A storyteller's sandbox
OBJECTIVITY AND CONSENSUS IN THE AGE OF WINDMILLS
Beneath a punishing midday sun, the West Texas plains offered our eyes nothing in any direction but scrub brush distorted by the heat that radiated from the pavement and sand. Finally, dusk reduced the glare and narrowed our gaze to the yellow and white highway stripes of Interstate 20. El Paso began twinkling on the horizon. The city was monotony’s finish line for the guys crammed into the Chevy Suburban on the tail end of a 23-hour, non-stop drive to a fast-pitch softball tournament in Las Cruces, NM.
“We’ll be to the state in no time,” one of my teammates concluded.
It was but a mirage, however. One hour later, we were still an hour away.
Returning to this vicinity nearly three decades later, the vastness suckered me in again. From horizon to horizon, wind turbines now tower where hackberry once dominated. And just when you think this impossible litany of twirling blades certainly must end … it doesn’t.
The turbines, grinding inexorably, crop perpetually from the dry, dusty soil in this garden of verdant irony. Here, in a state inextricably associated with fossil fuels, 10,700 or so windmills have sprouted since I last passed through. In some places, rusting, motionless oil derricks cower below them. By 2017, wind power accounted for more than 17% of the state’s energy. In fact, Texas produces more wind power than any other state, and were the Lone Star its own country, its output would exceed every nation except China, the U.S., Germany and India.
Turbines were not a new sight for Debi and me. In fact, we stood directly beneath one during a trip to the Galapagos Islands in 2017. Our tour group made a special detour to get to them. Sacrificing a chance for close-up views of the blue-footed boobies that I so longed to photograph, we instead drove to a remote mountaintop where Pacific gales are harnessed by three turbines. That’s right. Three.
Pffft. Texas will see your three turbines and raise you 10,697.
Mesmerized by their slow, ubiquitous twirl, I was compelled to shoot them from above with the drone. As soon as I returned to the car, I posted one of the photos to Instagram and shared it on Facebook, as well.
But as the “likes” mounted, somewhere between Lubbock and Hermleigh our enthralled hypnosis morphed into indifference, then into aversion.
“Something about these things kinda gives me the creeps,” Debi decided.
At our next rest stop, I took a peek at the comments on the Facebook version of my post. A friend remarked that she believed the windmills were a blight on the landscape. Another noted the devastating effect they can have on some migratory bird species.
Feeling mischievous, I did something that, while not unprecedented, is very rare for me: I made a quasi-political remark on social media. In hyperbolic agreement with the woman who called the turbines a blight, I thumbed out something to the effect that their whirling was like the whispering coo of a Green New Dealer, imploring us to “conform, citizen; conform.”
Within minutes, my snarkiness was contested by a Facebook friend from the opposite side of the aisle, reminding me how turbines were helping spare mankind from the ravages of atmospheric carbon and that turbines were certainly no more of a visual abomination than drilling platforms.
I suspect there’s a high degree of overlap between those who abhor unsightly platforms (never mind that many are offshore, where they can’t be seen from land) and those who find graceful beauty in turbines.
Nonetheless, my friend had a point about the benefits. The wind-power industry created more than 24,000 jobs across Texas. Although wind is a highly variable resource — it can’t be made to blow exactly when humans need electricity — advances in battery technology have helped us better integrate renewable energy sources into the grid. What's more, farmers can lease their land to wind developers, creating a new revenue stream, while still allowing much of their property to remain in use for other purposes.
Well, at least in theory.
Debi’s high school friend, Cathy — the Texas woman we were were on our way to see — commented that turbines present obstacles to land use not often talked about by their proponents. They necessitate rights of way and access roads typically traveled by diesel vehicles; sit atop concrete pads that can affect the flow of water and wildlife; and often require firebreaks that preclude other uses of the property. She knows this first-hand because she and her husband, a longtime wildlife biologist for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, operate a wildlife- and habitat-management company. Their clients are private landowners, many of them extremely well-heeled. I won’t drop names, but trust me, you’ve heard of a lot of them.
Moreover, not everyone is singing Kumbaya beneath the blades. Cathy and her husband tell us that much of the Texas property upon which turbines sit is leased out by older landowners who have long since ceased farming and want an income stream in their old age. Nothing wrong with that, but this doesn’t always sit well with their heirs, who might have other designs for the property.
Cathy’s comment reminded me of Stanford economist Thomas Sowell’s oft-uttered apothegm:
"There are no solutions, only tradeoffs."
Slipping the phone back into my pocket, I cranked up the Sentra and resumed our march toward Brownwood, TX, where we would spend the night before traveling on to Cathy’s home. But as we rolled forward, my thoughts drifted backward from the future implications of global warming to our visit two days earlier to the Petrified Forest National Park.
Measuring approximately 230 square miles in Arizona’s Navajo and Apache counties, the park encompasses a semi-desert landscape, colorful badlands and an intriguing slice of Earth’s geologic record.
It is named for the fossilized tree trunks that date to the Mesozoic era and are scattered about as if someone had taken a wrecking ball and a can of rusty-red spray paint to a warehouse of Roman columns. Except these columns were created 225 million years ago. For the history-challenged, that makes the petrified wood more than 224.998 million years older than any Roman.
Back then, this land was near the equator, on the southwestern edge of the supercontinent Pangaea, which had not yet been torn asunder. Several species of now-extinct conifers thrived here in humid, sub-tropical weather. As all living things do, the trees died, some toppling to the ground. Usually, organic matter decays rapidly or is eaten by other organisms. But other times, it is buried so quickly that it remains intact and fossilizes. The latter was the case here, where steams flowing from adjacent highlands deposited volcanic ash and other inorganic material on top of and into the trees during violent rainstorms.
Beginning about 60 million years ago — still no Romans in sight — the land was pushed upward by tectonic forces, exposing older strata to the power of wind and water. The petrified wood is much harder and resistant to weathering than the mud rocks and ash deposits around them, so they remained in place while surrounding material washed away. Exposed along with the trees were fossilized ferns, ginkgoes, and giant, crocodile-like reptiles called phytosaurs.
Some of the displays in the Petrified Forest are of more recent vintage, though.
Debi and I stood for a while looking at a hollowed-out sedan, placed as a monument to Route 66, the iconic East-West U.S. highway that runs through a portion of the park. My eyes wandered from the cracks in the plastic steering wheel cover, to the cracks in the old road bed, which is now mostly covered in sand. Running parallel, a few hundred yards away, is Interstate 40, which along with affordable automobiles and affordable gasoline to fuel them, rendered the old, two-lane highway obsolete.
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It wasn’t much past 10:30 a.m., but the thermometer was already registering 95 degrees. I was sweating. Or at least I thought I was. In the ultra-arid air, my perspiration became evaporation almost instantly. I remember the same, odd sensation during that softball tournament in New Mexico, oh, so many years ago, when the dry air caused the lining of my nose to crack and bleed.
Who would ever guess this swath of desert was once an ultra-humid lake basin?
You can’t blame that climate change on Route 66 traffic, though. The first homo sapiens appeared only about 300,000 years ago, and the park’s earliest human inhabitants didn’t arrive until about 8,000 years ago. The most staggering transformations here occurred much earlier and were the result of plate tectonics, volcanism, wind, rain and dozens of other natural forces.
But maybe if those phytosaurs had built more turbines? ...
None of these changes would surprise that eminent environmental scientist George Carlin.
The old hippie nailed it succinctly, if coarsely, in his standup routine:
"The planet is fine; the people are fu----."
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The languid whirl of West Texas windmills belies the urgency with which they were constructed, here and elsewhere. Addicted to petrol, yet repulsed by it, we put them up in the name of geopolitical independence and, more often, in fevered desire to avoid climatic cataclysm. In retrospect, both justifications seem suspect. Judging by most any metric, don’t we seem about as engaged in the Middle East’s murderous intrigue as ever? And wouldn’t the doomsday soothsaying of environmental activists be more believable if their dire prognostications hit the broad side of a barn once in a while?
To wit: Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich predicted in 1967 that “a time of famine” would be upon us by 1975. A top NASA scientist warned four years later that, by 2021, we’d be in the throes of a catastrophic ice age. No, wait, wait. Science takes that back. Actually, snowfalls are about to become a thing of the past, and the polar ice caps will melt away by 2008. Wait, check that. Make it 2012 ... er ... 2014; no, no, it's 2015 ... or maybe 2016.
Clearly, white lab coats do not confer infallibility.
Set aside instances of outright fraud. Sometimes, scientists simply mess up up their calculations or tout results that cannot be replicated. Such mistakes can linger uncorrected if scientists let their preconceived notions color their review of peers’ work.
This is not a condemnation of science. Rather, it is a recognition that science is conducted by human beings, all of whom are susceptible to groupthink, cognitive biases and self-interest. Accepting a scientist's’ claims without skepticism is as foolish as dismissing those claims out of hand. Credulity is particularly dangerous when scientific revelations ride shotgun with social-policy directives that purport to avert some disaster from which there can be no recovery. Even if the underlying scientific assertion of pending doom is correct, the directives deserve their own, separate scrutiny.
Consider that, had we heeded Ehrlich back in 1967, we’d be lacing our food and water supplies with sterilizing agents — not the kind that keep things sanitary, mind you; the kind that keep you infertile. Ehrlich’s ghoulish prescription wasn’t a case of science that was erringly oblivious to its own moral implications. To the contrary, the moral implications were precisely Ehrlich’s point.
But even following more conventional scientific consensus is not always reliable. Scientific truth is revealed through experimentation, not a show of hands by the experimenters. Notwithstanding, consensus on such topics is more rare than typically imagined. Two intellectually honest scientists can conduct similar analysis of identical data and still arrive at divergent conclusions. This is not a reflection of bad faith, but of the scientists’ decisions about what findings to emphasize … that emphasis often being a byproduct of their own interests or subconscious biases.
If such subjectivity can encroach where objectivity is supposed to be a first principle, what hope is there for the rest of us?
In fact, our best efforts to distinguish heads from tails is further complicated. That’s because we aren’t typically awakened to scientific discovery through our own experiments or even by reading scholarly papers. Usually, the light of science reaches our eyes only after being bent through the prism of journalists and the activists who are so often their sources. I offer no special insight into the latter, just the practically self-evident observation that it must be sorely tempting for activists to sound premature alarms and cherry-pick facts in furtherance of ends they believe to be justified.
Two faces or a chalice? Two people — even scientists — can look at the same image and see different things.
I have a bit more to say about journalists, having been one myself for a quarter century or so.
In my experience, the vast majority are earnest people willing to work long, irregular hours in exchange for little money and, these days, even less job security. In return for their toil, they produce work as likely to earn them scorn as praise. The modern critique of the profession, particularly as recited by many conservative hard-liners, lacks nuance, understanding and thus any real hope of sparking transformation from within the industry. That’s just as well, I suppose. Through the years, many of the self-identified Republicans who complained to me most loudly about a perceived political bent in news coverage seemed less bothered that my newspaper was biased, more concerned that it hadn’t adopted their bias.
Whatever the flaws in this critique, though, it is directionally correct.
Increasingly, newsrooms are philosophically homogenous zones, where objectivity is as quaint a notion as covering one’s ankles in public. Modern journalism is, at best, about “fairness” and increasingly about “justice.” This all jibes neatly with modern journalists’ discontent with merely fetching facts for their audience. They are on a higher quest for “truth” — or is it “truths”? — and many fervently believe that they know precisely in which direction to find it.
More simply put, they long to mold, not to inform. This brings them perilously close to assuming the stance of an activist, for whom misplaced facts and exaggerated risks are not cause for pause but a way to mash the accelerator — if not in hot pursuit of a desired policy, then in the drive to pique readers and viewers.
I suspect that, sadly, many journalists today would cheer, not challenge, the “activist” tag. But such puffery will not save society; it will send it hurtling off a cliff.
At the end of my run in the news industry, I was splitting time in two newsrooms about 150 miles apart. Between them, these two staffs published three newspapers. I was given the high-faultin title of “regional audience engagement editor.” Translated, this means “figure out why cyberspace is handing us our ass and make it stop.”
Frankly, I didn’t get very far.
Nonetheless, I can at least say that by the time I departed, I had a firm grasp on ground conditions: More than 80% of our website traffic was the result of social-media referrals, almost all of them from Facebook. A significant percentage also came through search-engine results, almost all of them from Google. We had negligible “direct traffic” — i.e., website visitors opening a bookmark or typing our URL into their browser, acts that were once the grail of our online efforts. The upshot: Print news outlets not adept at marketing their content through search and social platforms are dead in the water.
I’m sure that, since my departure, the numbers, and perhaps even the paradigm, have shifted. Facebook famously altered its algorithm to deemphasize organic (read: free) traffic from news publishers. Publishers, in turn, have tried their utmost to drum up online subscriptions. I’m less interested here, though, in the substantial and obvious implications for the news industry’s business model. I’m more interested in what social media and search engines have done to alter the way we find information.
Some have posited that Facebook and Google are manipulating us toward their desired ends by controlling the content they put in front of us. Perhaps, but even if we’re not captive to the biases of two huge conglomerates, these platforms are subjecting us to biases of a different sort — our own.
Think about it: Their success is predicated upon their ability to reliably deliver to us the type of content we want to consume. That means their algorithms spit out for us a steady diet of material that comports with our world view. That might not be such a huge problem if we spent less time on social media. Or if you and I were the open-minded, purely logical beings we fancy ourselves. Sorry to break it to you, though — we typically reason our way backward toward beliefs we already hold. What’s more, we’re adept at spotting flaws in opponents' viewpoints but painfully slow to detect the contradictions in our own.
While I don’t believe American society is more divided than ever — there was that whole Civil War thing, after all — it’s no wonder so many people believe that it is. With news-gatherers delivering conflict and punditry over platforms designed to tell us only what we want to hear, it's a wonder two people with opposing viewpoints can muster a speck of courtesy while discussing a substantive topic. Indeed, civil conversations are diminishing in frequency, and we don’t even seem to be trying very hard to have them. The content we share on social media and the comments we attach to it are better designed to virtue-signal fellow tribesmen and shame, rather than persuade, those who disagree.
Unless, of course, you think jamming it up the ass of your partisan opponent is an effective form of persuasion. (Spoiler alert: It’s not.)
As you might have guessed, I’m not a fan of outrage culture. However, I should confess — lest I be accused of virtue-signaling myself — that I am a first-rate ranter. I have diatribes at the ready for duplicitous politicians, careless drivers and the designated hitter. I just don’t share them often on social media. Throughout my adult life, I’ve held jobs that make this improper. In all honesty, though, the primary reason is that I abhor the idea of giving an acquaintance a reason not to like me.
I admit this is thoroughly pathetic.
Be that as it may, my venting is confined mostly to the presence of those I like and trust. As a consequence, Debi has endured more of my tantrums than anyone. In fact, she has probably saved me from a coronary or two.
Like me, Debi tries to balance strong beliefs with an aversion to confrontation. But we’re alike in different ways. I don’t want you not to like me, but she does not want to hurt your feelings. That is not at all a pathetic reason for restraint.
So it is with our life outdoors. I love taking photographs of animals. Debi loves the actual animals. For instance, I prefer that the squirrel on the road’s shoulder not dart beneath my unswerving truck tire. Debi, on the other hand, careens into a ditch to avoid the little critter. I pity the tough life ahead for the brown thrasher with a gimp leg that showed up at our platform feeder this spring. Debi leaves suet and water for him before she goes to bed and wakes up worrying about him.
In case you haven’t figured this out yet, Debi is truly my better half.
Before we met, most of my travel had been a result of playing in various baseball or softball tournaments, which means I’ve seen a fine array of ballparks from Las Cruces, NM, to Deland, FL, but not much else. As a young adult, I was content to leave it at that, but Debi’s wanderlust rubbed off. She has spent more than 20 years prodding me toward experiences I didn’t even realize I wanted to have. Together, we’ve seen six foreign countries, and on this trip, we’re knocking out four more states that one or the other of us had not yet visited.
As we barrel past yet another Texas stockyard, I smile at the thought of all the new and wonderful sights we’ve seen together these past few days, and all that are still to come — like the farm where Cathy and her husband live.
Cathy’s family works hard and plays hard. Together, they drove every nail in the ranch house they built on old family land. The property provides ample room to hunt and to plink with handguns and AR-15s. Shooting isn’t just a diversion, however. A healthy population of rattlers make me a little wary of walking through the grass clad in flip-flops rather than snake boots.
Nonetheless, chickens freely roam the front yard and roost on the lower shelf of a stainless steel table on the front porch. There’s livestock, too — and a garden and ponds and many other markings of a simple, self-sufficient lifestyle.
We tour their property by ATV, unsuccessfully searching for a neighbor’s longhorn that has found its way through a fence and appears in a pasture behind the farmhouse most evenings. Then, we tour the countryside by SUV, looking at the exotic animals that landowners have brought to their property to breed and hunt.
Virtually anyone who manages their land for hunting uses fencing to constrain their wildlife. However, the height of the fence has important implications for the property's management. Those hoping to maintain a stock of abundant, native whitetails often use low fences, which deer can leap should they need to roam in search of water or food during severe conditions. This lowers the pressure on the natural resources needed to sustain the herd but also provides less certainty that the deer will be present when the owner wants to hunt them. Conversely, the high fences often used to manage Eurasian mouflon or Sri Lankan chital more or less guarantee your target species will be around to … well … to be a target. However, restricted movement greatly reduces the caretaker’s margin for error. One mismanaged dry season can devastate a herd, perhaps beyond recovery.
As we ride along, the conversation turns to the turbines. Our hosts are not four-square against them, only the notion that they are a panacea. Fossil fuels are no such thing, either. Among the current projects for Cathy’s husband is a study on the impact of a proposed natural-gas pipeline opposed by a potential client. The pipeline, it is feared, would cut across environmentally and culturally sensitive areas and degrade this property-owner’s enjoyment of his land. Though not opposed in principal to natural gas or even this pipeline, he is lobbying for a more sensible routing.
And so it goes. Wind or carbon. High fences or low ones. No solutions; just trade-offs.
A chital, behind a tall fence on a Texas ranch.
I think we’d all be happier — and certainly more kind to one another — if we took this to heart. I’m content to live in a land where both turbines and platforms are part of the mix. Where we consider what must be sacrificed in exchange for what we want. Where Ehrlich and a Sowell not only co-exist but work at the same university.
Unfortunately, humans are truly bound by one common characteristic — a propensity for excess. Good habits and self-discipline can help us overcome our individual urges to drink or eat too much. But political excesses are usually curbed in only one of two ways — by the gun, or by a philosophical counterbalance left free to operate. Give me the latter — a group of others to challenge our assumptions, and we theirs.
Counterbalances not only stave off the gun; they sometimes produce unexpected consensus. Take those Texas turbines. They went up like crazy only after Republican Gov. George W. Bush — an oilman, by gum — signed legislation deregulating the state’s power market. Also interesting: Despite what I saw in the Texas plains, oil and natural gas wells still greatly outnumber wind turbines in Texas. Had we driven a more southerly route through the Permian Basin, we would have witnessed the stage where an oil boom transformed the U.S. from a net importer of oil to a net exporter.
My eyes, transfixed by windmills, deceived me.
Hearsay also deceives. In the weeks before our trip, I read Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” and Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life” — books roundly criticized, albeit from opposing quarters. Predictably, I found neither to be as their sharpest critics characterized them. As Debi and I rambled toward Brownwood, I considered this and began devising some rules of my own — though, lacking the intelligence of either Alinsky or Peterson, I could only come up with six:
1. The person who tells you “the science is settled” should be viewed suspiciously because they have an agenda. No, as a matter of fact, the science is not settled. It never has been and never will be.
2. As such, we should bridle our assertions about what we claim to know. In reality, it is more accurate to say that we know what we’ve read or, more accurate still, that we know what we believe.
3. Question those beliefs. Objectivity is difficult — perhaps even technically impossible — but a rational mind craves it.
4. Civil societies are a lot like a healthy marriage in this regard: Cohesion requires that its members acknowledge common ideals, not that they hold those ideals for identical reasons. It must be OK for people to be alike in different ways.
5. Very few choices in life are binary. Too much credence given to those who insist otherwise keep us ignorant and angry.
Most importantly ...
6. Recognize the limits of your own perception and intellect.
No matter what we’ve learned or where we’ve been, there will always be more to know and to see, even when we are retracing our steps.
And for that, I am grateful.