Saturday, July 17, 2010

Democracy Now! - "Tea Party in Sonora": Ken Silverstein of Harper’s Says Arizona is Laboratory for Radical GOP Policies

Democracy Now! hosted an excellent discussion with Ken Silverstein (of Harper's Magazine), Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales about the recent article in Harper's: Tea Party in Sonora: For the Future of GOP Governance, Look to Arizona (subscription required).

How crazy are these people in AZ? A state senator, Sylvia Allen, was quoted as saying that trees were stealing Arizona’s water supply -

As a resident of AZ for more than 8 years now, I can honestly say that the GOP's anti-tax, anti-education programs have turned this state into a cesspool. The only kids getting a passable education in this state are those in the handful of wealthy school districts - the rest of the kid's are screwed. The GOP has cut taxes in each of 15 of the last 17 years, bankrupting the state - so what gets cut from the budget? Education, child healthcare programs, all-day kindergarten, and any program aimed at immigrants (legal or otherwise).

Back when Bush passed his No Child Left Behind program, with some really basic standards to meet in reading and math, most students in this state failed - so the GOP legislature lowered the standards. And lest you think I am being hard on the GOP without acknowledging the Democrats, well the Dems could seriously just stay home and it would have zero impact on the GOP passing their programs.

"Tea Party in Sonora": Ken Silverstein of Harper’s Says Arizona is Laboratory for Radical GOP Policies


A new article by Harper’s Magazine Washington editor Ken Silverstein argues that Arizona has become a laboratory not just for immigration policy, but a broad range of issues. It’s a place, he writes, where the Tea Party is arguably the ruling party, and should the Republicans retake nationwide power, "the country might start to resemble the right-wing desert that Arizona has become." [includes rush transcript].

Guest: Ken Silverstein, Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine. His piece in the July edition of Harper’s is Tea Party in Sonora: For the Future of GOP Governance, Look to Arizona.

Rush Transcript

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AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Arizona. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes. Well, in Arizona, a state that’s become infamous for its crackdown on undocumented immigrants and racial profiling of Latinos, last week the Department of Justice filed a federal lawsuit over the state’s controversial anti-immigrant law that is scheduled to take effect at the end of this month. The new law requires police officers to stop and interrogate anyone they suspect is an undocumented immigrant.

But in a sign that Arizona may not be alone, on Wednesday nine other states, led by Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, filed a legal brief supporting the Arizona law. The other states that joined are Michigan, Alabama, Florida, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Virginia.

AMY GOODMAN: So, is Arizona a bellwether state on conservative policymaking around immigration? Well, a new article by Harper’s Magazine Washington editor Ken Silverstein argues Arizona is becoming a laboratory not just for immigration policy, but a broad range of issues. It’s a place, he writes, where the Tea Party is arguably the ruling party. Should the Republicans retake nationwide power, quote, "the country might start to resemble the right-wing desert that Arizona has become." The article is in the July issue of Harper’s Magazine. It’s called "Tea Party in Sonora: For the Future of GOP Governance, Look to Arizona." Ken Silverstein joins us now from Washington, DC.

Lay out the political landscape for us in Arizona, Ken Silverstein, and why you’re focusing there.

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, I looked at Arizona in a much broader way than merely the immigration issue, because immigration is sort of—it illustrates what’s going on in Arizona, but the problem there, the dysfunction, is far broader. I mean, you have the sort of radical right in control in Arizona. You’ve got every component of the sort of extreme right wing running around, whether it’s the Minutemen, you know, guarding the borders, or the anti-tax crowd, the religious conservatives. They’re all very, very active and vibrant in Arizona.

And I really looked at the economic situation there, because Arizona—I mean, everybody’s focusing on immigration, but you’ve got this economic crisis there that is quite stunning, resembling California in many ways, where the state is just completely bankrupt. It has huge deficits, which they’re addressing by cutting social spending in an extraordinary way, where, you know, they’re doing away with all-day kindergarten, and they’re kicking kids off of healthcare programs, taking very, very dramatic steps in order to control the budget deficit. And meanwhile, because, as I wrote on our web, on the Harper’s site, about Arizona, as well, you know, it was described to me sort of as a Grover Norquist lab experiment run amok, in a way. I mean, you’ve just got this anti-tax fanaticism in Arizona where it doesn’t matter whether the state is doing well or doing poorly, the answer of the legislature is always "Let’s cut taxes." So, fifteen of the last seventeen years, they’ve slashed taxes in Arizona, so you’ve just got this expanding budget deficit. You know, it’s all this sort of Reagan-era belief, or even pre-Reagan, but, you know, where this whole belief took hold during those years that, you know, you cut taxes and the economy will grow. Well, you can look at the record in Arizona, and there’s no real indication that cutting taxes will always make the economy grow. I mean, there are situations where it may help, but it is not a cure-all. But that’s the only thing the legislature there knows how to do. And so they have collectively managed to bankrupt the state and create a crisis that is going to drag on for years and years and years, and they’ve locked themselves, really, into a situation where they can’t fix it, because so many of the lawmakers—it’s a pretty big Republican majority—so many of the Republicans have signed the Norquist anti-tax pledge, so that they—under no circumstances, will they raise taxes. So they’re really locked into a box, and the state is in terrible, terrible shape. And the people of the state are paying the price.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Ken, I was struck also in your article that you also focused on the impact of the subprime—the housing crisis in Arizona, which is really like ground zero. Sixty-one percent, I think you said, of the homes in Phoenix are underwater; they’re worth less than the mortgages that their owners have on them. So, in essence, the wealth—the collapse of wealth, that many people in America have been faced with as the values of their homes have gone down, has been especially felt in Arizona, hasn’t it?

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Yeah, the housing crash in Arizona was just brutal. And I focused on it, because it’s been key to what’s happened to the state in terms of this recession. I mean, Arizona got by for years. People like to move to Arizona. The climate’s nice. You have a big influx of senior citizens over the years. You’ve had all sorts of people escaping the cold in various parts of the country and flocking into Arizona. And so, the state really has grown on the basis of growth, as people there put it to me. I mean, there hasn’t really been—there’s not a lot of industry. You know, you don’t really have much driving growth other than growth, if that makes sense. You’ve had people coming in, and you’ve had this huge real estate market, and then all the affiliated industries, you know, so it’s—you know, contractors have had a great time. You know, people who install pools have done very well. I mean, anything related to housing, real estate and growth has boomed in Arizona. But it was a bit of a mirage, because, you know, they kept cutting taxes, so that the state was generating less revenue. But it was papered over by the fact that you still had people moving in. You know, even if they cut the sales tax, you had more people buying things, and so the state was getting by. But when the housing market crashed, Arizona, you know, the state economy just completely tanked, because you suddenly—you know, you had this end of this sort of papered-over growth economy. You know, the sales taxes plunged. They had already slashed income taxes, and incomes plunged, as well. So you just had this, you know, cycle of spinning downward.

And it really is amazing when you drive around some of the neighborhoods in Phoenix, where, you know, every other house has got a for-sale sign, and lots of houses are just empty. I mean, people walked away. I was taken on a tour of Maricopa, which was this town that grew out of nowhere forty years ago and boomed into a few hundred thousand people, I believe. Actually, I think that’s too high. I think there may have been 50,000 people, at the maximum. And, you know, you had nothing out there. This town just arose out of the desert. You had a few fast food joints and, you know, some shopping malls, but otherwise there was no sense of community, no movie theaters, no libraries, no nothing. I mean, the town just sort of emerged out of nowhere. And when the real estate crash hit, lots of people just walked out. I mean, their homes suddenly—you know, you had had this enormous real estate inflation, and so people had paid way more than the homes were worth. You had cheap credit, as you did elsewhere in the country. And when the crash hit, I mean, housing values, they fell in half. I mean, you just—you know, in the couple of years, your home’s value had been cut in half. So lots of people just walked away. I mean, you see this in neighborhoods where they’re sort of middle-class neighborhoods and also in these McMansion neighborhoods, where you’ve got, you know, just streets filled with these enormous mansions, swimming pools in the backyard. Everybody walked away. And so, you’ve just—you’ve got neighborhoods that have been decimated, and that killed the state economy. And the legislature has refused to deal with the situation. The only way to deal with it, you know, is, "Oh, we may have to raise taxes." It doesn’t always work to cut taxes. But politically, they can’t get away with it, and so they—

JUAN GONZALEZ: So, Ken, in essence, then—

KEN SILVERSTEIN: —you know, stood by and allowed the state to go under.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So, in essence, then, I guess part of the thesis of your article is that in an effort to sort of get away from the problems they’re not dealing with, the politicians have centered more on the social issue that they can rally the population behind, of immigration, while they are not handling the real problems that are, in essence, creating so much insecurity and sense of crisis in the population?

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Absolutely. I mean, you’ve got these various sideshows going on. You know, I mean, the legislature demanded that President Obama produce his birth certificate if he runs for election again. You know, they granted an exemption in fishing license fees to Eagle Scouts.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, wait. Give me—

KEN SILVERSTEIN: You know, they passed a bill—

AMY GOODMAN: Ken, the first one, about President Obama having to present his birth certificate?

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Yes, yes. This is—you know, I think it was the entire legislature—I could be wrong; it may have just been the House—that passed a bill demanding that the President show his birth certificate, you know, over this crazy controversy about whether he was actually born in the United States. You know, you have a whole series of things right now. I mean, they passed a bill allowing professors to carry guns onto university campuses, which had previously been banned. You know, the state senator said that—Jack Harper, I believe, was the sponsor of this bill—said that universities had become gun-free zones and that this was creating a climate, you know, conducive to terrorism, and that professors had to be armed in order to make the campuses safe. You can carry your gun into bars. They loosened the restrictions on carrying a loaded gun into bars. They’ve got, you know, any—

AMY GOODMAN: Environmental legislation?

KEN SILVERSTEIN: They declared a constitutional right to hunt. I mean, there are a variety—you know, in addition to immigration, which is the big one that’s gotten most attention, there have been all sorts of sort of cuckoo legislative initiatives that have nothing to do with the state’s economy crisis. It’s just a way—I mean, I don’t even think it’s diversion, in the sense that the people who have been elected in the state of Arizona apparently feel very passionately about these issues, but—

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn, Ken—

KEN SILVERSTEIN: —you know, it’s not going to help the state of Arizona.

AMY GOODMAN: Ken, you mentioned a bill that bars Arizona from entering into any program to regulate greenhouse gases without approval from the legislature. "There are only two ways to vote on this," said Representative Ray Barnes of the latter initiative. "Yes, or face the east in the morning and worship the EPA because they own you." Isn’t there also a bill that’s just been passed around trees?

KEN SILVERSTEIN: I don’t know if there was a bill passed around trees, but there’s a state senator, Sylvia Allen, who said that trees were stealing Arizona’s water supply. She was quoted as saying that. I mean, the rhetoric is really quite stunning. I mean, it’s—I mean, I knew things were bad in Arizona, but if you sit—you spend a day at the state legislature, as I did, and listen to the rhetoric—I mean, they have a Ten Commandments up at the state capitol. The day I was there, they were, you know, passing a bill to authorize putting another Ten Commandments up, because one apparently isn’t sufficient. You know, there’s just all sorts of action in terms of these peripheral issues that don’t make any difference to the people of the state but are pet projects of various Republican lawmakers.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play—

KEN SILVERSTEIN: What’s interesting about Arizona, too, and this is—

AMY GOODMAN: Ken, I wanted to play a campaign ad—

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Sorry, go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: —for Pamela Gorman, a Republican congressional candidate from Arizona.

    PAMELA GORMAN AD: This year, a lot of folks think this is our best shot at changing Congress. Course, that all depends on the caliber of our candidates. [gunfire] Meet Pamela Gorman, candidate for Congress in Arizona 3, conservative Christian, and a pretty fair shot. [gunfire] The insiders in the state senate wanted to have her hide when she fought against their plan for higher taxes. [gunfire] But Gorman, she can take care of herself. [gunfire] Rated 100 percent by the NRA, conservative Pamela Gorman is always right on target. [gunfire]

    PAMELA GORMAN: I’m Pamela Gorman, and I approve this message. [gunfire]

AMY GOODMAN: And for our listening audience, the bullets you’re hearing, they’re being shot by Pamela Gorman throughout that commercial. Ken Silverstein?

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, yeah. I mean, that’s fairly standard, run-of-the-mill stuff in Arizona now. I think I may have mentioned this just a moment ago. If I didn’t, the lawmakers passed a—approved a constitutional right to hunt in Arizona. You know, there’s not really a threat to hunting in Arizona, but they felt the need to pass a constitutional right to hunt, as well.

So, what’s interesting in Arizona is that the population actually is not as right-wing as the legislature. You’ve actually got a pretty even split between Democrats and Republicans, and independents are growing faster than either of the two parties. But what you have is a situation where, because the way that the districts are drawn up in Arizona, it’s been gerrymandered, and so if you win your primary in Arizona, you pretty much win office. I mean, I think there are sixty house districts, and only three of them are competitive between Republicans and Democrats because of the way that the districts have been drawn. And so, in the primaries, the further to the extreme you go, the more likely you are to win the primary. And once you’re through the primary, that’s it. It doesn’t matter if you have a perfectly sane, lucid opponent from the other party; the way the districts are drawn, you’re in. And so, this situation, it encourages candidates to move further and further and further to the extreme, and not only encourages the candidates, but it encourages a type of person, a type of candidate, who is at the extreme. And so, you know, you have—I’m sure there are, you know, another dozen or two dozen Pamela Gormans seeking offices in Arizona this year, because the way that the districts are drawn encourages exactly that sort of candidate.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Ken, also, the legislature is a part-time legislature. They only make about $24,000 a year. So they’re doing all of this in their spare time, in essence, as they run other businesses or have other occupations. One of the things that struck me was that you said that they sold the capitol building in Arizona and are leasing it back from the person they sold it to?

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, they’ve taken all of these desperate steps, because the state, as I mentioned, is completely bankrupt. They have this enormous budget deficit that they have to cover up, and so they’ve taken all sorts of steps to just generate money and throw it into the budget hole and say, "OK, we’ve balanced the budget." So, yeah, they sold off the capitol building, and now they’re leasing it back, which, of course, over the long run is going to cost the state far more than simply maintaining the property. And they’ve sold off dozens of state buildings. They’ve talked about—I don’t think they’ve actually sold off any prisons, but they were talking about privatizing the state prison system, including at one point there was talk of, you know, maximum-security prisons, and even the prisons that hold death row prisoners, they were going to privatize those.

You know, anything that can raise money to paper over the deficit, they’ve done. They also took the state lottery revenues, and they took twenty years’ worth of lottery revenues and securitized it, so they—you know, they raised money by selling bonds, using twenty years’ future state lottery revenues. All sorts of budgetary gimmicks. They’ve raided all sorts of funds that are meant to do—you know, that the state voters have put aside for specific measures. You know, there was a tobacco tax, and this was supposed to go for education, and the state lawmakers have tried to raid that fund and use it to cover up the deficit that they’ve created simply by cutting taxes all these years.

AMY GOODMAN: And of course there’s the—

KEN SILVERSTEIN: And so, you’ve got all sorts of wild schemes.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s the Republican primary August 24th: J.D. Hayworth versus John McCain. I want to turn to the radio talk show host, Arizona congressman J.D. Hayworth, in the Republican primary. In this clip from earlier this year, Hayworth is asked about his ties to the birthers by MSNBC host Chris Matthews on Hardball.

    CHRIS MATTHEWS: Are you as far right as the birthers? Are you one of those who believes that the President should have to prove that he’s a citizen of the United States and not an illegal immigrant? Are you that far right?

    J.D. HAYWORTH: Well, gosh, we all had to bring our birth certificates to show we were who we said we were and we were the age we said we were to play football in youth sports. Shouldn’t we know exactly that anyone who wants to run for public office is a natural-born citizen of the United States and is who they say they are? But let me pause and make another point—

    CHRIS MATTHEWS: Do you think there’s a question out there—

    J.D. HAYWORTH: —Chris, because I’ve read so many hysteric—

    CHRIS MATTHEWS: No, I’m reading your letter that says the President should go back and get his birth certificate from the Governor of Hawaii. You dated this November 6, 2008. I’m just asking, do you stand by this letter?

    J.D. HAYWORTH: Yeah, no, I—sure.

    CHRIS MATTHEWS: Should the Governor of Hawaii produce evidence that the President is one of us, an American? Do you think that’s a worthy pastime for the Governor of Hawaii right now?

    J.D. HAYWORTH: No, no. Look, I think it’s important—

    CHRIS MATTHEWS: Should she do it?

    J.D. HAYWORTH: —for all of us to be—well, I’m just saying the President should come forward with the information. That’s all. Why must we depend on the Governor of Hawaii?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, there you have it. J.D. Hayworth, he’s up against John McCain for the Republican senatorial nomination. Ken Silverstein, final comment about Arizona?

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, yeah, Hayworth is sort of, you know, classic Arizona. The guy is a complete knucklehead. He was a member of Congress. He was elected in '94, you know, had very close ties to Jack Abramoff, became known for absolutely nothing other than embarrassing the state and making idiotic comments. And now he's mounting what appears to be a credible challenge to McCain. McCain, of course, you know, in order to fend off his challenge, has not done anything principled like actually stand up and say, you know, "My opponent is undignified," but has simply moved right to try to, you know, appear to be more conservative or equally conservative to Hayworth. So that’s, you know, a classic example of the sort of politician the state of Arizona is producing right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Ken Silverstein, Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine, his latest piece, "Tea Party in Sonora: For the Future of GOP Governance, Look to Arizona." We’ll link to it at - Science Saturday: Evolutionary Psychology and Moral Thinking

Interesting . . . I still don't fully buy into evolutionary psychology - it has value, but it feels very reductionist to me. From Robert Wright, Peter Railton discuss evolutionary psychology and morality.

Recorded: July 16 Posted: July 17

The Dalai Lama - Gratitude Toward Our Enemies

by Tenzin Gyatso,
the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama Quote of the Week

If we investigate on a deeper level, we will find that when enemies inflict harm on us, we can actually feel gratitude toward them. Such situations provide us with rare opportunities to put to test our own practice of patience. It is a precious occasion to practice not only patience but the other bodhisattva ideals as well. As a result, we have the opportunity to accumulate merit in these situations and to receive the benefits thereof.

The poor enemy, on the other hand, because of the negative action of inflicting harm on someone out of anger and hatred, must eventually face the negative consequences of his or her own actions. It is almost as if the perpetrators of the harm sacrifice themselves for the sake of our benefit. Since the merit accumulated from the practice of patience was possible only because of the opportunity provided us by our enemy, strictly speaking, we should dedicate our merit to the benefit of that enemy. This is why the Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life speaks of the kindness of the enemy.

--from The Compassionate Life by Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

The Compassionate Life • 2O% off • for this week only
(Good through July 23rd).

Is there a perennial philosophy?

The Perennial Philosophy is one of the primary foundations of Wilber's integral theory - and it's also one of the most criticized parts of his model. The Guardian UK, back in May, offered the question of whether or not the perennial philosophy is real to several thinkers and published several responses.

Is there a perennial philosophy?

Is there an eternal truth that we keep on discovering – whether it's a 'divine reality' or something less godlike?

The Buddha statue near Delhi airport

Photograph: Gethin Chamberlain

Many thinkers have identified common strands in systems of thought and religions through the ages. In 1945 Aldous Huxley wrote of a perennial philosophy "that recognises a divine reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine reality; the ethic that places man's final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent ground of all being". He said that it could be found in both "traditional lore" and the "higher religions", in every era.

Was Huxley right? Is there an eternal truth, that we keep on discovering – whether it's a "divine reality" or something better formulated in another way? And if so, what is its nature – is it outside us? Is it simply an aspect of the way our brains are wired?

Monday's response

Julian Baggini: The only way you can identify points of convergence in religion and philosophy is to make them so general as to be vacuous

Thursday's response

Bruce Chilton: A focus on perception was both the strength and the weakness of Huxley's approach to religion

Saturday's response

Mark Vernon: It's easy to see the appeal of the perennial philosophy. But it falsely reduces human experience to an undifferentiated whole

Gravity Is an Effect, Not a Law?

This is the argument from an expert in string theory, Erik Verlinde, in his new paper, On the Origin of Gravity and the Laws of Newton. It's make a strange kind of intuitive sense even though many physicists say they don't understand the paper, while others say he's right and it's a trivial argument.

A Scientist Takes On Gravity

Elwood H. Smith
Published: July 12, 2010It’s hard to imagine a more fundamental and ubiquitous aspect of life on the Earth than gravity, from the moment you first took a step and fell on your diapered bottom to the slow terminal sagging of flesh and dreams.

But what if it’s all an illusion, a sort of cosmic frill, or a side effect of something else going on at deeper levels of reality?

So says Erik Verlinde, 48, a respected string theorist and professor of physics at the University of Amsterdam, whose contention that gravity is indeed an illusion has caused a continuing ruckus among physicists, or at least among those who profess to understand it. Reversing the logic of 300 years of science, he argued in a recent paper, titled “On the Origin of Gravity and the Laws of Newton,” that gravity is a consequence of the venerable laws of thermodynamics, which describe the behavior of heat and gases.

“For me gravity doesn’t exist,” said Dr. Verlinde, who was recently in the United States to explain himself. Not that he can’t fall down, but Dr. Verlinde is among a number of physicists who say that science has been looking at gravity the wrong way and that there is something more basic, from which gravity “emerges,” the way stock markets emerge from the collective behavior of individual investors or that elasticity emerges from the mechanics of atoms.

Looking at gravity from this angle, they say, could shed light on some of the vexing cosmic issues of the day, like the dark energy, a kind of anti-gravity that seems to be speeding up the expansion of the universe, or the dark matter that is supposedly needed to hold galaxies together.

Dr. Verlinde’s argument turns on something you could call the “bad hair day” theory of gravity.

It goes something like this: your hair frizzles in the heat and humidity, because there are more ways for your hair to be curled than to be straight, and nature likes options. So it takes a force to pull hair straight and eliminate nature’s options. Forget curved space or the spooky attraction at a distance described by Isaac Newton’s equations well enough to let us navigate the rings of Saturn, the force we call gravity is simply a byproduct of nature’s propensity to maximize disorder.

Some of the best physicists in the world say they don’t understand Dr. Verlinde’s paper, and many are outright skeptical. But some of those very same physicists say he has provided a fresh perspective on some of the deepest questions in science, namely why space, time and gravity exist at all — even if he has not yet answered them.

“Some people have said it can’t be right, others that it’s right and we already knew it — that it’s right and profound, right and trivial,” Andrew Strominger, a string theorist at Harvard said.

“What you have to say,” he went on, “is that it has inspired a lot of interesting discussions. It’s just a very interesting collection of ideas that touch on things we most profoundly do not understand about our universe. That’s why I liked it.”

Dr. Verlinde is not an obvious candidate to go off the deep end. He and his brother Herman, a Princeton professor, are celebrated twins known more for their mastery of the mathematics of hard-core string theory than for philosophic flights.

Born in Woudenberg, in the Netherlands, in 1962, the brothers got early inspiration from a pair of 1970s television shows about particle physics and black holes. “I was completely captured,” Dr. Verlinde recalled. He and his brother obtained Ph.D’s from the University of Utrecht together in 1988 and then went to Princeton, Erik to the Institute for Advanced Study and Herman to the university. After bouncing back and forth across the ocean, they got tenure at Princeton. And, they married and divorced sisters. Erik left Princeton for Amsterdam to be near his children.

He made his first big splash as a graduate student when he invented Verlinde Algebra and the Verlinde formula, which are important in string theory, the so-called theory of everything, which posits that the world is made of tiny wriggling strings.

You might wonder why a string theorist is interested in Newton’s equations. After all Newton was overturned a century ago by Einstein, who explained gravity as warps in the geometry of space-time, and who some theorists think could be overturned in turn by string theorists.

Over the last 30 years gravity has been “undressed,” in Dr. Verlinde’s words, as a fundamental force.

This disrobing began in the 1970s with the discovery by Jacob Bekenstein of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University, among others, of a mysterious connection between black holes and thermodynamics, culminating in Dr. Hawking’s discovery in 1974 that when quantum effects are taken into account black holes would glow and eventually explode.

In a provocative calculation in 1995, Ted Jacobson, a theorist from the University of Maryland, showed that given a few of these holographic ideas, Einstein’s equations of general relativity are just a another way of stating the laws of thermodynamics.

Those exploding black holes (at least in theory — none has ever been observed) lit up a new strangeness of nature. Black holes, in effect, are holograms — like the 3-D images you see on bank cards. All the information about what has been lost inside them is encoded on their surfaces. Physicists have been wondering ever since how this “holographic principle” — that we are all maybe just shadows on a distant wall — applies to the universe and where it came from.

In one striking example of a holographic universe, Juan Maldacena of the Institute for Advanced Study constructed a mathematical model of a “soup can” universe, where what happened inside the can, including gravity, is encoded in the label on the outside of the can, where there was no gravity, as well as one less spatial dimension. If dimensions don’t matter and gravity doesn’t matter, how real can they be?

Lee Smolin, a quantum gravity theorist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, called Dr. Jacobson’s paper “one of the most important papers of the last 20 years.”

But it received little attention at first, said Thanu Padmanabhan of the Inter-University Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Pune, India, who has taken up the subject of “emergent gravity” in several papers over the last few years. Dr. Padmanabhan said that the connection to thermodynamics went deeper that just Einstein’s equations to other theories of gravity. “Gravity,” he said recently in a talk at the Perimeter Institute, “is the thermodynamic limit of the statistical mechanics of “atoms of space-time.”

Dr. Verlinde said he had read Dr. Jacobson’s paper many times over the years but that nobody seemed to have gotten the message. People were still talking about gravity as a fundamental force. “Clearly we have to take these analogies seriously, but somehow no one does,” he complained.

His paper, posted to the physics archive in January, resembles Dr. Jacobson’s in many ways, but Dr. Verlinde bristles when people say he has added nothing new to Dr. Jacobson’s analysis. What is new, he said, is the idea that differences in entropy can be the driving mechanism behind gravity, that gravity is, as he puts it an “entropic force.”

That inspiration came to him courtesy of a thief.

As he was about to go home from a vacation in the south of France last summer, a thief broke into his room and stole his laptop, his keys, his passport, everything. “I had to stay a week longer,” he said, “I got this idea.”

Up the beach, his brother got a series of e-mail messages first saying that he had to stay longer, then that he had a new idea and finally, on the third day, that he knew how to derive Newton’s laws from first principles, at which point Herman recalled thinking, “What’s going on here? What has he been drinking?”

When they talked the next day it all made more sense, at least to Herman. “It’s interesting,” Herman said, “how having to change plans can lead to different thoughts.”

Think of the universe as a box of scrabble letters. There is only one way to have the letters arranged to spell out the Gettysburg Address, but an astronomical number of ways to have them spell nonsense. Shake the box and it will tend toward nonsense, disorder will increase and information will be lost as the letters shuffle toward their most probable configurations. Could this be gravity?

As a metaphor for how this would work, Dr. Verlinde used the example of a polymer — a strand of DNA, say, a noodle or a hair — curling up.

“It took me two months to understand polymers,” he said.

The resulting paper, as Dr. Verlinde himself admits, is a little vague.

“This is not the basis of a theory,” Dr. Verlinde explained. “I don’t pretend this to be a theory. People should read the words I am saying opposed to the details of equations.”

Dr. Padmanabhan said that he could see little difference between Dr. Verlinde’s and Dr. Jacobson’s papers and that the new element of an entropic force lacked mathematical rigor. “I doubt whether these ideas will stand the test of time,” he wrote in an e-mail message from India. Dr. Jacobson said he couldn’t make sense of it.

John Schwarz of the California Institute of Technology, one of the fathers of string theory, said the paper was “very provocative.” Dr. Smolin called it, “very interesting and also very incomplete.”

At a workshop in Texas in the spring, Raphael Bousso of the University of California, Berkeley, was asked to lead a discussion on the paper.

“The end result was that everyone else didn’t understand it either, including people who initially thought that did make some sense to them,” he said in an e-mail message.

“In any case, Erik’s paper has drawn attention to what is genuinely a deep and important question, and that’s a good thing,” Dr. Bousso went on, “I just don’t think we know any better how this actually works after Erik’s paper. There are a lot of follow-up papers, but unlike Erik, they don’t even understand the problem.”

The Verlinde brothers are now trying to recast these ideas in more technical terms of string theory, and Erik has been on the road a bit, traveling in May to the Perimeter Institute and Stony Brook University on Long Island, stumping for the end of gravity. Michael Douglas, a professor at Stony Brook, described Dr. Verlinde’s work as “a set of ideas that resonates with the community, adding, “everyone is waiting to see if this can be made more precise.”

Until then the jury of Dr. Verlinde’s peers will still be out.

Over lunch in New York, Dr. Verlinde ruminated over his experiences of the last six months. He said he had simply surrendered to his intuition. “When this idea came to me, I was really excited and euphoric even,” Dr. Verlinde said. “It’s not often you get a chance to say something new about Newton’s laws. I don’t see immediately that I am wrong. That’s enough to go ahead.”

He said friends had encouraged him to stick his neck out and that he had no regrets. “If I am proven wrong, something has been learned anyway. Ignoring it would have been the worst thing.”

The next day Dr. Verlinde gave a more technical talk to a bunch of physicists in the city. He recalled that someone had told him the other day that the unfolding story of gravity was like the emperor’s new clothes.

“We’ve known for a long time gravity doesn’t exist,” Dr. Verlinde said, “It’s time to yell it.”

Friday, July 16, 2010

Daniel Carlat - A Psychiatrist's Prescription For His Profession

Cover   Detail: Unhinged

Very cool story from NPR, featuring Daniel Carlat - A Psychiatrist's Prescription For His Profession - it's a bit of a promo for his new book, Unhinged: The Trouble with Psychiatry — A Doctor's Revelations about a Profession in Crisis. There's an excerpt below.

We need people like Carlat offering a critical view of psychiatry - a profession that has gone from the only source of therapy around to doing little or no therapy anymore - simply pushing drugs.

Cover Detail:  Unhinged
Unhinged: The Trouble with Psychiatry — A Doctor's Revelations about a Profession in Crisis
By Daniel Carlat
Hardcover, 256 pages
Free Press
List price: $25
July 13, 2010

Two years ago, psychiatrist Daniel Carlat wrote a piece in the New York Times Magazine called Dr. Drug Rep, in which he told his story of being paid to push the anti-depressant Effexor to his colleagues.

Carlat joins Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies today to talk about his new book, called Unhinged: The Trouble With Psychiatry. But the book isn't just concerned with the influence of drug companies in the profession.

Carlat believes in prescribing medication, but he says too many psychiatrists have all but abandoned talk therapy — leaving in-depth interaction with patients to others — while they pursue medical fixes for mood problems and mental disorders.

"Based on a survey of psychiatrists throughout the United States [conducted by Columbia University], it turns out only 11 percent of all psychiatrists now offer therapy to all of their patients," he explains. "So essentially, 1 out of 10 psychiatrists are really doing psychotherapy on a regular basis."

He says time and billing constraints have also made it difficult for psychiatrists to integrate in-depth sessions back into their practices.

"I have hundreds of patients. And if I start to do one-hour therapy sessions with most of my patients, I am going to have to kick patients out of my practice because I won't have time to see them," he says. "So it's been difficult and I've had to do creative things where I don't do one-hour therapy sessions, I might do 45-minute therapy sessions or half-hour therapy sessions so I can still fit a fair number of people into my practice while performing what I would consider a better quality of psychiatry."

Daniel Carlat was trained at Harvard and is on the faculty of the Tufts Medical School. He edits a monthly newsletter called the Carlat Psychiatry Report.

* * * * *

Daniel Carlat
Tammy Bottner

Dan Carlat is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine.

Interview Highlights

On what Dan Carlat does

"We are in the business of making diagnoses using the DSM — the official diagnostic manual for the psychiatric disorders of the American Psychiatric Association. We make our diagnoses. And then we usually prescribe medications. And psychiatrists used to, in the past, also do a lot of talk therapy and used to combine drugs with talk therapy — although frankly, in the more distant past, maybe 30 years ago — before there were effective medications, we just did psychotherapy which, often times, was not terribly effective."

How a diagnosis is made

"It's very hard to make a psychiatric diagnosis and we're not talking about a diagnosis where we can get a blood scan or a brain scan or an X-ray. At this point, all of those types of things are research tools although we certainly hear a lot about them in the media. We do our diagnoses based on the kind of interaction that you and I are having right now. We have a conversation and I ask my patients questions about how they're feeling, what they're thinking, how they're sleeping, what their concentration level is, what their energy level is, and I put all of those pieces of information together and then I come up with a diagnosis based on the DSM guidebook that we have. And then once we have a diagnosis, I match those symptoms up with a medication. So modern psychiatry is really a conversation, a series of symptoms and then a matching process of medication to these symptoms."

On communication between a patient's psychiatrist and therapist

"Often we don't really get that much information. Presumably the psychiatrist and the therapist would be communicating frequently on an ongoing basis but ... these situations come up with alarming frequency when you split the treatment up between a psychopharmacologist and a psychotherapist.

On the length of visits

"There's kind of an unofficial policy among psychiatrists, at least among some, which is the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy, which is that when we have our patients coming in, we know we have 15 or 20 minutes to see them. We want to learn a certain amount about how they're doing, obviously because we want to make sure our medications are working and if we need to increase the dose. But on the other hand, we don't want to ask too many questions because if we start to hear too much information, we're going to run into a time issue where we're going to have to push them out of the office perhaps at a time that they're going to reveal something that could really be crucial to understanding their treatment."

On conclusive evidence in psychiatry vs. other fields

"We don't have any direct evidence that depression or anxiety or any psychiatric disorder is due to a deficiency in serotonin because it's very hard to actually measure serotonin from a living brain. Any efforts that have been made to measure serotonin indirectly — such as measuring it in the spinal fluid or doing post-mortem studies — have been inconclusive. They have not shown conclusively that there is either too little or too much serotonin in the fluids. So that's where we are with psychiatry. ... In cardiology, we have a good understanding of how the heart pumps, what electrical signals generate electricity in the heart. And due to that understanding, we can then target specific cardiac medications to treat problems like heart failure or heart attacks. Again, based on a pretty well worked out knowledge of the pathophysiology — again not perfect, but pretty well worked out."

Excerpt: 'Unhinged'

Cover  Detail: Unhinged

Chapter 1

The Trouble with Psychiatry

For the last fifteen years, I've practiced psychiatry in a small town north of Boston. It is a solo private practice. I see mostly middle-class patients who come to me with depression, anxiety, sub­stance abuse, and occasionally more severe problems, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

Like most other psychiatrists of my generation, I have specialized in prescribing medications and have referred patients in need of talk treatment to a psychotherapist. During my training at Massachusetts General Hospital, I was taught that we are on the threshold of understanding the biochemistry of mental illness. After I graduated from residency, I worked hard to keep up with the explosion of neuroscience knowledge, and I absorbed the intricacies of how to use the new psychopharmaceuticals as they poured forth from the drug companies at a dizzying clip. By harnessing these powerful medications, I thought I was providing my patients the best psychiatric treatment possible.

But a couple of years ago, I saw a patient who made me question both my profession and my career.

Carol, in her midthirties, had short brown hair and strikingly green eyes that were filled with despair. Once we were seated in my office, I asked her, "How can I be of help?"

"My father was killed in a car accident," she said, choking back tears.

"How awful — when did this happen?"

"Last month."

Carol told me that she had been in the car with her father, who was driving. They came over a rise in the road, and another car was just pulling out of a driveway in front of them. Her father tried to swerve, but it was too late. They collided with the other car, and her father, who was not wearing a seat belt, was killed instantly. Miraculously, Carol was not seriously injured.

Since then, she said, she had recurrent dreams about the accident, and couldn't prevent herself from replaying the scene during the day. The events would unreel themselves like a movie in front of her, and often she would start sobbing uncontrollably. I recognized these experiences — nightmares and flashbacks — as typical symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. I asked her a series of questions about other symptoms, such as poor concentra­tion, insomnia, being easily startled, and the need to avoid situations reminding her of the crash, all of which are commonly associated with PTSD.

She said she was experiencing all of them. Her life was constricting inward. She drove rarely, avoiding especially the road where the accident had occurred.

"Are you avoiding anything else?" I asked.

"I won't watch TV. I can't read the newspaper. I never realized how many stories there are about car accidents in the news."

I asked her about symptoms of depression. She reported insomnia and poor motivation, but no suicidal ideation.

"The worst thing," she said, "is how guilty I feel."

"Why guilty?" I asked.

"It was my fault that we crashed. I got him upset."

Her eyes began to well up. "I was telling him that he shouldn't be drinking."

"He was drinking and driving?"

She nodded. "I told him I could smell it on his breath and that he shouldn't be driving. He got mad, started yelling at me. And then he floored the gas pedal, said something like 'Am I driving good enough now?' That's when it happened."

I could see that this was more than a simple case of PTSD. She would have complicated feelings about her father to wrestle with — grief, regret, and eventually a good deal of anger.

As the end of the hour approached, I told her a bit about PTSD, about the prognosis for recovery, and about the usual treatments.

"So what do you think I should do?" she asked me.

"I'd like to give you some medication to help you through this," I said. I wrote out prescriptions for the antidepressant Zoloft and for the tranquilizer Klonopin. Then I reached into my file cabinet, and handed her a business card. "And this is a good therapist who I often work with. I recommend that you give her a call and set up an appointment. The medication works better when you are also seeing a counselor."

She looked confused. "Aren't you my therapist?"

I shook my head. "Unfortunately, I don't have time in my practice to do therapy. I usually refer patients to psychotherapists whom I trust."

"So . . . am I going to see you again?"

"Yes, we'll schedule another appointment in about a month, to see how the medications are working. But in the meantime, I hope you'll have had a couple of sessions with this other doctor."

Carol still didn't look at all happy with this.

"But aren't there any psychiatrists that do therapy?"

"There are a few," I said, "but not many. They're hard to find these days."

After Carol left my office, I finished writing her intake note. I closed her chart, put my pen down, and looked out my office window at the white-steepled Unitarian church across the street. There was nothing unusual about my encounter with Carol. I did what most psychiatrists do when they encounter a new patient. I sat comfort­ably in my red leather chair, wearing my suit and tie, and I asked her a series of diagnostic questions. Her answers fit neatly into a recipe book of psychiatric diagnoses called the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition), and I pieced together a diagnosis that made sense to me. I then reached over to my desk, wrote out a prescription, and handed it to her.

Pondering this typical appointment, what struck me most was what I did not do. I am an MD, having gone through four years of medical school, one year of grueling medical internship in a general hospital, and three years of psychiatric residency at Massa­chusetts General Hospital. But, like most psychiatrists, I did little to take advantage of those years of training. I did not do a physical exam, nor did I take Carol's pulse or blood pressure. Indeed, the only times I stirred from my chair were to meet her in the waiting room at the beginning and to show her into my secretary's office to make a follow-up appointment at the end.

Just as striking to me as the lack of typical doctorly activities in psychiatry is the dearth of psychotherapy. Most people are under the misconception that an appointment with a psychiatrist will involve counseling, probing questions, and digging into the psychological meanings of one's distress. But the psychiatrist as psychotherapist is an endangered species. In fact, according to the latest data from a group of researchers at Columbia University, only one out of every ten psychiatrists offers therapy to all their patients. Doing psycho­therapy doesn't pay well enough. I can see three or four patients per hour if I focus on medications (such psychiatrists are called "psychopharmacologists"), but only one patient in that time period if I do therapy. The income differential is a powerful incentive to drop therapy from our repertoire of skills, and psychiatrists have generally followed the money.

So, like most of my patients, Carol saw me for medications, and saw a social worker colleague for therapy. Her symptoms gradually improved, but whether this was due to the medications or the therapy, or simply the passage of time, I cannot say.

Carol's treatment was not particularly dramatic, but her story illustrates both the triumphs and the failures of modern psychiatry. Over the last thirty years, we have constructed a reliable system for diagnosing mental disorders, and we have created medications that work well to treat a range of psychological symptoms. But these very successes have had unpredictable consequences. As psychiatrists have become enthralled with diagnosis and medication, we have given up the essence of our profession — understanding the mind. We have become obsessed with psychopharmacology and its endless process of tinkering with medications, adjusting dosages, and piling on more medications to treat the side effects of the drugs we started with. We have convinced ourselves that we have developed cures for mental illnesses like Carol's, when in fact we know so little about the underlying neurobiology of their causes that our treatments are often a series of trials and errors.

Theories of the neurobiology of PTSD, depression, and the range of other mental illnesses have come and gone over the years, but we are still far away from a true understanding of the biological causes of these diseases. Clearly, thoughts and emotions arise from the activity of neurons, and it makes sense that when emotions are distorted severely, the neurons must in some way be "broken."

Theories about depression over the years have included different versions of the "chemical imbalance" idea. The 2009 version of the American Psychiatric Association's Textbook of Psychopharmacology reviews these candidate chemicals in depth.2 Researchers have found evidence of abnormalities in serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, cortisol, thyroid, growth hormone, glutamate, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor — yet no specific defect has been identified. Straying outside the world of chemistry, other researchers have tried to find the causes of depression through neuroimaging scans. But this research has been just as inconclusive. Some of the major findings include decreased activity in the left frontal lobe, a shrunken hippocampus, an oversized amygdala, disrupted circuits around the basal ganglia, and miscellaneous abnormalities in the thalamus and the pituitary gland.

The APA textbook authors, utterly unable to tie together these disparate findings, concluded that the "central question of what variables drive the pathophysiology of mood disorders remains unanswered." You can say that again. The problem is not in the enthusiasm or intelligence of the researchers — but rather in the inherent com­plexity of the brain itself. A typical brain contains one hundred billion neurons, each of which makes electrical connections, or syn­apses, with up to ten thousand other neurons. That means a quadrillion synapses are active at any given time — the number of people on 150,000 Earths. It is therefore no surprise that we know almost nothing definitive about the pathophysiology of mental illness — the surprise is that we know anything at all.

Excerpted from Unhinged: The Trouble with Psychiatry — a Doctor's Revelations about a Profession Crisis by Daniel J. Carlat. Copyright 2010 Daniel Carlat. Excerpted with permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster Inc.

James William Gibson - Toward a re-enchantment with Nature

Cool article - Nature, it does a body and mind good. This essay is adapted - in Earth Island Journal - from James William Gibson's new book, A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature (Metropolitan Books).

World of Wonder

Toward a re-enchantment with Nature

drawing of a stag and tree branches held in human hands

Illustration by Yuta Onoda

The biggest environmental victory of the past 20 years is one most of us don’t see. It is hidden, dispersed in smaller, seemingly unrelated events that have occurred in different parts of our culture, often in places that are not the normal terrain of environmentalism. Only the parent of a 10-year-old might notice that children’s films no longer portray the killing of a beloved pet as a necessary step toward adult maturity, as with Old Yeller (1957), but instead feature heroes who choose to remain forever in the animal kingdom, like Brother Bear (2003). There’s no obvious relation between the story of a Vermont woman who coped with the grief of her husband’s death by spending the next 15 years building nests for osprey, and that of a Missouri spelunker who used his life savings to buy land containing a cave with a rare, endangered snail population. “I felt responsible for them,” he told a reporter. “This was their home and I owned it. It was my job to take care of them.” Similarly, few know that in West Los Angeles, a rag-tag coalition fought for a decade to save the scruffy, trashed out Ballona wetlands – the last large open space on the basin floor – from being developed, or paid attention to the curious reports of a respected marine biologist who told The New York Times that tropical grouper need to be saved from overfishing, because “they are as individual as dogs…. And quite intelligent.”

The sum of these stories – and there are literally hundreds more like them – points to a vast, important cultural change. In recent years, relatively nonpolitical, unorganized publics have radically reformed their relationships with nature. Ordinary Americans have rejected modernity’s reduction of animals, plants, places, and natural forces like winds and ocean waves to utilitarian resources – what sociologist Max Weber once called the “disenchantment of the world.” Instead, wild animals and landscapes, even degraded ones, are becoming re-enchanted. A spreading “culture of enchantment” that restores a sense of close kinship with animals and portrays places as connected to a larger cosmos is making nature sacred once again.

This movement is both a resurrection and a radical expansion of several that came before. In the mid-19th century, a literary subculture arose in New England to protest the rampant killing of wild animals and ecological devastation accompanying westward expansion. Writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau challenged both the Protestant concept of a God who was indifferent or even hostile to nature’s creatures and the nation’s dominant frontier-capitalist mentality. For Emerson, nature offered continual revelations of a divine power. For Thoreau, animals and places had value in their own right, each with its own spirit or mystery. “Can he who has discovered the true use of the whale and whale oil be said to have discovered the true use of the whale?” he asks in an 1864 essay.

By the 1890s, the political and spiritual heirs to Emerson and Thoreau began to exert real pressure on national politics. John Muir and the newly formed Sierra Club successfully lobbied to make Yosemite a national park and expand its boundaries to nearly 1,200 square miles. Muir also became a highly influential writer, popularizing a kind of “hybrid” discourse that alternated lyrical descriptions of a landscape with scientific references to geology and ecology. This break with accepted conventions separating science and poetry buttressed the idea that nature was neither inert nor dead, but on the contrary alive and awe-inspiring – in a word, enchanted. Generations of nature-writers and landscape photographers (among them Aldo Leopold, Ansel Adams, and Rachel Carson) followed his lead.

After the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, a new generation discovered environmental activism. Native American spiritualism, with its emphasis on sacred places and symbolic or totemic relationships with wild animals, exerted another influence. But despite some significant victories, the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s remained a fringe, dissident formation.

The current movement of re-enchantment is not marginal at all. Today, enchantment takes place on a grand scale, and so many people are involved that it can no longer be dismissed as strange or extreme. Why then, hasn’t the change gotten more attention? In part, because it occurs in such diverse, fragmented ways. Political psychology comprises a second major kind of mental block. Much of the environmental movement remains shell-shocked by the ravages caused by the Bush administration, with its nonstop efforts from 2001 to 2008 to gut the nation’s anti-pollution laws, approve wholesale mountaintop removal in Appalachia, and open up the nation’s public lands in the Rocky Mountains for oil and gas drilling. The Obama administration’s modest environmental agenda, and its failure to rescind many Bush administrative rulings, have helped to sustain a sense of despair. And despair limits awareness.

The truth is, however, that major cultural progress has been made. Consider science and theology, two complex, sophisticated fields. Western science emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries with a call to make nature subordinate to man: “Nature must be ‘bound into service’ and made a ‘slave,’ ‘put in constraint,’ and ‘molded’ by the mechanical arts,” declared Francis Bacon. This paradigm informed science for centuries. By the 1990s, however, increasing numbers of scientists imagined the land and its creatures as equals to themselves in important ways, in the process calling for a new way to frame scientific research. In a typical story, for three years a team of Long Island researchers studying terrapin reproduction made counts of turtle hatchlings on regional beaches and noted how they died – boat propellers, beach sweepers, cars. By 2003, they had come to care so much for the creatures they could no longer remain detached. First the researchers, and later a whole corps of auxiliary helpers, began to move the turtle eggs, sometimes to better locations on the beach, other times to incubators in a laboratory. One leading team member explained: “I started as a scientist. Then I evolved.” Leading biologists came to stress humanity’s common kinship with other species. In E.O. Wilson’s words, “we are literally kin to other creatures,” implying humans have moral obligations to their extended family members.

During this same period, major religions shifted the way they saw God’s relation to the natural world. In 1967, historian Lynn White published “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” in the journal Science. White argued that monotheism developed a notion of God far removed from the world and discredited the animistic idea, long present in hunting and gathering societies, that every animal and place (like a mountain or river) was in some way spiritually alive. When Christianity rejected and repressed animism as demonic heresy, White argued, it “made it possible to exploit nature in a mode of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.” White’s short essay provoked an intense, decades-long controversy within the Jewish and Christian communities. Religious scholars and theologians began to research their traditions. They found doctrines that supported White’s thesis, such as the notion that salvation is a personal fate, and takes place in a heaven distant from Earth, but also stories in Jewish and Christian literature that showed God more involved with the planet and its life. Ultimately, liberal theologians developed a doctrine stressing Earth as God’s sacred creation, and by the early 1990s it had won many adherents – including Al Gore. His 1992 book, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, discusses the divinity of Earth at great length, and endorses a variety of spiritual traditions, such as Native American thought, under an ecumenical Christian umbrella.

This greening of religion terrified both the business establishment and conservative fundamentalist leaders, and soon sparked a sort of counterrevolution. An editorial in The Wall Street Journal decried beliefs that “the earth is sanctified,” noting with disdain that the idea originated with the Religious Left and was the product of “a secular, or even pagan, fanaticism that now worships such gods as nature and gender with a reverence formerly accorded real religions.” Pat Robertson agreed. “At the very minimum, in treating parts of the Earth as sacred, environmentalists committed the sin of idolatry, violating several important Biblical [sic] injunctions,” he wrote. Robertson also reported that God personally told him to stress man’s authority over the Earth – “He wants him to rule the way he was created to rule…. God gave man a sweeping and total mandate of dominion over this planet and everything in it.” Robertson and his conservative evangelical allies subsequently formed a close alliance with Republican politicians and backed the Bush campaign and presidency, mobilizing their considerable media resources to reach the roughly one-third of adult Americans – some 45 to 50 million people – who consider themselves to be “born again.”

But over time the Republican-Evangelical coalition frayed from internal disputes. Robertson discredited himself by calling for the assassination of Venezuelan president Victor Hugo so as to obtain oil, and declaring 2005’s Hurricane Katrina divine retribution for legalized abortion. A new theology among moderate and some conservative evangelicals called “creation care” emphasized that oceans and forests, fish and tigers, all reflected divine glory. No longer were the harsh concepts of dominion and apocalyptic visions of Earth’s destruction the only evangelical vision. In 2006, some 86 leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals – the most important evangelical organization – formed a new group, the Evangelical Climate Initiative, and issued a call to action for evangelicals to become more engaged in environmental protection. The accompanying report agreed with the scientific consensus that human-induced climate change is a threat, rejecting the Bush administration’s denials. Theologically, the evangelical leaders declared, “This is God’s world, and any damage that we do to God’s world is an offense against God Himself.”

By that time Reform Judaism, most Protestant denominations, and both the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches had also embraced a version of sacred Earth and this theology permeated secular culture. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, also released in 2006, begins with photographs of Earth taken by the Apollo astronauts from 1968-1972, beautiful images of a sparkling blue and white planet – Eden – then tells a spiritual drama of how God’s sacred creation has been damaged by human recklessness or sin (paradise lost), and how good works can bring about renewal and salvation: paradise regained.

Similar ideas can be found throughout the culture. Repeatedly, ordinary men and women have made ritual quests or pilgrimages in an effort to establish a new relationship with a place, a tree, or an animal.

In the swamplands of Arkansas and Louisiana, teams of ornithologists searched for a bird thought extinct and not seen for 50 years, the ivory-billed woodpecker, known as the Lord God bird because it was so beautiful people would exclaim “Lord God!” when they saw it. Three years of hunts ended in failure, but in 2005 a team announced that they had a videotape of an ivory-billed woodpecker in an Arkansas swamp. By that time, the Nature Conservancy and government agencies had bought thousands of acres near the location of the original sighting to increase the bird’s chances for reproduction. Although to this date it’s not certain if the Lord God bird survives, the quest to find it – trying to bring back life from death’s grasp – brought renewed public attention to the South’s few remaining old growth forests and swamps.

Every spring, hundreds of eco-tourists journey to Baja California’s San Ignacio lagoon to encounter its gray whales; eye-to-eye contact occurs frequently, and sometimes the whales want to be touched. People report being transformed by the experience. In all of these stories about individuals and small groups looking for “contact” with nature, people’s personal boundaries either gradually or suddenly shift and open up, and they become connected to other species and places. After such experiences they then become even more committed to preserving the tree, the swamp, the woodpecker or whale.

Whereas once the death of a bear, elk, or mountain lion would have either been ignored or celebrated, now such deaths are occasions for public mourning.

Popular culture also offers people access to a utopian vision of human and animal community and spiritually charged places. When the heroes of Free Willy (1993) and The Whale Rider (2002) save their whales, uplifting music and dramatic special effects of whales bursting free from jail-like enclosed bays or beaches make it clear that something sacred has occurred. Later, when the whales are gone, the heroes and their families feel intimately connected with them – and closer to each other. A human-animal family tie or totem is confirmed. Similarly, filmmaker Ken Burns recently told an interviewer that by standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon “you feel instantly your insignificance in the face of the eons of time exhibited before you. But that has a strange way of making you feel bigger, connected to everything, a part of everything else.” Burns captured experiences like this in his PBS series “National Parks: America’s Best Idea”; through his lens the parks and their wildlife became re-enchanted.

Even ordinary newspapers create kinds of enchantment. Whenever whales become stranded and die, it’s news. When a bear, elk, or mountain lion strolls into town and is killed for just being there, it’s news. Often the articles tacitly make an accusation, blaming humans for their deaths – ship sonar drove the whales mad; the mountain lion asleep in a suburban backyard tree wasn’t doing anything threatening. Obituaries for wild animals stress both their innocence and the failure of humans to return them to their home lands or waters. Whereas once such deaths would have either been ignored or celebrated, now they’re occasions for public mourning.

Environmentalists must acknowledge the change created by the culture of enchantment. If we don’t, we risk being co-opted. Already corporations are selling destructive “green” energy plans, such as stimulus funded massive solar facilities in western deserts that will drain groundwater supplies needed to sustain regional life – including endangered species like desert tortoises and bighorn sheep. Public utility commissions propose wind turbine farms in areas without thinking of how much land will be destroyed or of their potential impacts on raptors. Sacrificing wild lands and creatures in the name of “saving” the planet is a contemporary equivalent of the U.S. bombing and shelling in Vietnam – “We had to destroy the town to save it.” Some “green” magazines and Web sites portray rampant consumerism as virtuous. The introduction to E Magazine’s “Tools for Green Living” advises readers to “Go solar with your phone charger; march to the beat of recyclable boots; put your money where your toothbrush is; take your lunch in a sustainable tote; show your commitment in a new message tee; and give the all-natural cleaning power of essential oils a try.” And occasionally, some environmental writers and activists make a deliberate point of rejecting bonds with animals as passé, irrelevant, even silly. The reviewer of The Cove documentary about Japanese dolphin capture and slaughter said the film “ultimately commits one of the greatest enviro-activist sins: It is, in essence, just another save-the cute-animals plea…. And when the film ended, in my most cynical heart of hearts, I still had not been convinced of why this atrocity should matter to me personally.”

Of course, to many other people, the atrocity does matter, and in a quite visceral way. People are responding to the idea of enchantment because it offers them something they need and cannot find elsewhere in consumerist America: transcendence, a sense of mystery and meaning, glimpses of a numinous world beyond our own. The cultural re-enchantment of nature has altered the fundamental meaning the West gives the natural world, and it’s impossible to overstate the significance of this change. Cultural shifts on this scale don’t occur often, but when they do, profound political change often follows – think of the spread of abolitionism in the 19th century, or the decline of Communism’s legitimacy a century later.

By acknowledging the success of enchantment, we gain confidence that more people can be won over and give ourselves courage to dream even more: of large-scale restoration of wilderness and degraded open spaces, of radically reduced carbon emissions, of laws that give ocean life the chance to recover. Sustaining this vision will help us cope with the inevitable setbacks and disappointments that political movements face. It will strengthen our will to push harder to create the world we really want, a world full of wonder. n

James William Gibson is the author of A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature (Metropolitan Books), from which this essay is adapted.