Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

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Election Season

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

The election is almost upon us, and I have to say I don’t know for certain which candidate would best serve our country in the long run. One supports the status quo, the continuation of the policies of the past several decades, which have led us to this particular point in time.

The other is a bizarre outsider who talks about making America great again but offers essentially zero in the way of specifics. He might do anything once elected. He is a self-absorbed, bullying misogynist.

Logic would dictate that I should vote for the status quo because the outsider might do something crazy (probably will do something crazy) that will have horrendous consequences for the country and possibly the world.

Those who are doing well (and even some who are not) insist we need to vote for the status quo, especially since she’s also the first woman to head a major party. They believe she will keep us on the right path to success – and they’re correct. She’ll keep us on the path that allowed those very successful people to be successful, continuing the policies that benefit them.

We might benefit tangentially, but I’m not certain we will be the people she’s primarily concerned with helping.

On the other hand, many of those who are struggling, who remember the past fondly, even if it wasn’t as good as their memories would have them believe, think that if we vote for the new guy, he’ll somehow bring us back to the days when we were the undisputed heavyweight champions of the world.

They look at the status quo and see a rigged game designed to help the few at the expense of the many. Yes, we’re generally all doing better than we were fifty years ago, but a select few of us are doing way, way, way better while the rest of us are doing only slightly better.

Of course, the reality is that the outsider is a blusterer who likely can’t deliver anything he promises. But is that a bad thing? Maybe what we need long-term is total dysfunction, a complete breakdown like a great depression to prod us to action.

The great recession didn’t do it. The Occupy Wall Street protests died. The Black Lives Matter movement may have staying power but we don’t know. It seems to have reached its peak and begun to decline. And its message, while powerful, does not yet speak directly to issues of economic inequality.

So perhaps things need to get worse before they can get better. I’m not advocating that. I’m just wondering if we can lift ourselves up without first reaching rock bottom. Our collective human history suggests that we do better when the adversity is greater – and perhaps the adversity we face isn’t great enough yet.

But one thing is certain. Regardless of who wins, the status quo isn’t going to cut it much longer. People are getting fed up with the way the oligarchs who run this country have sabotaged the ladder of upward mobility, reaping for themselves the fruits of our labor, patting themselves on the back for thinking up new ways to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us.

Some day, a revolution is gonna come. And it’s gonna be ugly.

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What does it mean to be human?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We like to think we’re special, we’re different than the rest of the animal kingdom. We can reason and communicate and imagine and empathize and manipulate our world in a way no other creature can. We have consciousness, self-awareness. All these attributes allegedly make us human.

But what does that mean?

Other animals, like dolphins and elephants, are self-aware. They communicate and reason and empathize and even occasionally manipulate their habitat. Do they imagine? Probably. So what makes us special?

The truth is: We make us special. We’re special because we say we’re special, not because of any inherent quality or virtue we possess. We observe the world around us and note that no other species does quite what we do, even though many species do similar things.

And up until relatively recently, we didn’t even appreciate the similarities that other creatures have to us. We thought: Isn’t it cute that the crow over there is playing with a coin? or Look at my cat toying with that mouse.

But the more we’ve studied the animal kingdom, the more we’ve come to appreciate how little difference there is between humans and many animals. We have an evolutionary advantage in that we developed all these wonderful abilities at a high level whereas most animals can claim only one or two of these attributes.

Dogs, for example, can communicate, empathize and reason, but not to the same level and not in the same way we do. At least, that’s what we think. But we might be wrong.

Dogs can communicate by sense of smell in addition to vocally but we didn’t understand that until recently. For instance, dogs can tell time by using their noses. They know that when the number of “owner” molecules in the air decrease to a certain level, their owner is going to return. That’s why they’re often waiting by the door when we come home from work.

Monkeys have a sense of justice and will scream in outrage if they’re treated unfairly. No different than us. Deer and cows can sense magnetic north; dolphins and bats use sonar; people can’t do either of those things.

So why do we think we’re better than them? Mostly, because we have power over them. It’s not that different than white privilege or Nazi superiority. If you look at the historical record, you see that the people claiming whites were somehow better than blacks were white people. The blacks didn’t think of themselves as inferior. It was the people who had the power who made that determination.

The same thing is happening still, with the folks in power (humans) claiming that they’re superior to the folks not in power (plants and animals). Yes, humans are different than zebras, but zebras are different than ostriches, and ostriches are different than halibut. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses. It’s just that our strengths tend to be stronger than the rest of the world’s creatures and our weaknesses tend to be fewer.

So it’s okay to think of yourself as human. It’s okay to see yourself as a member of the dominant species on the planet. But I’m not certain it’s okay to think of ourselves as inherently superior to the creatures around us. We’re different, that’s all.

book 2 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 2 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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Another Reason the Rich Get Richer

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

The problem with global trade agreements that few know about or understand is the strength of the ISDS court system. Full disclosure: much of the information in this essay comes from this Huffington Post piece:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/isds-lawsuit-financing-tpp_us_57c48e40e4b09cd22d91f660

But here’s my take on it: First, ISDS stands for Investor-State Dispute Settlement and it is found in many international investment agreements and trade treaties. It was created to help companies that wanted to invest abroad but which were afraid a nation might nationalize their business or seize their property such that the companies would be left without recourse.

Fair enough. No one wants to invest in a facility in Venezuela, say, if the country is going to come along and take it away without paying for it.

But ISDS is so much more than that now. Like many instrumentalities created for one purpose, this court system has transformed into something else – a means for the extremely wealthy to get even richer. How?

By using these secretive courts to get payments they don’t deserve from countries that are just trying to do the right thing economically. Investors sometimes buy shares in companies that have been hampered by a country’s regulations and then sue the country in the ISDS courts to be compensated for the lost profits.

It gets worse. Investors also can buy companies or facilities or bonds that have been subjected to regulation and then sue for the lost profits they hoped to get if only the regulations hadn’t existed before they bought the companies or facilities or bonds they knew were subject to those regulations. Sound farfetched? It happened in Spain over a 2-year period ending in 2013.

Investment funds bought solar-thermal power plants that no longer got generous subsidies because of the great recession affecting Europe and America. Even though the subsidies had been rolled back for 3 years prior to the funds buying the plants, the funds sued Spain in the ISDS courts, claiming they expected the subsidies to continue despite the fact that they had been declining.

Shouldn’t a real court throw out a lawsuit like that? Of course. But these aren’t real courts. They’re tribunals composed of three corporate lawyers. They do their work in secret and they’re beholden to the massive companies that engage in this kind of dirty commerce.

Plus, the system only works one way. Investors can sue a country in the ISDS courts, but a country cannot sue investors under the ISDS system. They have to use their own domestic courts.

This is complicated stuff, which is why these super wealthy investors can get away with it. They ask for outrageous sums to make up for some shortcoming they knew existed before they bought in to the company or facility or bonds or whatever. They knew exactly what they were getting. That’s why they bought in. Not because they expected a profit, but because they expected a loss.

Then they sued in ISDS to recover for the loss they knew was coming, hoping the secret tribunal would award them a huge amount from the country being sued, putting the burden on the country’s citizens and not on some other company.

And here’s why it’s a bigger problem today than yesterday: the TPP (the Trans-Pacific Partnership) would greatly expand the ISDS system, allowing more wealthy investors to buy into known bad investments solely to bring lawsuits under the ISDS system in order to reap insane profits from a secret court that has no incentive to rein in costs.

The rich get richer. The rest of us foot the bill.

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The Benefits of Doubt

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I don’t know if it’s better to be a vegan or an omnivore. I don’t know if it’s better to believe in God or not. I don’t know if small government is better than large government or if one ought to vote for a Democrat or a Republican or a third-party candidate for any particular office.

It seems to me that one can derive benefits from any of those positions. I have my own inklings, of course, my own opinions evolved from study of those topics, but I don’t know with certitude which position on which issue is the correct one – if there even is such a thing.

What I do know is that there are a lot of people who are absolutely convinced that they know the truth about politics or religion or diet or exercise or any other subject one cares to discuss.

For example, some religious folks have said to me: Have you read the Bible? Perhaps you should pray about your doubt. If you just open yourself to God, you will see the truth. Satan is testing you.

All of these comments presuppose that there is a greater truth, that the speakers know that greater truth, and that I will come to understand that greater truth in time if only I accept what they have to say. What they do not admit is the possibility that they might be wrong in their belief. They refuse to accept that I might like doubt. Perhaps I like not knowing if there is a God.

If I don’t know, then I don’t have to live my life according to the dictates of any particular religion. I don’t have to make the determination that Religion A is better than Religion B and that Religion C is so bizarre in its beliefs that it can’t possibly be the correct one.

I can instead live a life that accepts the possibility of all or none or some combination within those two extremes, that tries not to judge one or the other as the only proper truth. I can follow the rules of civilized society without resorting to the commands of a deity that might not even exist.

The same holds true for any number of topics that are incapable of producing certitude. Politics, economics, diet, exercise: there are truths within these subjects but there are also areas of doubt. We know some exercise is good (even necessary) but how much is ideal? Should we work our bodies to exhaustion or save some energy to preserve our joints? And if there is an ideal amount/intensity for one person, is that the ideal for the next individual?

Those who say they know the truth are either liars or fools.

And the reality is that there will never be consensus on any issue. For every position I assert as truth, people who for the most part are rational will choose the opposing side.

Take slavery, for example. The vast majority of us would assert that it is not only wrong, but evil. Yet there are still many who claim it’s the way God intended the world. Parts of Asia, Africa and yes, even America, have people bound in servitude by folks who think they’re complying with God’s dictates.

This ought to be a no-brainer and yet it’s not. It will take years of education to get to where everyone believes this is bad. We may never get there. Why? Because we are a stubborn species. We find something we like, something that works for us, and immediately assume it to be Truth.

So metaphysical certitude causes problems.

And yet doubt is not always good. Those who doubt climate change, for example, or doubt that it is caused by human activity, act as a counter to our movement to slow the warming of the planet.

They like the world the way it is. They despair of change and sacrifice so they latch onto slanted studies and “Sky is Falling” warnings that haven’t yet come to pass in order to maintain their position that it’s all a big conspiracy intended to push a radical agenda.

What does this mean for humanity?

Perhaps we are doomed to travel the path of the dinosaurs. Perhaps the time of humans has reached its zenith and we are now heading down the slope toward extinction. Or perhaps I’m wrong and we’re still climbing, still capable of solving all the problems that confront us. I don’t know the truth. But I fear those who claim they do.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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The Connected World

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

When you finish reading this, go outside, preferably to a park or an undeveloped area away from the embellishments of humanity as much as you are able.

Inhale the aroma of pines and firs. Put your nose to a flower – any flower – and sniff. If there are no flowers, absorb the aromatic scent of a leaf, a mold, a fungus. Close your eyes and breathe deeply of the molecules of life.

Feel the wind brush your skin. Palm the grass. Touch a branch, the bark of a tree. Caress the bulges and valleys as you move your fingertips along the wood. Multiply the sensation by a billion, a trillion, more.

Open your eyes and study the sky, the clouds, stars or moon. Linger there for minutes as you discern the shapes, the edges, the contrasts between light and dark, the gradations of black or blue or white.

Dig in the soil with your hands – not deep – just enough to connect you to the earth. Scrape the clay or sand into your fingernails. Smell it. You belong to that place. You have become it as surely as it has built you.

Recline upon the ground like a statue. Close your eyes. Listen to the planet speak. Immerse yourself in the soughing breeze, in the chirps of chipmunks or crickets or tree frogs. Shift position. Hear your own movement intruding on the external.

You are more than a device attached to your phone, computer, tablet. You are not an app. You have transcended the technology that brought you to this moment. You are a god and a devil. You have the power for good and evil.

Like the bear, the lion, the shark. The ant, the fly, the bumblebee. The sparrow, the crow, the squirrel.

You need to be connected to the world electronically. That will not change soon. But you needn’t be connected solely through your screens. There are other ways to experience the multitude and magnitude of life surrounding us.

Remember, you are part of a greater whole. You are insignificant and completely necessary, a tiny fragment that when vanished, will never return, a piece of a puzzle we may never fully understand, but a thing of beauty nonetheless.

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Our National Debt

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We hear lots of talk about our national debt at various points, usually around election time, so I thought I would examine the issue to see how bad it is. First of all, an explanation: national debt is what our government owes to people and countries who invest in Treasury bills or lend us money.

As I write this, our national debt stands at around $19 trillion. It generally has risen with every presidency except for the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Generally, the way we reduce our national debt is by growing our GDP (Gross Domestic Product) rather than running a budget surplus – which has only happened four times in the past 40 years [from 1998-2001].

Why is our increasing national debt a problem? Can’t we just print more money to pay off our creditors? Of course we can. However, that would devalue our monetary system and cause massive inflation – imagine a loaf of bread that costs $100 or more.

We could also just tear up the notes and tell our creditors, “We ain’t paying. Get over it.” But that would lead to another set of problems – people and countries refusing to invest in the United States.

So the problem is that we’re spending an increasing amount of our money on paying back those people/countries who lent us money, which means we’ve got less money to spend on things like roads and the power grid and water mains, not to mention government programs like Social Security, Medicare, defense and education.

We haven’t reached a crisis point yet and some, mostly on the left, will say we needn’t worry about the national debt because of that. There’s plenty of time, they say, to fix the debt problem once we’ve fully recovered from the great recession – put people back to work in good jobs with decent wages.

Others, mostly on the right, say we’re close to an apocalypse of sorts. They say if we don’t act now, lenders and investors will demand much higher interest rates and we’ll spend even more on our debt than we currently do, leaving us that much closer to the raggedy edge of bankruptcy.

Many folks think our debt to GDP ratio should be less than 60%. Currently it sits at perhaps 100% or more. Some believe we shouldn’t even be talking about our debt in such a simplistic way because there are many complex ways of looking at the issue. However, what is clear is that we’re on an unsustainable path.

One way to reduce our debt is to cut our ridiculous military expenditures. For example, we have approximately 600 military bases in 40 countries around the world at an annual cost of perhaps $100 billion. About 250 of those bases are in Germany and Japan – remnants of WWII. Why? Mostly to benefit military contractors.

Another way is to stop our subsidies to the wealthy, offering loopholes that allow millionaires to deduct the cost of their private jets, for example.

But these adjustments aren’t enough, in total, to solve the problem. What is required is national sacrifice. Everyone has to suffer a little pain: the wealthy, the middle class and the poor. We need to tweak Social Security (raising the age of entitlement, perhaps, to around 70). We need to replace the current tax code with something that doesn’t contain thousands of exemptions and credits that sophisticated (rich) folks can exploit.

Everyone must pay. The more one makes, the more one should pay. But everyone should pay because we all use the system. We all reap the benefits. Unfortunately, that kind of approach won’t sell until we reach our moment of crisis – until we’re so far in debt that jobs are scarce and the economy is in tatters.

Any politician who advocates this kind of approach will lose the next election because we don’t want to pay until we’re forced to do so. Even then we won’t want to, though we might concede it’s necessary. I wish I had better news. I wish there was an easier way, but I just don’t see us saving ourselves until we’re forced to do it.

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Do We Really Want Clean Air?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I like to breathe. It makes me feel alive. I like my air to be clean too, without the infiltration of chemicals and pollutants. Most people agree. We want air that doesn’t have lots of additives.

But …

You probably knew that was coming.

But … we don’t want it enough. We’re willing to have our air be dirty because we don’t want to pay for clean air. At least, most of us don’t – because clean air costs a lot. Much of our electricity comes from coal-fired or their slightly less dirty cousins, natural gas power plants.

We have lots of coal and natural gas, so when we burn it, we don’t have to pay a lot to recharge our Ipods and Ipads and PCs and run our lights and water heaters and air conditioners.

What we end up with is what economists call high external costs – costs to society that don’t get factored in to the costs we pay. Things like increased instances of asthma and lung cancer and learning disabilities caused by pollutants like lead and mercury.

We refuse to consider nuclear power because we believe it would cost too much to create safe power plants and we don’t have a good system for storing nuclear waste. So instead, we absorb the costs of inefficient power sources and pretend those hidden costs don’t exist.

Plus, our dirty coal – the coal we refuse to burn in this country because it’s not clean – we ship to Asia so they can burn it there, depositing huge amounts of toxins into the atmosphere, where they drift east on the air currents, making their way over the United States, albeit in a somewhat diluted form.

Many of us don’t think we have a problem with dirty air. The pollutants are usually not at what we consider an unsafe level. Our air contains about 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, almost 1% argon and about 0.4% carbon dioxide.

That means the amount of pollutants in it must be infinitesimal – parts per million of various contaminants. True, but it doesn’t take much to have a few particles stick to your lungs and trigger an immune response.

Beijing, now they have a problem with dirty air. You can see the smog; you can cut it with a knife. But we don’t have that problem here. Our air is relatively clean.

Except …

Except it isn’t. Not really. In 2014, the World Health Organization estimated that 7 million people died (1 in 8 of total global deaths) from exposure to air pollution. Obviously it’s difficult to be precise with a measurement like this, but it’s safe to say that our air could be a lot cleaner.

How? There are lots of ways. Cutting back on trips by car, switching to a cleaner vehicle or lawn mower or cutting the grass less often. Turning the thermostat up in the summer and down in the winter. Turning off lights when you leave a room. Buying fewer products in general since it costs energy to make and transport those products. Flying less often or not at all (if feasible).

There are many other ways to cut back, to clean up our air a little more. Not everyone can use a reel push lawnmower, for example – myself included – though I cut the grass much less often now that I use a power mower.

These are just a few suggestions and they do nothing to address the problem of industrial pollution. But they’re a start. And I like breathing clean air.

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Seeking Long-Term Planners

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We’re going to need to spend a lot more money soon. Infrastructure is crumbling, the population is aging and schools are already under-funded in many areas. We need to spend more on transportation for the increasing number of seniors (as well as people who have chosen not to drive). Not to mention subsidized housing. The 76 million baby boomers are getting old quickly; 10,000 of them turn 65 each day.

These financial pressures will only worsen with the passing of the years. Already, a number of cities have declared bankruptcy, and judges have held that when they do, pensions can be cut. Courts examine what a city must provide (police, fire, maintenance of roads, etc.) and balance that against paying retirees benefits promised years ago and decide to allow cuts for the few so the many won’t have to suffer as much.

States and the federal government are catching up slowly. Within a few years, we’re likely to see a state or two reach a similar fiscal crisis. Continued pressure to cut or at least not raise taxes, combined with the need to create new ways to assist our aging population, will result in pressures that cannot be sustained without either cutting spending or increasing revenue.

And it’s not just the increasing age of the population. There’s also the fact that more people are moving into urban areas than away from them. As growth occurs, more revenue becomes available (theoretically); however, we’ve also seen downward pressure on wages – more part-time jobs and poorer-paying jobs than once existed, and even people moving in with friends or relatives because they can’t find work.

That results in a higher burden with respect to something like transportation. If people are poorer relatively speaking, the ownership of personal vehicles will drop as well. Folks will rely on public transportation, which means more buses and rail projects.

It also means greater pressure on water and sewer systems, many of which, particularly on the east and west coasts, are relatively old. Or power transmission capacity, which likewise faces increasing obsolescence and deterioration.

And I haven’t even mentioned health care. One of the highest growth populations is people over 85 – people who need a disproportionate amount of medical resources compared to the rest of the population.

These are all issues we have to face sooner or later. The politicians don’t want to talk about it, for the most part. They prefer to discuss sexier topics that yield higher emotional responses than fiscal responsibility. But we can’t ignore these problems forever.

Someday soon, we’re going to have to stop governing with only short-term solutions. Our habit of waiting for crises to occur before addressing problems will lead us to a situation where government does nothing but address catastrophes. The idea of being proactive and mitigating our damages to preserve our fiscal stability will be but a dream.

Our leaders will have no time to discuss anything but tragedies. Maybe that’s inevitable. After all, we didn’t evolve as long-term thinkers. But I have to think we can make things a lot easier for ourselves if we just stop governing for today. I don’t even blame politicians for this mindset. We force them into it by voting for those who promise to fix everything without having to pay for it.

They say they can find all the money we need by eliminating waste. But one person’s waste is another person’s livelihood. Every cut is fought bitterly. Both democrats and republicans want to spend every extra penny government receives (for republicans, the spending comes in the form of tax cuts). Long-term planning is a recipe for getting voted out of office. Until we change that, we’re going to be stuck with leaders who have no choice but to devote their time to crises of our own making.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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The Poetry of Life

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I don’t consider myself a poet, but maybe I should. After all, poetry is about the creative use of language to evoke images and emotions, and I try to do that, perhaps not as prettily as a poet, but with as much flavor as I can.

I think of beauty when I think of poetry – the integration of words into a pleasing and often unpredictable form – and I delight in its presentation even when I don’t quite understand it.

But isn’t that what life is too, the integration of molecules into pleasing and often unpredictable forms that we don’t always understand?

Everything we experience around us, animate or inanimate, produces an emotional reaction, bitter or pleasant. We see a spider and we react with fear, an evolutionary response to creatures that can harm us. We generally don’t think of those creatures as beautiful because our ancient ancestors survived by escaping deadly spiders and that healthy fear became wired into our DNA.

The same holds true for snakes. Both spiders and snakes had the potential to kill us for hundreds of millennia and both did so with stealth. We didn’t see them coming until they were upon us. Then they struck (because we unknowingly invaded their space) and we experienced a jolt of adrenaline.

Spiders and snakes are no more a threat than charging rhinos or lions. Yet we don’t instinctively fear lions and rhinos because our predecessors generally saw and heard them coming. They had time to prepare. Maybe only seconds, but still they had time. So the fear of those creatures never got hard-wired into us.

And yet if you look at a spider or snake under a microscope with enough magnification so that you no longer know you’re seeing a spider or snake and instead you’re just studying patterns and shapes, you likely will find those images pleasing.

My point is, we learn beauty. If spiders delivered excellent health to humans rather than toxins that can kill us, we would consider them beautiful. If snakes brought long life, we would worship them.

Moreover, what is ugly to us in one generation is sometimes considered pleasing in another. Think of rock-and-roll or rap with respect to your grandparents or great-grandparents. They wouldn’t consider those melodies music; they’d generally think of those songs as discordant noise.

We learn to take pleasure in certain experiences despite or perhaps because of our forebears. We rebel against them and create our own beauty. We decide for ourselves what is poetry and what is godawful caterwauling.

Not every person will like everything. Some folks can’t stand Beethoven’s music. Some find Shakespeare boring. I read poems and often ask myself what the hell the poets are talking about.

For example, when Michael Benedikt wrote, “The narcissist’s eye is blue, fringed with white and covered with tempting salad leaves,” [from his poem The Eye] I had no idea what he meant. It’s pleasing nonetheless to put those sounds together in my head.

So I try to at least understand the beauty in everything, even those things I personally find ugly. I don’t always succeed, of course. Some things I’ll just never get. But that’s okay. I’ll just seek elsewhere, find something else to amaze me. I’ll keep looking for new experiences upon which to build my castle in the air.

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Human Intelligence

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We think we’re smart. And sometimes we are. Not always, not about everything, but often we are. The bigger question is: does it matter?

For many species, extra intelligence is not a boon to survival. Smarter sharks and smarter rabbits don’t necessarily do better in the wild than their stupider comrades. Nor anteaters. Perhaps because most of their days are spent trying to survive in a hostile world, and digging for grubs, for example, doesn’t require a better system than has been employed by anteaters for millennia.

So when the smart squirrel contemplates a better system for storing food for the winter, he’s diminishing the amount of time he would otherwise be spending on actually caching food for the harsher weather.

But for humans, extra intelligence is almost always an advantage. The smarter among us are better able to discern the safer or better path through life. They find ways to manipulate their environment to achieve greater wealth so they can better provide for themselves and their families.

They aren’t necessarily happier, because increased intelligence has almost nothing to do with happiness. In fact, I might argue, the smarter one is, the more difficult it is to be happy. A smart woman sees more of the suffering in the world than her less educated peers and if she is unable to ease that suffering to a noticeable degree, she suffers the more for her knowledge.

Consider people with Down syndrome or other intellectual disabilities. It’s rare that they seem unhappy with their lives. Because their wishes perhaps are fewer, their satisfaction seems greater. They may not live as long. They may not achieve vast wealth, but they’re happy and that’s what most of us strive for.

Or note the lowly dog, the pet that relies on us for its existence. These poor creatures beg us for food, sleep half the day, and accomplish little except for bringing us joy. But are they really less intelligent than us or do we just think of them that way?

We think of intelligence in certain ways, linking it to communication with people. Because dogs don’t speak, we believe we’re smarter than they are. But dogs communicate with scent they way we communicate with words. Their noses are many thousands of times more sensitive than ours, so they interpret their environment through their noses.

If we tried that, we would be blithering idiots. We couldn’t survive if we were forced to rely on our noses for information about the world.

Or consider sound. Some creatures hear vastly better than us – dolphins and bats being the most cited examples of animals that rely on sound for understanding and manipulating their habitat.

It’s only because we have trouble communicating with these species that we consider them inferior. But how do they see it? Do they have as much trouble communicating with us as we have communicating with them? Perhaps they know us as well as they wish to. Our dogs let us know when they’re hungry and when they want to go outside, when they’re happy and when they’re upset or scared or angry.

And zookeepers learn how to distinguish whether the animals in their care are doing well by the myriad signals those creatures send. The more time they spend with them, the more they come to understand their moods and wants.

So perhaps their intelligence is not less than ours, just different. Perhaps we need to look at intelligence in a different way. We know that for humans, extra intelligence is a boon to survival, so we ought to try to be lifelong learners. We ought to study our world and our fellow creatures with an eye to understanding them – not so we can manipulate or dominate them, but so we can better appreciate them.

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