Lessons from nature

A high-school teacher recently told me about his passion—tracking animals in the wilderness. Looking for paw print, size, length of gait, and direction in the context of habitat requires simple, deductive reasoning. The opposite—making facts fit predetermined outcomes—is the enemy of reason.

While the teacher talked about his inspiration—to sharpen the learning skills of students by exposing them to such lessons from nature—it occurred to me that every human endeavor that leaves its mark can be similarly traced.

Here are a few examples:

From the point of view of a bird above the edge of the Everglades—the liquid heart of Florida—one sees wetlands drained for agriculture turned to development pods with square footprints that can be traced to every zoning decision smoothed by campaign contributions.

Consider invisible contrails of soot and smog flowing from the nation’s fossil-fuel power plants, sowing illness and costs to the environment that students could track as they would a bear tramping through the brush.

And there is global climate change. Glaciers are melting rapidly. Were students to take a tape and measure this year’s abnormal retreat of polar ice caps, they would come up with an area twice the size of Texas. The rate of carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere—caused by human activity—has no equivalent in tens of millions of years.

Ill-formed decisions compound bad results that can only be justified by mangling their meaning. For instance, in 2003 — at the beckoning of the sugar industry—the Florida Legislature and Gov. Jeb Bush axed the 1994 Everglades Forever Act, further diminishing its weak provisions well before the scrutiny of a presidential election year.

Regulatory “reform” of the Clean Air Act, promoted by the nation’s power utilities and doggedly pursued by the Bush administration, hides from people a decision to exchange “tolerable” risks to public health and the environment. Two weeks ago, the EPA Office of the Inspector General planted a sign post with its report condemning the Bush administration’s implementation and enforcement of the Clean Air Act. Today, one in six mothers are at risk for exposure to dangerous levels of mercury in the environment, a point driven home for those mothers and anyone who treasures the life of the unborn.

Our denial of responsibilities for global climate change has engendered a wave of cynicism toward America—not just by nations we need as partners but by ordinary citizens in those nations whose cooperation is crucial in isolating terrorists where they live.

It is not that we don’t mean to do the right thing by our decisions—certainly we talk about road maps enough.

In 2001, Vice President Cheney was interviewed by PBS anchor Jim Lehrer on the state of U.S. energy and consumption. He said, “Today we’re importing about a million barrels a day from Iraq. Iraq isn’t exactly a friend of the United States. Every time we allow that foreign dependency to increase we increase our vulnerability to vagaries of the international marketplace.” That was before 9-11 and its own code words.

What we know, now, is that the Bush administration decided early on that expanding the supply of fossil fuels was a first priority of our national security. Iraq was in the administration’s cross-hairs for several reasons—al-Qaeda was not one of them. Well before the World Trade Towers were destroyed by a group of terrorists predominantly from Saudi Arabia, the Bush administration decided that the remedy to our vulnerability was to secure the most unstable of the world’s sources of foreign oil: Iraq.

That assessment was the foundation from which all choices flowed, including pretexts for war based on persuading Americans that Iraq was al-Qaeda and that when U.S. soldiers were greeted as liberators in Baghad, oil would flow as freely as democracy. None of it turned out to be true.

Recently, the New York Times reported how intelligence had repeatedly questioned one of the main rationales offered in defense of our invasion: the existence of aluminum tubes purportedly used to manufacture nuclear-bomb material. Americans were misled, not by bad intelligence, but by the Bush administration’s decision to make facts fit its case for war.

I suspect my friend, the high-school teacher, knows that setting students loose in the woods won’t deter them from declaring a moose footprint from a mouse; reason serves many masters. But from any system of belief, God’s creation reveals everything we need to know about humanity and sustaining our needs, if we just look and listen closely enough.

For elected officials who retreat to the wilderness to fish and hunt and relieve the enormous pressures of governance, they too might want to sharpen their tracking skills.

It is no coincidence the brilliant minds that established our nation, more than 200 years ago, were formed in the wilderness. Today, it seems, too many are just lost there.

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