Up a Tree
The following story is about a man who’s been living in trees. But it’s really about something more psychological, that has a grave impact on philosophical and theological discussions. Can you figure out what it is, before the reveal?
Above is a video of environmental activist Josh Eng climbing into his home in the treetops. When I first heard this story last month, he’d been up in the trees with his friends for nearly 10 weeks.
He and his friends are living in these trees in order to stall or prevent logging projects on a small grove recently purchased by a private logging company.
But there’s a twist.
The manner in which this logging would take place is by a strategy called “variable retention.” Variable retention projects are designed by forestry ecologists to harvest selectively, in order to simulate natural events like wildfires — which we stop every year in Oregon, but which have the beneficial consequence of promoting diverse and vibrant forest ecosystems. This project in specific was designed by university professors with “long track record[s] in conservation.”
Variable retention is annoying for logging companies. It’s “more laborious, tedious, time-consuming, and expensive than clear-cutting.” But it’s a workable solution in places where harvesting and conservation often butt heads.
When asked about the fact that this environmentally-friendly strategy would be employed at the new purchase, Eng replied, “It would be a real heartbreaking thing to see it go the way of a variable retention harvest,” his words soaked with derision.
When I heard this story, I had a disheartening realization: This man and his friends have been living up in the treetops, cold and bored, for over 2 months. It doesn’t matter if variable retention is ecologically friendly, but let’s assume it is. How could they possibly admit that their cause was needless?
This story powerfully illustrates how loss-aversion — where “having been mistaken all along” is an extraordinarily potent sort of loss — can build not just a sandbag, but a bastion against competing argumentation.
The further up the tree you go, and the more effort you expend, the worse the “friction” becomes. By “friction” I mean “memetic friction” — the tendency to get rooted to local maxima (“decent-looking ideas that may not be the best ideas”) because you don’t have enough mutative power to leave.
You know the saying. “A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush.” You also know the refrain that begins so many of our contemplations: “I’d sure be an idiot if…”
That psychological quirk of loss-aversion — life-and-death useful long ago when catching birds was a matter of survival — affects even the learned, intelligent, and confident in the worlds of philosophy and theology.
The original story from OPB Radio, by Amelia Templeton and Tony Schick. This post uses their images and video.
Wikipedia: “Variable Retention.“