Sunday, January 18, 2015

Exposing the Bully: Cliven Bundy and the Tragedy of the Commons

In the classic western 1953 movie Shane, a drifter finds himself in the midst of an ongoing conflict between the farming homesteaders and a cattle baron, wishing to seize their land. In the film Once Upon a Time in the West, the cattle baron is replaced by the railroad baron. Same deal. Same story… It hasn’t changed that much in a hundred years…
The premise of cattle/land/railroad baron vs farmer/homesteader or small independent rancher is a popular one for good storytelling about the pioneers of the western frontier, and is based firmly on historical fact. The 19th century American analogues of the Monsanto and Nestle cartels and monopolies were decidedly held by these barons, many coming from oversees. Since the herds grazed on the open range and as few as a dozen cowboys could handle several thousand heads of cattle, a rancher's operating expenses were low. Many ranchers managed cattle and land for outside corporate interests. Two of the largest corporate ranches — the AngloAmerican Cattle Company (1879) and the Prairie Cattle Company (1881) — were established in England and Scotland, respectively.
In the Feb 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Christopher Ketcham writes that in 1885 the General Land Office reported to Congress on the worst form of monopoly in the western USA: “Cattle barons had enclosed the west forage along with scarce supplies of water in an arid landscape. They falsified titles using the signatures of cowhands and family members, employed fictitious identities to stake claims, and faked improvements on the land to appear to comply with the law.” Most private rangeland in the western states was likely obtained by various degrees of fraud, wrote Ketcham, quoting a historian in the industry. In the Johnson County War of 1892, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association hired gunmen to get rid of small operators accused of stealing cattle.
These barons weren’t cowboys, writes Ketcham; although “they came to veil themselves in the
cowboy mythos.” They were bankers or lawyers; they were mining, timber or railroad tycoons, whose soul interest was in making lots of money. “They dominated territorial legislatures, made governors, kept judges, juries and lawmen in their pockets. They hired gunmen to terrorize those who dared to encroach on their interests. They drove off small, cash-poor family ranchers by stampeding or rustling their herds, bankrupting them with spurious lawsuits, diverting water courses and sprints, fencing off land to monopolize the grass.”
“By the late nineteenth century, the barons had privatized the most productive grasslands and the riparian corridors, where the soil was especially rich. What remained was the less valuable dry-land forage of the public domain, which by 1918 totaled some 200 million acres spread across the eleven states of the West, and which the barons also dominated by stocking them with huge numbers of cows.”
Overgrazed and under-regulated, the public rangelands spiraled into degradation; the grass diminished, topsoil eroded by rain or stolen by the wind.
In 1934, Ferdinand Silcox, the chief forester of the US Forest Service, testified that unregulated grazing was “a cancer-like growth,” fated to become “a great interior desert.” That same year the Taylor Grazing Act was legislated to establish fees and a quota for grazing of government public lands. Stockmen petitioned to have the federally controlled land turned over to the state jurisdiction. The underlying agenda was “to discredit all conservation bureaus of the government, [and] to discredit conservation itself,” said historian Bernard DeVoto.
“The wholesale transfer of public lands to state control may never be achieved,” writes Ketcham. “But the goal might be more subtle: to attack the value of public lands, to reduce their worth in the public eye, to diminish and defund the institutions that protect the land, and to neuter enforcement.” Ketcham reiterates DeVoto’s observation in the 1940s that “no rancher in his right mind wanted to own the public lands himself. That would entail responsibility and stewardship. Worse, it would mean paying property taxes. What ranchers have always wanted, and what extractive industries in general want, is private exploitation with costs paid by the public.”
This is the moniker of the bully. Of small-minded, empty-hearted men, driven by the emptiness of greed and with no sense of connection to their world or environment. It is, in fact, the very reason we need government regulation.
Cliven Bundy
What does a modern-day cattle baron look like? He looks like Cliven Bundy, notorious scoff-law cattle rancher from Bunkerville, Nevada.
The rancher fancies himself a rebel hero in the form of Robin Hood, fighting for his rights against a “tyrannical” government; nothing could be further from the truth (read Ketcham’s in-depth article in the February issue of Harper’s). Firstly, the definition of a hero does not include a self-serving mean-spirited 20-year war on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over the destructive grazing by his cattle in the Gold Butte area—which has now taken on a terrorist quality. There’s nothing heroic about his disrespect for the land, the watershed and for people outside his own coterie. There is nothing heroic about wrongly citing the U.S. Constitution to support purposefully over-stocking and destroying sensitive habitat in the Butte. There is nothing heroic about refusing to pay a grazing fee for cattle that he will sell later for profit; a move that mimics what super-bully Nestlé is doing in watersheds around the world to sell water at great profit.
Bundy and his like-minded coterie rallied against the conservationist bureau with pretentions of American rights. They did this by intimidating and terrorizing foresters and ecologists at gun-point, and carelessly destroying the land with vehicles and cattle.
Rancher / Feds face-off near Bunkerville Nevada

What Bundy refuses to admit or care apparently is that grazing is now considered the chief cause of desertification in North America. Cattle are implicated in the eradication of native plants, which help balance the plains ecosystems. Studies in the area where Bundy’s cattle graze showed that the riparian areas were in the worst condition in history. Springs and streams were polluted, and cover for birds and mammals denuded. Invasive species had created monocultures of an inferior “industrialized landscape”. The sagebrush was replaced by a monoculture of cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum). “Cheat is the cattleman’s most subtly destructive legacy,” wrote Ketcham. “The BLM itself has admitted that because of the cheat infestation ‘a large part of the Great Basin lies on the brink of ecological collapse’.” Not that Bundy understands what this means or even cares.
Bundy is plainly a bully and a thief, posing as a man of justice and knowledge.  His actions and words demonstrate that he knows nothing of these tenets.
Bundy is just a Nestlé-wannabe, who needs a mother’s discipline for his deep lack of respect and bad manners. Unfortunately, Mother Nature’s discipline will come in the form of environmental calamity inflicted on many more than Bundy himself.
This is the true tragedy of the bully.

Shame on you, Cliven Bundy.

Tragedy of the Commons:

The Tragedy of the Commons is an economic theory posited by Garrett Hardin in a 1968 article in Science. In the article he suggested that individuals will act out of self-interest, contrary to the best interests of the whole group, by depleting some common resource. The term was first used in an essay by Victorian economist William Forster Lloyd on the effects of unregulated grazing on common land.

Drawing on insights from Thomas Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Populations, written in 1798, Hardin warned that the exponential growth of the human population would soon overwhelm the world’s finite natural resources. Harden demonstrated his point with a parable of an open commons with a flock of grazing animals.

Hardin argued that individuals motivated by self-interest to maximize their wealth, will continue to add to their flocks to increase their personal wealth. Every animal added to the commons contributes to the degradation of the resources. However, the increasing use and ultimate degradation of the commons are small burdens to the individual user, relative to the gain in wealth accrued to that individual.

In Hardin’s parable, all individuals will naturally follow the same pattern until the resource is inevitably destroyed. “Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons”. Hardin concludes stating “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all”. According to Hardin, the only way to avert the tragedy of the commons is through government regulation or exclusive, private ownership of resources.

In 1833 the English economist William Forster Lloyd published a pamphlet that included an example of herders sharing a common parcel of land on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze. In English villages, shepherds had sometimes grazed their sheep in common areas, and sheep ate grass more severely than cows. He suggested that overgrazing could result because for each additional sheep, a herder could receive benefits, while the group shared damage to the commons. If all herders made this individually rational economic decision, the common could be depleted or even destroyed, to the detriment of all.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit for more about her writing.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Interstellar: Is Love the God Particle?

Miller's planet with Gargantua in background
Critical reception for Christopher Nolan's science fiction blockbuster movie Interstellar was widely mixed. Reviews ranged from being dazzled and awestruck to thinking it utterly ridiculous and silly. Much of the range in opinion had in fact to do with the hard science: hard science that Nolan insisted he get right by hiring theoretical physicist Kip Thorne to best approximate what a black hole and a wormhole will look like and behave. Science so good that it generated a discovery worthy of reporting in a scientific journal (see below). The forums and chats that debated the last half-hour of the movie and its significance were entertaining, if not informative. Interstellar also generated a spate of vitriolic, accusing the film as propaganda for American colonialism (see a few examples below). 
I first watched it in an IMAX theatre (the only way to see such an epic—it was filmed
The Endeavour enters the wormhole
using 70mm Imax film, after all), which helped achieve its grandness. Since I was five, I've always wanted to be an astronaut. And I've always been a sucker for good space adventure—especially well-researched, realistic depictions defined by a good story. And that is exactly what Interstellar is. And so much more…
I'll admit openly that this film swept me up like a giant wave. I sat humbled yet exalted as I journeyed to some magnificent alien worlds: deep space; a powerful spherical wormhole; vast shallow waters between mile-high waves of a tidally locked planet; skimming beneath ice-clouds of a barren ice-planet; and falling—literally—into a black hole. All to the recursive echoes of a mesmerizing score by Hans Zimmer. While I was openly moved during the film, its aftertaste caught me unawares and impressed me the most about Nolan's talent for subtle paradox. I realized that the journey—and deep space—felt inexplicably vast and intimate at the same time.
Gargantua Black Hole with Miller's planet in foreground
The research by Thorne and Nolan's visual team generated a scientific discovery. To accurately portray a black hole in the film, Thorne produced a new set of equations to guide the special effects team’s rendering software. Black holes apparently spin at nearly the speed of light, dragging bits of the universe along with it. Based on the notion that it was once a star that collapsed into a singularity, the hole forms a glowing ring that orbits around a spheroidal maelstrom of light, which curves over the top and under the bottom simultaneously. The team then discovered that “warping space around the black hole also warps the accretion disk,” explained Paul Franklin, senior supervisor of Double Negative (the visual experts). “So, rather than looking like Saturn’s rings around a black sphere, the light creates this extraordinary halo.” Thorne confirmed that they had correctly modeled a phenomenon inherent in the math he’d supplied and intends to publish several articles in scientific journals, based on these findings.
Canadian science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer defines good science fiction as: the literature of change; it’s about something “large” (world-important), arises from a scientific premise; and is generally pro-science. Interstellar achieves all of these criteria, particularly the latter.
Cooper and Murph discuss Murphy's Law
The movie begins in the near-future on a post-climate change Earth, plagued by dust storms and failing crops in a society reverted to parochial superstition. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), once a NASA pilot and now a farmer, laments: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”
In a scene reminiscent of present day schools removing cursive writing from the curriculum or the controversy of teaching evolution (e.g., in favor of creationism), Cooper’s daughter’s teacher, Ms. Kelly, informs him at a parent-teacher meeting that the history textbooks have been rewritten to make known the “truth” about the moon landing: “I believe [the moon landing] was a brilliant piece of propaganda,” attests Ms. Kelly, “that the Soviets bankrupted themselves pouring resources into rockets and other useless machines…And if we don’t want to repeat the excess and wastefulness of the 20th Century, then we need to teach our kids about this planet, not tales of leaving it.”
Murph (grown up) trying to solve gravity equation
The danger of turning away from scientific exploration—particularly space exploration—in times of great social and economic insecurity is a theme that runs deep in the film. Not only are scientists and engineers portrayed as whole individuals, both smart and compassionate, but they are also marginalized in a future world looking more to blame than to fix. “We didn’t run out of planes and television sets,” the principal of the school tells Cooper. “We ran out of food.”
When a gravitational anomaly leads Cooper and his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) to a secret NASA base in the middle of nowhere, an old colleague, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), recruits him to pilot the interstellar Endeavor, NASA’s “Noah’s Ark”, into the far reaches of outer space to repopulate the human race. NASA has turned covert due to public pressure against “irrelevant or politically unfeasible” spending. After showing Cooper how their last corn crops will eventually fail like the okra and wheat before them, Brand answers Cooper’s question of, “So, how do you plan on saving the world?” with: “We’re not meant to save the world…We’re meant to leave it.” Cooper rejoins: “I’ve got kids.” To which Brand answers: “Then go save them.”
Unbeknownst to us—and to Cooper, who leaves his precious children behind on Earth for what turns into a one-way mission—the intention is to literally leave the rest of humanity behind. You see, Cooper’s ship—headed toward one of three potentially habitable worlds beyond a wormhole near Saturn—contains the seeds of humanity and other life that the four astronauts aboard are meant to distribute and nurture. Cooper and Brand’s daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), one of the other three astronauts onboard, both believe that the real ark sits back on Earth in the form of a huge spaceship—awaiting Brand’s solution to the gravity issue. Brand knows, but keeps to himself, that the solution is insolvable and sends his intrepid crew off, knowing that Cooper will never see his young son and daughter again.
While Nolan admits to some iconic comparisons with Kubrick’s 2001; A Space Odyssey, Interstellar actually shares much more with the film Contact (in which Kip Thorne and McConoughey also participated). Contact also centered on a ground-breaking scientist daughter who misses her lost father. Mark Kermode, in a Guardian review also saw the relationship:
“In both movies, it is these daughters who detect the first stirrings of an “alien” encounter: Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) identifying recurrent sequences in the white noise of interstellar radiation in Contact; Murph (very affectingly played in her younger years by Mackenzie Foy) spying Morse code in poltergeist disturbances in Interstellar. From such discoveries are missions launched, voyaging across time and space at the apparent instruction of a superior intelligence offering cryptic hands across the universe. Intergalactic portals are breached, timescales bifurcated, science and faith reconciled. Crucially, for all their astro-maths exposition, the constant in both stories is neither time, space, nor gravity, but love. More than once I was reminded of Contact’s Ellie striking the outer limits of the universe and breathlessly declaring: ‘They should have sent a poet.’”
Interstellar received widely mixed reviews, described as anything from sublime to ridiculous. Its American-centric presentation generated some criticism (e.g., NASA acting alone without any international help; all American actors; American flags erected on settled colonies). Some even vilified the film as “a dangerous fantasy of US colonialism”. Journalist Abraham Riesman raises valid issues to do with human-centric expansionism in Interstellar:
“Coop and his coterie make one assumption that the movie never questions: Humanity (which, for all we ever see, is white, English-speaking America with a couple of black friends and one British guy) deserves to go to the stars and will suffocate if it's confined to its current environs. That logic was, of course, one of the main justifications for most imperial expansions since the dawn of the 1800s. No one stops to ask whether this civilization (which, in the movie, appears to have murdered its home planet through human-caused climate change, though, for some reason nobody talks about that) needs to make some fundamental changes in its approach to social construction and resource use. Indeed, when we see the bright new future on Cooper Station, it's all baseball and manicured lawns. Perhaps more important, no one questions whether human expansion will kill off the new planets' current residents. Sure, we're told that the planets are uninhabited ... but uninhabited by what? Carbon-based humanoid life forms? What if we immediately kill off whatever fragile ecosystems we find once we take off our helmets and exhale our Earthly germs? Of course, I'm reading too much into a movie that isn't even implying any of the messages I'm inferring, but that's the problem right there: No one's even asking the questions, and for humans, that kind of attitude usually leads to bad answers.”
What saves Interstellar from skidding into 20th Century pseudo-jingoistic expansionism with undertones of patriarchal rationalism, is its subversive theme. And because of it, the movie transcends into artistic commentary.
Amelia Brand sees an anomaly in the ship
I speak of love.
Love embodied by two of the main characters—both women: Cooper’s daughter, Murph, and his shipmate, Amelia Brand. Love that is irrational. Love that is unscientific. Love that is inexplicable. And love that is all powerful. Inviolate. Eternal. And, I believe, our salvation.
Aspects of “imperialist expansionism” and “patriarchal rationalism” interplay through Cooper, who embodies both in his “cowboy” science. It is love that propels his evolution to transcend them. In Cooper, we see the constant tension between rationality of science and the “irrational” faith of love. Related to this, Cooper must continually choose between the personal and the whole in defining his humanity and ultimately his hard choices. First with his daughter and her “ghost”, then with Amelia Brand in their mission to another galaxy.
Miller's planet
After a botched mission, Amelia appears to abandon the very tenets of hard science to ask the defining question: “Maybe we’ve spent too long trying to figure all this out with theory. Love is the one thing that transcends time and space.” She describes love as a cosmic force, a kind of empathic drive that provides the very basis for humanity’s survival: a link to our wholeness as living beings within a breathing multi-dimensional universe. When Cooper challenges Amelia’s unscientific notions, she responds with, “Love isn’t something we invented. It’s observable, powerful … Maybe it’s evidence, some artifact of higher dimensions that we can’t consciously perceive.” Repeating, almost word for word, what Cooper said to his father about choosing his interstellar mission, Amelia admits, “yes, the tiniest possibility [of seeing Wolf again] excites me. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.” To which Cooper answers just as his father did: “Honestly…it might.”
TARS AI saves Amelia from the giant wave
Amelia nails it when she, in turn, challenges Cooper: if the second choice turns out bad, they will have enough fuel to do only one of two things: go on to the third planet in hopes of distributing the seeds of humanity OR go back home to his children and the end of the world. Which will he choose? It’s interesting what he does end up choosing: he chooses love. Love drives him to do impossible feats, like dock his shuttle with a damaged and recklessly spinning Endeavor:
CASE: That’s impossibleCOOPER: No, it’s necessary
Love for Murph drives Cooper into the black hole … and out of it. Love directs him to
Mann's planet
that precise quantum moment where his love for Murph transcends into love for all humanity: to save the world. This is the secret. The secret Mann in his intellectualized definition of what it means to be human could not touch. The window for connection to the whole is through a single tiny grasp of it. The glimpse into Eternity is through the lens of Love. I am reminded of a quote in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas: “What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” In Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Itzhak Stern quotes the Talmud: “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”
Amelia Brand
So what is love, then? Is it gravity? Does it communicate through the God particle in the fractal fabric of the Higgs field? What other phenomenon grows from nothing? What other phenomenon is not lessened but in fact grows by giving it away? What other phenomenon provides the very weight and structure—the meaning—of our existence? What other phenomenon is like a whisper in a crowded room, yet creates the most beautiful symphony? Is it that simple?
If gravity is a plane of existence, a fifth dimension that can exist across space-time, is a black hole simply a doorway? Like death? Is love the fuel of evolution, lifting us up into a higher state?
Catholic theologian Peter Kreeft shares: “…Gravity is love on a material level. In fact, [gravity] has two movements: one is towards union, back to the center, the big bang, the past by gravity. And the other is to give itself out to all other beings, out into the future, the expanding universe, by energy and by entropy, which is energy giving itself out to the empty places.”
What struck me the most about Interstellar was how it simultaneously evoked my
Cooper enters the black hole
breathless awe in the vast universe’s existentialist grandeur with a personal connection and incredible intimacy. Interstellar was soul-nourishing, dream-engaging; and its recursive themes called of “home”.

Wormhole: Officially known as an Einstein-Rosen Bridge, a wormhole is a hypothetical topological feature of spacetime that would fundamentally be a shortcut through spacetime.
God Particle: Also known as the Higgs boson or Higgs particle, the God particle is believed to be the subatomic particle that gives everything mass. Without it, nothing would have weight or even structure. The Higg boson is an elementary particle with no spin, electric charge or colour charge. It is considered the smallest possible quantum excitation of the Higgs field that unlike the more familiar electromagnetic field cannot be “turned off”; instead it takes a non-zero constant value almost everywhere.
Higgs Field: In two papers published in 1964, Peter Higgs posited that particles obtain mass by interacting with a mysterious invisible energy force field that permeates the universe: the Higgs field. It is the stuff of stars, planets, trees, buildings and animals. Without mass, electrons, protons and neutrons wouldn’t stick together to make atoms; atoms wouldn’t make molecules and molecules wouldn’t make us. The presence of the Higgs field explains why some fundamental particles have mass while the symmetries (laws of nature) controlling their interactions should require them to be massless, and why the weak force has a much shorter range than the electromagnetic force.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit for more about her writing.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2015: Year of the Sheep (Ram)

Starting February 19th 2015, we enter the Year of the Sheep (Ram) on the Chinese calendar. More specifically it is the Yin (female) Green Wood Sheep (as with last year’s Horse).
The Chinese Year uses the cycle of 60 Stem-Branch counting systems; the Green Wood Sheep is the 32nd Stem-Branch in the cycle. This is because the Stem-Branch Calendar is connected to the Five Element theory. Chinese calendars use the Stem-Branch system to count the days, months and years. There are 10 Stems and 12 Branches in the system. Stems are named by the Yin-Yang of Five Elements (Metal, Water, Wood, Fire and Earth). Branches reflect the various totem animals such as the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.
Those born in the years 1907, 1919, 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, and 2015 celebrate the Year of the Sheep, Ram or Goat. 
The Sheep (Goat) is a Yin energy and symbol of peace, harmonious co-existence and tranquility. The sheep also represents gentleness and compassion, two qualities one must attain to reflect the former qualities. Astrologers agree that the sheep year will be a good year to heal from the chaos of 2014’s Horse year (my year. Woohoo! What a ride! I experienced a great deal of motion and upheaval, sometimes at break-neck speed; all of which cleared away cobwebs and encouraged me to learn). 2015 will nurture cooperation in faith and a belief that good will prevail.

The creative Sheep personality embodies warmth, wealth, and beauty, and this, suggest astrologers, will be reflected in 2015, a year, says astrologer Susan Levitt of, whose energy will cultivate “intimacy, family and close friendships.” Develop a gentle heart, open to love and acceptance on all levels, she adds.
“I Depend” 
I am Nature's special child. 
I trust and am rewarded by trust. 
Fortune smiles upon my countenance. 
All things blossom in the gentleness of my love. 
I strive to find beauty in all I behold. 
I am fair of face and full of grace.
Dall sheep of northwestern Canada
The Sheep's motto, "I depend" can be interpreted by knowing the animal. Sheep are independent but also very gregarious. They flock (or herd) like many animals of prey (e.g., birds, fish, ungulates, etc.) and derive much of their strength through cooperative social behaviour (e.g., lowering chances of predation). Like the animal, the sheep sign is social and functions best with feedback and support from others. The zodiac Sheep epitomizes the dependency of Yin and Yang: dark and light, night and day, moon and sun. As these energies depend on each other for existence, we depend on their balance for harmony, which is the natural inclination of the Sheep. In Sheep years we can make great progress with assistance of family, friends, colleagues or community. 2015 is a year to build bridges and knock down walls.

The Sheep is a symbol for the arts, reflected in creativity and the cultivation of beauty. In this renaissance year, the arts will flourish in all forms including visual art, literature, textile, theater, video, culinary arts, comedy, music and dance.
Writers work mostly in solitude and isolation. We ensconce ourselves, often in some woebegone corner, accompanied only by the muse of our imagination and—if we’re lucky—a warm beverage. Yet, to be a successful writer and be published, we have a great need to nurture cooperative associations; with editors, publishers, marketers, researchers, mentors and colleagues who can help us with our projects.
So, we welcome the Year of the Sheep… It will be a good year, a good time …
A time to slow the galloping charge of our vision quest …
A time to slow and embrace the warmth of reflection. To integrate, cooperate, and collaborate. To cultivate faith in our humanity and, sheep-like, listen to our intuition and go with the flow. Then just sit back and watch it unfold. As it should.
Wishing you the very best this wonderful year.
Happy New Year!

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit for more about her writing.