This is the sermon I delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Franklin, NC, on Feb. 5

I settled down for a weekend last month just to try to recall the whole year

So many faces and so many places, I wondered where they all disappeared.

I didn’t ponder the question too long, I was hungry and went out for a bite,

Ran into a chum with a bottle of rum and we wound up drinking all night.”

(Jimmy Buffet, “Changes in Latitude”

I would guess that many of you are by now familiar with my approach to the making of a UU sermon. First come up with a title that is alliterative or perhaps clever, and then try to justify the title with the content. I learned that trick from Jimmy Buffet who once said that the most important element of songwriting was coming up with a clever title. Once you have “Margaritaville” or “Cheeseburger in Paradise” or “Changes in Attitude, Changes in Latitude’,” the rest is pretty simple.

So, butterflies in China. It’s kind of a standard example of unintended and magnified consequence that the flapping of a butterfly wing in China might create a tornado in Kansas or a hurricane in Florida. It might be a weary old saw, but it’s also kind of scary. Because it is entirely true that a tiny cause can have remarkable and profound effects. Think of the electrical short that killed three Apollo astronauts or the missed technical warning that resulted in the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle. The tree branch on a wire that triggered the northeast power blackout in 2003. Or in an earlier time, “for want of a nail a shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost” and so on. And also from that heirloom past, “A stitch in time saves nine.”

We generally find some comfort in thinking we know what we are doing. Cake recipes and plane tickets mostly get the results we expect from them. But as I’ve mentioned in at least one previous talk here, the evidence is very strong that we don’t have a clue why we decide to bake a cake or take a trip and careful research has established that we make decisions before we find out about them. Our conscious awareness trails behind our decision making.

I first read about that research about 25 years ago. The author of the book I’d been reading challenged folks to try to determine when they decide to get out of bed. He didn’t ask what your alarm was set for, but when you decided to make the move. Try it. It is approximately impossible. Every time you think you are deciding you realize there is a previous decision point underlying it.

In my case I had been reading the book lying abed on a summer morning with one of my cats, Pomonella, asleep on my chest. A cardinal rule of we who keep companionable company with cats is that we do not unnecessarily rouse a comfortably sleeping cat. It is more than wrong. So as the scene played out I was reading the book, and pausing to contemplate the concept of decision making and getting out of bed, and whether I could determine when I made a decision.

Abruptly the necessity of writing a weekly opinion column with a looming deadline leapt into my head and without a moment’s hesitation I set Pomonella aside and headed for the coffee maker. Sorry Po.

I tried to discern the get out of bed decision point many times after that without success. If you try it I think you’ll find the same sort of infinite regression. When you decide that you have decided to get up you realize that there was a preceding decision to decide, and on and on until you arrive here listening to me suggest that you try the experiment. But did you decide just now? Or a couple of paragraphs ago when I first mentioned it? Or somewhere in between?

But speaking of cats, one of the best butterfly wing stories I’ve gathered in my butterfly collecting career, is the fact that when superstition swept Europe in the years we now call the Dark Ages, a fear of witchcraft was paramount. Cats, long rumored to be the familiars of witches, were exterminated in large numbers. Absent cats, rodent populations blossomed. Rodent fleas carried the Bubonic Plague and half the human population expired. Vikings were smarter and always had shipboard cats to control vermin, with the result that domestic cats were very likely the first permanent European settlers on this continent, left behind when the Vikings abandoned their villages.

That’s an excellent reason to keep cats around the house, but also a stellar example of the unintended consequence of our decisions. The choice to eliminate cats, made for what was then an arguably believable reason, given the paucity of scientific knowledge at the time, created or exacerbated a very real effect on human life.

Why Time Flies is a recently released book by Alan Burdick, which, by the way, I have decided to read, though I haven’t decided whether to buy it or wait for it to land in the library. Time will tell, I suppose. But I learned a fascinating nugget when I heard Burdick interviewed last week.

When you type on a computer keypad there is a tiny delay between the moment your finger touches a key and the letter’s appearance on the screen. That make’s sense because the software and hardware are processing your action. We tend to experience the appearance of the letter as simultaneous with the keystroke.

A researcher meddled with software and so that the time lag between action and appearance gradually increased by several milliseconds. Typists’ brains continued to interpret the appearance as instantaneous. I suppose there is some limit to how long the lag can be. As I said, I’ve yet to read the book. But here’s the really amazing bit. After typists became accustomed to the new, longer delay, and again I don’t know if it took an hour or a few days, but after their brains accepted the new normal, when the software was suddenly switched back, all of the people tested had the very unsettling but very real sensation that the letters were appearing on the screen before their fingers hit the keys.

It is a very clear demonstration of the subjectivity of time, as well as the fact that our brains always try to make sense of the world. A similar demonstration of that sense-making is the experiment in which subjects are given glasses whose lenses flip the world upside down. It doesn’t take long for the brain to adapt and see things right side up again, and then removing the glasses the world is upside down until the brain recalibrates.

So we are deeply wired to make sense of the world. And of course, that makes sense. Survival depends on having a pretty good idea of how things will work out. Baking a cake is not a life or death project, but eating is. Whether you go to a movie or go to a concert is not a life or death decision, but driving there involves a continuous stream of life or death decisions and actions. Or deciding to step up onto a bus rather than stepping out in front of one.

Decisions we make rely very heavily on past experience and on what we’ve been told, which hinges on other people’s experiences. When a parent tells a child not to eat toadstools it is pretty likely the parent has never eaten one either. But somebody’s parent or child did at some point, with dire consequences, and the information has been passed along for a thousand generations. When we experience something directly, or learn from someone we trust, it builds our expectations and reinforces our sense-making.

That’s why the unexpected can come as such a shock. Can a butterfly in China affect our weather here? Yes, but the chain of causation is so vast that no one can point at one butterfly and one tornado and make a rational connection. It’s hard enough to even detect the tiny bit of turbulence in the immediate vicinity of the butterfly, though we know it exists. So the butterfly story doesn’t have to be evaluated as truth or fiction and what we think of it doesn’t much matter. The unexpected can also be fun, even thrilling, and so figures prominently in fiction and film.

But back to driving. After some years behind the wheel, drivers accumulate a wealth of expectations, eye-hand-foot coordination, familiar routes, favorite short-cuts and so on. We have a fairly high expectation that oncoming drivers will stay in their lanes because they are likely to be as interested in survival as we are. One result of that familiarity which many of us have experienced is arriving home and not being much aware of how we got there.

On a personal level, my steep house lot fronts on two streets that wye a few hundred yards from my door. I generally park my pickup truck near the garden below my house and I generally park my car at the upper level near the front door. I use my car frequently and my truck infrequently. When I do use the truck I often make the habitual right turn that takes me uphill, without thinking, because my mind is on something else. That’s the reason when new stop signs are installed a traffic department also installs warning signs about the new stop sign, and many people still drive right through the intersection until conscious awareness catches up with the new reality.

Our expectations about driving can fool us into making very expensive decisions. It seems to make sense that the best way to reduce traffic congestion, for instance, is to install more lanes on a crowded road. Governments do traffic studies and calculate levels of service that lay out how many cars a given stretch of road can handle, and they calculate how many cars went by a certain point at rush hour in 1970 and 1980 and 2010 and draw a graph that tells them how many cars are going to zoom by in 2030 and insist that we pay for new lanes to handle all that new traffic. Otherwise we will have horrible traffic jams. But in case after case the new lanes end up just as crowded as the former lanes. The phenomenon is referred to as induced traffic, and it happens because drivers change their driving habits in response to the changed conditions. They change the time they leave for work, they change their route, and so forth.

A better plan might be to quit building more lanes and make rush hour driving as unpleasant as possible so people either change their schedules or car pool or take public transportation. A similar logic can apply to parking facilities. When a city builds new parking decks they quickly fill up and have the same parking problem they had at the outset. But raising the cost of parking actually does more to solve the problem than building more slots.

Another area where expectations backfire involves drug use. For over a century the United States has attempted to suppress the use of several substances that some people enjoy, with some becoming addicted. Making the use and sale of those drugs illegal and spending billions of dollars on enforcement efforts seems like it should make a dent in the trade. Most of us don’t want to get arrested, so it makes sense that with a big enough threat most people will comply. But of course most drug users don’t get arrested, and even if arrests were more common, we aren’t very good at personal risk assessment when we are after something we want or enjoy. So we have more kinds of drugs, more quantities of drugs, more potent drugs and lower prices than when the much vaunted War on Drugs began. That’s not to mention a violent shooting war south of the border.

On the other hand, Portugal dropped all criminal penalties for drug possession and use in 2001. Those found guilty are offered optional counseling, which is cheaper than incarceration. Drug use has fallen. Use of counseling and health services has doubled. HIV infections have dropped because addicts aren’t sharing needles. The country now has the lowest level of drug use of any western nation.

When I consider law enforcement, unintended consequences and our innate tendencies to underestimate risk and over rely on expectations, I recall the only really big story I covered in my years as an investigative reporter. I won’t reiterate a tale I’ve previously told here at length, about Buncombe County’s former sheriff who is spending 15 years with Bernie Madoff in Butner federal prison. He was convicted of extortion, running an illegal gambling operation, and mail fraud, but that wasn’t what undid him.

It was fairly common knowledge that the sheriff was crooked but no one seemed able to pin him down. But to use that heirloom aphorism: he missed a stitch and nine others unraveled. What happened was that his son tied his girlfriend to a bed and beat her for a week. When I got an anonymous tip and phoned the sheriff and identified myself, the first words out of his mouth were, “Now don’t go after my boy.” I hadn’t mentioned a boy. Had he enforced the law, charged his son with battery, kidnapping, whatever would apply, he might very well be a free man today. But he was so accustomed to getting away with crimes, so self-assured about his power, that he felt certain he could get away with a cover-up. He blamed her injuries on an auto accident, paid her to keep quiet, and threatened her life.

But the stitches had started popping. When my story about the cover-up appeared in the newspaper I suddenly heard from deputies who decided they could trust me to keep their names out of it … but did I know about the pay-offs? The sale of guns from the evidence room? The other deputy whose only job was collecting cash from the extorted shop owners?

It was a cover-up that undid Richard Nixon in much the same way and for exactly the same reasons. A few years after Nixon resigned he told interviewer David Frost, When the President does it, that means it’s not illegal.” When Sheriff Medford was on the witness stand and the federal judge said “Didn’t you know that was illegal?” he turned to the judge and said, “I was the Sheriff.”

The Nixon example is particularly germane this week, following the new president’s firing of an acting attorney general which put many people in mind of Nixon’s firing of his attorney general who was similarly uncooperative.

Taking a very different tack, I am reminded of the lynching of Emmett Till, a black teenager who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955. This is lately in the news because an interview has revealed that the woman who accused Till of sexual assault has finally recanted all these decades later. She lied to her family and community. She lied on the witness stand, claiming that a 14 year old boy had assaulted her, and it is hard to imagine how she lived with herself during the ensuing years. But the men who tortured and killed Emmett Till thought they were striking a blow for white supremacy.

Little did they know what would ensue. When Till’s body was exhibited in an open casket funeral in Chicago as many as 250,000 people attended the viewing. The murder created an international firestorm, it inflamed U.S./Soviet relations, and fueled the already potent Civil Rights movement. A generation of black Americans were enraged by the incident and determined to make change. They became the leaders who pushed for the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, and spun off into the feminist and environmental movements. Emmett Till’s death struck a match that lit a fuse that resulted in an explosion of social justice work.

When Rosa Parks was arrested for failing to give up her seat on a bus she said she was thinking of Emmett Till and decided she would not move. Julian Bond, John Lewis and their cohort even referred to themselves as the Emmett Till generation.

I believe we often fail to imagine or recognize the potential positive outcome of our current national malaise.

Government scientists stored terabits of data concerning the global climate on Canadian servers between election day and the inauguration. That data is safe from policy changes.

National Park employees have gone rogue, creating anonymous accounts on Twitter and other social media to release climate change data banned by the White House.

Over 1,000 State Department employees have signed a letter protesting the current president’s policy pronouncement on immigration.

There were 10,000 people marching in Asheville on Jan. 21, and 20 or 30,000 in Raleigh, and 500, 000 in Washington DC and 750,000 in Los Angeles, with other protests on every continent including Antarctica. Within hours of the president’s immigration ban there were thousands protesting around the world. Major cities across the country are declaring themselves as sanctuaries. Governments around the globe are reconsidering relations with the U.S. Major corporations are taking positions against the president’s plans and rethinking investment options, suddenly preferring foreign investment to expansion stateside.

Some fear that this new administration is headed down the same path as Germany in the 1920s, but there are significant differences. Perhaps the most critical is the nature of communication. In the 1920s the spread of information was relatively slow and control of the media was relatively easy. Writing and distributing newspapers and radio stories required news gathering, preparation and editing, typesetting and recording. Today a tweet from the White House first reaches tens of thousands and then reactions to the tweet quickly reach millions. There is no information wall.

In the week after the 2012 election, donations to the American Civil Liberties Union ran into the tens of thousands. In the week after the 2016 election donations to the ACLU ran above $7 million.

At the Center for Public Integrity in Washington and its international investigative arm, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, individual donations are up about 70 percent compared to the same period last year. Planned Parenthood received 40 times its usual number of donations after the election.

Our Revolution, the follow-up to the Bernie Sanders campaign has established hundreds of chapters across the country, all dedicated to moving the Democratic Party in a progressive direction.

And California Gov. Jerry Brown announced that if the new administration starts shutting down climate research satellites California would start its own space program. In addition he observed that some people won’t quit smoking until after they have a heart attack. Maybe, he suggested, we just had our national heart attack.

More ominously we learned this week that the new president takes a prescription drug that prevents male pattern baldness. Side effects of finasteride include sexual disfunction and shrinkage of male body parts, though the literature doesn’t mention tiny hands. But more seriously for the country – confusion is a frequent major side effect.

Aristotle famously suggested that with a sufficient lever and a fulcrum on which to rest it he could move the world. But little things can move the world as well, and these days it may be as tiny as a presidential tweet. Or a tiny … pill.

(First delivered at the UU of Franklin, June 19, 2016)

Talk in everlasting words
And dedicate them all to me
And I will give you all my life
I’m here if you should call to me
You think that I don’t even mean
A single word I say
It’s only words, and words are all I have
To take your heart away

I sometimes talk to my cats. Okay, I’ll admit it, I often talk to my cats. And even though one of them is named Chomsky, none of them are linguists. I know they don’t understand a word I say, but I talk to them. I even talk to my dog, a Chihuahua named Bernie, who is deaf as a box of rocks.

I’d guess you talk to your pets if you have pets. My guess is based on the fact that we all talk, all the time. Mostly we talk to ourselves, of course. But we talk.

If two strangers meet at a bus stop, pretty soon they talk. Usually they’d start with the weather. Perhaps the bus schedule if theirs is running late. Then on to more impersonal trivia. But the need to connect is very real. Most of us want to be accepted and and to be accepting socially, most of the time.

Psychologists have found that one of the most difficult tasks they can give to volunteers is to put two people in a room and tell them not to talk to each other. It rarely takes very long for a conversation to begin.

Naturally enough most people when asked would offer the opinion that the whole point of language is for communication with others. We chat, we bare our souls, we argue, we opinionate, we instruct or give orders, we cajole and we flatter. We say all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons and listen and read and reach agreement or find inspiration or end up thinking that the other person is hopelessly stupid. And sometimes we do all of these things on FaceBook.

But modern language theory suggests that communication, which of course means communication with others, is a minor and secondary function. The deepest thinkers about thinking now tend to believe that language is first and foremost an internal matter. In this view our language ability is principally a benefit to thought. Furthermore, it is argued that most language never emerges from our brains.

If you think about it for a few moments – by which I mean, if you talk to yourself about it – that immediately becomes obvious. We incessantly carry on conversations with ourselves – at least until we take up Buddhist meditation and try to make our monkey brains stop talking. Although my experience with meditation some decades ago suggests to me that no matter how successful we might be in stopping the internal dialogue, it comes back with a vengeance when we quit saying “Ohm!”

We talk to ourselves. We argue with ourselves. We lapse into sing-song when an ear-worm infects us with a favorite song. We think about what we should have said or what we ought to say. We remember past conversations and imagine future ones.

But it goes much deeper than that. It seems that our innate ability for language, the so-called “language gene” has equipped us with a language that is deeper than the sum of all the words we know. There exists an interior “knowing” that is expressed in our thoughts but which very often fails when we attempt public expression.

Have you ever seen the movie version of a book you have previously read and loved? My own experience, and an experience I have often heard repeated by others, is that the movie version fell short in some way. That falling short, despite the best efforts of screen writers, directors and actors, is, I think, because we have created an interior version, triggered by the author’s words, that is deeper and richer and more nuanced than the attempted transcription. Our interior version is expressed in ideas we can’t easily articulate, because the language of exterior communication is so much more limited than our personal internal vocabulary. The pictures in our heads are better than the pictures on the screen.

Imagine for a moment what it might have been like to be the first human being with a language gene with an innate ability to put thoughts together in a row. Of course, when I say “imagine for a moment” I mean talk to yourself for a moment. Our closest living primate relatives, the chimpanzees, have been tested extensively and show not the slightest evidence that they possess the faculty of linguistic thought. They can learn some sign language, for example, but are completely unable to distinguish between specifying an apple, the place where an apple might be stored, the knife that cuts the apple, the person providing the apple, and often the difference between an apple and some other treat.

So at some point after our line of hominids veered off from the chimps one person suddenly had some sort of ability to use what we call language. Evolutionary change never happens in groups because genetic variations are individual. It takes a single individual change to begin the process of wider adaptation.

So at some point one person began to formulate ideas in sequences that we would have to call words. Abruptly what we think of as thought became possible. Alone among her tribe she would have begun to use her brain in a new way. Before that point her people would have operated as almost all other animals do, following what we call instinct, following the food supply through the seasons, knowing in the same sense that your dog knows it is dinner time or a bird knows when to fly south. Suddenly ideas began to string together via an internal language, an internal calculation. As the first person with the ability there was no possibility of talking things over with others.

Surely the first glimmer of internal thought was a small step, but hard to imagine from our own place in evolution. So it was first one and then her children who had this huge advantage in considering their actions and the future. And in turn their children had the ability as the genetic inheritance spread. Very gradually, and much later, a spoken language emerged.

Over time language blossomed into all the many tongues that have been spoken over many thousands of years, new ones emerged or combined with others while some died out. But here’s the thing – linguists have discovered that all human languages follow similar syntactical rules, core ways of expression that are apparently innate. One could say we are hard wired to use language. Babies quickly pick up on the spoken language that surrounds them, and it doesn’t matter whether it is Mandarin or Spanish or Swahili or English.
It’s often observed that youngsters seem to learn new languages more easily than adults. Perhaps that’s because they haven’t formed preconceptions about communication and are simply open to fitting new words into that preexisting framework. Once we are older and set in our ways we might think that Italian is going to be way different from English or Japanese and focus on trying to learn words instead of just accepting that it can all be natural and normal. I’m no expert on that, but it could be so.

In any event we started talking to ourselves perhaps 100,000 years ago and haven’t stopped since. In a previous talk here I mentioned a theory offered by Unitarian Universalist psychologist Julian Jaynes regarding that inner dialogue. He posited that the two hemispheres of our brains weren’t initially as coordinated as they seem to be today and that when one hemisphere heard the other talking it was often attributed to gods or angels. His theory is that we didn’t realize that we were creating those voices until the advent of alphabetic language, when we began to replicate not just what we thought and what others thought, but also the sound, and could share those thoughts and sounds across time and space. Jaynes believes that what we regard as consciousness began at that point.

So it’s interesting to consider the origin of written language. Our earliest writing took the form of pictures that gradually became stylized in the form of Egyptian hieroglyphics and then complicated characters as in China. On another front it seems to have started as counting marks that evolved into cuneiform. Only people with special knowledge could interpret those early forms and literacy was limited. The big leap came with alphabetic writing that permitted anyone who understood the letter sounds to replicate the voice of the originator. In a sense, alphabetic writing was the first form of sound recording. At first the few literate people in a community would read messages and texts aloud to others, but literacy spread.

Thinking of reading aloud on this father’s day weekend calls up one of my fondest memories of my Dad, who read aloud to me and my brother night after night. I think most of the books were from his own youth. Each night we’d get a chapter or two before we fell asleep and then be eager for the story to continue the next evening. The Three Musketeers, Captains Courageous, Treasure Island, the Oz books and more. In later years I wondered if Dad geared the reading level to my personal developmental level, since I became a constant reader and my two year younger brother did not. I wondered if he got left behind, or if we were just very different people. In any event, that love of books and reading has continually enriched my life, the greatest gift my father could have bestowed.

When I recall that memory I tell myself a story about it, and an interesting sidelight is that we change our memories when we remember them – in a sense playing that childhood game of telephone with ourselves, passing along the tale from past to future but changing it a little each time. Today I’d tell you that my Dad read to us nightly for years, but it couldn’t have been more than a few, because I was soon reading on my own – with a flashlight under the covers because I was supposed to be asleep. And it may have only been in the winter months when early darkness curtailed after dinner outdoor activity. We now know that the more often we remember something the less accurate it gets.

One of my favorite characters was Dr. Doolittle in a series of books written by Hugh Lofting. Doolittle’s ability to communicate with animals utterly fascinated me, together with his strange adventures in Puddleby-on-the-Marsh or in Africa. The possibility of really communicating with animals has tantalized me ever since.
As I came to know over the years, we can’t actually communicate in a human sense with any other animals. Of course some animals can learn commands and some seem to know their names. Some certainly know our voices and can tell us apart, and we can read their behaviors and sounds. I know when my cats are hungry or when my dog wants to go out. And to an extent they have learned behaviors that elicit responses they want from me, pretty much limited to food and petting.

But we’ve pretty much hit a brick wall in terms of syntactical communication – stringing together ideas with verbs and nouns and modifiers, discussing future and past and so forth. Some gorillas and chimps have famously learned some sign language, but as I mentioned earlier the meanings are blurry and a lot depends on the interpretation of the trainer.

The most intriguing exceptions in the animal kingdom are cetaceans: the dolphins and whales. Their brains are as big or bigger than ours and more complex at the neurological level. They very clearly communicate with each other and the more we study them, the more complex their communication seems to be.

Rather oddly, in my view, Noam Chomsky, deemed the greatest linguist of the modern era by many, and one of the deepest thinkers about thought who has ever lived, flatly denies that the cetaceans have the sort of capacity for language that we do.

I know I don’t have the academic credentials or standing to challenge him, but I can’t help but think he shows a singular lack of imagination. The fact that we can’t understand dolphins doesn’t mean they aren’t discussing all manner of things, both inside their heads – talking to themselves like we do – and in the wide ocean. Due to physiology they can’t display facial expressions or talk with their hands and have no need or ability for writing – but we do know they can carry on conversations with each other on two frequencies at once. That would be like me delivering two talks on different subjects simultaneously and you understanding both. We do know they have names for each other and researchers other than Chomsky believe they have discovered syntax in killer whale language, phrases that seem to ask questions and answer them. Though again, we don’t know what they are saying.

I stumbled on that discovery of syntax while I was researching my book Whale Falls, and thinking about why some people regard dolphins and whales as our peers and others think of them as sushi. That led to the theme of my subsequent novel, She Walks on Water, in which I imagined how actual communication with dolphins might play out.

The ability to communicate emotion in some form and how we react to it, how intelligent we deem a creature to be, has a good bit to do with our willingness to eat them. The taboo against cannibalism is nearly universal, and even those few cannibalistic tribes like the Anazazi in the American southwest, or some New Guineans, generally only ate their enemies, and those enemies almost certainly spoke a different language. Most of us in this room are probably very unlikely to eat dogs and cats, or gorillas and chimps, but they are dietary items in other parts of the world as are dolphins and whales.

As an aside, it’s interesting how sensibilities change. The Dr. Doolittle books reflected the sensibilities of 1920s, and included some stereotyping of African people that is considered offensive today. In a reissue of the books in 1988, Lofting’s son expurgated the stories, after long deliberation about whether his father would approve. I understand the choice but it left out some lovely and pointed humor. In the original when Prince Bumpo was sent by his father the African king to England to attend Oxford, he was afraid he’d be eaten by white cannibals. That’s missing in the new version, and what the modern reader misses then is a wry commentary on cultural assumptions. Bumpo also expressed a desire to become a white man at one pont, which offered another potent bit of cultural commentary, and that’s missing in the rewrite.

So we form judgements about other people and other animals based on external communication whether it is language or signals. And those judgements are processed via our internal language in thinking patterns that never fully emerge from our mouths or pens or keypads. Yet we do learn to read into what people say, to read between the lines as the saying goes.

Very specifically we can read a great deal in other people’s eyes, and looking another person in the eye has powerful connotations. To begin with, we don’t ever look acquaintances in the eye for very long – it is too intimate, or too threatening. Generally speaking, long gazes are reserved for those we love. A long stare is considered rude at best and often aggressive. Eyes and facial expressions often reveal when a person is lying, and we talk about con men who can lie with a straight face. Or card players who maintain a poker face. Because we are all talking to ourselves all the time we know that everyone else is as well. We know they aren’t saying everything they are thinking, and pretty certainly CAN’T say everything, because much of it can’t be put into words. Even if you never really consciously thought about it before I mentioned it at the start of this talk, you know you’ve known that your whole life.

Probably you’ve had the experience being silent for a spell and of having someone, usually someone dear to you, ask: “What are you thinking?”

The answer, at least in my experience, is approximately impossible. Only the most immediate thought is available, and answering leads to a lot more about that immediate thing than I was actually thinking when asked, and completely ignores a dozen or a thousand other things that I had been thinking before I was interrupted. And all of that doesn’t touch the filtering that might go on if I was thinking something I didn’t think I wanted to share.

And ultimately these thoughts about language and thought arrive at a very deep question. People seem drawn to the idea of body and soul, but if I say “my body and my soul” there is a piece missing. Who’s body and soul am I referencing? If there is an “I” who possesses that body and soul, it is something different from either of those identifications. So now there is a third player. This must be the thinking part, the part possessing language, the part able to think about bodies and souls. And is that thinking part a function of the physical brain, or something beyond? What would beyond mean in that question? Then one step further when we understand that everything we experience as physical is actually space, since there is more space than electrons, protons and neutrons in every object we normally identify as solid. And then, is our thinking part a function of all those subatomic particles whirling around in our bodies, or is it located somewhere else in some realm we have not yet defined?

Now, all these thinky thoughts about thinking suggest to me that much of what we enjoy doing we enjoy because of the internal discussion the activity stirs up. To take the most obvious, crossword puzzles and Scrabble are quite popular. Searching our mental storehouse for words we don’t use all the time triggers cascades of internal dialogue. Song lyrics and poetry do the same, as do longer form written works. But that’s only the beginning. Whether we are sitting in a boat with a fishing pole, or sitting in a stadium full of action, or baking cookies, or mowing the grass, or attending an opera or looking at paintings in the Louvre, or shouting out loud at a football game or watching a Sunday morning talk show or spending Sunday morning at the UU in Franklin, we are constantly telling ourselves a story about our lives. We make it up as we go along.

I hope your story is a good one.

(Delivered in a forum on humane animal agriculture at the VeganFest in Asheville, June 12, 2016)

I have been an organic gardener and an active recycler for more than 40 years. I lived off the grid in a solar powered house built largely of recycled materials for 22 years and pooped in a composting toilet to recover my waste as fertilizer. Today I live in a grid-connected, all electric home with a full solar array. I confess to using a flush toilet. I’m approximately net zero and this summer I’ll add enough more solar panels that I can charge an electric car. I ate an ovo-lacto vegetarian diet for about twenty years and was a vegan for eight. I have written books dealing with the ethics of our diet, our relationship to animals and the earth and as a member of Asheville’s City Council have done my utmost to reduce the City’s energy use, to increase recycling, to reduce pesticide use, to make Asheville the first Bee City USA, to facilitate farmers’ markets and to find ways to make public land available for food production.

I have tried throughout my life to live up to something I learned from my father when I was a child – a lesson bolstered by my years as a Boy Scout. Always leave a campsite cleaner than you found it. Or in the wider world, always leave the place you live better than when you arrived.

But there is one thing I haven’t mentioned that has had and will have more impact on the future of planet earth than everything else I have done put together. I chose not to have children.

There is no problem confronting us today that is not made worse by population growth. It is the scale of human numbers that is creating the climate crisis, the phenomenon of world-wide drought, the poisoning of waterways and the chemical changes in the ocean, life threatening air pollution, the death of coral reefs, the mass extinction of species and the constant pressure toward war. In wild animal populations the food supply is always a limiting factor. We humans have gamed the system.

If a single lifestyle choice has any relevance to the human future, it is for millions of people to decide not to have children.

But this weekend event is focussed on diet, so I should probably discuss my current thinking regarding food, though it greatly hinges on our burgeoning numbers.

No vegan who is also a gardener can easily escape the reality that agriculture kills animals. If I go out in the yard with a shovel I am signing up as an executioner. Of course at the personal level it is mostly earthworms and other soil creatures that die, though this spring I inadvertently killed a baby snake as I was turning over the soil. Then too, I pick off pests and have very occasionally resorted to so-called organic pesticides to get rid of a pestiferous infestation. I have done that reluctantly and with full knowledge that I was killing a whole lot more than the target bugs, possibly including birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians somewhere in the food chain.

Last summer the netting I strung up for snow peas caught a sparrow, dead before I discovered it. And the year before I trapped a ground hog that was mowing down my garden and released it several miles away in a woods. I then felt bad all summer having cheated the critter of his well dug habitat and having released it in a place that had much less of the food it needs to thrive. But this year I moved another. It was wiping out my garden.

Looking down from 30,000 feet one can reasonably argue that agriculture, not eating apples, was our original sin. We escaped the bounds of nature and set about transforming the earth.

Of course most vegan apologists would argue that the worms and millipedes and ants and beetles and so forth are low forms of life and that the sparrow’s death was an unfortunate accident. But taking such a narrow view elides the truth. Living does not demand cruelty, but it inevitably requires dying. Agriculture displaces preexisting natural systems. The death of many animals, even extinction of some species, is inherent in our diversion of land and water to our own use. The ground hog I moved is just one small example.

Rodents, to take another example, do immense damage to our food supply, not to mention the rat-borne diseases that have occasionally wiped out hundreds of thousands of humans. There is no large scale food system that does not rely on eradication of rodents. Once again our lives depend on death.

I recall many years ago visiting Kings Canyon in California, near Sequoia National Park, and witnessing the incredible power of the Kings River with a current so forceful that boulders were being tossed into the air. And then learning that the river no longer reached the Pacific Ocean – diverted to agriculture. Back then I visited the Grand Canyon and the amazingly huge Colorado River, only to learn that it no longer reaches Mexico and that we have drilled wells to pump water into the river to meet our treaty obligations with our southern neighbor. By some accounts we now use or divert more than half of the fresh water on earth to human enterprises and we have entered what appears to be a permanent de facto drought. Water we use is generally not available to other creatures, and certainly not in the way it was before. Whether it is hot water pouring out of a power plant cooling system, agricultural run-off with its soup of nutrients and pesticides, the effluent from sewage systems, warm water lakes behind dams on formerly cold rivers, and on and on and on … we have twisted the hydrological cycle to our own ends..

Furthermore, the agriculture that feeds 7 or 8 billion people is entirely dependent on the oil industry, a business that is very hard on animal life even without the Exxon Valdez and the BP oil platform explosion. The fertilizer that made the so-called Green Revolution possible is manufactured from natural gas. The tractors in the fields and the trucks that deliver food run on oil and gas. And yes, we may be able to shift a great deal of our energy production to solar and wind, but I haven’t heard a plausible argument for a large-scale nitrogen fertilizer alternative in the foreseeable future. Modern sewage sludge is so toxic it ranks as a hazardous waste.

Perhaps the massive destruction of the natural world could be minimized if we each grew all of our own food using only the rain that falls on our gardens and hand tools. We could use our own waste for fertilizer as I did for twenty years with my composting toilet. But I don’t see personal gardening as a realistic option given our numbers and the massive concentration of human beings in cities. Even there, as I’ve noted, we are displacing animals.

This touches on an environmental argument favoring veganism, which involves the idea that it takes a lot more land area to support an omnivorous diet. There is some truth in that, particularly with grain fed beef. That argument spoke to me 30 years ago, but I’m less certain today. Animal manure used to be the principal nitrogen fertilizer source on farms, today it is replaced as I mentioned with natural gas. Manure is much healthier for the soil than the chemicals used today. And conversion of sunlight via grass into manure while producing protein is the natural way to preserve topsoil health. We are all, inextricably, dependent on topsoil to live. Any vegan who buys local produce from a small farm is almost certainly benefitting from manure or other animal products. If you buy organic fertilizer, check the label – it generally includes feathers, bones and blood.

On another track I have followed the work of many biologists, ethologists and evolutionary researchers and found this to be true. Hominid apes are omnivores. I recall how surprised Jane Goodall was when she discovered that chimpanzees hunt. Volunteering each week at the WNC Nature Center I’ve had the chance to show children the skulls of various animals and discuss their diets. Strict carnivores have fangs and cutting teeth. Strict herbivores have biting and grinding teeth. Omnivores like humans and chimpanzees have both.

Moreover, all of the higher functioning animals are either omnivores or carnivores – which makes a bit of sense since it presumably takes more cunning to stalk prey than to run. An interesting corollary to this is that our brains need fats to function well, and there is strong evidence that low fat diets contribute to Alzheimers and other brain disorders. Animals are, of course, not the only source of fats, but they contain a higher concentration of fat than virtually all vegetable foods. Mothers’ milk is a very high-fat animal-based food that is perfect for a quickly developing brain.

While researching and writing my book Whale Falls: An exploration of belief and its consequences, I discovered the only other animals on this planet who seem to have brains as complex as ours and which have developed syntactical language are the dolphins and whales – all primarily carnivores. I would note that the animals we tend to cherish as pets are also carnivores or omnivores and even chickens, which some Ashevillians hold dear, love nothing better than frogs. At least that was my experience when I had free range chickens and lived near a swamp.

So we kill to live. Beyond that the dietary discussion is reduced to where we draw our lines. As I described in Whale Falls, cultural decisions fall all over the map. Some Jews don’t eat pork, others don’t eat shellfish and some keep strict Kosher – separate containers and serving ware for different foods. Catholics weren’t allowed to eat meat on Fridays so they served fish, while some Native American cultures held a proscription against eating fish at all. In China cats are a normal dietary item and in Japan they eat whales. One mideastern religion abjures lettuce and rain forest tribes tend to eat a lot of insects. There is very little meat below the forest canopy in rainforests so they invented blow guns and occasionally bring down a monkey. Neanderthals didn’t understand that fish were edible and our direct ancestors apparently ate Neanderthals.

Another dietary argument repeatedly offered in favor of veganism involves health. It is plausibly argued that eating meat contributes to heart disease and stroke, and less plausibly to a long list of other ill effects. The problem with this view is first that it assumes good health is everyone’s highest goal, and it demonstrably is not. People do all kinds of things that are more or less likely to shorten their lives. On the flip side, while personal experience is hard to generalize, I know that when we became vegan my then-partner was going through menopause. We ate a lot of soy products. Before she died of estrogen positive breast cancer one line of research I read indicated that her high intake of soy estrogen might very well have accelerated her very aggressive cancer. Would she have survived if we hadn’t become vegans at the wrong time in her life? There’s no way to know.

Personally I favor decent treatment of the animals I eat. I am appalled at the horrible conditions and practices that are often justified in the name of commerce. But I have come to accept that my living requires dying and I am comfortable with my decision to eat meat.

I fully understand that those who choose to attempt veganism are well intended, but when it is held out as a form of moral superiority I get very uncomfortable. I’m embarrassed today by the holier than thou attitude I somewhat embraced during my vegan years, laying a head trip on people who didn’t share in my purity. I am way over myself as an authority figure. A lot of true believers seem to fall into that trap, and it’s probably even easier for those who give up something they like: Hey, I’m suffering for this moral superiority, unlike you sinners. Priestly celibacy comes to mind.

But I also firmly believe that it is impossible to be fully vegan in the sense of not participating at all in the killing of animals. There is approximately no way around complicity. Plastic bags, shampoo, tires for your car or bike or the bus you ride to work, the threads in your garments, transportation fuel, your walls, your roof, heating, cooling, your cell phone, your alfalfa sprouts … all of it has a bad impact on other living creatures. Echoing the philosopher Albert Camus one might plausibly argue that the only serious philosophical question for a determined vegan is suicide.

The dominant life on earth began once as far as we can tell – though life might have emerged and failed multiple times before things finally worked out in our favor. Everything since then has been part of an immense food chain that ebbs and flows through photosynthesis, metabolism, growth and decay. In a very real sense the whole planet is one organism and it is that planetary organism that is threatened by the current dominance of one specie that learned to rig the game in its favor. Our 10,000 year experiment with agriculture has been devastating to all of our cohabitants on planet earth.

I greatly fear we will not be among the survivors.


Addendum: I should probably have been more specific – pursuant to the above, I believe an organic diet is better for the planet than a strict vegan diet.

(This is a talk delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Franklin, NC, July 5, 2015)

This story starts about 35 years ago, when I made my very first stop at an Ingle’s grocery store. I had visited these mountains in 1955, and camped in these mountains twenty years later, but this meeting happened when I moved here, and as I say, it was my first visit to an Ingle’s. This store happened to be in Black Mountain.

As I stepped out of my 1965 Volkswagen squareback I was hailed by a lanky old man who was leaning against a pickup truck about twenty feet away. He gestured at the canoe atop my car and said, “You oughta take that boat down to the Nantahalee Gorge!” Then he took a long drag on his cigarette.

I told him I’d not heard of that before. I introduced myself and he did the same. Luther Ownsby is what I think he said. Though it could have been Ownby, or Owenby, or Owensby. It wouldn’t be until sometime much later that I came to understand that in some of our hollers confusion about those names could get you punched or shot at or worse. So I’ll just call him Luther.

Luther nodded. “I died there, you know.”

As you might suppose, this was news to me. “Yes?” I asked rather than affirmed.

“Workin’ on the Fontannee Dam. I drownded. I fell in the water and sunk plumb to the bottom and I drownded.”

“Oh my.”

“I can’t swim, you know. So I sunk right to the bottom and drownded.”

I looked a little harder at him. He was wizened, and gaunt and had the grey pallor of a long-time smoker. But he seemed to be very much alive. “And you died?”

“I died. And I saw all my people on the other side of the river. Mamaw and Papaw and aunts and uncles and cousins. My dead brother too, and they was all in white and looked so peaceful. They was wavin’ at me and sayin ‘It’s not your time yet.’”

I didn’t say anything, only nodding to let him know I heard.

“Then I was up on the bank. Some fellas had fetched me up off the bottom and hauled me out.” He shook out another cigarette and before he lit up he looked hard at me and said, “Water is one of the powers, you know.” Before I could reply he added, “That was the second time I died.” Then he lit his smoke.

“What was the first?” was the obvious question.

“We was livin’ in cabins while we built the Fontanee Dam, you know. And they had screen windows. And one night when I was sleepin’ a terrible lightnin’ storm came around and the lightnin’ came in through that screen and set me on fire, and I died.”

“Oh, my!”

“Lightnin’s one of the powers, you know.”

I nodded again.

“But then an angel looked in at me, through a window in a wall where there wasn’t a window, and the angel said it wasn’t my time. And so I was still alive.” He paused and added, “Alive that is, you know, until I drownded.” He then lapsed into silence, smoking his cigarette while I tried to think of something to say.

Finally, I asked, “Did you say Nantahalee?” He simply nodded. So I thanked him for the advice and headed into the store.

What I later understood was that he was suggesting the Nantahala river and that he’d worked on the Fontana Dam which was built in the 1940s as part of the Tennessee Valley Authority effort to electrify much of the central south. You could say that before the TVA was established pretty much all of the technology in the region was wireless. Other than a telegraph wire along the railroad and barbed wire around the cattle, I suppose. Oh, and the Biltmore House which had electricity from the get-go. George Vanderbilt had money. You might say the Vanderbilts were one of the powers.

In the years since Luther made his suggestion I’ve rafted on the Nantahala, and at least in the gorge you really wouldn’t want to use a canoe. The white water is pretty fast and the drops pretty steep. Back when Luther worked on the dam I’m sure the gorge was a really remote location, but today it is easily accessible. Tourists by the raft-load run the river, dodging boulders and kayakers. Fontana Village is a well developed vacation resort.

But back before the TVA moved in, many sections of this region were extremely isolated. A native I met while I lived in Broad River Township, down south of Black Mountain, was named Luny Gilliam. Luny told me that growing up in the early 1950s there was no road to Black Mountain which is now the closest commercial center. Broad River even shares the Black Mountain ZIP code.

Luny told me, “You couldn’t buy a job here. And we’d load our apples on a wagon and take the dirt road to Hendersonville. That meant an overnight trip because you couldn’t make it there and back again in a day on a wagon.”

Another example of that isolation is a widow woman I worked for in Broad River from time to time. I put a new clutch in Pearlee Ledbetter’s pickup, and did repairs on her tractor, and even painted her barn. It had stood there unpainted for decades, perhaps a century or more, an unpainted, weathered gray. Pearlee told me she had always wanted it to be red, and it was one thing she wanted to see before she died. In exchange for my work, she let me farm an acre of bottom land for a couple of seasons. Pearlee was one of 13 children, and her dead husband was one of 13 children, and 12 of each set of siblings had married into the other. There weren’t other choices available. I think she had been an Owenby. Or an Owensby.

Luny told me once that he was more than a little upset when his son went all the way to Asheville to find a wife. Today that’s a half hour drive but in Luny’s youth Asheville might just as well have been Charlotte or Chicago or Shanghei – it was distant and foreign and strange.

Pearlee is long gone now, as is the barn. In its place is the fairly grand entrance to a gated community that replaced her farm, a place intentionally fenced off from the rest of the valley. Sixty years ago there was no paved road from Broad River to urban civilization and today there’s a gate on one of the recently paved roads to keep people out.

The railroad came to Western North Carolina in the late 19th century, reaching Asheville in 1880. Soon afterward George Vanderbilt began to make regular visits to the area, ended up buying everything he could see, and built an estate. Though we tend to focus on the immense wealth, architecture, landscaping and forestry practices he engendered, it’s worth noting that it was the railroad that brought Vanderbilt here and enabled the easy tourism of New Yorkers and others from eastern cities to these mountains. It ended the isolation of the towns and villages along the rails. Within 10 years of the train’s arrival, Asheville’s population swelled from 2,500 to more than 10,000.

Farmers had new markets and residents had more available commercial goods. Life was busier and arguably better, certainly for most people.

In the early 1900s, Edith Vanderbilt, Charlotte Yale and Eleanor Vance teamed up to create a combination training and marketing effort, teaching various crafts and providing an outlet to the wider world. This became Biltmore Industries, heavily dependent on the railroad to market its wares. That business continues today.

A company called Manual Woodworkers and Weavers was founded in 1932 in the Hickory Nut Gorge – in Gerton. It appears in retrospect that it was modeled on the success of Biltmore Industries. They organized local weavers and crafters who worked at home and the company made the connection to the railroad and out-of-state markets.

Once electrification hit, everything speeded up. Electricity meant knitting mills and manufacturing plants and canneries. Stokely foods canned vegetables and Gerber arrived to bottle baby food, while Ball moved in to make canning jars. Growing industry meant there were road-building jobs as well. New and better roads improved the connectivity of all kinds of local producers to more distant markets.

Luny, the apple grower I mentioned earlier, told me a story that relates to the expanding market here. In the 1950s, as I noted, Luny’s family hauled their apples to Hendersonville, At least they hauled the apples that weren’t converted to apple jack right in the valley. From the time of Johnny Appleseed, and surely long before that, a major impetus for growing apples was alcohol production. The same was true for corn, and clandestine distilleries were soon using Ball jars to bottle their product.

As roads improved Luny’s clan used a truck instead of a wagon. When the market expanded they were able to sell their apples to produce distributors who shipped the fruit to a much wider area. The funny part of Luny’s story involved television. Gerber baby food was running TV ads that promised to reveal the entire recipe for Gerber’s apple sauce. The ad featured a slowly tumbling, perfectly formed, blemish-free, Red Delicious apple. As the perfect apple landed the announcer intoned, “Apples, just apples.”

Luny’s punch line was this: all the apple growers in the region knew that the local Gerber plant was the market of last resort. If your apples were so bad that no one else would even consider buying them, you always knew you could sell them for baby food.

By the time I moved here just more than 35 years after Luther drownded while building the Fontana Dam there were satellite dishes beside a whole lot of homes in Broad River and everywhere else in these mountains. That’s why Luny was seeing Gerber ads on TV. In half a lifetime this place had changed from insular and isolated to being literally and figuratively plugged into the world. A boy who had grown up in a remote backwater holler had become an adult cracking jokes about Madison Avenue advertising.

But that was only a beginning, as we’ve seen in the 35 years since.

It is entirely possible that the changes wrought by the railroad and or rural electrification were more significant than the ongoing communication revolution… but the jury is still out and we’ll presumably have a more definitive conclusion 35 years hence.

Electricity brought effective lighting and power tools into mountain communities, whether for residential or commercial use. It had a huge effect on reading habits, as kerosene lamps gave way to light bulbs. It brought radio and then TV communication, delivering cultural and political change in its wake. It enabled some local craftsmen and artisans to compete with others more northern and urban, though still in a relatively limited market. Producers in the hollers had access to middle-men in a chain of wholesalers and retailers that linked to an ultimate purchaser.

Telecommunications changed everything again. Early phone systems like the party lines I recall from my youth, made local connections easy and cheap, with long distance more or less complicated and expensive enough to inhibit many phone owners. The barriers gradually fell until today most of us experience no difference in cost or difficulty between local and long distance calls.

During and following that same period we saw the Arpanet – a university and military computer system – evolve into the Internet across a World Wide Web. Today, anywhere on earth, you can access the Web. It’s easiest if you have a very local connection like an ethernet or wifi system in your home, but it is publicly available in many places, commercially available in many restaurants and hotels, and technically available via satellite if you have the right equipment.

In some sense there are no more obligatory “hollers” – places where people are technologically cut off from the larger world. A dozen years after I met Luther, when I lived in Broad River, off the grid and up near a ridge, with a phone line that predictably went dead during every other winter ice storm, I could log onto AOL via a dial-up connection. It was like magic.

I died there, you know. I did.

I was responsible for maintaining a couple of miles of private dirt road that serviced a dozen or so homes. Over the years I’d call in a truck load, or a few, of road bond – that’s unwashed gravel – and patch up one stretch or another. On the occasion of my death the driver was making his third delivery of the day and I hopped into the cab to write him a check. He raised the bed and started forward on a fairly flat stretch of road. Suddenly something snapped, the lift piston or a steel rod in the pivot point, and we were rolling sideways down the mountain. We tumbled three-sixty and were gaining speed.

Everything in the cab was floating around, like when astronauts used to train in those padded airplanes, only the cab wasn’t padded. A thermos, a lunch box, a clip board, an empty potato chip bag, my ball point pen, and two men, because of course we weren’t wearing seat belts. Somehow I managed to hold onto the check book.

My life passed before my eyes. First I thought, wow! So this is how my life ends! Then it was scene after scene and face after face and a profound sorrow that I wouldn’t get to say goodbye to the people I loved.

None of them were dressed in white, however, and nobody said it wasn’t my time yet.

I flashed on the garden that I hadn’t weeded in weeks. A book I hadn’t finished reading. Did I leave dishes in the sink? Trivia and treasures and regrets and joys speeding by for, what? Seconds? Surely not a full minute, but in dream-time an eternity. Then everything stopped.

A stand of massive chestnut oak trees had broken our fall. Trees are one of the powers, you know.

We were upside down with the cab nose up. When it seemed clear we had stopped moving I pushed open the door. It was more than a dozen feet to the ground. I jumped, he jumped and we scrambled out from under the looming wreck. I was badly bruised, he had a couple of broken ribs.

That was actually the third time I died. But I digress.

Today you can run an internet sales business from your home in Broad River, do university level research, join a global chess club, post kitten videos to Youtube, share recipes, watch Jon Stewart, or find your next spouse on Match.com. A weaver in Weaverville can sell her creations to a buyer in Britain via Etsy. The buyer in Britain can sell the weaving to another in Malaysia via eBay. The buyer in Malaysia can sell it to a collector in Franklin via Bonanza or YardSellr – two of the many up and coming competitors in the person-to-person online marketing business.

There are financial barriers but they are falling fast. A three hundred dollar cell phone has more computing power than the computers that landed astronauts on the moon and is arguably a more effective communication tool than the radio the astronauts used to announce “Houston, we have a problem.”

That smart phone can take pictures and videos, transmit selfies around the globe, browse Web sites, find parking places, tap into restaurant reviews and provide driving directions to addresses you’ve never visited before, tune in to music or news both audio and video, be swiped at a checkout like a credit card or accept credit card payments and check your status on Facebook or tweet on Twitter, do conference calls and watch cute kittens frolicking in kitchen sinks or dressed up as Santa Claus.

To give you some sense of the scale of this communications revolution – people upload 400,000 hours of video to YouTube and over 350 million photos to Facebook –EVERY DAY.

Amidst all those Gee-Whiz apps, it seems to me that the two game-changing functions are for commercial transactions and social networking.

Following World War II, television became a great divider in our country as people opted to stay at home on the sofa instead of getting out in the world. Club memberships dropped, church attendance fell, bowling leagues dissipated, and local sports teams lost audience to 24-7 coverage of professional games. That’s because it represented the high point of one-way communication. They talked. We listened.

Today there is a very real sense of global community emerging, most famously on Facebook, but in myriad other social sites. People are exposing and sharing emotions and ideas that are often buried in old-fashioned face-to-face interactions. It’s really no wonder that people are falling in love online, and breaking up as well. Honesty is a two edged sword. But it goes far beyond one-to-one connections. Interest groups are coalescing without regard to geography, and local groups are recruiting more effectively than they have for decades.

And meanwhile the internet has become an economic leveler, at least among the 99 percent. As I noted earlier, anyone, anywhere can compete in a global marketplace, a market of both goods and ideas.

A Luny Gilliam growing up in Broad River today could find work as a game programer in Chicago or do day-trading on the New York Stock Exchange without leaving home.

The only threat to this wide-open communications system is financial. Some companies would very much prefer to peddle different levels of service so that the high dollar players would get faster service and the low dollar players be relegated to the slow lane. In other words, poor folks would be isolated in the electronic hollers, the backwaters of commerce. This raises the issue known as net neutrality, and it involves the idea of a last mile.

The World Wide Web is an incredibly complex network of server farms, fiber-optic cable, switching devices, radio communication and much much more stuff that few, perhaps nobody, actually understands. But to tie into that Web I need to find a place to plug in either physically or via wi-fi, and the company which makes my connection possible owns the so-called “last mile.”

Advocates of net neutrality raised concerns about the ability of broadband providers to use their last mile infrastructure to block Internet applications and content, to offer premium speed, and even to block out competitors.

Opponents claimed net neutrality regulations would deter investment into improving broadband infrastructure and try to fix something that isn’t broken.

On February 26 of this year, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission ruled in favor of net neutrality by reclassifying broadband access as a telecommunications service. By defining it as a common carrier, the FCC decreed that the playing field will be level. No company can relegate some customers to the hollers and elevate others to the Biltmore House.

Like water and lightning and the Vanderbilts and ancient oak trees, the FCC, it seems, is one of the powers.

The Ten Non-Commandments

  1. Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.
  1. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true.
  1. The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world.
  1. Every person has the right to control of their body.
  1. God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life.
  1. Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them.
  1. Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective.
  1. We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations.
  1. There is no one right way to live.
  1. Leave the world a better place than you found it.

Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Mr. Rogers vs. Thomas Hobbes on the human inclination toward trust, empathy and friendship.

by Cecil Bothwell

(This is a talk delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Franklin, NC, Dec. 7, 2014)

(sung) It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,

A beautiful day for a neighbor,

Would you be mine?

Could you be mine?

Mr. Rogers became famous for his TV show that emphasized friendship, cooperation and neighborliness. Thomas Hobbes was famous for his pronouncements on the human condition. Probably Hobbes’ most famous elocution stated that absent civilization the life of man was “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”

That’s why I set the two against each other in the subtitle of my talk today.

Its not that Hobbes was principally a negative sort of fellow, and some call him a progenitor of modern liberalism. Yet, his characterization of pre-civilized humans has turned out to be wildly off the mark.

fred rogers copy

Actually, studies of Cro-Magnons or what modern scientists refer to as European early modern humans, show that they were quite healthy. Furthermore they lived in tribal groups, so they weren’t solitary; they had tools and clothing, so they weren’t necessarily poor; they invented separation of labor with men doing the hunting and women doing the gathering and child rearing, which doesn’t seem inherently nasty; they had enough leisure time to paint the amazing cave art in Altamira and elsewhere around the world, which doesn’t strike me as brutish; and almost certainly lived longer than most people in early cities.

Once we began to civilize ourselves, which really refers to the agricultural revolution that allowed towns and cities to grow, the human diet tended to get a lot worse before it got better. People became shorter due to nutritional deficiencies, they had more tooth problems due to the change in diet, and diseases got passed around much more efficiently due to crowding, lack of sanitation and the poor nutrition, so we were sicker, sicklier, and died earlier.

To digress from my main theme for a moment, the tooth problem was particularly an issue in Egypt, where the available rock for grinding grain was sandstone. In other places grinding tools were made with harder rock. Egyptian flour was consequently full of grit which eroded tooth enamel. A common cause of early death in Ancient Egypt was infection permitted by serious tooth decay caused by sand in the bread. So much for the bread of life.

The rise of agriculture meant that wealth could be accumulated since large harvests could be stored. In fact, harvests had to be stored, because instead of depending on a steady supply of foraged food, major crops were harvested seasonally. Whoever controlled that food storage suddenly controlled the lives of the people dependent on the food, and soon the fellow who might have been the head man in a tribe (which usually meant the best hunter) turned into a king or a priest, and huge disparities in wealth became common. Great wealth and piles of food were a fine target for barbarians who engaged in looting wars. And a collateral effect was that once large populations became dependent on farmed food, crop failure could easily cause local famine. Hunter/gatherers rarely starve to death because they follow their food supply.

So to correct Thomas Hobbes, once we began to become what he would have called civilized, life for most humans became much poorer, much nastier, much more brutish, and a lot shorter.

Civilization is not the cause of human success. It is actually one effect of the thing that made us successful, which I have decided to call the Mr. Rogers Syndrome.

The Mr. Rogers Syndrome precisely contradicts one of Thomas Hobbes’ most famous statements, “The condition of man… is a condition of war of everyone against everyone.”

To get a handle on Mr. Rogers’ profound insight it’s helpful to start with ants, bees, wasps and termites. Edward O. Wilson is easily the most famous ant lover on earth and he explains this idea in his latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence. Wilson offers a particularly fascinating fact. Ants, bees, wasps and termites comprise about 20,000 species, a very small fraction of the million or more insect species on earth. That is, less than 2 percent. Yet those critters compose more than half the total body weight of insects on earth. They are very, very successful.

What makes these few types of insects different from all of the others is the Mr. Rogers Syndrome – or what scientists call eusociality.

Eusocial is spelled with “E-U” before the word “social” and it refers to animals that engage in cooperative brood care (including brood care of offspring from other individuals), overlapping generations within a colony of adults, and a division of labor into reproductive and non-reproductive groups.

In all the long history of evolution on our planet, all the many multiple millions, perhaps it’s billions, of life forms that have blossomed and disappeared, or emerged and morphed into the creatures we know today, eusocial behavior has only emerged about 20 separate times, and most of it belongs to that group of insects. In addition there are three species of shrimp, two species of mole-rats, and homo sapiens.

The golden rule is pretty powerful, and pretty common in the animal world. A lot of animals share food and defense and treat each other fairly, but the big difference for ants and mole rats and human beings is the division of labor and a baby-sitting co-op.

For instance, one of the explanations offered for why we beat out the Neanderthals about 40,000 years ago is that they never figured out a division of labor. So everyone went hunting. Everyone picked berries. Everyone fought battles. Their culture was consequently less efficient in accumulating resources, and that contributed to their extinction. Also there’s strong evidence that we cross-bred with them, and some evidence that we ate them.

It’s the Mr. Rogers Syndrome that made the civilization that Hobbes loved possible. Despite the fact that early civilization was worse for many individuals, on the whole and over thousands of years it was better for most. Once wide scale trade emerged, local famine was less frequent. As we realized cleanliness mattered, disease abated, and so forth.

It is sometimes observed that a greedy, strong individual, or a greedy, powerful nation, can take advantage of their strength to steal things from their generous, sharing neighbors, but that tends to lead to short term gain because the neighbors react.

From an evolutionary standpoint, one major strength of a community is its ability to deal with adversity and to ward off attacks. If a group of animals or humans operates only on self-interest, what emerges is the condition Hobbes referred to as “a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man … wherein men live without other security.” Over time the cooperative community wins and reinforces the tendency of its members to cooperate.

The Mr. Rogers Syndrome is the reason we find we can and do trust other people most of the time. Except for the most paranoid among us, our default attitude is trust.

To take a particularly clear example, most modern American adults drive cars or trucks on two lane roads, often at fairly high speeds. We place enormous trust in the oncoming drivers to not be suicidal, drunk, asleep, texting, or reaching behind the seat for a thermos of coffee. Without that implicit trust, none of us would drive anywhere.

And the thing is, most people are trustworthy, though we know that some are not, and some can be trusted in certain circumstances but not in others.

Trusting has huge advantages, as does being trustworthy.

For example, if you are the person tending a home fire and cooking up a pot of stew, the returning hunter needs to trust that you didn’t decide to experiment with some new mushroom you found that might kill everyone who comes to dinner.

And if you are the hunter roaming long distances to bring home the bacon, the person at home needs to trust that you are good at hunting and will come home with the protein, or there won’t be any stew left when you get back to the cave. If the folks at home don’t trust you, they might not even be home when you get there.

This plays out in fascinating ways in our modern world.

Some researchers did an experiment in restaurants. If some items on a restaurant menu are marked with an asterisk, with a note at the bottom of the page that indicates that those are the most popular items, sales of those dishes always increases by 12-19 percent. We not only trust the opinion of other diners, but we trust the restaurateur to tell us the truth about the other diners’ opinions.

If the restaurateur cheats and simply puts asterisks beside items she wants to sell, either to get rid of an overstock, or because the items are more profitable, it doesn’t take long for diners to realize that the advice on the menu is flawed. Business slumps.

We depend on each others’ opinions all the time, and that saves time and money as well. The reason the cheating restaurant loses business is because we talk to each other and news of untrustiness travels fast. Before you spend $10 to see a movie or buy a book, you probably either hear a positive comment from a friend, or read a review from a trusted reviewer. We trust our bankers and lawyers and mechanics and carpenters and grocers and nurses and doctors and day care workers and teachers and utility companies and insurance companies, all in more or less degree – but we mostly trust them, or we simply couldn’t function.

Psychologists like to invent games to investigate how people interact and one variety of game is called a Trust Game. Here’s how one trust game works. It’s called the Lost Wallet. Players are anonymous, seated at computers in separate cubicles. Player One is told that he has found a wallet which contains $150 and a note. There is no I.D., no credit card, nothing but $150 and a note. The note says he is free to keep the money, and no one else will ever know, or he can send the wallet to Player Two who will receive $300. Player Two may or may not send some of the money back to Player One as a reward.

The logical, selfish response would be to keep the $150. No one will know. Player Two is a stranger, so benefiting her isn’t necessarily a good idea. And Player Two may not send any money back.

In repeated testing 90 percent of people in the Player One position send the money to Player Two, and 95 percent of the second players send some money back to Player One.

Different versions of this test have been done over and over and over again. We trust complete strangers and our trust is well-founded.

More broadly, this is the source of the social power of Facebook. We are more trusting of those we know well, say those in our families, or our immediate circle of friends. But we also trust Facebook “friends” – people we may never meet face-to-face – but with whom we share some level of commonality. It allows the formation of a meaningful sense of community in the social media world. We share news, stories, humor, tragedy, and lots of videos of kittens and puppies.

On the flip side, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and other internet companies mine our data, looking for things we like and advertising them to our friends, knowing that we have shared tastes. And the very best advertising of all is if a company can tell you that your trusted friend liked something.

You may be familiar with the online encyclopedia called Wikipedia. A Wiki is a project to which many people or everyone can contribute, and Wikipedia has become the go-to source for many of us who use the internet. At first many people scoffed at the idea that everyone could get together and create a meaningful encyclopedia, because it would be so prey to misinformation from the uninformed or the intentionally duplicitous. In fact it is so effectively self-correcting that within a few years of its startup, Microsoft quit trying to compete with its Encarta software. We can trust all of us most of the time.

To take another internet example, look at eBay. The principal reason the site became so successful is the system that permits buyers and sellers to rate each other. Trust is reinforced when strangers you will never meet have reported that other transactions with a seller you will never meet have been positive. Trust begets trust. This idea has spread and many retail companies provide a forum for consumer opinion on their product pages.

Religions offer an interesting take on trust.

To start with, some religions teach that human beings are born in sin and are basically bad unless they are saved by faith or by one or another god or sacrifices to those other gods. It’s interesting that such beliefs gain any following at all, since they so directly conflict with our everyday experience. Very few people see a newborn infant and think of it as evil incarnate. And most of us are able to trust our intimate circle of friends and family and are unlikely to think of them first as sinful or inherently bad. Yet many people trust what they are told by others or in books said to be divinely inspired.

Most wars involve people on both sides praying for success. The same is true of high school basketball games. But there are always winners and losers. Still, many people trust that prayers are answered.

It seems miracles usually happen to someone else, somewhere else, far removed in space or time, but still people believe, apparently because they trust the reporter or the shaman or the priest. Trust is often more powerful than our personal experience.

Why is that? Did we evolve with some basic propensity to trust? Is it hard-wired into our brains?

The answer seems to be “yes.”

Our bodies produce a couple of hormones that incline us to trust each other. One is oxytocin (ox-ee-toh-sin) which is sometimes called the “bonding hormone.” Production is particularly ramped up after childbirth and seems to play a part in cementing the mother/child bond. This is true of all mammals. According to researcher Larry Young at Emory University the hormone “is there to make the mother think that this baby is the most important thing in the world, and I’ll do whatever I need to take care of that child.”

But it isn’t just present in new mothers. All of us produce extra oxytocin when we are happy and it makes us feel calm and pleasant. Interestingly, oxytocin production has been shown to increase when we help other people. A feeling of empathy is particularly likely to trigger oxytocin release. Everything from a sappy movie to petting your dog can trigger it.

To circle back to Facebook, if you’ve used it or other social media you know how often people post pictures and videos of both happy puppies and kittens and stories of abused ones. You read of other people’s personal losses, illnesses, work-place problems and more. All of these tend to arouse empathy and therefore oxytocin release. It’s no wonder many Facebook users feel a strong sense of community there.

Oxytocin works in combination with other pleasure hormones such as dopamine. Dopamine is closely associated with pleasure and reward, and is released when we have rewarding experiences including food and sex. Both of these hormones operate on some of the oldest parts of our brains, that is to say, the parts we share with many so-called “lower animals.”

We also seem to have a built-in drive for reciprocity. The common saying is “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” If you’ve ever watched non-human primates grooming each other you know that this inclination long predates our descent from the trees.

Another psychology experiment reveals how innate that drive can be.

A waitress was recruited to perform the test. The experiment went this way: For some diners Nicole delivered just the check at the end of the meal. For other diners Nicole delivered the check and two pieces of chocolate for each diner at the table. For still other diners Nicole delivered the check and one piece of chocolate for each diner, stepped away from the table and then turned back and offered the diners a chance to take another piece of chocolate from the basket she was carrying.

The diners who were given two pieces of chocolate with their checks showed a slight increase in their tips over those who got no candy. But the diners who were given one piece and then offered another increased their tips by an average of 21 percent over the two chocolate diners. It seems that their sense that they were being treated a little differently, that the waitress was going out of her way for them, increased their sense of obligation to reciprocate.

The important thing about reciprocity is that we all know that we all tend to feel that way. So we aren’t simply guessing when we do something generous for someone else, we know that what goes around comes around.

What our trust, our sense of reciprocity, our oxytocin and dopamine levels do, working together, is to help create social norms. Those norms are very powerful.

Social norms keep us trustworthy. We don’t dig into the cash register even though the clerk has gone to the back room. We don’t park in front of fire hydrants even though we figure we could get away with it while we run a quick errand. We pay our tab in a crowded bar even though we could pretty easily slip away. We are trustworthy even when no one’s watching, because we have deeply shared standards for our conduct. And those standards are shared in large part because we want to feel good about ourselves. We want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and like what we see.

And recent psycho-social research has demonstrated that we feel best when we are part of a group. We actually feel more ourselves when we are part of something larger – whether it’s a congregation, a cult or a book club.

In Leviathan, Hobbes set out his doctrine of the foundation of states and legitimate governments and creating an objective science of morality.

Hobbes imagined what life would be like without government, a condition which he called the state of nature. In that state, each person would have a right, or license, to everything in the world. This, Hobbes argues, would lead to a “war of all against all.”

But in fact, we were already good before we came up with civilization, with religion, with government. We are good because we evolved to be good. We evolved to cooperate. We evolved to trust.

(sung) It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,

A beautiful day for a neighbor,

Won’t you please,

Won’t you please,

Please won’t you be my neighbor?

Here’s the basic text of the message I delivered to the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Franklin, NC, August 17, 2014. (The lyrics marked with a * are sung, not spoken.)

*15 men on a dead man’s chest
Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum*

On July 11 I woke up at 4:30 a.m. with a great title for today’s talk. “Yo Ho Ho and a bottle of rum!” Together with the subtitle: Black death, white sugar and the quest for a living wage.”

Three weeks later I sat down to actually write this thing and abruptly realized that I was going to have to connect a whole lot of dots over about seven centuries. To begin with, I should probably have said “brown sugar” even though the imagery of black death and white sugar seemed pretty strong. So I did the only thing a reasonable person can do when faced with that sort of problem. I went outside and pulled weeds.

Later I tried again. The first, obvious, question to ask is what were 15 men doing on a dead man’s chest? Was he still breathing when they sat down? Thinking back to my childhood I recalled that my immediate assumption when I first heard that song was that it must have been a treasure chest. But Wikipedia set me straight. There’s an island in the West Indies called Dead Chest Island. It’s a rocky little bump with no trees or water which looks a little like a floating body. Legend has it that Blackbeard once left several unruly pirates on the island as punishment. Each man was supposedly given only a single bottle of rum. As the story goes, when the ship returned at the end of a month, a few of the pirates were still alive. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the song for his novel, Treasure Island and turned Dead Chest into Dead Man’s Chest.

Good story, but it seems that Blackbeard was actually quite a gentleman and ran his boat with the support and consent of his crew who he apparently paid pretty well. He paid what we could call a “living wage,” or at least a fair crew-share of the proceeds. He avoided violence while cultivating a violent image because he believed fear was better than murder in achieving his goal, which was looting merchant ships from the Indies to coastal Carolina.

Piracy was one reason that a lot of those merchant ships were carrying molasses. Not many pirates wanted barrels of molasses which is a sticky mess after you shoot up the boat with a cannon. And there wasn’t much of a black market, or maybe you’d call it a brown market, for molasses.

I could see I was getting ahead of myself, so I went back to weeding and pretty soon I realized I should have started with Christopher Columbus.

In the late 15th Century European ships had improved to the point that exploration and trade were becoming popular with Queens and Kings. The marvelous goodies that had come from the Far East via the Silk Road had dried up when the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453.

So the Portuguese were exploring the African coast looking for a western route to China, and Columbus convinced the King and Queen of Spain that he could beat the Portuguese by sailing east. He promised to make them very, very rich, which is something Queens and Kings like even better than spices and silk.

Columbus promised gold, but in the course of his voyages he didn’t find much. So he switched to slaves, which were also becoming popular in Europe, with a regular trade developing along the Gold Coast of Africa.

Slavery had always enjoyed some popularity in Europe, but there was a new reason for the demand.

In the 14th and 15th century the Black Death swept Europe. One third to two thirds of the people died over the course of about 100 years. Historians still debate the numbers. The principal disease itself, bubonic plague, was only the beginning of the problem. Many farmers quit planting crops believing that the end times had come, so starvation ensued.

The germ-theory of disease was way off in the future, and whole towns-ful of Jews were murdered because they were thought to be poisoning wells.

Witchcraft was blamed, so witches were burned and cats were exterminated because they were obviously involved in witchcraft. My four cats and I have long thought that was one of the highest ironies of that era, since rat fleas were the carriers of the disease and cats were and are one of the most effective rodent control systems on earth.

The results of the Black Death were extremely beneficial for most survivors. There were a lot of empty houses. Demand for goods collapsed so prices fell. And labor was in short supply, so wages rose. Landlords desperate for workers were outbidding each other. Serfs who didn’t like their treatment simply left, knowing they could find other work. The first strikes occurred and in some places serfs revolted and took over whole towns and regions.

You can see why there was a burgeoning demand for slaves.

So when gold failed to materialize, despite the reasonable rule laid down by Columbus that natives would deliver set amounts of gold each year or have their arms cut off, jolly old Christopher started shipping slaves back to Spain.

Big problem. Over half of each boatload died en route, and the survivors didn’t last long. Other than the Vikings, way up north, there hadn’t been any contact between European and Asian germs and Western Hemisphere natives for tens of thousands of years. Bubonic plague, smallpox, measles, and other diseases for which Europeans and Africans had developed some immunity were lethal.

Columbus and crew also apparently took home syphilis, which was new to Europe. Not sure the Kings and Queens were wild about that.
Between cutting off arms, disease and horribly abusive slavery, Columbus and his followers quickly depopulated every island they visited.
This continued everywhere Europeans landed, and disease ran ahead of advancing troops and settlers, ravaging two continents. Cortez conquered the Aztecs before they took sick, but most Incas were dead before Pizarro arrived in Peru, and most North American tribes were felled before they ever saw a white face.

What to do? Well, one of the other things that Queens and Kings had taken a fancy to, and that the Turks had cut off, was sugar. Sugar cane had been domesticated in Asia a couple thousand years ago, and then the process for deriving sugar crystals was invented in India a thousand years later. Later still sugar cane was planted in Mesopotamia, but now the Turks controlled the candy and the candy store.

Portugal began growing sugar in Brazil, and then Spain and England recognized that conditions were perfect in the newly conquered islands. Soon the islands had been converted to huge monocrops of sugar cane, with smaller plantations of limes, which were also in short supply since the old lime groves were in Persia. Unfortunately the potential local workers were dropping like flies, so pretty quickly the same ships that delivered sugar to Europe were delivering African slaves to the islands.

Then someone invented the daiquiri. Actually, what happened is this. Fermented sugar cane had been consumed for thousands of years, but in the 17th century slaves in Brazil and the West Indies discovered that distilling the brew made it much tastier and of course, much stronger. Soon enough there was a thriving rum trade. Kings and Queens and nobles and tradesmen and everybody else who could afford it thought it was a great addition to the bar. Pirates and sailors liked it too.

It seems that sailors really couldn’t be trusted with barrels of rum and some of it inevitably disappeared en route. Worse still, pirates both enjoyed it and knew where to sell it.

There was another problem as well. Distillation requires a lot of fuel for boiling and fuel was getting scarce in the islands. But lo and behold, New England was covered in hardwood forests just aching to be clearcut for farmland and sheep pastures, and the wood was going to waste.

Soon molasses, which sailors didn’t drink and pirates didn’t steal, was being shipped in quantity to Boston, where it was converted into rum. In short order there was more rum than the locals could drink, although anyone who’s been to a Red Sox game might doubt that, and shiploads of rum were sent to Europe and Africa.

The sailors still drank some, but piracy is a lot less likely on a cross-Atlantic trip than sailing up the coast from the Indies to Boston. Poor Blackbeard was out of luck. Now the New England traders could exchange rum for slaves in Africa, whom they took to the Caribbean where they traded the slaves for molasses, and everyone was happy. Except the slaves, of course.

Although modern Americans mostly remember the Tea Act which resulted in the Boston Tea Party, and the Stamp Act which precipitated the American Revolution, we often forget that the first tax protests were against the Molasses Act, a tax on molasses from non-British colonies. This was a price support measure intended to force New Englanders to buy British molasses for their rum production. As with all such efforts, smuggling was the result. The American colonials mostly ignored the law.

In regard to the American Revolution, I’d also note that the Continental Congress borrowed huge sums of money from France in 1781 to keep the war effort going. Soldiers hadn’t been paid for months and were threatening mutiny, so one of the first military supply purchases was 300 barrels of rum.

Along the way, sugar also became more and more available, and was tremendously popular among the tea drinking English and their American colonists.

*So drill, ye tarriers, drill
And drill, ye tarriers, drill
Oh it’s work all day for the sugar in your tay
Down beyond the railway
So drill, ye tarriers, drill.*

In fact, over the years, it became abundantly clear to rulers around the globe that assuring their populations of a steady supply of sugar and other sweeteners, along with alcohol, was a very good way to dampen discontent and revolutions and other unpleasantness. When was the last time you were in a government office where the clerical desks didn’t sport candy dishes? And have you taken a good look at the amount of real estate in Ingles devoted to candy, cookies, soft drinks, beer and wine? Not to mention the corn sweetener in pretty much every prepared food item on the shelves. Sometimes we seem to act just like the hummingbirds at my hummingbird feeder, aggressively chasing each other away in order to protect our sugar supply.

Next came cotton. The invention of the cotton gin made large scale production possible, but picking cotton remained a manual task until the 1950s. So the well established slave trade began to supply workers to the American south. After the Civil War, sharecropping took the place of slavery, and due to a lack of opportunity elsewhere, the system continued to depress wages in the South until mechanization of farms and industrial growth in the North began to erode the sharecropping system.

During the Civil War somewhere between 650,000 and 850,000 men died, most from disease. I haven’t been able to trace the specific effect on wages of this enormous loss. However, the South lost more workers than the North, and plantation owners were soon complaining about a labor shortage. Adding to that was a sudden shift away from field labor by many black women, no longer slaves, who saw more benefit to their families in tending to children, raising and processing food for the home and so forth. Meanwhile, many northern widows entered the work force, which helped offset losses of labor there.

What is clear is that unions began to gain strength in the late 1800s, hundreds or thousands of labor strikes occurred each year, the National Guard and federal troops were often called in to break strikes, and many organizers were gunned down or executed. Populism and socialism found tens of thousands of advocates. In 1900 there were 2 million union members in America, less than three percent of the labor force. By 1920 that had risen to more than 12 percent.

Fifty years after the Civil War another plague swept the world. The flu pandemic, which was sometimes called the Spanish flu, though Spain had nothing to do with it. In the U.S. an estimated 675,000 died. Globally it killed more people in one season than the Black Death had killed in a century. Unlike the strains of flu we are familiar with today, it was most deadly for young adults, age 20-30, and so it had a tremendous effect on the labor force.

According to an in-depth study of the effect of the flu on economies, the resulting labor shortage drove up wages. Workers were less mobile in the 1920s than today, so wage rates were more local. In states hardest hit by the pandemic, the average income of survivors increased much more than in states where the disease was less prevalent.

During the 1920s powerful business interests fought off unions with open shop rules, like the ones still in place in North Carolina, but after the Depression unions successfully pressed for federal legislation and greatly improved wages and benefits for most American workers.

The pandemic was coupled with the devastation of World War I, in which somewhere between 9 and 15 million people died. Because the physical destruction never reached the United States, we benefited enormously in the aftermath, with industry taking up the slack in Europe. This was repeated again following WWII. Wages rose with the help of a strengthening union movement operating in a rising economy.

The greatest downward pressure on wages today is arguably mechanization. As one wag has it, the factory of tomorrow will be run by one man and one dog. The man is there to feed the dog and the dog is there to keep the man from touching any of the machines. Automation is coupled with global population growth and the ease with which employers can change location.

While factory jobs offered a way out of the south in earlier generations, leading most noticeably to the so called Great Migration of African Americans to the industrial north, today’s factory jobs require far fewer people. The new automobile factories across the South use robotics, and southern anti-labor laws keep wages low. Just like the poor whites who fought for the Confederacy, hoping to preserve the slave system that was helping to keep them poor, today’s southern voters keep voting for politicians who support labor laws that depress their wages. They seem to have forgotten where their sugar comes from.

Today’s living wage campaigns face enormous hurdles thrown up by both mechanization and politicians reliant on corporate donations. As Elizabeth Warren pointed out last February, “If the minimum wage had kept pace with productivity over the last several years, the minimum wage today would be $22 an hour. Productivity went up, but wages didn’t.”

In the same conversation, economist Robert Reich said, “I think that Sen. Warren’s $22 is certainly defensible, but it’s at least $15 an hour.”

According to Just Economics, based in Asheville: “A “living wage” is the minimum amount that a worker must earn to afford his or her basic necessities, without public or private assistance. In short, a living wage is the real, just, minimum wage.”

“The living wage for a single individual living in Western North Carolina for 2014 is $11.85/hour without employer provided health insurance, or $10.35/hour with health insurance provided by the employer.
While large companies are mostly very resistant to raising base pay, small businesses tend to be more in touch with their employees. Just Economics has certified well over 200 businesses in WNC as Living Wage Employers.

The cities of Asheville, Montreat and Weaverville have all adopted living wage rates for full time employees as well. In Asheville we even voted to make a living wage requirement part of all City contracts, but the General Assembly killed that idea last year, banning any pay restrictions in municipal contracts.

One of the early names for rum was Kill-Devil, memorialized in this state in the name of Kill Devil Hills, where the Wright Brothers first flew in 1903. The area got its name because shipwrecks were once common in the area and enterprising locals often salvaged barrels of rum which they then buried in the sand dunes for later recovery.

Interestingly, when Orville returned to Kill Devil Hills in 1911 to set a new world glider record, he glided into the wind for more than 10 minutes but made almost no forward progress. Looking at the plight of working people through the centuries, that could be said of the struggle toward a living wage. Sometimes the demand for increased wages and more benefits gets airborne, but the aircraft is as likely to move backwards and forwards.

Today in the United States the wealth gap, that is the disparity between the rich and the poor, is arguably the highest it has ever been. One percent of the people control 25 percent of the wealth, and globally the richest one percent own 45 percent of everything. In former colonial territories around the globe as fast as countries shook off colonial rule, powerful elites took over and diverted wealth to Swiss bank accounts.

In China and Russia communists once promised to level society, but when the old dictatorship model collapsed, the politically powerful engineered exactly the same result.

Meanwhile increasingly automated factories and farms need fewer and fewer workers, and industry moves around the globe to employ whichever work force will labor for the lowest price.

In conclusion, and playing the devil’s advocate, a not illogical conclusion one might reach is that the best hope for a general pay increase for the workers of the world is another devastating pandemic.

H1N1 anyone? (In sort of a call-and-response a few voices in the congregation added “Ebola?”)

*Yo Ho Ho and a bottle of rum.*