Elemental Issues

Birthday Beauty


For her birthday, Carolyn gave herself a facial, a glass of wine, and a nap with the cat.


No Way To Run A Zoo

A tiger at The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, CO. (Photo © Michael Kodas)


When I worked in newspapers, it wasn't at all uncommon to compete head-to-head with other newspapers on a big story, and to see that subject lead all of the papers on the same day. But competing magazines like to have their big, narrative stories as exclusives. So it was interesting to see GQ and Esquire both publish longform takeouts Monday describing private zoo owner Terry Thompson's release of 50 animals - most of them large carnivores - on his farm in Zanesville, Ohio last October. After setting the animals free, Thompson committed suicide with a gunshot to his head. The local sheriff and his deputies, responding to a complaint from one of Thompson's neighbors that an African lion was prowling her property, were faced with tigers, grizzly bears, mountain lions, and wolves as well. With residences, a school, and I-70 nearby, they felt they had with no alternative but to exterminate the animals.

"The Insane True Story of the Zanesville Zoo Escape," was the headline of the GQ story, while Esquire announced its piece as "The Most Dramatic Story of the Year: Inside the Massacre at the Zanesville Zoo." Esquire went so far as to promote the tome with short videos on the magazine's website, perhaps the first time a magazine story has been promoted with a movie-style trailer, at least according to the New York Times' Brian Stelter, who wrote about the trailers on the Media Decoder blog. The Times' C.J. Chivers also gave the Esquire piece a push on his blog, The Gun, where he commends Chris Jones, the writer of the Esquire piece, for what Chivers feels is the best lead of the year:

"The horses knew first."

At first glance I wondered if Chivers was promoting the Esquire piece because he is a contributor to the magazine. His realm is usually military affairs. But given what happens throughout both stories, I guess commentary from the author of the book and blog entitled "The Gun," makes sense.

And Chivers is right, the lead of the Esquire story, along with the rest of the piece, is gripping and heartbreaking, and the package has some strong, atmospheric photographs by Pari Dukovic. However the GQ story – also a dramatic and wrenching narrative – scores big points for stepping away from the terrible chain of events that led to the death of 50 animals and their keeper to look more deeply into the issues surrounding private collectors of "charasmatic megafauna," and this troubled keeper of a private zoo in particular.

Gawker had fun with the magazines' fight to own the Zanesville zoo story, and it's an interesting exercise to hunt for inconsistencies between the two stories. In many ways they are quite similar, right down to both being written by guys named Chris - Jones at Esquire and Heath at GQ. On his blog, writer Brandon Sneed has an elightening and very long interview with Jones about the reporting and writing of the Esquire story, and the competition between him and Heath to get the scoop.

But in the end, I wish both would have dug into the problems presented by horders of large predators and other exotic animals. Thompson released his animals within a couple weeks of being released from prison for weapons charges - a few of his more than 100 guns had no serial numbers. According to the Esquire story, the numbers had been filed off the weapons. Thompson seemed to show the same negligence with his animals that he did with his weapons. While most of his exotic animals were healthy, his home was squalid, his property covered with rusted cars (a number of them classics). He had been charged, but not convicted, of animal cruelty when cattle and a buffalo were found starving on his property. When Thompson was released from prison, his wife was not waiting for him, they split while he was incarcerated, and he faced financial problems that were certainly exacerbate by the needs of his nearly 60 exotic animals, some of which required hundreds of pounds of meat a day. Deputies in the sheriff's office predicted that it was only a matter of time before something bad happened. In fact, the sheriff left to oversee the culling of Thompson's animals had long tried to deal with "T's Wild Kingdom," but nothing that Terry Thompson was doing with exotic animals on his property, including, apparently, letting them loose, was against the law, at least in Ohio. State efforts to regulate exotic animal ownership have proven largely toothless - after one fatal encounter between an exotic animal and its keeper Gov. Ted Strickland issued an executive order banning exotic animal ownership (but grandfathered in people who already owned exotics), but the ban lasted just 90 days. A Pro Public investigation after the slaughter of the animals showed that Ohio has the highest rate of exotic animal escapes in the country.

"It's just a free-for-all in Ohio...," Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, told the Associated Press. "Tigers, wolves, bears in a suburban Lorain County community: It is a disaster waiting to happen."

That disaster came in October, but it didn't have to. Thomspon had another alternative for his animals. There are a number of sites where large predators can go, such as The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado, and the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary in Boyd, Texas that specialize in providing homes to the world's largest predators which are no longer wanted by the private collections and circuses they have lived in, but cannot survive in the wild. But in the case of many of these private menageries, it's not so much about the animals as it is about the collection. While many of Thompson's friends have testified to the love he felt for his lions and tigers and bears, the end he assured those animals when he released them doesn't offer much evidence of concern for their well being.

As shocking as the incident in Zanesville was, even more surprising is how widespread private collections of exotic animals are. There are more tigers in private collections in Texas than there are wild in any nation on earth. With inconsistent regulation at best, numbers of privately held exotic animals are hard to come by, but it's almost certain that there are actually more tigers in captivity than there are in the wild. Exotic animals that outgrow their cuteness or novelty often come to tragic ends or impose it on others, as in the chimp in Connecticut dressed like a child that tore off the face of its owner's friend. In Ohio recently a kangaroo in badly beat its keeper, and a bear killed its caretaker in a Cleveland suburb. A recent study shows that pythons imported into Florida and released in the Everglades when they were no longer wanted as pets have devastated populations of native wildlife. The numbers of raccoons and opossums in the Everglades have declined by 99 percent, and bobcat populations are down 88 percent.

Several years ago I responded to a police call for a man who had been attacked by his pet python in eastern Connecticut. The animal, which the owner had moved into a bathrooom in his apartment while he cleaned its cage, had attacked him when he tried to return it to its quarters. It swallowed the man's arm up to his shoulder and certainly would have killed him, but the owner managed to hold the bathroom door shut on the snake to prevent it from constricting him. While he waited for the police to arrive, the snake ripped the toilet off the bathroom floor. Police officer extracted the man's arm from the python, then shot it in the head and decapitated it. It was still writhing, headless, in the backyard when I arrived. Even headless, it was nearly 19-feet-long, making it the second longest snake in the United States when it died - only a reticulated python in the Bronz Zoo was longer. Nobody but its owners knew the snake was living in a residential neighborhood thousands of miles from its natural habitat.

A lion lounging at The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, CO. (Photo © Michael Kodas)

A wolf at The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, CO. (Photo © Michael Kodas)



Going Wild with Maurice Sendak


"What's it take for a celebrity to make a successful book?" Stephen Colbert asked Maurice Sendak during his two-part interview this week with the author of Where the Wild Things Are and other beloved children's books. "What do I have to do?"

"Well, you've started already by being an idiot," Sendak responded.

Sendak's advice for aspiring writers was hilarious, and spot on, during his appearance on The Colbert Report, and it was for me as well during an afternoon that I spent at his house nearly 20 years ago. I was shooting photographs of the children's author for a collection of portraits of Connecticut writers I was making for Northeast magazine. I didn't get to draw or sniff markers with him like Colbert did (make sure and watch to the end of the second part of the interview), but he definitely inspired my creativity. As during his appearance on The Colbert Report, Sendak was both brusque and warm, charming and bombastic. He worked hard to seem curmudgeonly, and that made him incredibly fun to photograph. As I was leaving, he put a leash on his dog and headed out for a walk before dark. Somewhere, I have one last photograph I made of him, standing with his dog in the woods with a crimson sunset behind him. That photograph didn't fit with the project, so the clip I dug out today has another of the portraits I made. But the photograph that remains in my mind's eye is the one of him with his dog in the woods filled with alpenglow. Someday I'll have to dig that one out too.





"You don't have to rely on a healthy body image or self respect anymore. Now that's the power of Fotoshop."

So states filmmaker Jesse Rosten's terrific parody of digital beauty, and the computer programming on which it relies. It's a fabulous sendup of a topic that's been scrutinized for years - the mythology of feminine beauty that's promoted on magazine covers and in television advertisements.

"Why eat healthy and exercise when you can just look like you do?"


Naomi Wolf's groundbreaking book, The Beauty Myth, which looked past the advertisements and movie posters to reveal how women are manipulated by unattainable ideals of feminine beauty, is now 20 years old - her updated version of the book turns 10 this year.

Photoshop was only a year old when Wolf first published The Beauty Myth. Few photographers used the program, and it hadn't developed its most powerful tools to manipulate images. In the years since, however, it has become the standard imaging program used by virtually every photographer, designer and publisher in the world. It can liquify body parts to change their shape or size, clear up skin, and change the color of individual strands of hair. What's more, manipulating images in Photoshop is far cheaper than investing in the photojournalism that filled most magazine covers 20 years ago, so on today's newstand readers are confronted by a crowd of pretty faces and perfect bodies that spent more time on computer screens than they did in front of the camera. The images of beauty for both men and women presented by the media today are far less grounded in reality – and in greater need of mythbusting – than when Wolf wrote her groundbreaking book.

Rosten's satire kicks off what promises to be big year for coverage, and uncoverage, of the female body. Wolf has a new book coming out in May – Vagina: A Cultural History. My friend, science writer Florence Williams, also has book arriving in May that's certain to, um, pique a lot of interest – Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History.

But, while I find Rosten's video hillarious and accurate, I've also been troubled by the way Photoshop has become a verb meaning to manipulate images with the intent of misleading viewers. Almost every published photograph is processed through Photoshop and the vast majority of them are honest depictions of the scenes and people the photographer was recording. Subjects shown in an unfavorable light in photographs routinely claim that the images were "Photoshopped," and that's probably true - the image was almost certainly processed through the standard imaging program. But that doesn't mean it was manipulated with the intent of bamboozling its viewers. Certainly the advent of digital photography has made it more common for images presented as honest records of what was before the lens turning out to be fabrications created in computers. But, while the digital age's tools to manipulate images are far more powerful than the ones used before pixels replaced grains of silver, photographs have been altered to mislead since the invention of the Daguerreotype. So perhaps, rather than saying dishonest images are "Photoshopped," we should just call them what they are - visual lies.

For those interested in the manipulation of women's images, I find this short video by JAGORI powerful and to the point. You can make dishonest images with Photoshop's fancy electronic tools, or you can just pick up a pencil and an eraser.


Diving In


Alicia Christopoulos dives from a sailboat into the Aegean Sea.


In any new endeavor, there is a point of no-turning-back. It's the moment when we commit to trying to fly, or we fall. Regardless of the outcome, at that second, we no longer have the option of keeping our feet on the familiar ground where moments before we stood, stable and secure. For me, that moment of commitment - in my career, in my sports, in my relationships - has always been the most difficult. In the past three years I've left the job I held for 21 years, moved out of the community I was in for 25, sold my home of 12 years, and started a new stage of my work as a writer and photographer - one in which I have all the freedom and fear of being my own boss. I struggled to commit to each of those changes, and continue to find running my own show a daily challenge of uncertainty and hesitation.

January 1st, with it's resolutions, year-end-lists, and personal, professional and government deadlines, leads most of us to challenge our resistance to commitment. For a few days we dedicate ourselves to new diets, financial plans, adventures, and relationships. But, while I have plenty of big goals and dreams that I need to throw myself at, last weekend I found myself thinking of the dozens of small moments each day when I fail to commit to everything from workouts, to typing words onto my laptop screen. And I remembered a photo I have of Alicia Christopoulos.

For a week during the summer of 2010, Carolyn and I sailed through Greece's Aegean Sea with several friends, Alicia and her husband, Thanos, the captain of our sailboat. Every morning I watched Alicia, who is originally from Poland, leave the boat, sometimes with a dive, sometimes just stepping out onto a dock. She would return with a fish - I remember one particularly delicious barracuda - and the rest of the makings for our lunch. Alicia's meals were so consistently delicious and her management of the vessel so fluid and natural, I assumed that she had grown up sailing. But over drinks with the couple, I learned that she had neither sailed nor cooked before answering a help-wanted ad that Thanos placed looking for a cook on his sailboat just a few years ago. Today's she's married to the captain.

After our lunches all the boat's passengers would take a dip in the sea that was luxuriously warm and as blue as any we had ever seen. Alicia would start our swims with a dive that was as delicious as her cooking. Most of us would wait to get into the water ourselves until we had watched her graceful entrance, and eventually I made a series of photographers of her dive.

As is often the case with writing and photography, the editing was a challenge. I narrowed the sequence down to two favorite but very different frames. One showed Alicia in a perfect airborn arc - full of grace and expectation of the splash and submersion in the luscious water. But I found I kept coming back to a frame taken a split second earlier. That picture showed Alicia with her arms outstretched like a bird, her legs coiled like thunderbolts, but her toes still on the boat's railing. That photo doesn't show expectation of hitting the water, but of flying through the air. It's the moment of commitment to the change inherent in the dive - of embracing the airborn second of transition between standing dry on something solid and familiar, and being wet and in over her head in an alien and dangerous place.

For the first few days of the trip, after watching Alicia dive in, the rest of us would test the water with our toes and slowly lower ourselves into the sea. But you can't make a splash like that. By the end of the trip, most of us were making our own, far less elegant leaps into the sea. And I remember the water always feeling better when I was completely airborn the second before I was in it.

This year I hope we can all find the courage to dive into our lives and embrace those heart-in-our-throats seconds when we're airborn, about to splash into the adventures of our future.


Greece--05-13-2010--Fresh-caught barracuda and potatoes by Alicia Christopoulos.


Greece--05-13-2010--Feta, sun-dried tomatoes, and capers crostini.



The Fire That Darkened the Festival of Lights

One year ago, on the first day of Hanukkah, a teenager smoking a hookah tossed the charcoal from the pipe into an illegal garbage dump outside Isfiya, Israel. Later that morning the adjacent forests of Mount Carmel, Israel's largest national park, exploded with the worst wildfire in the nation's history. By 4 p.m. that afternoon, the blaze had killed or mortally wounded three of the nation's top police officials - including the highest ranking woman ever in the Israeli police - along with two firemen, 37 prison-office cadets, their driver, and a 16-year-old fire scout. The fire destroyed nearly a third of the houses in Kibbutz Beit Oren, forced the evacuation of 17.000 people, and burned 10,500 acres, destroying five million trees. Firefighters and pilots from nineteen nations came to Israel to assist putting out the blaze.

This month, family members of the victims of the Mount Carmel fire, residents of the burned communities, firefighters, police officers, prison officials, foresters, scientists and government leaders have marked the anniversary of the fire that darkened Israel's "Festival of Light."


Mount Carmel - One Year Later

Mount Carmel - One Year Later

On the day of the one-year anniversary of the Mount Carmel wildfire, Israelis visit the makeshift memorial making the spot where 44 police officers, firefighters, prison cadets, and firefighters were killed when they were overrun by the blaze in the forests outside of Haifa. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of Israel.



A students at the Hebrew Reali school in Haifa, Israel, attaches a paper airplane he has folded to a balloon as part of a ceremony honoring Elad Riven, a 16-year-old student at the school who was killed in the Mount Carmel wildfire on the first day of Hanukkah last year. The school prepares students for their mandatory military service in Israel. Elad Riven had dreamed of being a pilot and often folded paper airplanes.



The Principal of the Hebrew Reali school in Haifa dons a t-shirt with the face of Elad Riven on it. Riven, a students at the school, left his civics class a year ago to help fight the Mount Carmel fire. He was killed in the blaze later that day.



Elad Riven was a 16-year-old fire scout when he was killed in the Mount Carmel fire, the first fire that he actually got to fight. Since his death, Israel's new fleet of firefighting planes, a grove of trees, and a new firefighting substation in the town of Nesher, have been named for Riven. The commander of the Nesher station, Yossef Ben Yossef, looks over the memorial to Riven in the new station.

Shaul Shimon, a Haifa firefighter, visits the forest outside the village of Isfiya where a youth with a hookah was suspected of starting the deadly Mount Carmel fire.


12-1-11 -- Family and friends of fallen prison cadets, firefighters and police officers at a ceremony honoring their loved ones at Haifa University.



12-1-11--Family members of the police officer, firemen, prison cadets and civilians killed in the Mount Carmel wildfire receive roses and consolation from students at Haifa University.



Dany Rossen, the long-time boyfriend of Ahuva Tomer, the Haifa Police Chief who was killed in the Mount Carmel fire, weeps at a memorial honoring the 44 people killed in the disaster.


The Multimedia Schlep



It used to be so easy. You just threw a couple of cameras and lenses, a bag of film, and few notebooks into a bag and got on a plane. But the digital age's myriad of new storytelling methods, and the increasing requirement of journalists to work and collaborate in a variety of media, means that traveling "backpack" journalists often have little space in their bags for anything other than electronics. Here's a photo of the gear Carolyn and I packed for a two-week reporting trip to Mt. Carmel, Israel. Fortunately, we learned long ago to carry a minimum of clothes so we could fit the gear we bring on overseas assignments. As the demands of our book/photo/video projects increase, we'll soon be traveling with just the clothes on our backs and our bathing suits.


Tel Aviv, Israel.


Big Power and a Little Electricity


In a single day last week I saw the stacks of the San Juan Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant belching steam and coal smoke into the atmosphere above New Mexico, and then met a Navajo family who live below a power line fed below those plants, but have no access to it.



The Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources' Energy Country Institute flew with EcoFlight over the coal-fired power plants (San Juan Generating Station is operated by PNM, New Mexico's largest energy provider and the Four Corners plaant is operated by the Arizona Public Service Company) near Farmington, New Mexico. Later that day we met with energy company representatives and environmentalists, and then sought out the Johnson family in the backcountry of New Mexico.



To be fair, Monica Johnson and her husband, Nathan, chose to build their house out in the countryside, far from town and distant from the grid, and they say they wouldn't dream of living anywhere else. They relish their life amid the red, sandstone mesas of the New Mexico highlands, and the connection with nature it provides. That's common in Navajo culture. Since building their house, Monica, Nathan, and their daughters, Maria, 9, and Erika, 6, have visited family to shower and carried water from relatives back to their house, as they didn't have electricity to pump from a well. But recently their situation has improved. The solar panel and single wind turbine they purchased earlier this year now allow them, for the first time, to have a refrigerator and a television. It often takes them more than one sitting to get through a movie, as they often run out of juice before the film ends, but they don't have to worry about their food spoiling anymore. 

In a few months, the Johnsons hope to be connected to the grid, which, for now, passes high above their house in a high-voltage line. But, until then, having just a bit of electricity keeps them a little better fed and bit more tightly connected to the rest of the world.

Following the Sun

The side of our bus is painted with a command to "Follow the Sun," and we tried to heed its instructions. Really, we did. But at midnight, when a dozen of us were pushing the bus through a blizzard up highway 550 in northern New Mexico, it didn't seem like we'd done very well sticking to the plan. As we attempted to "man haul," (and woman haul) our 55-seat bus up the snow slicked highway, I thought of the coming 100-year-anniversary of Robert Falcon Scott's doomed expedition to the South Pole, Raold Amunsdsen's successful round trip to the pole, and of the tourists who are making their own trips to the bottom of the planet to commemorate the centennial. Despite repeated trips off the bus to chain up, push the vehicle, or throw snowballs, none of the travelers on our expedition ever feared losing their lives during our ordeal, just a few hours of sleep.


 The Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources has brought together 14 journalists for its Energy Country Institute led by Frank and Maggie Allen. We're traveling through southern Colorado and northern New Mexico in a bus driven by Dick Sandlin, who's vast knowledge of the turf helps fill in the knowledge gaps of the energy wonks and regional journalists who make up our crew. When he's not busing tour groups through the fickle weather of the southern Rocky Mountains, he leads tours of Spaceport America, but despite his interest in the stars, most of the fellows have come to see as our own polar explorer - something of an Ernest Shackleton of the Greyhound class.

Fellows in the Energy Country Institute are spending eight days visiting sites in New Mexico and southern Colorado to learn how the region will keep the lights on in the coming century. On Sunday we drove from Santa Fe to Colorado's San Luis Valley, a magical and fragile plain sandwiched between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains. The valley is one of Colorado's most important and tradition-bound agricultural areas, but a diminishing and over-allocated water supply, and an abundant solar resource, are bringing change

We first visited the Ranch of George Whitten and Julie Sullivan, who run a small cattle ranch in Sawatch County.
George's family has been ranching in the valley since the late 1800s. Julie was an environmental activist who brought a group of students to visit George's ranch and ended up falling in love with the rancher. Each of them bears the title of "environmentalist" a little differently. George's philosophy is rooted in the land ethic - he raises grass-fed cattle for meat. Julie arrived at the ranch with more progressive ideals, and was a vegetarian, but eats meat now, so long as she "knows the animal's face." So, while they share the same goals and ideals, they don't always agree the methods and approaches to keep a sustainable ranch running. It's provided an interesting system of checks and balances in an increasingly challenging agricultural environment.



Others have been sited on grazing land or on fragile wetlands. We left the valley with an understanding that energy, water, tradition and progress are all part of an increasingly precarious balancing act in the San Luis Valley.  After lunching and touring George and Julie's ranch, we were treated to a reception by county and town officials in Alamosa. 





The following morning we rejoined them along with representatives from Sun Power, a company that recently brought a 17-megawatt plant online, and Iberdrola, the Spanish solar power company that this week will begin testing a 30-megawatt solar facility it just completed installing in the valley. We heard from representatives from the solar-power companies, officials involved in the plan to conserve the valley's water by taking 40,000 acres of agricultural land out of production, the Chairman of the Alamosa County Commissioners, and representatives of environmental organizations concerned with both the water and energy issues affecting the valley. While virtually everyone we've met is excited by the development of solar power in the valley, in an environment where water and energy are tightly linked, utility scale solar projects are also causes for concern. Some types of solar projects, particularly those that involve turning a steam turbine, use a lot of water.


From the San Luis Valley, we planned to head to the Southern Ute Reservation via Wolf Creek Pass, but by the time we left Alamosa, an early-season snowstorm had made that route unsafe. Plan B was to take Route 17 over Cumbres Pass, but the bus lost traction in the heavy snow on the pass, even after stopping to put chains on, leaving us stranded. Two Colorado Department of Transportation snowplows cleared the road so we could turn around, then escorted us back down the pass. We finally took a route back into New Mexico and up Route 550, but even in the foothills of the Four Corners, the bus got mired in the snow, so the fellows piled out of the bus to push it though the steepest section. For at least one of the fellows, freelance writer Lindsey Hoshaw, the announcement of the detours were a shock - she was hoping to get to a hotel room desk to continue working on a story for the Boston Globe. 


She's adapted well to writing on the bus. And, although a trip that was planned at 2 1/2 hours ended up taking more than 12, at least nobody had to eat any dogs on our way to the Southern Ute Reservation in Ignacio.

Seven Billion Zombies

Walking dead on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, CO on Halloween, 2011

So what's brought all these walking dead to Colorado?

Last night in Durango, CO, zombies behaved like, well, zombies. The unsanctioned walk of the dead (good zombies always apply for the proper permits) drew 1,500 undead who got into an altercation with police. No officials' brains were eaten, but they were pelted with rocks and bottles. Denver's 6th Annual Zombie Crawl last week drew a world-record crowd, attracting between 14,000 and 16,000 brain-hungry participants.

Perhaps, like Denver's bike-sharing program, which last year's Republican gubenatorial candidate Dan Maes criticized as an effort to make Colorado's capitol city into a "United Nation's community," the increase in undead in Colorado is a U.N. plot - specifically a result of someone at the United Nations Population Fund's head for marketing. The organization estimates that October 31st - Halloween - was the day when the global population reached seven billion. There's no way they can know for sure what day the world will first hold seven billion living people - the hundreds of thousands of births and deaths each day present far too much variability to precisely calculate the world's population to the day, so the selection of Halloween by the UN was as much a symbol as anything. Other organizations, including the U.S. Census Bureau predict world population will reach the seven billion mark in about four months, around the time of another appropriate holiday for the milestone - April Fools Day. But by picking Halloween as the day that we reached the 7Bn number, the U.N. is making statement, intentional or not, that the growing horde is something to fear.

The report shows the world was first inhabited by one billion humans in 1804. From that date, it took 123 years to reach two billion. By contrast, global population hit six billion in 1999, just 12 years ago, and passed the five billion mark 12 years before that, in 1987. According to the Population Reference Bureau, in 2010 there were, on average, 384,146 births every day, and 155,885 deaths daily, leading to the addition of about 159 people to planet Earth every minute. Models predict another two billion people living on the planet by 2050.

The rapidly increasing population brings a lot of worries, if not outright terrors. Paul Ehrlich, author of  the 1968 bestseller "The Population Bomb," President of the Center for Conservation Biology and Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University, was one of seven luminaries who commented on the challenges presented by the 7Bn in an article by James Eng at MSNBC.

"Seven billion is already facing us with horrendous problems, including almost 1 billion people hungry and contributing greatly to the chances of catastrophic climate disruption.  But the next 2 billion people the demographers expect by 2050 will cause much more environmental damage than did the last 2 billion added to our population — a classic nonlinearity.  That is because human beings are smart, and picked the low-hanging fruit first. Thus each added individual, on average, must now be fed from more marginal land, supplied with water from more distant or more polluted sources, obtain the metals required to make the products he or she consumes from poorer ores, etc."

Perhaps that explains some our current obsession with zombies, which have supplanted vampires as the trendiest Halloween costumes and television horror shows. Every imaginary monster plays on a real-world fear. The Alien in James Cameron's movies with Sigourney Weaver played on our fear of cancer -  something growing, hidden inside us that would eventually kill us in a most gruesome way. Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula came at the height of the AIDS epidemic and manipulated the angst that our passions could lead to an infection in our blood that would rot not only our bodies, but our values. Godzilla was spawned by our tinkering with nukes. Most of the creatures and phantoms that inhabit our popular culture - vampires, werewolves, Godzilla, the Halloween films' Michael Myers and Friday the 13th's Jason are unique individuals or part of small minorites, often hidden from the majority they terrorize.

But zombies are different. Zombies are the majority, threatening to devour us or turn us into one of them. They are terribly obvious, making no effort to hide. You can see them coming from a mile away and with their complete lack of cunning, they are exceedingly easy to kill. But it doesn't matter. There are so many of them, you can't possible stop them all. Eventually one or a hundred of them are gnawing on you. Our terror of the undead is based in our fear of hordes. In fact, the zombie has changed to match our fears. Originally, zombies were a few cadavers brought back to life by a voodoo master to serve his evil plans. It wasn't until George Romero's night of the living dead that zombies were presented as hordes of corpses serving only their own mindless need to eat flesh or brains.

Since then "zombie" has become one of the most popular slurs of political parties, social movements, or classes of workers. You can kill Tea Party Zombies in an online game. Occupy Wall Street protesters dressed as "corporate zombies," in Zuccotti Park a few weeks before Halloween. The Occupy protesters themselves haven't been immune to necrotic namecalling. We've got conservative zombies, liberal zombies, communist, socialist, and libertarian zombies. In the coming Presidential election, virtually every Republican candidate has been marked as the walking dead, while President Obama has literally hundreds of images depicting him as a flesh eating monster. A few years ago Paul Waldman argued in the American Prospect that, while the zombie narrative might initially appeal to the libertarian streak in American politics due to its requirement of lots of firearms to defeat the throngs of flesh eating undead, in the end, it's a liberal storyline - when society breaks down, survival requires "the progressive ideals of common cause and collective action."  

The science fiction wesite io9, which is produced by the real science program NOVA, has a chart showing that the number of zombie films released - the site's definition is rather broad, including both the Frankenstein monster and the mummy - increase markedly in times of war and social upheaval.

The population boom is certain to bring social upheaval and war - with seven billion people and counting competing for food, water, energy and every other resource on the planet. That competition is made easier when we can categorize a few billion of our competitors as sub-human - the undead.

As for Colorado's zombies, the ones I encountered on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder were friendly and funny. I was happy to be out and among them, and many of the other spectacular costumes, on Halloween night.



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