Good Reads: ugly oil harvests; dueling environmentalists; and morality in animals

This week's long-form good reads look at 'out of sight, out of mind' environmental costs of energy extraction, animals' 'moral' behavior, and the hard work of a luxury repo man.

The US presidential campaign kept a laser focus on “jobs, jobs, jobs” that left environmentalists wondering if anyone still cares about the condition of the planet. A remarkable photo essay in the Daily Mail puts the need for economic development versus the preservation of wild places in high relief. Aerial photos of the mining of tar sands in northern Alberta – the world’s third-largest oil reserve – reveal how a landscape of what was once lush green forests, an area larger than England, is being turned into an oily, nightmarish desert.

Boreal forest in Canada is disappearing at a rate second only to that of the deforestation of the Amazon. The operation provides thousands of jobs, huge tax revenues for Canada, and a potential oil supply for the United States from a friendly neighbor. But the photos are a reminder to those who live far from this strip mining of what is being lost. “The tar sands should be classified as an act of ecocide and rendered illegal under international law. This is, in effect, a crime against humanity,” argues one environmentalist.

Where is the environmental proof?
Environmentalists decry how climate change skeptics ignore or try to discredit copious scientific evidence indicating that human-induced climate change is taking place. But environmentalist Fred Pearce says that on other issues the environmental movement needs to make sure it isn’t itself turning a blind eye to scientific evidence.

Many environmentalists strongly oppose genetically modified crops, nuclear power, and shale gas development (so-called fracking) but can’t show solid science to back up their opposition, says Mr. Pearce in an essay at Yale Environment 360, a publication of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. “[T]he voices of those with genuine environmental credentials, but who take a different view [on these issues], are being drowned out by sometimes abusive and irrational argument,” he says.

“[T]he environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than any other thing we’ve been wrong about,” he quotes Stewart Brand as saying. While many people have a visceral fear of invisible nuclear radiation, nuclear power has a better safety record than many think. Fracking to release natural gas presents significant environmental hazards, but it is far preferable to burning coal, Pearce says, and natural gas can serve as a valuable bridge until the use of alternative fuels can be ramped up.

Kindness found in creatures
Animal lovers have no trouble attributing acts of kindness, selflessness, or compassion to nonhumans. But scientists and philosophers have been skeptical, worrying that these attitudes are one example of “anthropomorphism,” attributing human characteristics to animals or inanimate things.

In an essay titled “The kindness of beasts” in Aeon, a digital magazine of ideas and culture, Mark Rowlands, a professor of philosophy at the University of Miami says, “A growing number of animal scientists, however, are going over to the dark side, and at least flirting with the idea that animals can act morally.”

Among the cases he cites is that of Binti Jua, a gorilla who lived at the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago. In 1996 she “came to the aid of a three-year-old boy who had climbed on to the wall of the gorilla enclosure and fallen five meters [15 feet] onto the concrete floor below. Binti Jua lifted the unconscious boy, gently cradled him in her arms, and growled warnings at other gorillas that tried to get close. Then, while her own infant clung to her back, she carried the boy to the zoo staff waiting at an access gate.”

Even lab rats won’t push a lever that delivers food to them if it causes a painful electrical shock to other rats, Mr. Rowlands says.
“When a chimpanzee gives what appears to be a consoling hug to its fellow ... then, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the working hypothesis should be that the chimpanzee is motivated by the same sorts of emotions as a human would be in the same sort of situation,” he says.

We can relieve you of that
Ken Cage had quickly grown tired of being an ordinary “repo man,” taking back cars and TVs from blue-collar folks hit hard by the economic downturn. So he went upscale and decided to take on deadbeat rich folks who had made a killing in finance and real estate but could no longer pay for their expensive toys.

“The Luxury Repo Men,” by Matthew Teague, in Bloomberg Businessweek tells how Mr. Cage and his team have taken back everything from yachts to a $20 million personal jet to a racehorse from the once nouveau riche. The work can be hazardous: Cage and his crew took back a jet from a former pro football player who body-slammed Cage’s pilot when he tried to enter the cockpit.

Cage’s high-end repo company, the International Recovery & Remarketing Group, expects to recover items worth a total of $100 million in 2012. Perhaps his strangest case? Finding a missing 1953 Tri-Pacer airplane. He tracked it down to a steakhouse in Cleveland – where it was hanging from the ceiling.

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