It’s All Fun and Games until There’s a Mass Extinction

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Oh, good. The Doomsday Clock has moved even closer to midnight since Donald Trump has been sworn into office. (Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

If people look hard enough for signs of the apocalypse, they’re sure to find them. Donald Trump as President of the United States, if not a herald of the end of the world, certainly doesn’t bode well for its future—just ask the powers-that-be behind the Doomsday Clock. Other aspects of life today, while perhaps not damning in them of themselves, in sum total may likewise well presage our civilization’s decline. Selfies. All-you-can-eat buffets. The phenomenon that is “Cash Me Outside” Girl. The Human Centipede movies. Sandwiches and other meals in which fried chicken is the bread. OK, maybe these are just things for which I personally have low regard, but I have my reasons. (Especially for The Human Centipede movies.) In fact, the breakdown of society is a popular trope across entertainment media. A show about the zombie apocalypse is not only one of the biggest shows on television these days—it has a spin-off that is essentially just the same show in a different location! In short, imagery of global destruction is all around us, such that it’s hard not to adopt feelings of doom and gloom surrounding the current state of affairs, at least now and again. Sometimes, all we can do is to latch onto something which grounds us in the here and now and brings us some measure of comfort.

It is within this context that I invoke a recently-published study conducted by a group of scientists regarding fairly recent trends in animal populations from which they’ve concluded Earth is in the midst of a mass extinction. The study cites significant declines in numbers of close to 9,000 vertebrate species just since 1900, including the outright extinction of almost 200 species, and does not mince words, depicting the situation as a global “biological annihilation.” Furthermore, these scientists caution that the window for effective action is a small one. Like, a mere 20 or 30 years. With Pres. Trump set to run the country—if you can call what he’s doing “running” the country—for the next three-and-a-half years, if not more, this puts us behind the proverbial 8-ball. While one might be careful not to overstate the damage Trump can do with so much momentum already behind efforts to create sustainable operations in both the public and private sectors, his ability to stunt this growth by halting regulations is nonetheless worrisome given the narrow time frame for intervention on the Earth’s behalf.

As reports on this study such as this one from Kristine Phillips of the Washington Post indicate, there is far from a consensus on the point of where are we on the timetable of mass extinctions or if we are in the midst of one at all. The researchers use data to back up their assertions, finding about a third of their sample of 27,600 vertebrate species have seen significant declines in population and habitat size over the course of study. More specifically, more than 40% of mammals (that’s us) in the sample, of which 177 species were scrutinized for the sake of this study, saw their numbers plummet. For the sake of an example, African lions have declined in number by more than 40% in just the last 20 years.

These findings seem stark and substantial, but not everyone in the scientific community is convinced. One expert in the field cited in Phillips’ report says that a mass extinction may well be underway, but it is only just beginning, and regardless, “telling people that we’re all doomed and going to die isn’t terribly helpful.” Well, no, but let’s also not undersell the whole mass extinction angle because it might frighten some people or bum them out, OK, guy? Another critical expert quoted within believes comparing prevailing trends in animal populations to the previous five established extinction-level events amounts to little more than “junk science,” as this is somewhat of an apples-to-oranges comparison. Or, perhaps to be more animal-centered, a baboon-to-porpoise comparison?

Regardless of whether or not animal population declines mediated by disappearing habitats qualifies as a distinct era of extinction, however, what these scientists can all seem to agree on is that humans have played a role in a number of these species extinctions, and that more are likely to come. Besides, there are those cohorts within the scientific community who believe such direct language on the need for conservation is not only advisable, but necessary. Sound the alarm bells! We’re going downhill—fast! As Kristine Phillips also notes, this is not the first time the idea has been advanced that we are in the midst of a mass extinction; some of the same researchers behind the current study raised concerns along these lines with a study only two years ago. In addition—and for those of us who might be standing on a ledge about now—there may be hope for all of us animals yet. Efforts to conserve endangered species and their habitats can and do work, and moreover, with regard to imperiled species numbers, safeguarding these populations can allow them to rebound like Shaquille O’Neal in his prime. (Note: O’Neal may or may not have been as prolific a rebounder as I remember him. The majority of my familiarity with basketball from that era is limited to playing NBA Jam.) Right down to planting native plants in one’s yard, we, as concerned citizens, can help.

Now that you’re clambering down from the ledge and heading back through the skyscraper window, let’s bring in the Trump administration and a Republican-led Congress. Wait—don’t turn around and head back for that ledge! With respect to paths to action as outlined by Phillips and the scientists she cites, the caveat in recommending readers contact their elected representatives is that any number of them currently occupying seats don’t feel quite the same zeal for looking after the Earth and the fauna inhabiting it, particularly when espousing conservative or otherwise industry-centered views. As Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, sets forth, the current Congress is the “most anti-endangered species in history,” and his organization has identified 34 different active pieces of legislation which would weaken protections for the most vulnerable species.

And don’t even get me started about Donald Trump and his flunkies. Talk about setting a tone at the top—Trump not only once infamously espoused the belief that climate change was a myth created by the Chinese, but as President, he pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, a non-binding international commitment to combat the adverse effects of climate change. Non-binding. With no penalties. You get it—why doesn’t he? His selections for prominent positions in his Cabinet likewise fail to inspire on an ecological front, and for that matter, appear designed as deliberate attempts to undermine the departments to which the confirmed candidates have been assigned. Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State, is a former CEO of ExxonMobil. Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Interior, marked his confirmation by approving a measure that would roll back restrictions on the use of lead ammunition for hunters on federal lands. Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, sued the EPA umpteen times as Attorney General of the state of Oklahoma. Rick Perry, Secretary of Energy, would’ve advocated for the dissolution of this department when campaigning for President—but he was too blockheaded to recall its name during the debate when asked.

These are the jokers who have aided and abetted Trump in his crusade to undo every meaningful environmental regulation from Barack Obama’s tenure, and so many of these reversals of policy are evidently unnecessary. We need more lead ammunition so—what, exactly? More birds of prey can get sick and die from lead poisoning from feeding on animals shot with it? It was so vital to repeal the Clean Water Rule because—oil/gas and fertilizer/pesticide companies were so inconvenienced by having to not dump shit in our streams and other waterways? Trump and Co. are very clearly putting profits over people and animals here, and in doing so, are ascribing to the belief that conservationism is bad for our bottom line. This, however, like so many of this administration’s ideas, is dead wrong.


Like so much of President Trump’s agenda, the shift toward an even more lax regard for the natural environment seems predicated on a short-term reward—and not one that the country as a whole will reap. Oh, sure, the part of the constituency for whom this plays may be thrilled at the vague idea we as a nation will start to do more for Joe the Miner than we did under Barack Obama or would have done under Hillary Clinton. From the outside looking in, though, we know better than to think Donald Trump is playing fast and loose with the fate of the planet primarily for their benefit. Instead, it’s on behalf of other rich assholes like himself, especially leaders of industry, and of course, himself, in terms of their vote come 2020. What facilitates this tacit agreement between the governor and the governed—or at least the portion of the governed that comprises his would-be supporters—is a larger shift away from confidence in science and the scientific community that supplies all the inconvenient facts climate change deniers and their ilk don’t like so much. In recent years, we’ve seen a sea change in the public’s credence of scientific principles and verifiable evidence.

As this intersects with politics, Newt Gingrich somewhat unwittingly invoked the seemingly growing divide between facts—those tidbits which are verifiably true or are generally accepted to be true based on a broad scientific consensus—and feelings—those assumptions which are based on assumptions and prejudices which may be true, but are not supported by evidence and are thus prone to error. In an interview with Gingrich on CNN during the Republican National Convention, the at-one-time-vice-presidential-nominee to Trump was pressed on the matter of whether or not violent crime had gone down over the years. Trump’s tone in his keynote speech was one of dystopian hyperbole, fire, and brimstone, in which he depicted the United States of America as a few murders short of a scene out of the Purge movies. The facts, unsurprisingly, don’t support Donald Trump’s claims; all one needs to do is access recent publicly-available data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, read about the trends, and see the line graphs going down. Easy-peasy.

Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, argued that these verifiable facts and figures were of less importance because Americans don’t feel them to be true. That is, John and Jane Public, good friends of Joe the Miner, don’t feel we are any safer of late. The implications of this line of thinking are all-too-frighteningly clear. By prioritizing feelings over facts, we are encouraging the cherry-picking of data to be used in analysis that only serves the purpose of the persons skewing this information to promote their desired narrative. Furthermore, by sanctioning the use of data in this way, we are implicitly approving the creation of policy and voting in accordance with the figures extracted using faulty science. Essentially, Gingrich is arguing it’s OK to mislead an American electorate which already tends to fall prey to trusting what their gut tells them as opposed to what their mind, aided by provable data, does. In other words, it’s not politicians’ fault that the rank-and-file among us can be guided like sheep into an enclosure. To a certain extent, he’s not wrong that we bear some culpability, but the ends certainly do not justify the means.

Ethan Siegel, astrophysicist, author, and primary writer on the science site Starts with a Bang!, wrote a post in response to Newt Gingrich’s arguments regarding the merits of feelings over facts shortly after the actual event occurred. Surely, as a member of the scientific community and an expert in his field, Siegel is not neutral on this subject, nor should we expect him to be. Still, as someone who, like so many of us, is concerned about the future of our country and of our world, his perspective on how we see expertise and its bearing on our relationship with factual information is potentially quite valuable, and certainly not one to be automatically dismissed. Siegel offers these thoughts on humans’ tendency to cherry-pick data and otherwise resist disconfirming evidence:

Most of us are uncomfortable with relying on others — even experts — even when we ourselves don’t have expert knowledge, expert training or the expertise of the full suite of all relevant facts. Particle physicist Brian Cox recently discussed this, saying: “It’s entirely wrong, and it’s the road back to the cave. The way we got out of the caves and into modern civilisation is through the process of understanding and thinking. Those things were not done by gut instinct. Being an expert does not mean that you are someone with a vested interest in something; it means you spend your life studying something. You’re not necessarily right – but you’re more likely to be right than someone who’s not spent their life studying it.”

The facts do not change because of how we interpret (or misinterpret) them. Homeopathy is scientifically, robustly 100% ineffective against cancer. Fluoridated water results in a blanket 40% reduction in cavities, on average, on top of any other dental health programs in children. Violent crime has continued to decrease in America, continuing a trend that has persisted for more than 20 years. […] And human-caused changes to the environment are causing the Earth to warm, a long-term trend that is visible in the global temperature records for many decades now.

Both Ethan Siegel and Brian Cox (the man he quotes) come from a similar place when it comes to recognition of experts. This is to say that even they recognize experts aren’t always right about what they study—I’m sure some of you are recalling past errant weather forecasts made by meteorologists and nodding your heads in agreement—but they nonetheless understand that expertise is our best path toward some kind of truth. As Siegel tries repeatedly to reinforce, facts don’t become any more or less true depending on our personal beliefs. It is incumbent upon us as end users of documented scientific information to sift through the findings and draw our own conclusions, as it is with politics.

Coming back to the notion that started this whole meditation on the nature of scientific inquiry, you may choose to believe or disbelieve the idea that a sixth mass extinction is underway. Whatever you decide, though, the science on climate change is substantially less arguable, and at any rate, the value placed on factual information must be held sacrosanct. Whether it’s a literal cave in which one would isolate himself or herself from the outside world, or a figurative bubble into which to recede and ignore the inconvenient truths which cause us discomfort, becoming too entrenched has its certain perils.

The DoD Can’t Manage Its Money, So Sure—Let’s Just Throw Money at It

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Does anyone else see this picture and think of M. Bison from the “Street Fighter” series? No? Just me? Sorry, these are the things I think about. (Photo Credit: Kevin Dietsch/UPI)

You may have heard about President Trump’s plan to increase military spending in his outline for next fiscal year’s budget. According to a February 27 report by Andrew Taylor and Julie Pace for the Associated Press, the 2018 fiscal year budget proposal would increase defense spending at the expense of programs like the EPA and foreign aid programs. Programs like Medicare and Social Security are not included in the proposed cuts, though knowing of the plans of Paul Ryan and other prominent Republican lawmakers to dismantle the Affordable Care Act without a credible replacement, privatize Medicare, turn Medicaid into block grants, and defund Planned Parenthood, this might yet be coming, just from a different angle. Alex Lockie, an associate news editor and military/defense blogger at Business Insider, in conjunction with reporting by Reuters, helps flesh out the details with a report from that same day. Some $54 billion would be earmarked for the Department of Defense, and indeed, matching cuts would indeed be proposed with the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department. On the side of the proposed funding to be slashed, these cuts shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. When you nominate Scott Pruitt, a man who sued the EPA over 10 times as attorney general of Oklahoma, to head that department, and Rex Tillerson, a man with close ties to Russia, no foreign diplomacy experience, and whose dedication to curbing climate change was nil as the CEO of Exxon-freaking-Mobil, to be Secretary of State, you get the sense Donald Trump is deliberately trying to undermine the authority of these divisions of the Cabinet.

Before we get to the idea of whether or not the Department of Defense is overfunded relative to other programs—a valid and worthy question, I might add—let me begin by providing two fairly recent anecdotes concerning why the mere notion of how the DoD accounts for and spends it money may be a problem right off the bat. Back in 2015, this tidbit of news made the rounds on national and international news, but soon got buried in the avalanche of other stories inherently created by the global, multimodal 24-hour news cycle: the United States spent $43 million on building and operating Afghanistan’s first compressed gas station and helping develop the natural gas market in Afghanistan. OK—that sounds pretty expensive for a gas station, but is it really? Maybe there’s things about natural gas or working in Afghanistan that we don’t understand.

Nope—it turns it was really f**king expensive for a gas station. According to SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, that’s 140 times as much as it should have cost. 140 times! Any number of harsh language might have been used by John Sopko, the special inspector general, and—lo and behold he did—troubling, ill-conceived, gratuitous, extreme, and outrageous were all adjectives that came directly from the man himself. There was “no indication” that a study was done prior to construction to assess the feasibility or viability of the project, or what kind of difficulties might be faced in trying to complete this endeavor. Sopko could safely attribute this lack of care to sheer stupidity, and even hinted it could be related to corruption or fraud, but—get this—the DoD couldn’t cooperate with enough information to even make that determination. Per SIGAR, the Department of Defense initially responded to a request for more information with the idea it lacked the requisite experience to comment following the closure of the Task Force for Stability and Business Operations (TFSBO). Apparently, someone forgot to save the data, and/or everyone after him or her is a complete f**king idiot. John Sopko wouldn’t go as far as to claim “obstruction” on the part of the DoD, but noted the unreasonableness of its official response, as the task force had only shut down a few months prior. On this issue, the Department of Defense was not accountable, and what’s more, it didn’t care to go to any lengths to even pretend like it was. It becomes all the worse when you consider we, the taxpayers, are the ones on the hook for catastrophic blunders such as this.

Did you enjoy that story? No? Too bad—here’s another bag of dicks to wrap your mind around. (First, wrap your mind around the wrapping of your mind around a bag of dicks in the abstract. I’ll wait.) In 2016, the Pentagon’s inspector general discovered that for the 2015 fiscal year, the Department of Defense had reported $6.5 trillion in accounting adjustments. Once again, it sounds bad, but is it? Yes, it is. When your department’s entire budget is just over $600 billion, yes, it f**king is. In defense of the Department of Defense, the magnitude of these errors is compounded by the notion that improper recordings were likely made the first time, and based on the double-entry nature of accounting, multiple accounts would stand to be affected. Still, when you’re off by multiple trillions of dollars, and when the inspector general finds that you made several unsupported adjustments, that records were mysteriously missing, that financial statements are inaccurate, and that much went documented and that there are insufficient data for an audit trail, your department is pretty much just plain wrong.

As Dave Lindorff in a piece for FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) explains, the Pentagon has a long history of noncompliance with federally-mandated standards for accounting and auditability. Yet it doesn’t seem to feel the weight of any formal censure by the appropriate authorities, nor did it receive nearly the amount of media attention the super-expensive Afghanistan gas station did—and even that news story received limited play. Per Lindorff, while two articles appeared on Reuters related to the scandal, at the time of the publication of his article—September 2 of last year—both the New York Times and the Washington Post had yet to cover this story. Sounds bad, right? Like apparently everything else in this post, it is exactly as bad as it sounds. The DoD inspector general’s report was dated July 26, 2016. In other words, they had over a month to investigate and report on this, or even to respond to Dave Lindorff’s requests for a response. But they didn’t. Trillions of dollars in errors, and barely a peep from the mainstream media.

Which brings us to where we are today with the Trump administration and the prospective 2018 budget. The enacted FY 2016 budget, per the Defense.gov website, was $521.7 billion. Barack Obama, in his final defense budget proposal, put forth a proposal for a $582.7 billion FY 2017 budget, citing changes and threats in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, including China throwing its weight around in the Pacific, the continued fight to bring down ISIS, Iran and North Korea, you know, still being Iran and North Korea, and Russian aggression. President Trump, for FY 2018, has proposed a defense budget of $610 billion, which he has claimed is about a 10% increase and, like, the biggest in history. Whether we’re talking about his Inauguration crowds, or his electoral victory, or even his hands or likely his, ahem, presidential staff, we should gather that the size is overstated. According to an NBC News report penned by Phil McCausland, the White House’s calculation of a $54 billion increase is relative to the budget cap which Obama’s proposed FY 2017 budget already exceeded by about $35 billion. So, Trump’s proposed increase for FY 2018 is actually fairly modest by comparison: only about 3.1% more. Donald Trump is trying to sound like the strongman he is, and quite possibly take attention away from all the Russian drama that surrounds his administration and his own finances with the help of some patriotic bombast. With each new revelation (e.g. Jeff Sessions apparently lying under oath about speaking with a Russian diplomat before Trump was elected), this proves difficult, if not impossible, but if anyone can make you believe in the impossible, it’s a man who had no business winning a presidential race.

The Afghani money pit and the multi-trillion dollar oopsy happened before Donald Trump even was sworn in. Coupling these Obama-era SNAFUs with the notion Trump’s proposed defense budget increase is overstated and thereby more modest, why bother coming at the current President about it? First of all, I don’t even know that I need much of a reason to come at Pres. Trump under the premise of it being just for general principles, but let’s talk Trump’s campaign promises, which already are somewhat infamous in Democratic circles and likely have even independents and some Republicans confused or upset. As is oft cited, Donald Trump vowed to “drain the swamp,” and part of realization of that platform, one might presume, would involve eliminating government waste. Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center of George Mason University, agrees with this sentiment. As de Rugy notes, Trump, through various executive orders, has already signed orders that require federal agencies to establish regulation watchdogs and cut two regulations for every new one enacted. However, curbing government waste involves more than just cutting regulations, and de Rugy insists the President instead should focus on improper payments by government agencies, suggesting he begin with the Medicare fee-for-service program, which makes $137 billion in improper payments per year, and to expand the profile and authority of the Recovery Audit Contractor program, which exists for the very purpose of uncovering fraud, and which Democrats and Republicans alike have acted to undermine in deference to their special interests.

This would be a great place for Donald Trump to dig in and help distinguish himself from his predecessor. However, as we understand too well only a month and change into his presidency, Trump doesn’t seem to mind too much playing fast and loose with other people’s money. Every time he takes a trip to his Mar-a-Lago Palm Beach estate, it costs taxpayers $3 million. Reportedly, it costs the city of New York $1 million a day to protect Trump and his family. Eric Trump even cost taxpayers nearly $100,000 for a trip to Uruguay on behalf of the Trump Organization to pay for Secret Service members and embassy staff—not even for matters of true diplomacy, but to enlarge the profits of the business from which Donald Trump enriches himself. These are galling enough, and when we consider President Trump’s proposed increase for the Department of Defense as a subset of his administration’s adversarial approach to certain non-defense programs, his hawkish tone takes on a more sinister aspect, as with his administration’s increased focus on deportation, which, by the numbers, isn’t wildly out of line with Obama’s record, but because it vastly expands the powers of ICE agents and because undocumented immigrants without a history of violent crime are apparently being specifically targeted for removal (Google “Daniela Vargas” and prepare to be disheartened), seems comparatively that much worse.

We could go on about Donald Trump’s war on immigrants, much as we could or maybe even should go on about Jeff Sessions, Russia, and the tangled web prominent Washington figures have woven with respect to Vladimir Putin and his country, but let me make my point about Trump’s separate war against programs that are reviled by his base. As noted earlier, Trump wants to slash funding for the EPA and has lined his Cabinet with climate change deniers, or at least those who evidently have no problem rolling back environmental regulations at the expense of flora and fauna (see also newly-confirmed Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s decision to bring back the use of lead ammunition in national parks and refuges). Along these lines, the President wants to cut funding to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the nation’s leading climate change research department, by 17%, roughly a sixth of its current budget. Reportedly, he also wants to decrease funding to the already-beleaguered Internal Revenue Service, a move which not only is geared primarily to benefitting other rich assholes like himself, but is patently self-defeating. A central point of the IRS—the Internal Revenue Service—by its namesake, is to generate revenue. If it can’t properly fund and staff its intended functions such as conducting audits or going after tax shelters, that’s needed money that the United States can’t access. Especially if Trump and congressional Republicans want to lower taxes and yet still somehow expand defense spending and address our crumbling infrastructure. If you keep spending more than you take in as a nation, eventually, you’re going to have a problem.

Donald Trump vowed to “drain the swamp” as President, but by now, it’s painfully obvious he’s only intent on feeding its alligators, and then after feeding those alligators, apparently killing them off by de-funding all the environmental organizations that help protect their numbers. If Trump really wanted to separate himself from Barack Obama and help the little guy, he could start by curbing waste at the Department of Defense, which I see as the poster child for government inefficiency, rather than boasting about vastly increasing its funding, but let him only try to keep up appearances as being a commanding Commander-in-Chief, much as he tried to maintain his image as someone who didn’t support the Iraq War like Hillary Clinton did—even though he totally f**king did. In other words, Trump can’t have it both ways. He can’t be a champion of the people and of his rich, white conservative base at the same time. Donald Trump wants to augment the Department of Defense, but simply put, there’s no defense for him in this regard.