Politicians live in a fake world-in which "truth" is determined by whatever will get them elected, which means that "truth" is whatever their major corporate donors want them to believe. Politicians do rely on data from the real world, but then they filter and twist it into a pretend-world, for example a world in which we can dump our carbon dioxide and Nature will clean it up for us. Will Rogers said, as I recall, "My jokes don't hurt nobody. But when Congress makes a law it's a joke, and when they tell a joke it's a law."

Here are some reasons why scientists could competently run the world (at least, more competently than politicians):
The Obama administration is noticeably more open to input from scientists than any preceding Republican administration, especially the Bush administration that was openly hostile toward science. But Obama's administration is still mostly politicians doing political things based on their pretend-world of political rules. Even Obama listened a lot more to Rahm Emanuel than to his cabinet-level scientists.

Would a society run by scientists be a utopia? I don't know, but it might. It would certainly be an improvement over what we have.

This essay also appeared on my evolution blog.