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S E P T E M B E R  1 9 9 8


Letters
  • Southern Captivity
  • Age of Falsification
  • A Special Moment
  • Resisting Kyoto
  • Advice & Consent

    Southern Captivity

    Christopher Caldwell claims in "The Southern Captivity of the GOP" (June Atlantic) that "the Republicans would like to think that Americans are the dupes of a lecherous Arkansas sleazeball, just as the Democrats in the 1980s saw voters as gulled by a senile B-movie warmonger." Take away the pejorative language, however, and both parties are basically right.

    In a two-party system, building a party base is essentially a zero-sum game; one can't attract one constituency without repelling another. This explains why the parties have exchanged geographical bases in the twentieth century and why each can count on about 40 percent of the national vote. The swing voters needed to win in the Electoral College are persuaded neither by ideology nor by interest but by a candidate's personal qualities of leadership -- qualities that inspire trust and confidence and make Americans feel good about themselves and their country. If the candidate can attract voters from the other party (Reagan's "Reagan Democrats" and Clinton's "soccer moms"), so much the better.

    In short, swing voters respond to charisma. The losing candidates in the past four presidential elections had about a tablespoon of charisma among them. Strategists and donors for both parties should never forget this, and should always choose leadership abilities over litmus tests.

    Fred L. Wehling
    Albuquerque, N. Mex.


    Christopher Caldwell's analysis of southern influence on the Republican Party is trenchant. His focus on the presidency, however, causes him to overlook the successes of Republican governors at the polls and in "reinventing" their states. Governors John Rowland, of Connecticut; Terry Branstad, of Iowa; John Engler, of Michigan; George Pataki, of New York; George Voinovich, of Ohio; Tom Ridge, of Pennsylvania; and Tommy Thompson, of Wisconsin, are all Catholics, not southern Protestants, and represent a new diversity in the Grand Old Party.

    With an old balanced ticket or new diversity (for example, Elizabeth Dole and George Voinovich), the Republicans could be very much in the presidential game in 2000.

    Cedric B. Cowing
    Honolulu, Hawaii


    One of the most discouraging, but not surprising, results of the southernization of the Republican Party has been the meager progress of female Republican membership in the U.S. House of Representatives. Of the forty-one Republican representatives from the Old South (excluding Florida), only one, Sue Myrick, of North Carolina, is female. That means that the Republican Old South in the House is 2.4 percent female, whereas female membership is 13.7 percent overall. Altogether there are now sixteen Republican women and thirty-nine Democratic women in the House. During the past several decades Democratic female growth has been about three times that of Republican female growth in the House. Most of the new Democratic congressional women have come from states such as California, New York, Florida, and Michigan, and from among minorities throughout the nation. Whereas the Republicans now have three female senators (two from Maine and one from Texas), the Democrats have six.

    Speaker Newt Gingrich has elevated Republican congresswomen such as Jennifer Dunn, of Washington, and Deborah Pryce, of Ohio, to leadership roles, and has given important committee assignments to other female representatives, but the overall increase in numbers of Republican women running for and winning congressional seats has been insignificant. One of the major problems facing Republican women running for the House who are pro-choice has been repeated attacks from far-right religious groups in both primaries and general elections.

    The greater the degree to which the Republican Party becomes the party of the Old South, the less chance there is that women in the party will see an increase in empowerment.

    George A. Dean
    Southport, Conn.

    Age of Falsification

    Sadly, Kenneth Brower's article "Photography in the Age of Falsification" (May Atlantic) contains perfect examples of why photographers' digital alterations of photographs are not merely extensions of the older practices of dodging and burning but active falsifications. The digitizers take the position that their alterations create no significant changes to the 'factuality' of the pictures they present, but fail to acknowledge the limits of their own knowledge and thus of their understanding of the significance of their changes.

    Brower quotes Joseph Holmes as saying, "If you have a picture of detailed vegetation, and it looks better backwards, you should reverse it. Because it doesn't make any difference to the natural history of the place. There's no left-rightness about the way the plants grow that would be misleading to a botanist. There's absolutely no reportage element in there of any value."

    Holmes is entirely wrong in that opinion. Many plants have handedness in the way they grow, especially those that incorporate helical forms. For example, honeysuckle stems twine around one another to the left. (See the discussion in Martin Gardner's The Ambidextrous Universe, Scribner, 1979.) A flopped picture of a honeysuckle is just as false to the natural world as a leopard on Saturn, although fewer among us would recognize its falsity.

    Wolfe's artificially multiplied zebras are misleading as well, because there are definite mathematical patterns discernible in herding movements. Wolfe may be unaware of this area of applied topology, but he is not entitled to assume that herding is merely random and can therefore be manipulated without changing any significant information contained in the photograph.

    Shayna B. Kravetz
    Toronto, Ontario


    Art Wolfe's beautiful book Migrations ill deserves the vituperous condemnation by Kenneth Brower. Let the reader, not Brower, decide if Wolfe's defense does or does not wash. The introduction to Migrations reads, "Art, as well as conservation, is a goal of this book. ... Since this is an art book and not a treatise on natural history, I find the use of digitalization perfectly acceptable, and in a small percentage of the photographs I have enhanced the patterns of animals much as a painter would do on canvas."

    Brower's narrow view of nature photography as strictly a form of witness is distressing to photographers who strive to make nature photography acceptable as fine art. Art photographers have felt obligated to themselves and the public to produce the best, most artistic images they can, and a tool in that process is darkroom or digital manipulation. Most of us believe that there is nothing wrong with this so long as the result does not misrepresent the natural history of the subject or its environment. In nature photography there is room for both photojournalism and art, and the two camps should be able to coexist with mutual respect and without the pejorative phraseology that litters Brower's article.

    Art Wolfe's beautiful images and writing in his many books and prints have sensitized a generation to the beauty of nature and the need to preserve it. For that he deserves our thanks.

    Charles Sleicher
    Seattle, Wash.


    Kenneth Brower replies:

    I am happy to receive confirmation from Shayna Kravetz that the suspicion I voiced in my article -- that handedness might exist in plants -- is not unfounded. And I share Charles Sleicher's esteem for his Seattle neighbor, Art Wolfe, one of our greatest wildlife photographers. But I would point out to Mr. Sleicher that he has a philosophical bone to pick with Wolfe as well as with me. "We've completely backed away from doing digital illustration that can look real," Wolfe says in my article. The "enhancement" by which Wolfe multiplied a herd of fifteen elephants to one of fifty-four is quite an enhancement. This kind of inflation is indeed a misrepresentation of natural history. It is clear to me that Wolfe wishes he had never started fathering elephants digitally, and I hope Mr. Sleicher steers away from this himself.

    A Special Moment

    Bill McKibben ("A Special Moment in History," May Atlantic) is an articulate spokesman for the "This time it will happen!" crowd. Recognizing that previous apocalyptic doomsayers (Malthus is the best known) have been wrong, he tosses a wide array of dangers at his readers in order to persuade us that this time catastrophe will indeed occur. Thus it is worth taking a few moments to consider one of the most prominent of his scenarios: global warming.

    The author asserts, "We are heating up the planet -- substantially" and "The planet has already heated up by a degree or more." However, the data used by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to imply a one-degree rise over the past century come from surface measurements, many of which were recorded at monitoring sites near urban centers. Such data have been seriously discredited by others because of the "urban heat-island" effect -- an artificial appearance of warming as such centers expand and become warmer over the decades. Also, measurements from weather balloons and satellites have shown a slight decline in climate temperature since 1979 (when they were first used), whereas surface measurements since 1979 show a significant rise, further discrediting the conclusion drawn from surface measurements. The author goes on to forecast temperature increases of up to 6.3 degrees -- truly a catastrophic scenario. But such forecasts are based on computer models that do not adequately take into account the cooling effects of clouds and are unable satisfactorily to model the known portion of past behavior of the earth's temperature.

    Alarmists also like to assert widespread scientific support for the theory of global warming. McKibben does this by referring to a UN panel's "2,000 scientists, from every corner of the globe" who claim that "'the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate.'" This is intended to impress the reader. But another 15,000 scientists, two thirds of whom hold advanced degrees in the natural sciences, have signed a petition stating that "no convincing scientific evidence" exists that the release by human beings of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will cause a catastrophic heating of the earth's atmosphere and a disruption of its climate. Among the signers are Fred Singer, a designer of climate-measuring instruments and the first director of the National Weather Satellite Service, and Frederick Seitz, a physicist and a past president of the National Academy of Sciences, who has served as the chairman of the U.S. delegation to the UN Committee on Science and Technology for Development.

    I am pleased that people are concerned about the earth's climate. But discussions of global warming should focus on the facts, rather than on scaremongering designed to increase the reader's adrenaline flow.

    Joel R. Weiss
    Winnetka, Ill.


    In his moving elegy for a planet under siege, Bill McKibben is absolutely correct in suggesting that we focus on the carbon-dioxide problem in the decades ahead. But I think his pessimism and eco-Weltschmerz is unwarranted when he dismisses the economic viability of hydrogen ("Changing basic fuels -- to hydrogen, say -- would be even more expensive. It's not like running out of white wine and switching to red").

    Yes, hydrogen would be more expensive, but not a lot; it would still be less expensive than the fuels that the Europeans and the Japanese have been paying for -- and thriving on -- for decades. Recent estimates project that zero-emitting hydrogen can be produced economically from fossil fuels in the near future (water-splitting is an option further down the road). The "by-product" carbon dioxide, if you want to call it that, can be safely disposed of, away from atmospheric harm, in deep strata or exhausted gas fields (Norway is already practicing CO2 injection industrially as part of offshore oil production).

    The energy costs of this hydrogen would be roughly twice that of (currently perversely cheap) U.S. gasoline. But these higher fuel costs would be offset by the almost equally higher efficiencies of fuel cells, which many seasoned industry people expect will move to commercial reality within six or seven years.

    This scenario represents the conviction of some influential, forward-looking energy strategists. As I report in a book on hydrogen and fuel-cell technologies that I am currently completing, it is the view of Robert H. Williams, a MacArthur Prize fellow, a senior research scientist at Princeton University's Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, and an important international voice in the ongoing debate about environmental issues and clean energy. In a 1996 paper, for example, Williams said that hydrogen made from hydrocarbon fuels makes eminent sense for future large-scale applications, mainly because this will be the least costly production method -- for now, at least.

    According to a 1995 paper by Williams and three Princeton colleagues, biomass-derived methanol and hydrogen would be roughly competitive with today's diesel and gasoline fuels -- which are processed from crude oil imported from sources that look increasingly insecure -- and also offer zero or near-zero local air pollution and "very low levels of lifecycle CO2 emissions, if the biomass feedstock is grown sustainably." The authors acknowledge that biomass-derived hydrogen and methanol won't be able to compete with natural-gas-based hydrogen and methanol in the near term, but "natural gas prices are expected to rise substantially over the next decade or so," making biomass nearly competitive by 2010.

    Peter Hoffmann
    Rhinecliff, N.Y.


    Bill McKibben fails to discuss the expected impact on the world economy of a dramatic reduction in fossil-fuel use and control of other emissions. Simply put, large-scale deployment of alternative energy resources is not ready for prime time. All these resources face high costs, limited availability, or questionable reliability. The investment required to retire existing fossil-fueled equipment rapidly would divert resources from other needs around the world, and would be likely to lock us into using inferior technologies for some time. We have already seen solar and wind technologies fail when we tried to accelerate their adoption during the energy crisis of the 1970s. Controlling other gas emissions, particularly methane, would have serious repercussions in the developing world, since many of these emission sources arise from subsistence activities such as rice and dairy farming.

    These costs not only would be significant but also would probably hurt the poorest the most. The wealthy can afford to pay higher prices for energy and commodities, but the poor would be forced to cut back on basic necessities. Political turmoil in the developing world would be likely to increase. Asking the industrialized world to reduce its consumption, help its poor, and bail out the developing nations all at once is politically naive. McKibben's proposal would be doomed from the outset.

    McKibben believes that he is proposing a risk-averse strategy, but he fails to understand fully the scientific, economic, and political issues at the heart of the debate. He and his compatriots should be better schooled in the causes of climate change and the consequences of appropriate responses.

    Richard McCann
    Davis, Calif.


    The Environmental Protection Agency data cited by Bill McKibben should not be misinterpreted as cause for celebration. Atmospheric lead levels may have declined by 78 percent since 1986, but that lead didn't just disappear: it fell out of our atmosphere into our water and onto our land, and into and onto us!

    Bill Green, a chemistry professor at Miami University, in Ohio, reported in 1995 that there has been a fifteenfold increase in the lead content of Pacific coral shells over the past hundred years, and that the lead content of Antarctic snows is four times what it was prior to the Industrial Revolution.

    We have hardly begun to feel the effects of this "fallout," but my guess is that we will, and they won't be pretty.

    Keith Gochnour
    Columbus, Ohio


    Bill McKibben replies:

    Joel Weiss compares the conclusions of a UN panel that spent many years studying this issue with those of some 15,000 signers of an open letter on the Internet -- a list of signatories that includes the Spice Girls. The attack on global-warming science, which is funded mostly by the fossil-fuel industry, becomes shriller all the time; it has to, because the facts become clearer. Last year was the warmest on record, and as data for the first five months of this year now make clear, 1998 is even warmer.

    Ihope that Peter Hoffmann's optimism that we are ready to switch to hydrogen is warranted. My point is that even in the best-case scenario it will be an expensive and time-consuming switch, because we have an enormous fossil-fuel infrastructure with hundreds of billions of dollars invested in its operation. We can switch to renewable energies, and eventually we will because we must, but I think it is folly to assume that the transition will be easy or swift, or by itself enough to deal with the problems we face. I think we also need to worry about levels of consumption and about population size.

    That said, I must disagree with Richard McCann about the impossibility of making such a transition. The development of solar and wind technologies stalled in large part because we were willing to provide huge subsidies in order to keep the price of oil so low. Gasoline currently costs about one sixth what bottled water costs. Raising the price of petroleum would be the most effective way to spur innovation. If we had already run out of oil, we would by now have figured out other, less-dangerous ways to move ourselves, heat our homes, and conduct our lives.

    Resisting Kyoto

    Ross Gelbspan's article "A Good Climate for Investment" (June Atlantic) is the latest in a series of Atlantic pieces making the case that a widespread public-policy effort is needed to combat global warming and other man-made damage to the earth's environment. Like many of the other pieces, however, it is hamstrung by logical flaws. These flaws undermine the premise on which the entire article depends: that the planet's environment is so threatened that severe corrective steps are required.

    For example, in trying to make the case that corrective measures would actually provide great economic benefit, Gelbspan points to rising insurance losses from extreme weather events ($2 billion a year in the 1980s, $12 billion a year in the 1990s). He does not, however, provide any support for the unstated premise -- that extreme weather has increased, because of humanity's damage to the environment. Have extreme weather events really increased during the past two decades?

    The rhetoric is equally flawed in his assertion that the all-powerful "fossil-fuel" lobby has successfully (and deviously) manipulated public opinion toward environmental unfriendliness. He offers the example of a coal- and utility-industry campaign to discredit global-warming predictions, and then makes the following statement:

    The effectiveness of the campaign can be seen in the results of two Newsweek polls, conducted in 1991 and 1996. In 1991, 35 percent of the people polled said they believed that global warming was a serious problem. By 1996 the number had dropped to 22 percent.
    This is a plain post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy: the fact that public opinion dropped after the campaign was launched does not necessarily mean that the campaign was responsible -- particularly considering that there are numerous other plausible explanations for the shift (for example, the public is growing numb from too many dire predictions).

    The next piece of evidence offered by Gelbspan, far from shoring up his point, only undercuts it: "Last summer [testimony by 'greenhouse skeptics'] led as well to a 95-0 vote in the Senate on a resolution ... against ratification of the Kyoto Protocol." Was testimony by industry-funded shills responsible by itself for persuading every single senator, liberal and conservative, to reject ratification -- or might there actually be some merit to the skeptical position?

    In his opening paragraph Gelbspan states, "Only in the United States is anyone still seriously debating whether the earth is undergoing a steady, and threatening, warming." Some evidence to support this broad generalization would be nice. It contradicts my own experience traveling abroad and discussing such issues with foreign citizens, who are generally concerned with ecology but rather undecided about the severity of environmental threats. Gelbspan's general stance seems to be as follows: the ecology of the earth is in a state of man-made crisis; we must take drastic action now; every rational person believes this; and anyone who says otherwise is in the pocket of the greedy oil and energy combines. Is this really the proper perspective from which to approach an issue that affects every person living on the planet?

    Robert F. Moss
    Columbia, S.C.


    I read with interest Ross Gelbspan's article on global climate change, and I feel compelled to correct a misstatement.

    Gelbspan writes that the statement signed by 2,500 economists last year "endorsed the findings ... that we could cut emissions by up to 30 percent with no negative economic impacts." The statement, however, which my organization, Redefining Progress, facilitated and circulated, and which was written by the esteemed group of Kenneth Arrow, Dale Jorgenson, William Nordhaus, Paul Krugman, and Robert Solow, says something slightly different. It does say, "Economic studies have found that there are many potential policies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions [which] ... may in fact improve U.S. productivity in the longer run," but it does not endorse any particular finding. Moreover, the statement does one important thing that Gelbspan's article does not: it addresses how emissions can best be reduced at low economic cost -- or with overall economic gain.

    The statement endorses market policies. It reads, in part, "The United States and other nations can most efficiently implement their climate policies through market mechanisms, such as carbon taxes or the auction of emission permits. The revenues generated from such policies can effectively be used to reduce the deficit or to lower existing taxes." In fact, a growing literature suggests that such a tax shift is the best way to reduce the economic cost of emission reductions, and it would actually be a beneficial change for fast-growing or labor-intensive business sectors such as high technology, business services, and retail trade. Redefining Progress is working to broaden the research base behind the tax-shift concept.

    M. Jeff Hamond
    San Francisco, Calif.


    I disagree with the following sentence in Ross Gelbspan's article: "With the exception of natural gas, renewable energy sources do not involve the extractive technologies required by fossil fuels." Natural gas, though relatively clean, is not a renewable energy source. It is a hydrocarbon of finite supply, composed mainly of methane, and produces carbon dioxide when burned, just like gasoline, coal, or wood.

    Richard Drill
    Arcata, Calif.


    Ross Gelbspan replies:

    I regret Robert Moss's reluctance to engage the central thesis of my essay: that a global energy transition would bring about a historically unprecedented expansion of wealth in the global economy. My proposed remedy, which Mr. Moss characterizes as "severe," would, to the contrary, create millions of jobs around the world. It would enable all the world's economies to grow without regard to the limits of the atmosphere. And it would narrow the widening gap between the world's wealthiest and poorest countries.

    As for my assertions about the urgency and magnitude of the climate crisis, they are drawn from the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations coalition of more than 2,500 scientists from more than a hundred countries. The panel's scientific data was not challenged by even one of the governments that participated in the climate negotiations in Kyoto.

    As to the projections of the IPCC, they are supported by several important findings about the influence of human-generated greenhouse gases on the climate reported by researchers at the National Climatic Data Center. Those findings have documented newly unstable elements in our climate, including altered rainfall and drought patterns, a rise in nighttime low temperatures more rapid than the rise in daytime high temperatures (a signature of greenhouse warming), and the fact that we are receiving significantly more of our rain and snow in severe, intense downpours than we did several decades ago.

    M. Jeff Hamond is right in calling attention to my faulty use of the word "endorse." Although the 2,500 economists coordinated by Redefining Progress concluded basically that we can reduce emissions at a net gain to our economic productivity, the figure of 30 percent comes from the IPCC's Working Group on Economics, some of whose members also endorsed the economists' statement.

    Finally, my apologies to Richard Drill. He is absolutely correct in taking issue with my use of "renewable" to describe natural gas. Although natural gas, which has less carbon content than coal or oil, is generally regarded as a "bridge" fuel in any energy transition, it most certainly is not renewable. I regret the error.

    Advice & Consent

    Your correspondents (Letters, June Atlantic) who found Peter Schrag's analysis of the California initiative process ("California, Here We Come," March Atlantic) overly hostile should avail themselves of the official California Voter Information Guide for the primaries on June 2 of this year. There were nine complex initiatives on the ballot. They occupied twelve pages of double-column text at the back of the guide. Thirty more pages were devoted to summaries, "Analysis by the Legislative Analyst," arguments in favor, arguments against, and rebuttals to each of these.

    If one had the time to plough through this material and make sense of it, all might be well, but unfortunately the initiatives themselves are often badly worded, and the accompanying arguments consist largely of hectoring obfuscations by highly partisan advocates with little interest in reasoned discussion. (The guide does not reveal how the drafters of arguments are selected.)

    As your correspondent Grant Cogswell, of Seattle, pointed out, the initiative process can be used to good effect, but in California it is more frequently abused.

    Frank Rettenberg
    San Rafael, Calif.


    At the end of "'Discovering' Young Poets" (June Atlantic), Peter Davison muses about the current value of "all male" poet elders "discover[ing] the young," who he mentions are "more than one third female." I was reminded of the May announcement of The Atlantic's Student Writers' Competition winners, three fourths of whom, I noted, were female. Perhaps the sap and wit of late-twentieth-century male talent is being drained by the ever-rising cost-versus-benefit ratio of a liberal-arts education.

    Daniel S. Moore
    Portland, Ore.


    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; September 1998; Letters; Volume 282, No. 3; pages 12-21.

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