Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

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Reflection on Beauty

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I squandered a week in Arizona recently, writing nothing, instead hiking the desert Southwest, ogling the cacti and lizards who populate the area, climbing toward the peaks of the foothills of the Rockies, descending to valleys that harbored mansions and pools and wealth that spat their defiance at the barren landscape, proclaiming the superiority of man over nature.

I sat in the early morning with friends and relatives as the sun eased itself over the horizon, painting the sky with a palette of red and gold as it emerged from a night of chilled slumber, teasing the heat to come, the lag of Sol as it bathed the sand flirting with me for more than an hour before delivering any actual warmth.

I reclined in the evening, gazing out at the mountains edging toward pinkness on their way to puce, sipping my margarita or Mexican beer, interrupting my conversation every few minutes to glory in the scenery one cannot find in Minnesota.

The sun’s rays, not nearly as hindered by ice or water crystals in the air as they are in the Northland, pelted me during the hot days, attacking the sunscreen I lathered upon my white flesh in the hope of avoiding further bouts of skin cancer. The heat, the precious heat of the desert, serenaded me – a siren call nearly impossible to resist.

At night, even in close proximity to the city, to the lights that advertised the presence of people who spend their days in a kind of friendly antagonism to the harshness of the elements, I saw stars I hadn’t seen in years. The dryness of the air eroded the clouds, denuded the atmosphere to the point where it could hardly interfere with my view of Cassiopeia and Orion and Ursus Major and a host of constellations I no longer know.

I became convinced I spotted Jupiter or Saturn or possibly Mercury though my sister told me the “planet” I was seeing was likely a star that only seemed to burn brighter here, that delivered a light less obstructed by water. Having no binoculars, not thinking far enough ahead to prepare for such a visual treat, I could not argue the point even had I wished to. I merely delighted in the luminance.

When my visit came to its inevitable conclusion, when I found myself back above the earth on my journey home, while I contemplated the loveliness I had seen in the scarcity I beheld, I came to realize again that beauty is an ever-changing mystery, sometimes accentuated by familiarity and other times accelerated by the absence of what we know, by the lack of the everyday.

I told myself to look again at my narrow world, my familiar turf, and see it as if I were a stranger, coming from an alien landscape and delighting in the commonalities I take for granted, the plentiful water, the lush growth, the overflowing wildlife, even the mosquitoes (okay, maybe not the mosquitoes).

But life and even the absence of life can be beautiful when looked at in the right way. So I squandered a week in Arizona recently and I’m ever so grateful I did.


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Why do Our Leaders Ignore the Constitution?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

In the preamble it is written that “We the People” establish the Constitution to establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to “ourselves and our Posterity.” Pretty words. And yet we fail to heed them.

One of the most important concerns of the Founding Fathers was the elimination of corruption in government. Does anyone believe our politicians are not corrupt? Sure, a few of them live up to the standards we expect from our leaders, but they stand out as exceptions to the rule.

Most of our politicians are professionals, schooled in how to get elected and stay elected, experts in the craft of politicking but not much else. They know how to turn a phrase and work their base into a frenzy, but they absolutely refuse to do or say anything that might lend credence to an idea propounded by the other side.

They see compromise as surrender.

So they stick to their guns, absolutely convinced that their ideas are the only ones worth pursuing. They align themselves with people who think like they do and relentlessly attack all those with a differing point of view. It doesn’t matter if only a small percentage of the country’s citizens agree with them as long as their constituents (those with money who pay to help them attain or stay in office) do.

Another major concern of the Founding Fathers was a standing army. That’s why they created the Second Amendment, to provide for a militia to do the fighting while the standing army merely held firm until the militia could arrive. Today, the standing army (including all the branches of service) is a megalithic monstrosity driven by corrupt politicians held in thrall to the special interests of the military-industrial complex.

The largest lobbyist, WPP, employs 150,000 people and bills more than $70 billion per year. Many of its employees are former congressional employees, either elected officials or staff members. How many of us have even heard of WPP?

Nowhere in the Constitution does it say we should go off to foreign nations and work for regime change. Nowhere does it say we should preemptively attack a country because it might decide to attack us at some future moment. Nowhere does it say we should be the world’s police officer. Yet we have taken responsibility for all these actions and done things to “save” ourselves that have only created enemies. We helped overthrow the democratically elected government in Iran and replaced it with the Shah, who was later overthrown by the people, who then, SURPRISINGLY, saw us as monsters.

We prop up the corrupt regime in Saudi Arabia because it guarantees us oil, but we help take down Muammar Gaddafi because of his distaste for America. We encourage Osama bin Laden to become a zealous freedom fighter with a religious bent while meddling in the Middle East, antagonizing him by our actions.

We send in drones to kill hostiles who shelter among innocents and justify the murder as necessary for the greater good. If a foreign government were to launch a drone to kill a murderer at a wedding in Nebraska and incidentally caused the “collateral damage” of a dozen lost lives, including women and children, would we be incensed? Damn right! Yet we wonder why our preemptive military actions cause anger around the world.

Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that our government can listen in on our every conversation, yet the NSA aspires to that goal. Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that our government can track our every movement with ubiquitous cameras and facial recognition software, but the NSA aspires to that goal as well. Things are so secretive that even our corrupt politicians don’t know all the technology we’re using to spy on ourselves.

We have become a nation that follows the Constitution only when it suits our purposes. Otherwise we do what is expedient, what we believe is best for us, never mind our posterity, never mind the future at all. The present is the only thing that matters. If our actions today create an enemy tomorrow – oh, well – too bad. We justify it by saying if we don’t save the present, there won’t be a future, but how does corruption and military aggression save the present?


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Why Are We Militarizing the World?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

As of 2013, per a Department of Defense Base Structure Report, the US had 598 overseas bases in 40 foreign countries. Almost 200,000 military personnel were deployed at those bases, and the cost of maintaining all this military readiness reached well into the billions – perhaps as high as $100 billion.

Some of these bases are necessary, like the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of them seem bizarrely frivolous, like the more than 150 base sites in Germany, more than 100 in Japan and more than 80 in South Korea, according to the Pentagon.

Why do we need so great a military presence in a country like Germany? Why do we need military bases in Honduras, Guam, Djibouti and The Netherlands? And why do we tolerate no military bases of foreign powers on our soil? If we’re helping Italy and Australia by placing bases in their territory, why do we not accept the assistance of allies in our lands?

Because it’s not really about protection. It’s about imperialism. We spend tens of thousands of dollars more each year to keep each soldier or sailor at a foreign base. Our water supply infrastructure degenerates, our roads deteriorate, our power grid decays into obsolescence and we pay military personnel to safeguard our nation in Greece and Greenland.

Who benefits?

Military contractors, mostly. The Halliburtons and DynCorp Internationals. They build the bases and supply them at a massive profit. They resist the idea of closing them as dangerous to national security so we continue funding them while letting our investments in education, healthcare, transportation and housing suffer.

But maybe we’re helping these other countries by being there. Maybe we’re boosting their economies. Unfortunately, there’s very little evidence of that. Mostly when we close a base, and it doesn’t happen very often, there’s almost no adverse economic impact. Sometimes there’s even a positive one.

What about the plans of terrorists to attack us? Don’t these foreign bases help with rooting out evildoers? Again, we have no real evidence of that. Most of what we find we can discover whether or not we have a physical presence in another country. With recent advances in information technology we could likely obtain intelligence from Topeka, Kansas, as easily as we can from inside any other nation.

And maintaining bases in countries that are marginally unfriendly – countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and Qatar – often leads to greater radicalization of the local populace.

More importantly, the increased presence of bases abroad makes military intervention a more attractive option for our politicians. It’s easier to order a preemptive strike when you’ve got facilities only a few hours away. And with military bases around the world, we always have facilities no more than a few hours away.

We essentially live now in a permanently militarized society. We almost never close military bases. We need to maintain them, their apologists say, to keep our nation safe. These are usually the same people who say we need to cut fraud and waste in government so we have to cut programs that help the poor.

If we just rid ourselves of some of these obscene imperialist outcrops, we might be able to help the 1 in 5 American children living in poverty. But they don’t contribute to the coffers of the politicians who make the laws, so they don’t really count.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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Why Doubt Is Important

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We want to know things with certainty. We want to be able to classify actions and things and people into categories we can place in mental files, sorted into neat folders that we can retrieve when necessary.

We dislike doubt.

Our entire existence is given up to learning. We go to school as children, eager to understand the world around us. Our teachers and parents (at least those who are involved in their children’s lives) preach the importance of knowledge to us from an early age. But think back to when you were a baby and you’ll see that we begin to understand how to manipulate the world and its people from an early age.

We cry and people comfort us. We point at objects and people bring them to us or bring us to them. We see cause and effect from before we can articulate what it is we want, which is why some parents teach their children sign language so they can ask for things like “milk” or “more.”

This produces not only the satisfaction of our immediate needs, but also instills in us a general desire to see how we can further manipulate the world. And to do that, we need to understand it. So we look for things we can count on because ultimately they help us attain our desires.

If we don’t know how people will react to various stimuli, we can’t predict whether they’ll do the things we want them to do. So we conduct experiments and we read about the results of other people’s tests of human behavior and our world.

Those results confirm or disprove our preconceived notions of the way the world ought to work. Either way, we learn more, making it possible for us to manipulate better the things and people around us.

This isn’t a conscious practice, for the most part. Generally, we do this on the subconscious level, working toward a more complete understanding of the levers of the world, our ids hoping we can master enough of the machinery to satisfy those instinctive urges we all have.

Eventually, sooner for some of us than others, we come to the conclusion that we know the world. We know our fellow creatures. We know our creator or creators or origins. We begin to be certain we have the answers and we act accordingly.

I know that God loves me and that He wants all people to be like me, believing what I believe, knowing what I “know.” My teachers have taught me well. I am right because they are right. We have been gifted with Truth and all other truths are lesser truths to the great Truth that we are the chosen people. We cannot do evil because we act in God’s name, for His glory, to further His ends. Therefore, whatever we do is right and good and holy.

This kind of reasoning works well for those of us who are on the same page from the standpoint of a given religion/philosophy. But if you are a Muslim and a Christian tells you to convert to Christianity, or if you are a Christian and a Muslim tells you to convert to Islam, you may not be so convinced this is the correct path.

Yet too many people are convinced their worldview is the correct one, and the more convinced they are, the more fanatical they become. I use religion as an example because it’s easy to understand, but the same can be said for political philosophy (Communism vs. Socialism vs. Capitalism) or any other kind of belief system.

When we know we’re right, we’re less tolerant of others who believe differently. That’s when conflict usually arises. So embrace doubt, enjoy uncertainty. It’s uncomfortable at first, but after a while, you get more used to it, more accepting of it, and even derive enjoyment from it.


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The Future of Religion

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Religions have evolved over thousands of years. They’re not static. Even the most staid ones embrace or at least permit new ideas at some point, even if those allowances are over relatively minor aspects of their belief systems. So we can be pretty sure that religion will continue to evolve over the coming decades and centuries.

So, what will not happen is the death of religion. Religion isn’t going anywhere. It’s been here for almost as long as people have been here, so the foundational aspects of it will not disappear anytime soon. But some aspects will change.

Most ancient religions are now looked upon as mythology and legend rather than religion. The Greek Gods, for example, once worshipped as real, now occupy a place in our collective consciousness as mythological heroes or villains. They’re taught as part of the curriculum of culture and history, useful for providing insight into the way people think and act in groups or societies.

Aboriginal peoples in many countries had their own creation stories – from the Kuba of Central Africa, who believed that the giant Mbombo vomited the sun, moon and stars before vomiting again, bringing forth the nine animals (leopard, eagle, crocodile, fish, tortoise, heron, scarab, goat and a leopard-like animal) who created all the rest of the world’s creatures – to the Coatlicue (Aztec goddess) who gave birth to the moon, stars, and the god of the sun and war.

As newer peoples conquered older tribes, either by war or disease or some other displacement, the older beliefs were converted from religion to myth, replaced by the newcomers’ religious teachings.

Even newer religions have evolved, if to a lesser degree, as the world has changed and as their followers have changed with it. Official church doctrines have been modified to accommodate the necessities of the technological world.

One of the constants in virtually every religion is the idea of submission to a higher power. The form that submission takes can change, as in Catholics who no longer are prevented from eating meat on Fridays except during Lent, or as in Muslim women who, in some of the sects, no longer have to wear full-body veils, but can now simply wear a headscarf.

There are, of course, certain followers of all religions who believe they are on the most pure path and that those who follow a different (usually more liberal) path are not true believers. They are another constant in virtually every religion.

But religions, for all their variety, have been around for millennia and they’ll continue to be around for the foreseeable and even unforeseeable future. Most of us need religion and so we’ll continue to defend ours as Truth and reject others’ as misguided or evil or quaint.

The question then becomes: what will religions look like in the next hundred or two hundred years? More than likely, they will be mere variants on what exists now, with more acceptance of technology and science simply because younger adherents will insist on truth being incorporated as an element of ideology.

Climate change, for example, will become more indoctrinated into texts in the form of commandments to preserve the world around us.

Medical advances that once were shunned will become more accepted – not just procedures like transfusions and transplants (which are already accepted by most religions), but sterilizations and genetic manipulation.

Certain clothing may become preferred or even required as economic or health concerns make them more efficacious.

Certain diets may become part of the teachings as we learn more about various foods’ effects on our bodies.

Gestures, like the shaking of hands or hugging, may change as a result of the fear of spreading disease.

Some religions, of course, will adopt these changes more quickly than others, but at some point nearly all will either adapt or run the risk of dying out, living on only in history books or as mythologies that future generations will look back on with amusement or bemusement.

The basics will live on, relatively unaltered, as the believers continue to submit to a higher power. It is only the acts of submission that will change, not the idea of submitting to a greater power.

But it is in the details where we are likely to see the greatest changes in the future. People wearing different clothes, eating different foods, using different gestures to show their submission to God/Gods. What will not change is the existence of fringe elements (fanatics and terrorists) who feel marginalized and who will demand that we follow their way of life under threat of death.


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Why Do We Forsake Real News?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

It’s been happening for years: the delivery of infotainment in place of real news. I realize that most of us want infotainment, which is why we get it, but a few of us would like to be notified of important events in the world rather than stories about puppies being reunited with their masters or kids selling lemonade for some charity.

Yes, in some ways, those stories qualify as news, and it’s uplifting to learn about things going on in the world that aren’t completely depressing. But here’s the problem: while we focus on these light-hearted stories, we’re not learning about all the terrible things going on in the world.

I don’t want to be depressed, you say. I don’t care about terrorists in the Middle East or yet another study showing the planet warming due to human activity. My job and my life are stressful enough that I just want to relax and watch something positive. Plus, seeing these feel-good stories has value. The stories motivate me to want to do good too. So why can’t we just keep doing what we’re doing?

Well, we can. But if we do, then we’ll miss out on certain intractable problems we know little about, like how defense contractors and Wall Street and Silicon Valley game the political system to advance their agendas and keep the rest of us down.

We know all that, you say. It’s rigged. There’s nothing we can do about it, so why watch another boring story about complex administrative maneuverings that we can’t fix?

Maybe because the only way we can rise up and put pressure on our leaders to follow the will of the people and not the will of the large corporations is by being informed of the sneaky tactics these oligarchs employ.

Many large corporations say we don’t have a problem with climate change because they want us to continue the status quo. Or they say they’re doing all they can to combat it by being more fuel-efficient, so don’t blame them – they’re just providing services we want. And defense contractors don’t want to stop the violence in the Middle East because then they might not make as much money. I’m not saying all employees with these companies have interests antithetical to ours, but the people at the very top do.

Consider our defense budget. We no longer have the Cold War, we’re not fighting in WWII or Vietnam or even Iraq or Afghanistan to the same level as in the past, and yet we still spend hundreds of billions “defending ourselves” against enemies we often created by our aggressive, attack-first, ask-questions-later foreign policy.

Don’t believe me? Look at Iraq. Why did we invade that country? Because we wanted to. We wanted to show the world how tough we were. Everyone in the intelligence community who wasn’t a shill or a moron knew Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with attacking us. But the military apologists screamed at us until we panicked and rushed into this ridiculous war.

The media mostly ignored the hard truths (at our behest), and gave us infotainment. Most of the hard-hitting investigative journalists have been fired (downsized) because it costs too much money to conduct serious journalism these days.

You see, we need a new story to run every few hours to keep up with the 24/7 news cycle we created. You can’t do an in-depth piece on government corruption that requires weeks or months of work when we have to get that puppy story posted to the website by 11am. And we can’t afford to hire real investigative journalists to do in-depth pieces that most of us won’t watch.

We may never return to the glory days of Woodward and Bernstein but it would be nice to get at least the occasional serious story that reminds us we have work to do if we want to make the world a better place.

But we have to want it. We have to demand better news coverage by voting with our eyeballs. We have to ignore stories about Kardashians and Taylor Swift and Fantasy Football and March Madness and turn our attention to real issues. If we don’t, we’ll continue to be fed pablum.

Yes, it’s often depressing to watch real news, but if it’s reported well, identifying not only problems but also possible solutions, it can be inspiring as well. Here’s hoping that the new year will bring some real news in place of infotainment.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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The Problem with the Golden Rule

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Generally speaking, it behooves us to follow the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have done unto you. This makes a lot of sense. It is a rational, morally correct and ethical way to treat one’s fellow citizens on this spinning and watery orb. No wonder so many religions and philosophies espouse a variant of it for their followers.

But it’s not perfect and here’s why:

The Golden Rule assumes that we will act logically. However, we don’t always act logically. Some would say we never act logically – we follow our desires, then create rationalizations for why we did what we did, and those rationalizations become (in our minds) the logic behind our decision-making.

But even if we do act logically, there’s a bigger problem. The Golden Rule assumes that others want to be treated the way we want to be treated. For most of us and for most of the time, that is a fair assumption. You don’t steal bread from a man who is weaker than you because you don’t want someone stronger than you stealing it for himself.

Makes perfect sense, right? That’s why many refer to the Golden Rule as a natural law. It is natural to us to feel this way. It appeals to our sense of fair play. It carries a universality that most of us understand.

But what about the fanatic, the driven individual who follows a narrow ideology and believes we should all follow that same path?

Here lies the major problem with the Golden Rule. The fanatic seeks to apply the Golden Rule just as much as the reasonable person. The fanatic thinks everyone should think the way he does, and further believes we will be grateful to be taught the TRUTH he knows in his heart.

If only we knew what he knows, we would understand why he does the terrible things he does. We would be thanking him for enlightening us to the TRUTH. He does his terrible deeds not primarily because he hates us (though he may), but because we do not understand the TRUTH he provides and we need to understand that TRUTH. Therefore, anything that might get us to understand that TRUTH is acceptable, no matter how horrifying.

If I were as ignorant as my victims, the fanatic thinks, I would want someone to enlighten me by killing my family, burning my church, raping my daughter, so that I might come to understand the one and only TRUTH that rules the world. Thank you, the fanatic would say, for making me understand that I was following the wrong path. Thank you for setting me straight.

So the Golden Rule needs to be adapted. It requires an amendment – namely, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, provided you do no harm, either physical or mental. It’s an obvious modification, understood by all but fanatics, so it’s left unsaid when we speak of The Golden Rule because why do we need to mention something everybody understands?

Because, unfortunately, the fanatics haven’t gotten the message. They are so convinced they’re in the right and we’re in the wrong that any action, any harmful act necessary, to “enlighten” us is permissible, even compulsory. We must be made to see their TRUTH. And if we refuse to see that TRUTH, then any atrocity is justified.

So that’s where the Golden Rule breaks down. It was meant for sane, rational people, not fanatics. Maybe there is no way to reach the fanatic, just as the fanatic stands no chance of turning the majority of us to his fanaticism. Maybe we are doomed to be forever at odds with the fanatic.

If that’s the case, we must hope that we can mend our world enough that fanaticism will have no place to grow.


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Why I Decided to Become an Optimist

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I used to think that optimists were overly positive, putting a spin on reality to make it conform to their sunny dispositions. That used to frustrate me. At times, it still does.

For example, when the boss tells you to improve your attitude and be a positive person at meetings rather than pointing out the flaws in management’s positions, I get annoyed. That’s not real optimism. That’s being a “yes man” or a sycophant or going along to get along – and it’s not healthy.

When I was in the corporate world, nodding my head at the latest irrelevancy or idiocy propounded by my superiors, I would seethe inside. I wanted to say, “You people are morons and your plan won’t work.” And sometimes I did say that in a subtle and less confrontational way, though all it ever did was get me labeled as a Negative Nelly.

Or consider something far worse: the death of a loved one or being stricken by a terrible disease (like Alzheimer’s or ALS). When people say that you need to look at the positives in the situation (they didn’t suffer or they’re in a better place or you still have lots of good years ahead of you to appreciate the little things), I imagine you want to punch them in the face and tell them to shut their mouths.

Yet, despite these terrible things happening, there are in fact positives to come out of them. Every situation, no matter how terrible, carries the potential for something better to arise. Sometimes that positive is nothing more than our attitude toward the terrible because the terrible itself contains nothing good to build upon.

But attitude is important. Happy thoughts make a difference. Studies have shown that optimists generally have better cardiovascular health than pessimists. We can live longer and better by being optimistic. Does that mean we should be Pollyannas all the time, only seeing the good in any given situation and never assessing a negative value to something that reason tells us is bad?

Of course not. All optimism must be tempered by occasional flashes of realism or even pessimism. Too much optimism makes us less resilient, less able to deal with certain stresses and less able to achieve our goals. We become convinced we can succeed despite all the facts out there against us and we enter into the world of delusion.

Here’s one: For a brief time, I wanted to become an Olympic swimmer despite being short. Sorry, but that was never going to happen. My body type isn’t geared toward success as an Olympic swimmer. By practicing hard, I could become a very good swimmer, but I could never be an Olympic swimmer. Nor could I have been a linebacker in the NFL.

Delusions aside, optimism is vital. It is a skill we can acquire, but we must practice it to make it strong. If we believe we can succeed, but fail in one area, optimism allows us to pursue another area of success. I can’t be an Olympic swimmer, but I can be a great teacher or writer or businessperson or musician or …. You get the drift.

But it takes diligence to be a good optimist. At least for many of us that’s true. Some of us are blessed with natural optimism and to those people I say, “Well, goody for you.” But for the rest of us, it takes work. It takes sitting down after failure or loss – and after the period of natural grief we feel for that failure or loss – and telling ourselves that this is not the end.

We have to focus on the positive elements in our lives. We have to force them on ourselves if they won’t cooperate, make them listen to our considered arguments. We ARE still alive. We DO still have our health or family or friends. We CAN still create special things.

If we can do that, we can live better lives, be better friends, provide better support to others and maybe be a little happier along the way. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to be an optimist from this point forward (at least, most of the time).


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Expect the Unexpected!

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Many of the things we do, in the hopes of achieving a particular result, come back to surprise us with unintended consequences. Sometimes those consequences are negative, sometimes positive, and sometimes so strange we find it difficult to believe there’s even a connection.

It’s great when those unexpected consequences are positive – like with the development of Viagra, which began in the lab as a treatment for high blood pressure – or with the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, which resulted in a boom in the beaver population. That happened because with wolves roaming the countryside, elk could no longer stay by water holes in the winter. As a result, willow stands recovered and the beavers had more food. And in turn, whole other species have done well, including eagles, coyotes and bears.

On the other side of the coin are those unexpected consequences that are negative – like the US offering support to Osama bin Laden during the 1980s when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Little did we know we were creating one of our greatest enemies.

Another example is the introduction of kudzu into the southeastern US as an ornamental plant and to prevent erosion. Now it’s one of the most invasive species in the country. See also Africanized honeybees, pythons in the Everglades and rabbits in Australia for examples of invasive species that were brought to an area for one purpose but ended up a major nuisance because they did something unexpected – namely, thrive.

The third kind of unexpected consequence is the strange one, the one that seems to defy all logic – like making football helmets better than the old leather ones used in the early days of the NFL. One would assume that concussions would be greatly reduced by better helmets. One would be wrong. NFL players (and younger players in high school and college) feel invincible with these fancy helmets and thus seem more inclined to engage in risky behavior that increases the odds of a concussion.

Or look at abstinence-only sex education, which has been shown to increase teenage pregnancy rates compared to comprehensive sex education and even compared to offering no sex education at all. I don’t think we fully understand why this is, but it’s a bizarre result.

Why is this important?

Because we need to understand that every relatively major action we take will result in an unexpected consequence. It may not happen for some time, so we might think we’ve accomplished what we desired without an unexpected effect, but eventually something we didn’t foresee will occur.

For example, when we found out how efficient oil was as a fuel source and began burning it instead of wood or coal, no one would have predicted it would lead (in part) to planetary climate change.

It’s not just actions but inaction that can result in unintended consequences. I’m not talking about small acts like picking up a piece of litter or choosing not to do so – although there are unintended consequences to small actions as well – because the unintended consequences of such actions are generally so small as to go unnoticed.

We cannot be blamed, for example, for not knowing how much damage we would be doing by burning fossil fuels. We didn’t have the knowledge to understand the consequences of our actions. But now we know – those of us who don’t live in denial, at any rate – that if we do nothing, the Earth will continue to warm. We don’t know how rapidly it will become catastrophic, but we know it will eventually become so for our species.

So far, the problem doesn’t seem unmanageable, so many of us believe it’s not a big deal to wait for it to become problematic before we act. Unfortunately, it may then be too late. Trying to contain the effects of centuries of industrialization in a few short years may not be possible.

It seems likely that an unexpected consequence of global warming will be that we will suddenly experience a seismic shift in the atmosphere, much like those that occur in the tectonic plates beneath us. Pressure builds, occasional small earthquakes relieve the pressure for a short geologic time and then – Wham! – a monster earthquake strikes.

We haven’t seen that yet from our atmosphere, so we don’t believe it’s likely to happen, but one thing that’s certain is that unexpected consequences occur all the time and we’re terrible at predicting them – that’s why we call them unexpected.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Many people love the spring: its verdant leafiness and buds heavy with the promise of glorious blossoms, creeks overflowing with the liquid of life. The vernal season offers hope for the future, an optimistic symphony of possibility. Tiny sprouts and eternal songs, from robin to chickadee, the mating drive strong as the days lengthen and we quest toward a perfection we sense in our deepest selves.

Many love the summer, Nature’s promise fulfilled, when mere possibility overflows into joyous reality and life explodes around us, showering us with vibrancy and youth, the epitome of transformation from potential to kinetic. Flowers strut their brilliance while butterflies remind them that for all their color, they have limits, able to move only as far as their roots can propel them.

Many love the autumn, when trees shake off the greens of summer and display their vast magnificence in reds and golds and umbers, proudly asserting their dominant physicality over the flora that surrounds them, the lions of the vegetative world, towering over the puny life forms that surround them, yet never bullying, never destroying.

Some love the winter, with its heavy white blankets, its quietude and darkness, which encourages evenings by the fire and hot cocoa, snuggling by the window and looking out at the harsh elements or playing in the snow, making angels or skiing/skating/sliding in defiance of the bitter cold.

Myself, I prefer November, after the colors of autumn have vanished, before the feathery flakes drift downward to cover the land. I like the bleakness of unclothed trees and the deepening darkness that precedes true winter – not because I’m a pessimist or masochist or fixated on the ugly, but because it calls me to a period of introspection and contemplation.

The starkness of November offers fewer external distractions, superficialities that insinuate and plague our lives. It strips away the colors and sounds and scents, leaving behind only the essence of things, only their unfiltered skeletons. It offers clarity and a minimalism of spirit, forcing us to provide whatever brightness we desire.

It reminds us that beneath the noise and the chaos resides the true nature of things, the elemental truths, the foundations upon which we build. The highest tower requires footings that sink deep into the earth, and the joys of the other seasons demand that we build upon the structures of November.


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