Updating our Views on Nature and How to Save it

What is nature? What does it mean to preserve, or save it? Science writer Emma Marris says one common definition of nature in North America is the way any given place was before European explorers arrived and began changing the landscape. Therefore, saving nature would mean returning the land to how it was before their arrival. But, she says that idea is flawed because there are countless examples of land management by indigenous people: relocating useful plants to new environments, creating systems to manage rainwater, and clearing land for crops. And, human impact on the environment goes back much more than a few hundred years. Marris notes that pretty much anywhere you look, there is evidence of major changes with the arrival of humans – in particular, the extinction of large land mammals like the woolly mammoth.

Today however, the planet is largely tailored entirely to human existence. Nearly 40% of the ice-free surface of the earth is agriculture. Domesticated livestock far outweighs wild animal life. Species have been moved around, in some cases wreaking havoc on ecosystem. And of course, there are growing impacts of climate change – even hitting places on the planet where humans have never lived.

Marris argues that in order to effectively conserve nature, we have to change our perception of what nature means. She says her old way of thinking, that nature was a pristine untouched and unchanged place didn’t match reality, because if left alone, all places will change. So, she came up with new definitions, including the idea of resource-intensive land management to keep certain culturally important lands as unchanged as possible, and also the idea of novel ecosystems where uncontrolled landscapes have transformed themselves.

With this updated understanding of what nature is, Marris proposes an updated take on conservation. She suggests dividing land into three different styles of management: restoration, innovation, and observation. In her exciting and hopeful talk at UC San Diego, Marris goes on to give concrete examples of how these strategies have worked, and might continue to work around the world.

Watch — The Future of Nature: Conservation in the Anthropocene with Emma Marris – Institute for Practical Ethics

Double Jeopardy

Jewish History scholar Marion Kaplan was a co-editor of the landmark essay collection, “When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany.” Published in 1984, this book established gender studies – heretofore neglected – as a vital component of Holocaust research, exploring the “double jeopardy” experienced in pre-war and wartime Nazi Germany by women who were also Jews.

A central thesis which emerged was the recognition that women experienced fascism differently than their male counterparts and companions, as evidenced by their reactions to pogroms and other anti-Jewish activities undertaken by the Nazi state. Frequently it was women who first and most persistently raised the alarm in their communities about Hitler’s plans for the Jews; the men, especially those in the professional class, were reluctant to forsake their hard-earned status and possessions, trusting instead that the German populace wouldn’t allow extreme ill-treatment of Jews who, in many cases, had lived among them for generations. By contrast women were not established in those professions, and therefore were less motivated by material considerations than by their family’s safety.

In her lecture Professor Kaplan conducts an historical survey of the research leading to, and resulting from, the book’s publication, describing the early workshops that were inspired by the feminist movement and drew together survivors and scholars. These workshops raised critical questions about the lives of German Jewish women in the periods both preceding and following the Nazis’ rise to power, and suggested further avenues of inquiry. In the decades since then, the range of gender perspectives in Holocaust studies have broadened and deepened; for example, they now include the stories of women who “passed” in Nazi Berlin (i.e., hid their Jewishness in order to survive), such as Marie Jalowicz, and of same-sex couples such as Lilly Wust and Felice Schragenheim, whose story is told in “Aimee and Jaguar: A Love Story, Berlin, 1943.” In particular the experiences of Jalowicz and others who, like her, “hid in plain sight” raise complex questions about morality in the face of the harsh sexual politics of survival in wartime Berlin, especially as they pertained to women. Faced with such conditions, what is the ‘moral’ choice?

Kaplan concludes her talk with a discussion of new and promising areas of research, and the synergy between modern women’s studies and Holocaust studies as each seeks to expand its understanding of gender politics in the context of historical trends and imperatives.

Watch — When Biology Became Destiny: How Historians Interpret Gender in the Holocaust – Holocaust Living History Workshop

Is it Time to Rethink the Idea of the Amoral Economic Man?

There is a widely held belief that when designing public policy or legal systems, it makes the most sense to assume that all citizens are entirely self-interested and amoral. It’s a theory known as “homo economicus” or “economic man.” But, economist Samuel Bowles argues against that belief in his book The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives are no Substitute for Good Citizens. Bowles laid out the case for his argument during a recent talk at UC Berkeley.

Bowles says there are two key reasons to move away from the economic man idea. First, he says polices that follow the paradigm can be self-fulling – making the assumption of universal amorality truer than it might otherwise be under different policies. Second, he argues that fines and rewards often do not work as intended.

The problem Bowles argues, is that incentives can “crowd out” otherwise altruistic motives people might have for any given action. He cites the classic example of a daycare that imposed a small fee for parents who showed up late. The result? Many more late parents. The thinking goes that the fee turned being late into a commodity rather than an inconsiderate action. Thus, the incentive backfired, and ended up having the opposite of its intended effect.

However, Bowles says incentives themselves are not to blame. He argues they can be designed in a such a way to encourage good civic behavior, while avoiding possible pitfalls. For example, when Ireland wanted to get rid of plastic bags, lawmakers imposed a small tax. But, they paired the tax with a huge media campaign about not trashing the Emerald Isle. Appealing to citizens better nature made the difference, and most shoppers stopped using plastic bags within weeks.

Watch — The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives are No Substitute for Good Citizens

2019 Writer’s Symposium by the Sea

One of the top journalists in Washington, a Christian poet, and a new voice in the Marvel Black Panther Universe – three writers with very different backgrounds and styles, all sharing their insight into the art of putting pen to paper. Join founder Dean Nelson as he welcomes E.J. Dionne, Christian Wiman and Nnedi Okorafor to the 2019 Writer’s Symposium by the Sea at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego.

Nnedi Okorafor (https://www.uctv.tv/shows/33945)

International award-winning novelist Nnedi Okorafor discusses her wide-ranging work, including Black Panther comic books, young adult fiction, and her novel “Who Fears Death” which is being made into an HBO series produced by George R.R. Martin of “Game of Thrones” fame. She delves into her unique upbringing, what sparked her interest in African-based science fiction, and how a surgery gone wrong played a pivotal role in her becoming an author.

E.J. Dionne (https://www.uctv.tv/shows/33946)

Veteran journalist E.J. Dionne has spent decades reporting on American politics. He worked at the New York Times before joining the Washington Post, where he writes a twice-weekly column. His books include the 1991 release, “Why Americans Hate Politics” and his most recent effort, “One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported.” Dionne discusses the changing landscape of journalism and why it is more important now than ever to talk politics with those with whom we disagree.

Christian Wiman (https://www.uctv.tv/shows/33947)

The former editor of Poetry Magazine, Christian Wiman is both a poet and an essayist who teaches Literature and Religion at Yale Divinity School. Wiman discusses his books including, “He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art,” and “My Bright Abyss.” He opens up about a three-year writing drought when he felt poetry was taken away from him and he was diagnosed with cancer. He explains how falling in love and a random visit to the corner church turned his life around.

Browse past seasons of Writer’s Symposium by the Sea to watch interviews with Joyce Carol Oates, Tracy Kidder, Billy Collins, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and more!

Browse more programs in Writer’s Symposium By The Sea

The Social Media Bubble

Social media has become such a ubiquitous part of our lives that it’s difficult to remember a time before Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, etc. So ingrained are these platforms in our daily routines that we seldom stop to ponder their effect on ourselves, other users, and/or the larger society.

As an early financial advisor to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, venture capitalist Roger McNamee is uniquely positioned to consider those effects. In conversation with San Diego Union-Tribune’s Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Jeff Light, McNamee discusses the concerns that led to the publication of his recent book, Zucked. He starts by describing Facebook’s business model, which is predicated on enticing users to spend ever-more time on the site to maximize advertising exposure and on selling members’ data to those advertisers.

McNamee outlines the use (or misuse) of algorithms to tailor the “Facebook experience” to each user. “Likes,” targeted News Feeds, comments, online games and other features are designed to reinforce the user’s sense of belonging to a larger community, which of course serves a basic human need. This seems harmless enough on the surface, but McNamee argues that the net effect is to create a “Facebook bubble” around the user, in which already-held theories and beliefs are constantly reinforced while opinions that may challenge those beliefs are discouraged or hidden altogether. In that light it should come as no surprise that roughly 40% of adult Americans believe things that are demonstrably untrue.

More pernicious, and potentially more damaging to society, is the outsized influence wielded by social media platforms on civil discourse and the democratic process itself. A society that cannot agree on basic facts is a society that cannot function effectively. McNamee cites two momentous events, the Brexit vote in the UK and the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, as instances where Facebook and other social media were manipulated by Cambridge Analytica, the Russian and Chinese governments, and other disruptive agents in such a way as to influence the vote’s outcome. As the evidence for this manipulation steadily mounted McNamee confronted the Facebook leadership, who at that time refused to acknowledge the severity of the problem or change their practices. Thus, began McNamee’s disillusionment with social media and growing sense of alarm over what he perceived to be a threat to democracy.

Though McNamee believes this threat is very real, he is nevertheless optimistic. He points out that there is still strength in numbers, and voters can pressure legislators to protect consumer privacy by ending the unchecked (and in McNamee’s view, wholly unnecessary) “data mining” employed by the tech sector. They can also require social media platforms to make efforts to verify information before posting, at the very least by identifying the information’s true source.

McNamee also insists that we social media consumers can and must do a better job of educating ourselves. Determining which news and commentary sites are trustworthy is a good start, and McNamee notes that there are tools available to help.

Watch “Zucked” with Roger McNamee – Helen Edison