Patricia Nelson Limerick
October 22, 2003
I very much regret not being able to deliver this in person, and I regret even more having to miss the chance to hear all the presenters on Wednesday and Thursday. After several decades suffering (and I do mean "suffering") with a bad case of science fear, I have found the company of scientists to be a great source of pleasure, since I am literally making up for lost time. Having team-taught three courses with a biologist, I have reached a state of courage and fearlessness unusual among humanists; now, when I see a formula or equation that I cannot decipher, I no longer panic. Instead, I say to myself, "All those little letters and numbers that seem to be gibberish actually mean something, and you must breathe deeply and stay calm until someone can tell you what they mean." In the twenty-first century, self-help programs seem to sell quite well, and I have thought about a possible fundraising strategy for our Center of the American West, by which I charge a fee for therapeutic workshops I will offer to fellow sufferers, in which I will hold people's hands while they, too, fight their way past fear and defeat the terror that scientific language can sometimes evoke in the afflicted.
But I understand from Claudia that many of the scientists speaking in the last day and a half have shown an ability to communicate their expertise without triggering bewilderment and terror in the non-specialist. If that becomes the trend among scientists, then the market demand for my "recovery from science fear" workshops will plummet, and while this will not be good news for the fundraising plans of the Center of the American West, it will be very good news indeed for society.
The Center of the American West, located at the University of Colorado, has the mission of enhancing communication between the university and the surrounding region, as well as the mission of trying to provide a neutral meeting ground to consider current Western problems and issues. The mission takes off from a wonderful sentence written by one of my students years ago: "When shifting paradigms," a fellow named Jim Gibson wrote, "it is important to remember to put in the clutch." As standard transmissions have become increasingly rare, and the vast majority of cars sold in the United States have automatic transmissions, the people who can understand that excellent sentence are themselves becoming an endangered species. So we must take advantage of this fading historical moment, and declare that it is, indeed, the mission of the Center of the American West to put in the clutch and ease the transition from one form of thought to another.
One area in which we have been trying to be helpful involves the transition under way, right at this moment, in the Tamarisk conference, from taking in the scientific findings to arriving at plans for action. In a recent report called "Making the Most of Science in the American West," Claudia and I reflected on the central role that naturalists and scientists have played in shaping Western history; we wrote about some of the regrettable habits of mind that keep society from making the most of scientific expertise; and then we offered some recommendations for more productive relationships between scientists and voters and decision-makers. As we worked on this project, we were struck by the very small role that scientists play in the usual mythic memories of the West. To quote from the opening of our Report: "When Americans took up the project of remembering Western history, they chose to concentrate their attention on a few select types: the fur trapper, the grizzled prospector, the schoolmarm, the cowboy, the prostitute, the gambler. With the conspicuous exception of the admired, lionized, and nearly beatified Major John Wesley Powell, naturalists and scientists retreated to the edge of memory. Hollywood's movies do not feature scientists putting aside their barometers or collectors' nets and heading down to Main Street for a showdown. John Wayne never played a botanist."
And yet we think that Westerners would be in better shape today, and much better positioned to deal with the complicated choices they face, if we could restore a recognition of scientists as crucial players in the West of the past and the West of the present. That is one of the primary goals of our report, and if you would like to read the full report, we would be very interested in your responses and reactions. The work represented at this conference is a fine example of the activities we wanted to spotlight in our report. On the subject of the tamarisk and its empire, scientists truly seem to have done their part: they have investigated this plant's physiological processes and its techniques for claiming territory from native species; they have looked hard at strategies and approaches to its control or eradication. But if the scientists have stepped up to the plate and done what they should do, society does not seem to have matched them yet, in resourcefulness and responsibility or a commitment to act.
While "putting in the clutch" provides one analogy for the activities of the Center of the American West, another fine metaphor for our institutional life comes from the former Texas Commissioner of Agriculture, Jim Hightower. "There's nothing in the middle of the road," Commissioner Hightower once said, "except a double yellow line and a dead armadillo." Many of our activities at the Center give us the opportunity to experience the world from the point of view of that armadillo, in its last, poignant moments. In a recent report called "What Every Westerner Should Know about Energy," for instance, we did our best to ask our readers to think about the prospects of a decrease in the supply of fossil fuels, and an increase in the need for renewable energy. In that cause, we also did our best to avoid alarmism and stridency; we especially warned against "Chicken Little" style proclamations that the sky is falling, fossil fuels will soon disappear from the picture, and Western civilization teeters on the brink of collapse, and we also warned against demonizing the producers of fossil fuels, urging consumers to recognize and admit how their own demand or desire drives the whole production process. This effort at moderation, or balance, or fairness, was not universally celebrated or admired, but we seriously accept our mission as armadillos, and even when tempted to flee to one side of the road or the other, we try to hold to our station next to those double yellow lines right in the middle.
This academic year, we have another fine opportunity to refine and improve the agility and nimbleness that come to those who seriously try to practice the spiritual discipline known as "neutrality." We are bringing the former Secretaries of the Interior to Boulder for a series of public conversations. The current Secretary will come in the summer or fall and respond to our synthesis of what we have learned from her predecessors. Of course, I have my own thoughts and preferences about the ways in which I would like the Department of the Interior managed, but I am also smart enough to know that I am several hundred times better as an armchair quarterback than I would be as an actual, in-office manager and administrator. And I also know that, for the sake of understanding the history of the American West, all of the former Secretaries are important, and the complications of history cannot be subject to my editing or straightening up. If I were to unleash my preferences in organizing and running this project on Interior, I would have more or less resigned my job as a historian and surrendered the right to exercise advanced degrees that took me quite a bit of time and trouble to acquire. So, in a time when the University of Colorado at Boulder has been energetically condemned for failing to give conservative viewpoints a hearing, I put as much time into persuading James Watt to come to Boulder, as I put into persuading Stewart Udall and Bruce Babbitt to come (and it was not an easy sell in any of these cases!). And this, in its own way, suits my personal preferences, since I dread boredom above all other burdens and afflictions in life, and having come to consider Secretary Watt a good personal friend has inoculated and immunized me against boredom for some time to come. In truth, preparing to host a guest list, ranging from Stewart Udall through James Watt to Bruce Babbitt and then Gale Norton, makes you feel as if you are engaged in the intellectual equivalent of very intense yoga, stretching muscles of the mind that you didn't know you had.
A different sort of Center of the American West stretching exercise involves another series of lectures, and a planned book coming from that series. This year and last year, we have had faculty members speaking in a series called "Healing the West," on projects in restoration, remediation, repair, and reconciliation. The speakers represent disciplines ranging from linguistics to conservation biology, from literature to civil engineering. Their case studies range from the rejuvenation of the native language among Arapaho Indian people to the remediation of acid mine drainage. In our extremely fragmented and specialized world, it is a real pleasure to be in the company of humanists and scientists working together in a common enterprise. And, in a world in which environmental messages often come in tones of gloom and sorrow and loss and hopelessness, it is a pleasure to be working in an arena in which the message comes, more often, in tones of hope and viable action.
This conference on the tamarisk thus makes a welcome fit with our Healing the West project. Introducing this troublesome tree was an emblematic "bad move" on the part of humanity, a very classic act of anthropogenic mess-making, an archetypal example of the very irritating accuracy of that familiar saying, "Act in haste; repent at leisure." So if a remedy could be identified, and put into action, for this particular mess, it would provide a very forceful demonstration that the concept of "Healing the West" carries real and solid meaning. That achievement, in turn, would provide real and solid inspiration for people working in other enterprises to reckon with other unfortunate legacies from the past.
And yet both Claudia and I have had moments of puzzlement over how we can apply our usual approach to the tamarisk issue. Here is the element of distinctiveness in this case study: unlike nearly every other environmental dilemma in the West today, no one seems to be fighting over this one. In our Science report, we describe the usual problem of contested scientific judgments:
"Rather than making the most of scientists in their midst, Westerners have fallen into the habit of repetitive performances of a tedious play we will call Dueling Experts. One group of actors comes on stage, declaring an action or policy they want and proclaiming that it is time for partisan, 'interest group' squabbling to yield to the objective research of science. A number of scientists are summoned: they study the issue and deliver their findings. The first group of actors examines their findings to see which scientists agree with their position. They label the findings they like as 'good science' and 'sound science,' and label the science they don't like as 'junk science' or 'value-laden science' or 'biased science.' At the opposite side of this stage, meanwhile, a group of opponents busily reverse the labels, condemning the science that the first group applauded and applauding the science that the first group condemned."
Well, if that is the situation and practice in many environmental disputes, then the tamarisk situation seems like the out-lier and the anomaly. The experts are not dueling. In a piece of rare good luck, no one loves the tamarisk and no one will hold rallies and raise funds in its defense. Well, almost no one. Dove-hunters and beekeepers seem to be about the only ones with a soft spot in their hearts for this troublesome tree. But when you think about the strong emotions felt for wild horses and burros on public lands, you have to realize that this really is a piece of luck: it is well within the reaches of probability that someone in our interesting times, times in which reason does not sit calmly on its throne, would take up the cause of protecting this irritating, water-hogging, salt-concentrating plant, and denouncing the hard-hearted brutes who would deny us our right to sit amidst its dense stands and admire the play of wind and light on its fronds. And it is equally a piece of good luck that this invasive has an observable, quantifiable impact on a valued natural resource: when a tamarisk absorbs its disproportionate share of water, it lays the foundation for an unusually congenial political alliance across the usual partisan canyon: because it seems to be positioning itself in direct competition with farmers and suburbanites and other water users, it makes it possible for Republicans and Democrats, environmental advocates and agrarian advocates, to take up a common cause and forswear their usual mode of repetitive bickering and reciprocal accusation.
But, of course, that is also the problem.
The absence of a fight probably connects very directly and immediately to the absence of public attention.
So this situation meets the technical requirements for designation as "a heck of a thing." Here you have a situation where you have a solid scientific consensus, and no need to waste time and energy in squabbling and bickering, and you should be able to move expeditiously to an agenda for action-and funded and sustained action at that.
But the public's attention is elsewhere.
Well, what to do?
Years ago, at a social event, I met a very influential person named Edwin Bernays. He was Freud's nephew, and he was a leading figure in the creation of the modern business of advertising and public relations. Mr. Bernays was in his 90s when I met him, and it was really quite extraordinary to spend some time in the company of the man who, for instance, gave Ivory Soap its persistent and lasting image as the most pure and gentle of soap products. I am glad that I had already made my career choice by the time I met Mr. Bernays, because, if I had been younger when I met him, his stories were so striking and interesting that it would have been very tempting to follow his example and to see what I could do in his line of work. These impulses have never died away, and the issues raised by your conference get that impulse all stirred up again.
So here is a public relations approach to the problem of the Troublesome Tamarisk, pushed to the margins of public attention by the fact that experts on the subject are not at each other's throats and are not condemning and denouncing each other in a way that reporters and editors would find enchanting and irresistible.
Here, in rather broad-brush and crude form, is the pitch I'd recommend:
In other words, people concerned with the tamarisk have a spectacular opportunity to make a virtue of the unusual dilemma of having an undersupply of contention. One basic element of this strategy would be to steer away from war and battle metaphors. Do not say, "We will wage war on the tamarisk." Do not say, "We are engaged in a battle, and the tamarisk is our enemy." Why? For two or three reasons. The first, obvious reason is that at the current moment, the battles of Iraq are real and immediate and not very inspirational when used as metaphor and analogy. The second reason is that the people of the past resorted often to military analogy when they spoke about conquering and subduing nature, and forcing it to submit to human will, and that whole unhappy historical episode is not, again, exactly inspirational and spirit-raising. And the other reason is that there may be more interesting and engaging ways of framing this context.
So here is my other public relations suggestion: try sports. Cast the human contest with the tamarisk as a contest in sports, in which two worthy and impressive teams square off against each other. On one side, the resourceful and adaptive and formidable tamarisk plants. On the other side, the scientists and governmental officials and concerned citizens. In other words, a kind of ideal World Series: two very good teams, with a lot of promise and capability on each side and no guaranteed outcome and some considerable, attention-grabbing suspense as to how things will come out. So the pitch to the public becomes, not so much, "Watch while we defeat this evil water-absorbing vampire of a plant," but more "Watch while we engage in a tense and suspenseful struggle with a worthy opponent." The audience is then invited to deepen its respect for nature by marveling at the clever and original strategies of this only seemingly inanimate plant. Again, the campaign is to be portrayed as a struggle with a worthy rival; this is not humanity beating up on nature again; this plant is very resourceful, and it will certainly not surrender or forfeit this game, so each play between the plants and the people should be seen as one round in a long and a fascinating game. And "long" is a key adjective here: because of the need for revegetation, and prolonged monitoring, and timely approach to problems identified by that monitoring, the tamarisk presents a fine opportunity to experiment with ways of keeping the often-fickle attention of the public for a campaign over the long haul.
So, basically, all we need to do now is recruit John Madden or some similarly high profile sports commentator, to advise us on how to report the progress of the game. Yardage gained, yardage lost-that should be easy, but we could probably use some guidance on how to convey the interest and excitement of sudden and unexpected upsets, as well as a general sense of how the two teams are holding up under the strain and tension of a long and wearing series of contests.
Does this plan risk the distortion of making a plant seem like an animate, conscious, strategizing entity? Sure. That necessary and fun anthropomorphizing is, I would have to say, one good reason why the plan might work, as a strategy for igniting public attention and concern. And, as a self-admitted tourist in the zone of the natural sciences, I have to acknowledge that I am only conveying my honest, if unsophisticated opinion and impression, when I say that I truly do see the tamarisk as a very worthy and capable rival, with its well-worked out operational strategies of early seeding, creation of a dense canopy, and increasing the salinity of the soil with its salt-charged leaves. I have seen plenty of human sports teams (alas, the University of Colorado's current ill-fated football team might come to mind as an example) that did not match the tamarisk in the capacity to hold its own, through match after match, with resilience and enterprise.
To continue to exercise the human right to anthropomorphize, the tamarisk is indeed the "poster child" of environmental dilemmas, as Tim Carlson and others have said. The current widespread empire of the tamarisk provides one of the world's clearest and most compelling examples, that anthropogenic change got us into many of our messes and muddles, and only anthropogenic change is going to get us out of those messes and muddles. Of course, anthropogenic change will always be a subject of some anxiety: those who design and introduce plans for biological controls, for instance, are always going to have to deal with a certain skepticism from those who will say, "Introduced species got us into this soup in the first place, and after all the devastation we have seen introduced exotics produce, do you really expect us to welcome those little yellow beetles?" In response, one can only stress, again and again and again, the enormous difference between the circumstances of the introduction of the tamarisk-a process that was impulsive, uncoordinated, un-thought-out-and the introduction of species like this beetle-a process that is entirely considered, coordinated, and researched with care and caution.
Even if we sometimes dream of a pristine world in which nature would run itself with balance and harmony, given the planet's records of disturbances and extinctions, it is not clear that that a balanced and harmonized world has ever existed in any location other than the human imagination. While we must recognize humanity's wonderful and astonishing capacity to make messes, we must also recognize humanity's wonderful and astonishing capacity to recognize error and clean up some of the messes. For that cause, the tamarisk really is our poster child, or, I guess, poster shrub or poster tree (Claudia and I have been a little confused, as to whether we are supposed to say "shrub" or "tree," but we're sure about the "poster" part).
And the timing, for experimenting with new ways of bringing the tamarisk issue to public attention, seems very good indeed, because of the widespread interest today in campaigns for restoration, remediation, and reckoning with the error and injury that we inherit from the past. This enthusiasm for restoration is a very gratifying and exciting turn of events. For me, personally, it addresses a longrunning source of discomfort. When I was a kid, I found most Western movies agonizing to watch. My agony spiked in the inevitable scene when the cowboys got into a fight and broke bottles and smashed tables and chairs and finally shattered the mirror over the bar. At this point, the cowboys would usually get on their horses and ride out of town, but I would stay behind in the saloon, looking at all the broken wood and glass, and wondering, "Who on earth is going to get stuck cleaning this up?"
In no cowboy movie of my acquaintance did the cowboys ever ride out of town, then bring their horses to a sudden halt and say to each other, "Wait! We're supposed to be the good guys, and yet we've left a terrible mess back there in town! We'll have to head back in and clean that up before we ride on to our next adventure!"
But that is the wonderful turn of events in recent times: Westerners are, in observable fact, pausing for that moment of reckoning, and heading back in to clean up. People working in the territory of tamarisk control are people who are leading in that courageous reversal. Those working with the Tamarisk Alliance are themselves "poster adults" for the big project of reckoning with the consequences of dumb moves in the past, and Claudia and I are proud to be associated with the individuals and groups doing this important and consequential work.
Placed on the Internet: November 1, 2003 10:58 PM
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