You’ve heard that overused phrase, probably more times than you care to remember. Whether directed at you, or at someone else, or even coming from your own lips, it’s obnoxious. It carries its own nasty little subscript — the implication that the person to whom it’s directed is out there in la-la land, incapable of either recognizing reality or acting on whatever feeble understanding they may have of said reality.
That said, it’s always interesting to have your worldview turned upside down or your most treasured preconceptions shattered by cold, hard facts.
As Will Rogers once said about Herbert Hoover, “It’s not what he doesn’t know that bothers me, it’s what he knows for sure that just ain’t so.”
So, as a New Year’s present of sorts, here are a few preconception-shatterers that I’ve run across during recent months.
In early December, The Economist ran a clever little leader, subheaded “If you think you can make the planet better by clever shopping, think again. You might make it worse.”
So what was this? Another right-wing screed criticizing those of us who are trying to protect our planet’s environment by buying organic foods, and thereby supporting chemical-free agriculture? Did the smart, supercilious limeys who write for that estimable magazine fall for the baseless propaganda of the corporate food industry? Do they think that those of us who don’t even use weed killer on our dandelion-infested lawns are ready to buy into the Gospel According to St. McDonald’s?
Here’s what The Economist said.
“Organic food, which is grown without man-made pesticides and fertilizers, is generally assumed to be more environmentally friendly than conventional intensive farming, which is heavily reliant on chemical inputs. But it all depends on what you mean by ‘environmentally friendly’ … Following the ‘green revolution’ of the 1960s greater use of chemical fertilizer has tripled grain yields with very little increase in the area of land under cultivation. Organic methods, which rely on crop rotation, manure and compost in place of fertilizer, are far less intensive. So producing the world’s current agricultural output organically would require several times as much land as is currently cultivated. There wouldn’t be much room left for the rain forest.”
Moving on, 9/11 changed everything, didn’t it? Like Pearl Harbor, it was the opening battle in a vast and terrible conflict — a World War, albeit one fought very differently than its 20th century predecessors.
Maybe, maybe not. Here’s what author Steven Johnson had to say about cities and terrorism.
“The great question that confronts us now is whether Sept. 11 was the terrorist equivalent of a hundred-year storm, the kind of catastrophe we’re unlikely to see again in our lifetime — or the beginning of a sequence of ever-deadlier urban attacks? Was it the exception or the hint of a new rule?
“But if the future of urban terrorism outside the Middle East follows the pattern of the past few years — every two years or so, there’s an attack that kills about 100 people in one of the world’s larger cities — then that is probably a threat that we can learn live with — not grave enough to justify starting wars or radically rethinking our urban systems.
“That may sound crass, but we resign ourselves to cost-benefit analyses like this all the time. We could save thousands of lives each year by reducing the highway speed limit to, say, 30 miles an hour, but as a society we’ve decided that the overall convenience of 300 million people driving fast is worth the cost in deaths. We may have to reconcile ourselves to the same sort of trade-off when it comes to urban terrorism, and choose to fight it by not being terrorized.”
So what Johnson is saying is that terrorism is simply another undesirable side effect of city living — less worrisome than cholera in Mumbai, more worrisome than getting mugged in Denver.
Well, at least we know why the Neanderthals died out, don’t we? Modern man came along, with his superior brainpower, and Darwinian natural selection did the rest.
Not exactly, according to Steven Kuhn and Mary Stiner of the University of Arizona. In a recent paper published in Current Anthropology, they suggest it wasn’t Cro-Magnon man, but Cro-Magnon woman who did in the beetle-browed fist-draggers.
Their thesis: Cro-Magnon women, unlike their Neanderthal counterparts, let the men do the heavy lifting (i.e., big game hunting), while they sewed garments, gathered plant foods and hunted small game. This division of labor gave their communities a distinct survival advantage — so to Darwin, add a dash of Adam Smith.
And finally, let’s honor the great humorist Will Rogers, by paying a virtual visit to the structure that memorializes him, our very own Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun.
Yup, there it sits — high on the slopes of Cheyenne Mountain, a fitting memorial to the great humorist, ensuring that his memory will be forever honored in … Colorado Springs?
But wait a minute! Will Rogers was from Oklahoma — he never lived here. So what gives? Who was the crazed Will Rogers fan?
Sorry to disappoint you, but the Will Rogers shrine isn’t the Will Rogers shrine. It’s the tomb of our city’s great benefactor, the man who built The Broadmoor Hotel, the man whose fortune endowed the El Pomar Foundation.
It’s the tomb of Spencer Penrose, of his wife Julie, and of Spec’s secretary, Horace Devereaux.
The Will Rogers thing? It was just a way of both downplaying the over-the-top ostentation of a burial place better suited to a Medici pope than a western gold miner, and also of creating a nice tourist attraction for the city he loved.
And the secretary? Look at the tombs of the pharaohs — rulers need servants, even in the afterlife.
You didn’t know that?
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.