Flying Backwards

By Margaret Randall | February 21, 2009


Not backwards as in eyes in the back of their heads. Backwards as in turning around, traveling in the opposite direction. Going north instead of south. Scientists and ordinary people have noticed that many birds have been migrating to higher rather than lower latitudes these days, in search of the temperature they need in order to winter successfully. Our human-caused climate change has turned their maps on end. Instinct breaks with tradition in their search for survival.

It seems that when it comes to global warming the canary in the coal mine isn’t a canary; it’s a purple finch or swallow. All those smaller birds that pack the loudest message. A 2008 Audubon Society study found that more than half of 305 bird species in North America, including robins, gulls, chickadees and owls, are now wintering about thirty-five miles farther north than they did forty years ago. Over these forty years the average January temperature in the United States climbed by about five degrees Fahrenheit, a dramatic increase and a warning that can only be ignored at our peril.

Global warming does not of course simply raise the earth’s temperature. It melts the northern and southern ice caps, thus raising the level of oceans and robbing polar bears of their habitat. It makes the earth’s surface darker so less light and heat are reflected; and blows dirt across pristine expanses of snow. It reshapes deserts, creates new mating and birthing fields while invalidating others, and changes foraging and grazing patterns. It produces violent storms and causes devastating fires and floods. Weather warms in some places while cooling in others. And all this seems to happen erratically; new patterns are either just beginning to form or are as yet too large for us to see them clearly.

Birds are not the only creatures to feel the impact; as climates change and growing seasons are affected, famine assaults ever greater numbers of large mammals and human beings. The great whales change course. Life in all its diversity is thrown off balance, perhaps in ways that foreshadow its demise. Still, birds provide us with a powerful warning. I think of Bosque del Apache, the marshes and wetlands so carefully tended as an avian refuge an hour and a half south of Albuquerque. We visit several times a year to view the thousands of Sandhill cranes clustered together then rising off the surface of water that pulses with the reflection of a setting sun.

I can remember a decade ago when we saw the larger Whooping cranes there as well, a count of five or six per season. Then there were two, finally one, and for years now there haven’t been any. The absence of such creatures leaves a permanent ache. Their giant lungs breathe in tandem with my own. If the great number of birds that winter at Bosque del Apache each year were to be forced farther north, I try to imagine where they might end up: on some dry seed-empty desert? In the smog of the metropolis?

The discovery of birds flying north instead of south is mostly based on data collected during the Audubon Society’s annual December Bird Count. That’s when birders young and old come out in large numbers to count the different species. Sighting a sparrow or hawk and entering it on a list, these passionate amateurs further the science of ornithology and add to our overall data about migratory patterns, new or abandoned habitats, and overall climate change. The birds tell the people and the people inform the scientists. The weak link — the place where ignorance takes its greatest toll — is between scientists and government. In almost every arena policy lags far behind the problem it is meant to fix. Will we never catch up? And if we do will it be too late?   

The question might better be posed: do we want to catch up? The failure of government to address the issue of climate change can be traced to two sources. On the one hand short-term greed: corporations and individuals who would rather line their pockets today than worry about what life will be like for their children or grandchildren down the road. On the other, religious fundamentalism: that variety of arrogant ignorance which provides such a handy justification for refusing to learn. In fundamentalist belief systems God gave man dominion over the earth; whatever he does to it can easily be ascribed to his carrying out what he claims to be God’s will. Belief in Armageddon also absolves men and their institutions of responsibility. This blind spot or denial is very much at the crux of the problem, and has been surprisingly little discussed. Later I will come to back to how fundamentalist sects make a virtue of this ignorance.

Confusing seasons, angering wind and rain, forcing wild life to explore unknown terrain, and killing off whole species are not reckonings we should take lightly. The web of life as it has developed down through the millennia has created a complex interdependency in which a bird thrown off course along our Pacific seaboard may thwart the reproduction of frogs in Africa. If the rancher who shoots a Mexican wolf in southeastern New Mexico thinks only of his livestock, his grandchild may die of the sort of hunger he believed only affected the “other”: that swollen-bellied vacant-eyed fly-infested child he has never learned to see as human. 

Today religious fundamentalism of every stripe and in many nations is the greatest obstacle to rational thought and action. The Bible-thumping Christian who would replace evolution with creationism in our pitifully backward public education; or attack women’s reproductive rights — indeed murder abortion doctors — while caring nothing for the millions of starving children who already exist. The Muslim fundamentalist who issues contracts on the lives of those who do not believe as he does, and keeps women covered and controlled. The Jew whose legitimate longing for a safe homeland leads him to uproot and oppress his Palestinian relatives. A military establishment that puts its war games before whales. Industries that would sacrifice our remaining wild places to the profits they can make in oil. A cultural memory so short it would trade an increased production of genetically modified corn for the ancient message of natural seed regeneration.

Some may say I am confusing religious zeal with millennial belief systems, military requirements, or corporate growth. I say it is all the same. Power lures, and blind faith justifies all manner of abuse. We have only to remember how Christian fundamentalists declared George W. Bush’s presidency “the will of God,” or how Bush himself justified outrageous policy decisions because God told him they were right. Alternately, we have Islam’s fundamentalist suicide bombers who blow up innocents — among them so many children — in the name of their twisted cause. And across all latitudes and cultural divides we have the routine abuse of women and children so often justified by some so-called sacred text.

An example of such religious zeal here in the United States was the attempt on the part of some in Dover, Pennsylvania a few years back, who wanted to mandate the teaching of something called intelligent design along with evolution in that town’s middle schools. Several fundamentalist Christians got themselves elected to the local school board. They presented the change as a matter of fairness: if evolution is a theory, they argued, why not teach another theory as well? Instead of the scientifically discredited creationism they coined the term intelligent design, which they hoped might prove more palatable. When interviewed by a reporter, one of its proponents simply quoted the Bible: “And God created heaven and earth.” “That’s enough for me,” he added, the satisfaction of self-righteousness blazing in his eyes.

Science teachers and parents fought back, and in 2005 Dover was the site of a much-publicized trial. After months of expert testimony presented by both sides, and in spite of the fact that the judge himself was a devout Christian the evolutionists feared might not be able to hear their arguments, the proponents of intelligent design were defeated. All those members of the Dover School Board who had taken the fundamentalist position were also voted out of office. In this case reason triumphed. In many others it hasn’t.

But it wasn’t this win alone that held my attention. I was intrigued by one of the scientists’ testimony, in which he explained the difference between theory and fact. The creationists insisted that since evolution is “only a theory, not a fact,” other theories should be presented as well. The theory was presumed to be tentative and thus subject to easy attack, while facts were unassailable. But this scientist explained that facts change as new information is discovered, while theories are tested and accepted until another theory comes along that is capable of refuting its “truth.” Process as opposed to product.

I realized that I myself had confused theory with fact and went to the dictionary for a definition of each:

Theory. A coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena.”

Fact. The quality of existing or of being real; actuality; truth.” And further down on the list: “Something said to be true or supposed to have happened.” In other words, assumed to be true until scientific testing or later discovery proves otherwise. 

It all reduces to the dogma of closed minds. A failure to ask questions rather than the humility implicit in listening to their answers and the wisdom to build upon those answers.

Walking through Athens’ public forum a half millennium before our era, Socrates may or may not have been able to imagine how his particular way of reproducing knowledge would unfold through the centuries: the questions he asked and how, the insights that led to further questions, what we now call the Socratic method. We only know the man, after all, through Plato’s writings. Walking among the ruins of that same forum a few years back, I felt a current coursing through my body. My skin came alive, charged by recognition. I thought my hair must be standing out in wild configuration. Every bone in my body moved me forward: open, excited, ready.

It was as if I was walking the narrowest of bridges from discovery to discovery, truth to truth, stepping into a physical space that would later — simultaneously before, during and after my own existence — witness the births of all those other great minds, each having to battle the dogma and fear of his or her day to further our knowledge of who and where we are. Galileo. Giordano Bruno. Darwin. Rachel Carson. Laurette Sejourne. Ruth Hubbard. (There is a reason the names of the men on this very partial list are household words while the women’s much less so. Fundamentalism also plays a part in maintaining gender inequality, so useful in silencing more than half the human race.)

Independent of their gender, all those great minds were shut down or, in more forgiving times simply evicted from the canon, thrown out of the academy, ignored by conservative societies. All were considered heretics by the fundamentalism of their time. Even in the twenty-first century the entire small town of Dover, Pennsylvania took a risk when it challenged an attempt by Christian fundamentalists to pass creationism off as science in its schools. We owe a permanent debt of gratitude to all those brave men and women. They stand out among the many we have to thank that life has not yet been extinguished. Not yet.

The more tolerant among us, those who come down on the side of live and let live, don’t always think about the real harm the fundamentalist mindset does to our educational and legal systems, intellectual acuity, artistic and scientific creativity, human rights record, and social interaction overall. We will never know how many beautiful minds and spirits are prevented from blossoming into the sort of genius that imbues our lives with richness and pushes us forward to new levels of discovery. Like racism and sexism, fundamentalist limitations on knowledge greatly diminish our nation’s ability to draw on its best talents.

Our pundits and even many elected officials are fond of pointing out that education in the United States is “the best in the world.” It isn’t, and it continually astonishes me that this affirmation is so rarely challenged. From elementary school to post graduate studies we lag far behind European, Asian, African, and many Latin American institutions. Scientific work was dealt a blow by the Bush administration when it refused to fund embryonic stem cell and other important medical research. This put our scientists at a disadvantage when compared with those in the other industrially advanced countries. United States human rights, so diminished since 9/11 but still so loudly proclaimed as among the most complete internationally, have been eroded by fundamentalist values on a variety of fronts; among them the rights of homosexuals to enjoy the legal benefits of their heterosexual counterparts and the terminally ill to die with dignity.  

At one of the bookstores at Grand Canyon a couple of years back I picked up a book that claims the canyon was formed 4,000 years ago by Noah’s flood. If it were not so pathetic it might be a joke. Here we have The National Park Service, a government dependency supported by taxpayer money, promoting a fundamentalist view of prehistory. I can only hope the Obama administration will rectify such embarrassing manifestations.

I said I would talk about how fundamentalist sects make a virtue of ignorance; the methodology followed and techniques used. It’s really quite simple, and was painfully clear toward the end of our last presidential campaign when Barack Obama uttered one brilliantly coherent speech after another and John McCain felt pressured to launch a last oppositional volley. That’s when the Republicans produced Sarah Palin, a proudly unlettered cheerleader type who proclaimed the “real” America to be those places where drinking beer and waving flags take center stage.

But if we look a bit deeper at the dichotomy established we can see that it wasn’t simply about low brow vs. high brow. We can discern much deeper and more complex references to fundamentalist ideas about asking questions, valuing or ridiculing knowledge, intellect vs. faith. Suddenly “eloquent” became a dirty word, as suspect as “liberal” several years before. When Obama made a particularly good speech his opponent accused him of eloquence. A brilliant mind was even placed in opposition to experience, as if both could not reside within the same person.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that eloquence in this context was code for the devil. Among Christian fundamentalists those who dare to question are told the devil is speaking through them, trying to possess their souls. They must resist the devil’s temptation. The very act of questioning is equated with evil. Knowledge is sin, ignorance becomes a virtue, and salvation can only be achieved through blind faith. In a country in which the influence of fundamentalist belief grows exponentially; and where eight years of fundamentalist government has succeeded in diluting separation of church and state and imbuing foreign and domestic policy, the law, education, and everyday discourse with its ugly prejudices, it is possible for a major TV anchor to ask Sarah Palin what news sources she reads and Palin to get away with responding “I’ll get back to you on that.”  

This is all about an inquiring mind as opposed to one that has been stifled by religious zealotry. It is about encouraging process as opposed to bowing before a flagrant abuse of power that hides behind the absurd claim that blind faith and superstitious belief must rule our lives. It is about waking up, assessing the real danger fundamentalism poses to our lives, and taking steps to return it to the confines of freedom of thought, where those who subscribe to its dogma may continue to do so without imposing it on others.

Perhaps one day our birds will no longer have to fly backward.


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