Parenting, Wildfires, and Politics
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I- The Last Psychiatrist
For many years, in various contexts and in various forms, people have been recommending I read The Last Psychiatrist. A blog that ran from 2005-2014 before suddenly stopping. It was rumored that the sudden end was because someone had threatened to get the author in trouble with his work, or perhaps he did get in trouble at his work, but was able to negotiate leaving up the archives. In any event, I recently added it to the list of tabs I open every morning to start the day and, finally, I’ve gradually been working my way through it. It is quite good, and I can see why people have been recommending it for so long. Thus far I have particularly liked his three part series, The Most Important Article On Psychiatry You Will Ever Read. Perhaps, since I brought it up, you’re wondering what makes this article so important? Well it’s all about how adding more of a drug frequently doesn’t increase whatever that drug’s initial effect was. That in fact adding more might produce entirely different effects, because the drug will have saturated the initial receptors and adding more causes it to bind to different receptors causing, correspondingly, different effects. As a more simple example: doubling the dosage does not double the effect it may give you a completely different effect.
However important and fascinating that subject is, for this post I’d like to use a different observation of his as a jumping off point for expanding on some of the themes I’ve explored in my last couple of posts. This observation of his concerned parenting, particularly parents who are psychiatrists.
SOME psychiatrists think/try to do something noble (criticize behavior and not the child itself) but they are HUMAN, and get tired. They will eventually get angry, and, from a kid's perspective, when the parent gets angry is what matters. What did I do to piss Dad off?
The opposite of this, call it the non-psychiatrist parent, is calm, then gets a little angry, a little more angry, a little more angry, then yells, screams. There's a build up. A few years of this and you realize that there are some things that make Dad a little angry, and other things that make him really angry. There's normal, varying levels of human emotion to different situations.
But the child of a psychiatrist doesn't get that. He gets binary emotional states. "Lying is not acceptable behavior." Later: "Yelling loudly is not acceptable behavior." Later: "Picking your nose is not acceptable behavior." Later: "Stealing is not acceptable behavior." What's the relative value? A kid has no idea-- he thinks the value is decided by Dad, not intrinsic to the behavior. "Eating cookies before dinner is not acceptable behavior." Later: "Kicking your brother is not acceptable behavior."
Ok, now here it comes:
After seven or eight or twenty five "not acceptable behavior" monotones, Dr. Dad can't take it anymore; he explodes. "Goddamn it! What the hell is the matter with you?! What are you doing?!!" All the anger and affect gets released, finally. The problem-- the exact problem-- is this: the explosion of anger came at something relatively trivial. Maybe the kid spilled the milk.
So now the four year old concludes that the worst thing he did all day was spilled the milk-- not kicking his brother, or lying, or stealing. Had he not spilled that milk, Dad wouldn't have gotten angry.
I imagine most people understand that this sort of radically inconsistent parenting is bad. But it’s important to recognize that it’s not just the explosion at the end that’s bad; to recognize that the answer is not to be calm all the time. And it’s not merely because it’s impossible (though it is). It’s because the calm, in the end, is just as bad. The explosion is misleading because it lays far too much emphasis on the spilled milk. The calm is bad because it doesn’t lay any emphasis on anything. Picking your nose provokes exactly the same response as stealing.
If this problem were isolated to just some portion of parents who also happen to be psychiatrists it wouldn’t be worth bringing up. But I think such attitudes are found among a large number of parents in general. And even beyond that the ideas and practices motivating these parents have seeped into institutions, policies, behavior, and culture. That it’s a deep ideological vein running through modern western culture at large. Despite this ubiquity there’s no easy label for it. However, despite this difficulty, that’s precisely what this post sets out to do. To help with that, let’s turn to another example, one that would initially appear to have nothing to do with parenting.
II- California Wildfires
Last year was so full of catastrophes that the California wildfires, which might normally have dominated the news, now seem largely forgotten. Perhaps not by people in California, but with everything else that’s been happening, I doubt many outside of the state have given them more than a moment’s thought over the last few months. But, again, that’s just a measure of how relatively bad everything else has been. The California wildfires were objectively terrible, even if they did produce some truly spectacular pictures. Generally, when something is that bad you look for ways to stop it from happening. Which takes us to the subject of wildfire control and suppression.
This is not the first time we’ve covered that subject in this space. It’s come up a few times in the past, including most recently in December of 2018 at the end of modern California’s deadliest and most destructive fire season. (2020 was twice as big in terms of acres burned, but lower in terms of damage and fatalities.) In that post I mostly looked at the debate over whether more logging would have helped, a subject which, even after 2020, is still very controversial, but what seems less controversial is the idea of controlled burns.
As most people who’ve paid any attention to the subject are aware of, the problem of wildfires, while multifaceted, can actually be made much worse by the process of fighting those same fires. This seems counterintuitive and indeed for many years, the U.S. Forest Service had a very aggressive approach, unofficially known as the 10 a.m. policy, which directed that wildfires be extinguished no later than the morning after their discovery. As you can imagine, throughout most of history, forest fires were not extinguished by the next morning, and moreover forests have not evolved with Forest Service policy in mind. Predictably, at least with hindsight, this approach resulted in many second order effects, similar to those created by the discipline of scientific forestry I mentioned at the beginning of the month in my review of Seeing Like a State. In both cases it’s clear that when you start to mess with the way forests operate naturally you end up with numerous unintended consequences. In this case aggressively fighting fires ended up creating at least two consequences of note: First, it resulted in an accumulation of deadwood because there were no fires anymore to periodically burn it out. Second, the population of the forest changed from a small number of large trees (30 or 40 per acre) to a large number of small trees (1000 to 2000 per acre) because fires used to periodically clear out smaller trees as well.
Both of these together mean that fires, when they do happen, can end up being extraordinary destructive, with both far more fuel available from the accumulated deadwood than would normally be the case and smaller trees which catch fire more easily and burn hotter (as anyone who has started a fire with kindling can attest to.) Additionally large trees which have spent hundreds of years surviving normal fires are no match for these super fires fueled by the proliferation of smaller trees and accumulated deadwood.
Obviously there are many ways to deal with this problem. There’s the logging I focused on in my previous post. Also you can be less aggressive in fighting fires. For example, if fires start naturally, you could let them burn. There are, however, several problems with this. To begin with we’re long past the point where we are dealing with “natural” fires. Most fires are going to be too hot and destructive to just leave alone. Also people find it extraordinarily difficult to not intervene. (Which is one of the first hints to where all this is headed.) Which takes us to...
III- Controlled Burns
As an alternative to just letting the fire burn as it naturally would you could try and manage the burn, not immediately put it out, but not let it get out of control either. All of the same difficulties present themselves along with a host of additional difficulties. By the time you discover the fire it may already be too late. It’s probably fire season and there are numerous fires to fight and we can’t spare the manpower to carefully manage them, but rather we need to extinguish them as soon as possible. Also fires are most likely to happen when conditions are dry and there’s more than the average amount of fuel which is the worst time to attempt any management of them.
The final option is scheduled, intentionally set, controlled burns, and in the wake of 4.4 million acres burned, $12 billion in property damage and 31 fatalities in 2020 (on top of 2 million acres, $26 billion and 103 fatalities in 2018) most people are asking why we don’t do more of them. Or as this article from ProPublica puts it, They Know How to Prevent Megafires. Why Won’t Anybody Listen?
This article contains a lot of interesting and frustrating observations, but let’s start with the answer of why there aren’t more scheduled, controlled burns. To begin with the article mentions how lucrative and exciting seasonal firefighting is, but:
By comparison, planning a prescribed burn is cumbersome. A wildfire is categorized as an emergency, meaning firefighters pull down hazard pay and can drive a bulldozer into a protected wilderness area where regulations typically prohibit mountain bikes. Planned burns are human-made events and as such need to follow all environmental compliance rules. That includes the Clean Air Act, which limits the emission of PM 2.5, or fine particulate matter, from human-caused events. In California, those rules are enforced by CARB, the state’s mighty air resources board, and its local affiliates. “I’ve talked to many prescribed fire managers, particularly in the Sierra Nevada over the years, who’ve told me, ‘Yeah, we’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars to get all geared up to do a prescribed burn,’ and then they get shut down.” Maybe there’s too much smog that day from agricultural emissions in the Central Valley, or even too many locals complain that they don’t like smoke. Reforms after the epic 2017 and 2018 fire seasons led to some loosening of the CARB/prescribed fire rules, but we still have a long way to go.
Of course it’s worth pointing out that the impact to air quality from what actually happened last year is vastly worse than whatever would have resulted from a controlled burn (and the reason the pictures are so breathtaking). Which presumably means that in the end, those who are worried about clean air made the wrong call.
I mentioned at the beginning that I was going to be drawing on my two previous posts. I’ve already made a connection to my discussion of Seeing Like a State, now it’s time to draw on my last post, Everything Should Be Made as Simple as Possible, but No Simpler. In that post I described three hierarchies of systems:
Let’s go through each of these with respect to wildfires:
Most people, including myself, are kind of fuzzy on how wildfires worked in a “state of nature”, and in retrospect I was negligent in not paying more attention to it when I last visited this issue. At the time I assumed, now that the problems of being too aggressive with wildfire suppression were blindingly obvious, that things have gotten better. That we had switched to focusing just on fires that were going to threaten houses. But the ProPublica article claims otherwise:
We keep doing overzealous fire suppression across California landscapes where the fire poses little risk to people and structures.
Well that seems misguided, but of greatest interest was the gap between where we are and where things were in the “unspoiled” past.
Academics believe that between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year in prehistoric California. Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned, on average, about 30,000 acres a year. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres.
So not only has the acreage of prescribed burns been going down over the last couple of decades, but also, even as bad as last year was, it was on the very lowest end of the estimate for the number of acres which burned historically.
I assume that comparing last year’s fires with historical fires is something of an apples and oranges comparison. Since last year’s fires were burning in areas with the aforementioned accumulation of fuel, while historical fires would have presumably been milder. Though if we’re trying to look on the bright side, we should at least be able to say we met our historical fire budget last year. But it’s also clear that it would be unthinkable to do that every year. Which is to say, even if we hadn’t drastically altered the makeup of the forests, the idea returning to the natural system is ludicrous.
Even if by this measurement we did meet our “burn budget” for 2020, we’re still left with the question of what we're supposed to do in all the other years? The gap between 13,000 acres and 4.4 million acres (to say nothing of 11.8 million) seems entirely unbridgeable. But we should still try, and this takes us to the other two systems: legible and controlled. Let’s start with controlled.
I would argue that when the ProPublica article describes the system where thousands of dollars can be spent preparing for a burn only to have it stopped because of air quality issues or complaints from local homeowners that this is the controlled system. The system which, as described in my last post, consists of layering on more rules: “If people are worried about the discretionary use of power, you need to make sure the decision-makers go through an elaborate compliance checklist.” Such a controlled system is exactly what you would expect from California, which leads all other states in the number of regulations it imposes. And also, just as you might expect, this system is not working. So if a natural system is inconceivable and a controlled system doesn’t work, what might a legible system look like?
I don’t know that I have the requisite expertise to answer that, and it’s somewhat tangential to the actual point of this post, but as long as we’re here I might as well offer an opinion. To begin with I think incentives should be better aligned such that more money and prestige is available for prescribed fires i.e. more focus on preventing less on curing. And further that prescribed fires should be exempt from air quality regulations, or at least the bar for preventing them should be much, much higher. Finally I would urge people to remember that a legible system is not the perfectly just system, it’s not even the perfect system, it’s just a system that will get used. But it turns out, somewhat paradoxically, that making things simple can be quite complicated.
IV- Our Other Attempts at Controlling Nature
I have spent so much time on the subject of managing wildfires because it’s fascinating, and also because I assume that many people, after reading my review of Seeing Like a State and hearing about the scientific forestry debacle of late 18th century Prussia, would assume that we can’t possibly be doing something similar, and yet, the management of wildfires would seem to be a failure of almost exactly the same sort, going so far as to also center on controlling the natural life cycle of forests. Does the discussion serve any purpose beyond that? Well while I have already admitted that I don’t have the expertise to talk about a legible system for fighting fires, I am very interested in fighting political unrest. And I sense there are parallels between what’s happening to our country, what the Last Psychiatrist described as happening with parents, and what’s happening with wildfires.
In the case of parenting, interestingly enough, the parent stands in for both those perpetrating the unrest and those trying to control the unrest. You might say that the parent is the country while the children he inconsistently parents are nature, and after attempting to maintain calm for so long, now we’re at the end of our rope, where all it takes is split milk to set us off. That we now suffer paroxysms of rage around mask wearing. And even the other stuff, like the actual pandemic, racial injustice, and election malfeasance are things we dealt with much more calmly in the past, even though it was all happening on a much larger scale. Both parenting and wildfires suffer from trying to impose too much control.
The parent assumes that if they are always in control that they’ll achieve better outcomes, but they can’t always be in control, and on the rare occasions when they’re not it wipes out all the benefits (which were questionable already) of those periods when they were calm. The Forest Service assumed that if they immediately took control of fires that they would have better outcomes, sadly it worked exactly the opposite. Now we’re in a situation where we have some ideas for making it better, but it’s not just wildfires we’re trying to control, we also want to control air quality and public opinion. So what are we trying to control in politics? Well similarly, a lot of things, but foremost among them, it appears that we are trying to control bad opinions, all the way down to the level of microaggressions. We don’t just want to keep our child from stealing we want to keep them from rolling their eyes behind our backs as well. That, as I mentioned when reviewing Seeing Like a State, we’re trying to get rid of all of the awful underbrush and create forests with straight lines of perfect trees.
Now perhaps even though we haven’t succeeded in doing this as parents, or with fighting fires, that we’ll nevertheless succeed at doing this politically. Perhaps, having driven bad thoughts from mainstream media to Fox, and more recently from Fox to OANN and NewsMax, that we are just one step away from driving them out of the country entirely. Perhaps having driven “the crazies” from Twitter to Parler and now having shut down Parler, we can declare victory. We have extinguished the big wildfire and all future wildfires will be small and easily managed. Society has regained its calm and now all issues, including our misbehaving children, will be treated with dispassion. It’s always possible this is how the rest of the decade will go, but this doesn’t seem to be how things are playing out. Merely expressing disapproval for certain opinions doesn’t make them go away. The measures which we have adopted may slow the transmission of such ideas, or peel off individuals whose fidelity was only lukewarm, but as I pointed out, the underbrush that’s left will be of the hardiest and most noxious varieties. And if it gets even the smallest opening it will overwhelm your carefully curated rows of trees. Or start a new fire in some undetected part of the forest that will be raging out of control by the time you discover it.
Trump is the perfect example of this effect. Going into 2016 it seemed that things were calm. And all manner of bad thoughts like racism and being against immigration had been banished from the halls of government, even among Republicans. And when Trump came along the idea that he would win the Republican Nomination to say nothing of the presidency was considered akin to his chances of playing in the NBA Finals. But as it turned out, it was a hot, dry summer in California, and over the years a huge amount of deadwood had accumulated and Trump was not just a match, he was a flamethrower, and more importantly a flamethrower who got 74 million votes. And perhaps we just need to pass more laws, and kick more social media platforms off of AWS, and the calm we hope for will return, and those 74 million people will vote for Mitt Romney in 2024. I doubt it, and is that more likely if Romney runs on the same platform as he ran on in 2012? Or is it more likely if he adopts some of Trump’s policies, like building the wall, but perhaps without Trump’s special brand of flamboyance? Should we prefer this Romney to Don Jr. running? What exactly are we hoping will happen in 2024?
All of which is to say, I’m not arguing that the wildfire currently raging is good. I’m just arguing that it exists, and that previous methods of fighting it have very probably made it worse. And now we need to ask, what represents a prescribed burn in this analogy? What would represent good parenting? This is a vast topic, and deserves more space than I have left, but let me just offer one example. It seems clear to me that in the past free speech has served in this role. And I’m fully aware that this time when we prepared to do our prescribed burn, as we have in the past, we found that Mark Zuckerburg had poured gasoline on all the accumulated deadwood and Jack Dorsey had used a helicopter to scatter cherry bombs in the area. And as a consequence, free speech isn’t looking so hot (get it?). But we still need a system. We have ruled out allowing nature to operate unchecked, and on the opposite side our attempts at a controlled solution, at extinguishing all fires as soon as they appear is even worse.
What we need is a legible system, and as it turns out free speech is legible. Under the three standards I brought up in the last post it is both accessible, accountable and achievable. Though, as with the other systems we looked at, the accountability does need some work. And insofar as the internet has changed things it has strengthened accessibility at the expense of accountability. And yes, free speech is another fire, but the point of all of this is that we need small, manageable fires if we want to keep giant conflagrations from consuming everything.
Lest there be any confusion, my parents were fantastic. I was a little shit, but they were great and continue to be great. In fact they even donate my patreon. If you want to be as great as they are, consider doing the same.