Angry Young Men or Very Serious People? Whose Approach Can Better Acheive Progress on Climate Change?

            I was 19, a college sophomore. It was Spring, 1970, and the anti-Vietnam movement was bringing the progressive 60s to a crescendo. Four college students had been shot to death at Kent State in an anti-war rally. My long hair flowing, my freak flag flying, if there was ever a time to build and man the barricades, that was it.

            So we did, tearing down the iron fence along the lower end of the Northwestern University campus and piling it across Sheridan Road in a defiant heap that would have made Marius and his revolutionary friends in Les Miserables proud. And we waited. Waited, for the National Guard to come. Honest to God. Lord, how passionate we were! So sure we were right, so sure that our raised voices and fists were needed to lead the way,  and, looking back, so incredibly naïve.

            Somewhere between then and now I came across a wonderful little poem by Dorothy Parker that captures both that zealous Angry Young Man black-and-white way of seeing things, and the tangled shades-of-grey complexity of how things have revealed themselves to be.

When I was young and bold and strong,

Oh, right was right, and wrong was wrong!

My plume on high, my flag unfurled,

I rode away to right the world.

"Come out, you dogs, and fight!'' said I,

And wept there was but once to die.

But I am old; and good and bad

Are woven in a crazy plaid

I sit and say, "The world is so;

And he is wise who lets it go.

A battle lost, a battle won--

The difference is small, my son."

     These thoughts come to me as a few friends duke it out in the corner of the yak-o-sphere that discusses, and argues, over how best to save the world…specifically, from climate change. Their conversation was triggered by the recent protest in Washington against the Keystone Pipeline - which the environmentalist organizers tried to connect to climate change - and how the activist leaders of the protest called the pipeline issue a “line in the sand”. Some thought this was a bit absolute over a relatively small battle, (Andy Revkin Is there room for varied approaches to energy and climate progress? , Joe Nocera The Politics of Keystone Take 2) since the destructive harvesting of oil from tar sands in Canada will happen whether there is Keystone pipeline to bring it to the United States or not. Why take such a fiery absolute stand and invest so much political capitol on an issue with so little to gain?

     But climate change activists (David Roberts The Virtues of Being Unreasonable on Keystone and Joe Romm Revkin’s handwaving on Climate and Keystone accused Revkin and Nocera and others who propose a less confrontational approach of being hand-waving VSPs, Very Serious People, the snarky label for those who suggest that in polarized times, more thoughtful and temperate approaches might work better to find common ground on ‘crazy plaid’ issues. These critics, whom I will label the AYMs, or Angry Young Men, argue that on climate change, their opponents’ minds are so made up and so hostile to any hint of compromise that we need activism and passion, not just dispassionate wonky policy proposals, to make change happen. It’s the same as what we college kids thought about Vietnam as we built our barricade across Sheridan Road; the time has come to unfurl the flag and, plume on high, ride off to right the world.

     Unfortunately Roberts took out his irritation with criticism of the anti-Keystone protest in a snotty, personal way, bristling at “Self-proclaimed moderates (who) like to lecture” “these meddling keystone kids”, deriding Revkin and those who take the more moderate tack as “Reasonable Men” and “hippie-punchers” who speak only “for the benefit of an elite audience,” in pursuit of “self-pleasuring dreams of bipartisan Grand Bargains” and for whom “getting yelled at by activists is the sine qua non of seriousness.”

     Too bad, all that AYM personal invective, because it sours the good question Roberts raises; with complex issues like climate change, where good and bad are woven in the craziest imaginable plaid, and in polarized times where the harder you argue the more entrenched the other side gets, what is the role for passionate activism? Does activism help move us toward solutions, or does it do more harm than good?

     Well…both. Activism certainly pushes the political process. Those opposed to action on climate change are certainly using passionate activism to block badly needed action. The 'pro' side on climate action could use a lot more of that kind of 'unfurl the flag' passion. But by it’s nature, activism divides, even as it nobly tries to achieve. It inflames the passions of both sides. Human nature being what it is, the divisions and anger and tribal conflicts stirred by activism make the other side that much more intransigent, all the more so when things are really polarized to begin with. It can be counterproductive. Look at how Republicans, who in more moderate times basically invented cap-and-trade emission controls to deal with acid rain, reacted when activists promoted the same model for climate change.

     Of course activism is often less a thoughtful strategic option for policy success and more just a gut combative instinct to stick up for your tribe and its views and fight to make sure your tribe wins. The social human animal depends on the tribe for safety and protection, so we adopt views consistent with our tribe to remain members in good standing, and fight passionately so our group’s view prevails in the larger society. Activism stirs not only the blood of the activists, but also their opponents. The harder each side pushes, the more the two sides start to treat their opponents not just as people with whom they disagree, but as the enemy, making it harder to get anything done. A challenge to our group’s view can turn any of us into AYMs.

     But sometimes, as Roberts argues is now the case with climate change, the two sides are so far apart, so already entrenched, that comity and compromise just aren’t going to work, and the and the stakes are so high (as they surely are with climate change) that it’s time to take off the gloves and have at it.  He suggests there are “…benefits to an activated, impassioned constituency and the social and political machinery that brings them together in large numbers”, times when progress only comes “… when people put their asses on the line and fight”, times when ‘raise your voice and fight’ activism does more good than harm. (It sure helped get American started.) 

     Compromise, or combat? We need both. The climate change fight certainly needs both. We are not making enough progress on climate change in large measure because there is insufficient visceral passion from the majority who want something done to match the tiny but intensely vocal minority who don’t. But that passion, which will provoke even more adamant resistance, will have the most impact if it focuses on battles that do the most good. The Keystone pipeline is not that battle.

     There is no right answer here. But AYM, or VSP? It’s worth pondering for any citizen who cares enough to want to be engaged, somehow, in ‘righting the world.”

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.