Save the Species, Save your Interns

I’m particularly ashamed of having once jumped out of a car. It had stalled near the top of a very steep and very tall hill, the brakes appeared not to be working, and it was beginning to accelerate backwards. Luckily, this car also lacked doors and seatbelts so jumping out of it was easy. Unluckily, I forgot that my boss was in the passenger seat until I was on my ass in the dirt and desperately yelling for her to jump out too. Thankfully she also managed to jump to safety although her bruises ended up being worse than mine were, which didn’t help my feelings of shame at having behaved in such a decidedly unheroic manner. When an employee from the NGO that loaned us the car came to extract it from the ditch it ended up stuck in, he took the opportunity to mock my driving skills and contemptible cowardice, but not to apologize for the state of the car’s brakes. Such is life, such is field work.

It is well known that ecology and conservation frequently financially mistreat their youngest participants. Unpaid internships and “pay for the privilege of working for us” internships abound and all but the poorest, luckiest, or most gifted of young conservationists have usually participated in at least one of these. The fact that young conservationists frequently put our bodies as well as our bank accounts in danger is less frequently discussed, but no less of a problem. It is also something that all ecologists and conservationists should work to address.

Some element of risk is inherent in ecological and conservation field work. The woods or the ocean will always be less-controlled environments than offices and certainly feature more unmarked hazards and wild animals. When things do go wrong, definitive medical care may also be far away. This means that the people drawn to this type of work will probably always be more risk tolerant than the general population. This does not mean, however, that young employees could not be made safer with good risk minimization plans, even if we don’t always realize we need them. Known hazards should be considered and planned for accordingly so employees and volunteers don’t find themselves doing things like walking the beach in a lighting storm or trying to contend with an aggressive guard-dog occupying their bed[1]. Equipment should also be properly maintained to avoid catastrophic failures and “car rolling backwards down the hill” type situations. Employees should also be informed of probable hazards and trained to properly respond to them. Finally, if employees do not feel safe they should be encouraged to say so and these complaints should be handled with compassion rather than disdain or indifference.

Operating within a research or conservation project can sometimes lead to a toxic distortion of priorities where risk and discomfort are seen as necessary or even desirable sacrifices in the name of scientific discovery or “saving the Earth”. There is no reason, however, why we cannot conduct science and save species without taking unacceptable risks. Even if those of us who now have supervisory roles cannot be motivated to make this changes by compassion for our subordinates, perhaps because we feel we endured worse ourselves, we should do so for our own self-protection. None of us would enjoy having to explain how a subordinate came to be injured (or worse) to the public, their family, or a cross-examining attorney. A guiding company I once worked for advised me to “picture myself on the witness stand” when making decisions that affected participant safety. Ecologists and conservationists would also do well to heed this advice.

[1] I am aware that both of these examples are dramatic, but it’s also true that I have experienced them both personally.


New Year’s Resolution: Let’s Express Affection How People Would Like to Receive It

Imagine for a moment that there was a culture where it was common to greet people by giving them a vigorous noogie. I think most of us would not appreciate this custom and if we managed to make a friend from this hypothetical culture we would probably ask him/her to not greet us in the traditional way. We would also probably not respond well to our friend’s protests of “but I do it because I like you, you should be happy about it.”

Thankfully, as far as I know, noogies are not any adult’s standard form of greeting, but I have encountered people who seem to insist on giving hugs, social kisses, or embarrassing nicknames whether the intended recipient wants them or not. When called out on this they make the same argument as the hypothetical member of the noogie tribe and defend their intentions, while ignoring the effect of their actions. Let’s stop this in 2018.

I am certain that most  insistent huggers/kissers/nicknamers/etc are not actively trying to make people uncomfortable, because most of you are not horrible people. That said, your unwanted expression of affection may make the recipient feel pretty horrible. Best case scenario they decide you have a really annoying habit, bad case scenario they start disliking you as a person, absolute worst case scenario you’ve triggered a particularly traumatic memory and wrecked their whole day. Also “okay I won’t express affection that way to traumatized people” is not a valid response, because you never know somebody’s whole story.

Finally, I must address the physical contact inflictors specifically. Yes, you may be right that certain people or societies are “repressed” when it comes to touch or don’t have a very good understanding that touch is not inherently sexual. This still does not mean you get to touch people without their permission, and it especially does not mean you should keep touching people in ways they have objected to. If anything this is likely to make both them and their society more hostile to physical affection.  If someone reacts to your hug as if it’s a noogie or tells you that they don’t want you to play with their ‘fro, accept it and find some other way of letting them know that you think that they are awesome and so is their hair.

Unfortunately humans are pretty good at offending one another. This becomes even more fraught when different cultures with different ideas of what is complimentary or insulting and different ideas about personal space are thrown into the mix. Unfortunately we will all probably still occasionally express affection in ways that are poorly received by accident. Let’s try not to offend people on purpose too. I wish you all an awesome 2018 filled with affection expressed in the ways you would like to receive it and not in the ways you would not.

Civilization through Female Authority and Male Submission

  • Warning: May contain satire
  • If this essay offends you or makes you question my sanity, please know that I don’t actually believe this and am merely making a point of how ridiculous certain conservative publications are by using their writing style to support a caricature of radical feminism.
  • Anyone tempted to seriously argue with this is missing the point.


“God gave men both a penis and a brain, but unfortunately not enough blood supply to run both at the same time.”

Robin Williams


Radical meninists believe women should submit to men because, the average man would win a one-on-one fight with the average woman. No civilized country, however, settles the question of leadership in the UFC octagon or by any other type of athletic contest. In fact, most modern world leaders are well past their physical prime, and few people of any political affiliation complain about this. Clearly the custom of making the strongest member of the tribe the default chief has gone the way of hunting the neighbors for food.

The question then is: How do we determine authority if not by strength? Choosing the most rational and moral individuals to lead seems logical. If this is our standard then we must choose women who are naturally more rational and moral than men.

Men can become irrationally angry sometimes.

The quote from Robin Williams has already alluded to the tendency of men to become irrationally sexually distracted. Sometimes the consequences of this are no worse than men degrading themselves to flirt with obviously disinterested women. Some men, however, evidently turn into lust-driven rape beasts at the mere sight of an attractive young woman in a miniskirt. Anyone this easily driven to bestial behavior should not be placed in a position of authority. Furthermore, male irrationality does not extend only to sex. Think of how many men have broken their hands while punching walls in fits of rage and how few women have made this same foolish error.

Women are also evolutionarily programmed to be more moral than men. While men seek violence and chaos women seek order and peace. The reason for this is linked to human reproductive biology. A woman must endure nine months of pregnancy to produce a child, while at least some men make their only contribution in less than a minute. To successfully pass on her genes to many descendants a woman must live a very long life, something that is more easily accomplished in a peaceful orderly society than a violent and chaotic one. Men, however, can benefit from chaos by taking the opportunity to impregnate as many women as possible, with or without their consent, over a short time scale. Men who practice this strategy to may leave behind many descendants, but create a Hobbesian nightmare where the lives of most people are “nasty, brutish, and short”.

The superior morality and rationality of women makes “the fairer sex” naturally better suited for authority, but what complementary role should be given to men? Men seem uniquely suited to the role of domestic helpmates. Their superior strength is much more constructively used for helping bring their wives plans to fruition than for starting wars and punching walls. To this end men should be encouraged to marry young before both their physical strength and sperm motility start declining. While some misguided washed-up overweight meninists may complain that this interferes with men’s ‘fulfilling’, but frivolous education, career, or travel plans real men are notably happier when married than when single. The shorter life span and self-destructive habits or divorcés also shows what happens when a man is left without female guidance and supervision.

It is in the interest of a peaceful and rational society as well as male and female well-being for male to accept their roles as helpmates to their “queens of the castle”. Anything else risks returning to the social chaos of the stone age.

No, Science Does Not Say There Are Only Two Genders

This sign is wrong.

One of the Conservative criticisms of the generally left-leaning March for Science is the refusal of many modern scientists to embrace the so-called fact that “there are only two genders”. The problem with this criticism is that it is not based on fact at all.

While used interchangeably in casual speech, sex and gender are not really the same thing. Sex refers to an organism’s reproductive structures, which are determined by hormones and chromosomes. Gender refers to a role that a human[1] takes in their society, which is often, but not always, determined by sex. While modern Conservatives may prefer a society that has only two genders that are always determined by a person’s sex[2], not all human societies agree with that (this can be explored at ). Science generally and anthropology specifically therefore says that “there are as many genders as society says there are.”

The question then moves from “how many genders are there?” to “how many genders should society allow?” and “who is allowed to identify as what gender?”. While Conservatives have made their preferences quite clear on that subject, they have not presented convincing arguments for why society should conform to their preferences. Thus far two arguments have been advanced. The first is the vicious lie that allowing transgender people to use bathrooms designated for the opposite sex puts children or cis-women in danger of sexual assault by trans-people (Brady 2016). The second argument is the fact that it can be confusing to keep track of the seemingly ever-expanding number genders other than masculine/male and feminine/female and the pronouns that people in those genders may prefer.

The idea that transgender people represent a threat to cis-gender people has already been disproven (Brady 2016) so there is no need to engage with it further. The fact that keeping track of people’s gender and pronoun preferences can be confusing, is not a good reason to fail to accommodate them within reason. Our society already accommodates dietary preferences, both religious and otherwise, even if we do not find veganism or the idea that pork is “unclean” ethically or theologically compelling. We have also learned to accept the occasional turban, hijab, or yarmulke in an otherwise “no-hats” workplace. Referring to someone by their preferred gender and pronoun really is not any more difficult.

While most humans belong to one of two sexes, gender is socially variable and there does not seem to be any social disadvantage to multiple genders or people identifying as a gender that does not “match” their sex. As a result, from this scientist’s perspective the answer to “how many genders should society allow?” is “as many as people want to have” and the answer to “who is allowed to identify as what gender?” is “every person can decide for themself[3]”. While not a scientific principle per se, “live and let live” is a highly rational philosophy.


Anonymous. “A Map of Gender Diverse Cultures” PBS Accessed 24-Apr-2017

Brady, J. 15-May-2016. “When A Transgender Person Uses A Public Bathroom, Who Is At Risk?” NPR. Accessed 24-Apr-2017

Gruber, K. 23-Sep-2016. “Five wild lionesses grow a mane and start acting like males”. New Scientist Accessed 24-Apr-2017

Marshall, M. 9-Nov-2011. “Zoologger: The only cross-dressing bird of prey”. New Scientist. Accessed 24-Apr-2017

[1] Although there are reports of female lions that act like males (Gruber 2016) and male harriers that act like females (Marshall 2011).

[2] They seem to ignore the fact that not all humans are XX females or XY males.

[3] This seems like a good time for the singular “they”.

Social Justice and the Zombie Apocalypse (Based on a Conversation with Levi Lewis)

In 1974, Garrett Hardin published his controversial essay “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor” in Psychology Today. In this essay, he argues that rich countries should neither give food aid to poor countries nor should they allow people from those countries to “come to the food” by immigrating to rich countries. While many find this policy immoral, Hardin contends that efforts to relieve starvation in the short run do nothing to change the unsustainable population growth of poor countries and lead to greater harm in the long run as the demands of increasing numbers of poor people begin to outstrip the entire planet’s supply of resources. Hardin compares the citizens of rich countries to the passengers of a nearly-full lifeboat surrounded by multitudes of drowning swimmers, where allowing more people to board would risk swamping the lifeboat and dooming everybody. He asserts that just as in the lifeboat situation it would be moral to prevent additional swimmers from boarding, it is moral for the rich to deny the poor the “lifeline” of food aid or immigration.


While some individuals find Hardin’s analogy compelling, and English landlords during the Great Irish Famine would certainly have appreciated it, it makes some important and inaccurate simplifications. The first is that on a lifeboat the main limiting resource is space, something that each passenger uses roughly the same amount of. On our planet however, space is not the primary limiting factor. We are much more limited by food, water, and energy, which rich and poor people use in vastly different quantities. In fact, in 1999, it was estimated that the richest 16% of the world’s population consumed 80% of its natural resources (Utley 12-Oct-1999). If the richest 16% of people were willing to take steps to correct this imbalance and live a somewhat less luxurious, but by no means food-insecure, lifestyle at least some of those currently starving could be adequately fed. While Hardin claims that the “lifeboat” of food-security is already filled to capacity by passengers, it seems that in reality some of the “space” is taken up by the equivalent of Louis Vuitton suitcases that could be thrown overboard to make room for additional people and save additional lives.


Hardin’s second oversimplification may be even more misleading than his first. In his lifeboat example, any people denied boarding will have no means of retaliation, at least not on this side of eternity. The passengers will remain perfectly safe as the swimmers drown all around them. There are reasons to suspect, however, that the rich will not remain safe while the poor starve. Not everyone denied food aid or the opportunity to immigrate dies instantly[1] and some of the survivors may resent those who could have helped them and did not. Enough resentful survivors could represent a serious security risk to the rich countries that expected them to quietly starve to death. Perhaps a better analogy than a lifeboat after a shipwreck would be a well-stocked fortress at the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. While the gatekeepers can turn those seeking shelter away, and may have justifiable reasons for doing so, there is no guarantee those denied entry will not come back later, perhaps in a much more dangerous form[2]. While Hardin is correct to point out that there are ecological risks to aid policies designed to help the poor, refusing to help is not a perfectly safe option.


While the concept of “Lifeboat Ethics” makes for a good catch phrase it ignores the fact that modern food shortages are due to inequitable distribution rather than global shortage and neglects some very frightening security implications. While many people have legitimate fears about the ecological consequences of an increasing human population, those concerns should not be used as an excuse to behave like a 19th century absentee landlord. Instead, let us try to prevent women from being forced to breed either by rape or by forced marriage and to make family planning safer and more widely available. Hardinian thinking should be thrown out of the lifeboat along with those Louis Vuitton suitcases.



Hardin, G. Sep-1974. “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor” (Accessed 4-Apr-2017).

Utley, G. 12-Oct-1999. “World’s wealthiest 16 percent uses 80 percent of natural resources”. CNN (Accessed 4-Apr-2017)

[1] Anyone who uses this as justification for not helping the poor should really try to be more compassionate.

[2] This analogy is for explanatory purposes only. Obviously poor people do not actually resemble zombies.

If we Do Not Play God we Play the Devil

We can only be one or the other

The Anthropocene[1] has arrived and with it have come warming temperatures, rising and acidifying seas, and numerous species extinctions. There is no doubt that our species created this new epoch, but there is certainly a question of what to do now that it is here. I do not claim to know what the answer is, but I do feel pretty confident saying that the answer is not to use the excuse of “not wanting to play God” as an all-powerful thunderbolt to smite down any and all proposed conservation, restoration, and adaptation measures. At this point if we refuse to “play God” we choose to play the devil by default.


It is certainly valid to criticize ecosystem management and climate change mitigation plans based on their perceived likelihood of success or their risk to benefit ratio. For example attempting to imitate the temporary cooling effects of large volcanic eruptions by injecting sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere is a terrible idea, because it is likely to increase drought risk by weakening the Asian monsoons (Oman et al. 2005) and will do nothing to remedy the problem of ocean acidification. In the case of other attempts at large-scale ecosystem restoration, however, the benefits outweigh the risks. One famous example is the re-building of the formerly severely degraded ecosystems on Southern California’s Channel Islands. This heroic effort involved eradicating all of the introducedrats, pigs, sheep, and turkeys; re-introducing bald eagles after DDT led to their disappearance from the islands in the 1950s; trapping and relocating the golden eagles that moved into the islands to feed on piglets and island foxes in the bald eagle’s absence; and capturing large numbers of island foxes for captive-breeding and later reintroduction once they were no longer in danger from death from above[2].

Channel Island fox and native vegetation. Image from Wikipedia.

Those involved in this monumental feat of ecosystem restoration were accused of “playing God” by their detractors, but ultimately these “deity wannabes” succeeded. Today on the Channel Islands birds are safe from predation by rats, plants are recovering from decades of overgrazing, and island foxes have become sufficiently abundant to be removed from the endangered species list. Had decisions been guided by a fear of playing God rather than the hope for healthier ecosystems, island foxes would likely be extinct by now and the islands would be increasingly barren. Clearly Edmund Burke was right when he said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Furthermore it is fundamentally hypocritical on the part of humanity to claim that aggressive steps to save ecosystems are trespassing on God’s domain, but that aggressively, but perhaps ignorantly, destroying ecosystems is perfectly kosher. Humans have drained wetlands, leveled forests, dammed rivers, blasted coral reefs, and otherwise altered ecosystems to suit our own needs at the expense of the rest of creation. If these acts have not inspired God to set the (literal) horsemen of the apocalypse on us I am sure (s)he can forgive or even bless us for using our current scientific and technological might to repair some of the damage our species has done in the past. I am no scholar of religion, but the Bible seems to place a lot of importance on restitution for past sins. Let us not use a foolish principle as an excuse to not clean up the mess we have made.

Unfortunately, however, humans do have some distinct disadvantages when compared to deities. We are neither all-knowing nor all-powerful. Some of our efforts to restore ecosystems may backfire and end up causing further damage instead. To compensate for our fallibility we must carefully consider the impacts of any restoration or mitigation plan prior to putting it into practice. Once a plan is in practice we must carefully monitor its effects and be ready to make changes if necessary. There also may also be a certain upcoming environmental catastrophes that humans, clever as we are, cannot invent our way out of. Recognizing these to avoid fighting unwinnable battles will also be critical. Just because some battles are unwinnable, however, does not mean that other environmental triumphs cannot be won through determination, creativity, and hard work. It is better to “play God” than to do nothing and allow the diabolical consequences of degradation to prevail on our planet.


Oman, L., Robock, A., Stenchikov, G., Schmidt, G. A., & Ruedy, R. (2005). Climatic response to high‐latitude volcanic eruptions. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, 110(D)

[1] The geological era in which human activity is the dominant influence on the climate and environment.

[2] Golden eagles eat foxes, but bald eagles do not and the presence of bald eagles and the absence of lambs and piglets have prevented golden eagles from returning to the Channel Islands.

Open Letter to Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan

Dear Mr. Speaker:

According to the news reports I have seen lately you are currently in the process of deciding whether or not to endorse Donald Trump. I am writing to request that you refuse to endorse this dangerous demagogue. I know that as an oceanography PhD student I cannot claim to know more than the Speaker of the House about politics or governance, but I make this request not as a politician or an activist, but as a patriot and a person of conscience.

The truest form of patriotism is the willingness to put the interest of one’s country before one’s own interest and certainly before the interest of any particular political faction. This sort of patriotism was what drove the men of the 442nd Infantry Regiment to serve their country bravely during World War II even after the US government had unjustly relocated their families to internment camps. This patriotism and commitment to the belief that “all men are created equal” is what inspired heroic white civil rights activists to join heroic Black civil rights activists in protesting segregation, at great risk to their reputations and even their lives, even though they were not personally harmed by such a system. This was the sense of patriotism that inspired President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964 even though he knew that doing so would cost the Democratic Party the support it had enjoyed from Southern whites since the end of Reconstruction. And this is the sort of patriotism I am asking you to show by refusing to endorse Mr. Trump.

I am aware that if you make the heroic decision to repudiate this Mussolini-quoting, race-baiting, misogynist you will face a certain amount of criticism from the cult of personality he has assembled, but I think we both agree that insults are less intimidating than either Axis bullets or lynch mobs. You, Mr. Speaker, have the rare opportunity to help defend our country against a thin-skinned would-be American Putin without exposing yourself or your family to any physical danger. I sincerely hope you have the courage to take this opportunity and help prevent Mr. Trump from occupying the highest office in our (still) great nation.

I also understand that certain members of your party have been willing to endorse Mr. Trump, because they see him as the only way to allow a Republican to control the White House for the first time in eight years, but allowing someone of such appallingly bad judgment to lead our country just to advance the fortunes of a political party is unconscionable. Mr. Trump has attempted to divide the American public along racial and religious lines, has threatened to curtail freedom of the press, lies continuously in public statements, traffics in conspiracy theories, advocates torture in clear violation of the eighth amendment of the US Constitution, and was recently praised by North Korean state media. This is not the type of person we want leading our country.

I sincerely hope that you will refuse to endorse Mr. Trump. It may be necessary to accept some short setbacks for your political career and your party in order to avoid the long-term damage that would be inflicted on this country by a Trump presidency.

Thank You and God Bless America:
Abigail Libbin Cannon

New Year’s Resolution for 2016: Let’s Stop Criticizing People’s Looks

I’ll start this one by airing my own hypocrisy. I recently compared Donald Trump’s hair to a dead cat on Twitter. It was unnecessary and I regret doing so. I should have saved my criticism for his racism, xenophobia, and willingness to lie blatantly and repeatedly to the American people.

Thankfully, however, this post is not primarily about Donald Trump. It’s about the tendency of all of us to claim that the people we disagree with are ugly. I know that when I say I’m a feminist certain people will assume that I have a face like Medusa, legs like Chewbacca, and a body like Jabba the Hutt. Unfortunately, as justifiably aggravated as many feminists are with this offensive and inaccurate stereotype, we often resort to similar tactics. This leads some of us to categorize all anti-feminists as chubby, pasty, neck-bearded subhumans, which is both generally untrue and unhelpful to our cause.

The first reason we should refrain from snarking on people’s looks is that we wouldn’t enjoy having it done to us. We have made it abundantly clear that we don’t think “fat-shaming” or “skinny shaming” is appropriate when applied to us so we must also refrain from treating our detractors this way. If we’re hoping for a future where people aren’t distracted from rational debate by flab-pulling and zit-squeezing, let’s work to create it now by attacking our opponents’ ideas rather than their waistlines.

Furthermore, insulting those with whom we disagree only makes our own causes look weak. Good debaters know that if someone has to resort to insulting an opponent, particularly an opponent’s appearance, it is a sign that the insulter is too mentally feeble or defending a cause too unworthy to come up with a legitimate counter-argument. As it turns out, how easy or hard someone is on the eyes has very little to do with whether we should open our ears to what they have to say.

Finally, appearance based insults seem not to be a very effective way to reduce enthusiasm for people we disagree with anyway. Contrary to my initial plans, my critique of Trump’s coiffure has not crashed his campaign. Conservatives have also spent two decades proclaiming their disgust for Hillary Clinton’s appearance, but her continued political relevance shows how ineffective this tactic has been.
I’m certain that 2016 will give liberals and conservatives, feminists and anti-feminists plenty to fight about, but let’s not let physical appearance be one of those things. Doing so is irrelevant, ineffective, and degrading to us all.

A Cultural Guide to Coastal Californians

goldenstate          Adjusting to foreign cultures can be challenging for some people. I’ve learned from experience that Costa Ricans are unlikely to correct your Spanish if they think your mistakes are funny, even when you end up saying “Cogí muchos peces hoy” (I fucked a lot of fish today) when you’re trying to for “Agarré muchos peces hoy” (I caught a lot of fish today), and Japan is not a good place to talk back to your parents in public[1]. I’ve also learned that many non-Californians experience culture shock when visiting the Golden State or are confused by the behavior of Californians they meet outside the state. As a Native Californian[2] I feel I should help explain things to those not fortunate enough to have been born on the “edge of the world and all of Western Civilization”[3]. The behavior of Coastal Californians can be understood through the context of our cultural tendencies of informality, equality, hyper-individualism, superficiality, and chillness.


Silicon Valley tech types are already notorious for wearing hoodies to business meetings, but this tendency towards informality seems to have extended to Californians of all social levels. Many of us count flip flops as formal wear or wear yoga pants to work. This informality also extends to speech patterns and the only people Californians, including young children, routinely address as Ms. or Mr. are schoolteachers. Calling someone, other than perhaps a police officer, Sir or Mam can also be interpreted as an age-based insult. Non-Californians should not take it as an affront if a Californian initially fails to comply with a dress code, but should feel free to use the Californian’s first name when asking him/her to find different shoes.


While race and class based differences in opportunity exist in California, we don’t like to admit this. We are even more loath to presume ourselves to be above anybody else or for anyone to think they are above us. This is why we don’t give direct orders unless we consider a situation to be critical and why the British concept that individuals should “know their place” is viewed with outright hostility. This is also why Californians are so proud of our state’s reputation for tolerance of the entire spectrum of races, cultures, and sexual orientations.


While Californians tend to be politically liberal, we’re not big collectivists, as the unfortunate number of anti-vaxxers in our ranks should prove. While not unwilling to help others, we resent anyone who we feel makes unreasonable demands on our time and energy or claims that we owe them assistance. This also makes us reluctant to ask others for any difficult favors, but especially grateful for any help we do receive. This means nobody should expect to crash at a Californian’s house without asking first and should not even ask to borrow our cars for any extended period of time. We try to pay back and favors we do receive and if we cannot reciprocate in kind we may offer money to the friend who helped repair our computer or dive gear and it surprises us that non-Californians sometimes take offense at this.

This hyper-individualism can also be seen in the idealization of non-conformity among Coastal Californians. Many of us are more interested in “doing our own thing” than either leading or following. Eccentricity is seen as a virtue so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. Many different lifestyles are seen as equally valid, and a comparatively high number of us belong to religions that our parents do not.


My fellow Coastal Californians aren’t going to appreciate this, but we do have a tendency to value form over function. In spite of our informality we would rather wear a stylish Patagonia fleece to work than a cheap one from Old Navy. Californians also put more value on our own physical appearances than do most other humans. The upside of our concern with appearance is that we are more likely to exercise and wear sunscreen and less likely to smoke, but the downside of our concern with appearance is that we’re also more likely to spend obscene amounts of money on clothing or plastic surgery and to fear the natural results of aging the way others fear cancer. We consider it extremely rude to say anything negative about someone’s physical appearance, because we would be devastated to hear the same thing said about ourselves. In other words you won’t find out that we’ve noticed that you gained weight until after we congratulate you for losing it.

Coastal Californians also have trouble forming deep emotional connections with other unrelated humans unless we are sleeping with them, and sometimes not even then. Luckily for us we’re tolerant of non-monogamous lifestyles so we can make as many deep emotional connections as we find necessary. This also often leads us to assume that any man who calls any other non-related man every week is in a homosexual relationship. Nobody will think any less of him for this, but he may be frustrated by a lack of female flirtation if he turns out to actually be straight.


Where chillness lies on the emotional spectrum.
Where chillness lies on the emotional spectrum.
How Californians vs. Non-Californians react to irritation
How Californians vs. Non-Californians react to irritation

If California had commandments our first would be “Always be chill.” “Chill” can be described as happier than average, but not ecstatically so. This can also make us appear to be stoned even when we aren’t and it’s an attitude that most people already associate with our state. What non-Californians have a bit more trouble understanding is the consequences that the desire to maintain chillness has on other aspects of our behavior. Apparently non-Californians engage in a strange behavior where their level of expressed anger or displeasure at a stimulus correlates to its severity. Among Coastal Californians anger is binary; while the switch between off and on is not easy to flip, because being a hothead is extremely un-chill, once flipped a formerly civilized Californian transitions almost instantly from Green Goddess to the Incredible Hulk. While some may feel vindicated to know that Coastal Californians do have a dark side buried beneath the laid back exterior, it’s inadvisable to attempt to demonstrate this. Californians also tend to erroneously expect others to have this same binary response, which is why when non-Californians express more reasonable levels of anger to us we tend to assume that person now has an issue with us permanently unless we are informed otherwise.

The behavior of Coastal Californians, like the behavior of anyone else, makes more sense if one understands the cultural context that it occurs in. I hope this can help non-Californians be a little less confused when they visit our state, although since I value equality I would never insist that they assimilate completely, and I’ll be chill about it unless they act like they’re better than me or call me fat.

[1] The whole restaurant fell silent.

[2] Does not have the same connotation as Native American or Native Hawaiian.

[3] From “Californication” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers

Don’t Try this at Home, Or Abroad Either

Lions hunting, not being hunted, in Namibia's Etosha National Park. Spring 2010.
Lions hunting, not being hunted, in Namibia’s Etosha National Park. Spring 2010.

Cecil the lion was relatively famous, at least by lion standards, in life, but anti-trophy hunting sentiments have turned him into the most macabre sort of dead celebrity. Rumors are flying, but we do know that Dr. Walter Palmer paid roughly $54,000 for the ‘privilege’ of traveling to Zimbabwe and shooting a lion. It has been alleged that Dr. Palmer’s guides lured Cecil out of the Hwange National Park with bait so Dr. Palmer could shoot him with a crossbow. The Zimbabwean government is claiming that to do so was illegal and Dr. Palmer has responded by throwing his hunting guides under the safari jeep and claiming that he had counted on them to secure the necessary permits and make sure his hunt was conducted lawfully and that any illegal actions are their fault and not his.

The problem with this argument is that anybody who knows anything about Africa knows that Zimbabwe is hardly the land of law and order. Wildlife poaching is rampant (Wadhams 1-August-2007), hyperinflation has led to the complete collapse of the currency, and the government is notoriously corrupt and repressive and is headed by Robert Mugabe who feeds off his people like a vampire[1] and serves up his country’s endangered species at official banquets. Dr. Palmer’s excuse of “I trusted my guides to conduct the hunt legally” rings about as hollow the claim of “The pimps told me that the girls were over 18 and not trafficked” made by somebody caught with his pants down in a Bangkok brothel.

The inaccurately named "White Lady" (thought to actually depict a male shaman) pictograph is believed to be around 2000 years old. Unfortunately it has faded considerably due to tourists pouring water on it in order to make the colors more brilliant for pictures. Brandberg, Namibia, Spring 2010.
The inaccurately named “White Lady” (thought to actually depict a male shaman) pictograph is believed to be around 2000 years old. Unfortunately it has faded considerably due to tourists pouring water on it in order to make the colors temporarily more brilliant for pictures. Brandberg, Namibia, Spring 2010.

It’s easy to condemn the behavior of scummy sex tourists and privileged poachers, and they certainly deserve it, but all travelers would do well to think on the sins we may have committed while abroad. Many of us from North America and Western Europe behave differently when in countries with different laws, laxer enforcement, or just where we think any bad reputation we acquire with the locals will not be able to follow us home. This can be seen in the behavior of surfers who will drive drunk in Ensenada, but never in Encinitas, backpackers who buy pieces of endangered species or ancient artifacts as curios, adventurers who trespass into sacred or ecologically sensitive sites, because apparently their desire to “really see” them outweighs the importance of any efforts to minimize impacts, and partiers who start yelling in the international language of drunks at 3am, because they’ve forgotten that not everybody in San Juan del Sur is on vacation.

While committing these misdeeds is less likely to land anyone in the middle of an international media feeding frenzy, that certainly doesn’t excuse them. It can be enjoyable cut a little loose when on vacation, but just because our actions abroad may be freed from legal consequences doesn’t mean that they’re also freed from ethical ones. I won’t even try to write a list of acceptable behavior for every travel situation, because I’m sure that there are many situations I can’t envision but I will suggest a change of attitude. Instead of seeing ourselves as consumers of experiences who use countries and move on, let’s see ourselves as guests in others’ homelands and behave as if we would like to be invited (not extradited) back.


Wadhams. 1-August-2007. “Zimbabwe’s Wildlife Decimated by Economic Crisis”. National Geographic News.

[1] It honestly wouldn’t surprise me if vampires were offended by this comparison.