“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” writes Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Self-Reliance.” I’ve relied on this line many times over the years when needing to provide myself with an out after faced with an inconsistency between two important things I hold to be true. The line is less useful when faced with such inconsistencies in others, since I always enjoy pointing out to students that certain commitments cannot easily coexist, such as being pro-life on the abortion issue while also being in favor of capital punishment or hawkish and pro-war when defense matters are the issue. Building a solid system of belief that one is willing to be responsible for, something that most college students are attempting for the first time, requires a commitment to consistency between ones beliefs. It’s best that they not hear about Emerson’s line until they get as old as I am.
I had the opportunity the other day to think about where a commitment to drawing out the consistent and logical implications of two things I believe to be important might lead. Jeanne and I were returning from grocery shopping and had NPR on for background noise in the car as is our custom. As it was Friday afternoon (Good Friday, as a matter of fact), Ira Flatow’s “Science Friday” show was on. This week it was taped before a live audience in Phoenix, Arizona with a panel of various scientists from Arizona colleges and universities. Topics ranged from collisions with asteroids to the history of Mars and Mercury; eventually the conversation changed to focus on the native flora and fauna of Arizona deserts. An audience member mentioned that she had a saguaro cactus at home in her yard that was not behaving properly. She had lived there for fifteen years and while the saguaro got taller each year, it had never grown any arms. Reporting that this year it had a noticeable thickening around its middle, she wondered whether this might be the first sign of the longed-for arms.
In response, the panel botanist said “Maybe it’s pregnant!” but lest anyone suspect that he had a sense of humor, he immediately followed up with “No—seriously—the thickening is the beginning of an arm, and it isn’t unusual for a saguaro to be rather old before it grows its arms. And it will be a very, very slow process.” A quick check on Google today revealed that saguaros can live to be 150-200 years old and are exceptionally slow-growing. A ten-year old saguaro can be as small as one and a half inches tall. This woman is going to be waiting a while for arms.
The next audience questioner asked whether climate change was having an effect on the flora and fauna native to the Arizona desert. The panel climatologist had a very interesting answer, in which he mentioned that due to global warming, the infrequent frosts in the desert have become even more infrequent, almost non-existent. Saguaro cacti native to Arizona are frost-resistant, but farther south, native to only the Baja and Sonora areas of Mexico, are saguaro cousins who are frost-intolerant. Now that frosts are becoming very rare in the Arizona desert, the panelist reported, these Mexican saguaros are beginning to migrate northward; some have already crossed the border into Arizona.
This got me to thinking. I consider global warming to be a huge problem and find it beyond ludicrous that there are some (no one I know, though) who either deny that it is happening or put it into the “it’s just a theory” category along with evolution by natural selection and (probably) the theory that the earth goes around the sun rather than the other way around. I also consider illegal immigration to be a big problem but tend to be quieter about it, since those who are most vocal about the issue often take positions that border on racism. Stereotypically, those most animated about the horrors of illegal immigration might even be global warming deniers. But the saguaro story provides me with a way to link global warming and illegal immigration in interesting ways. Think about it.
Because of global warming, a whole new sort of invasion by illegal aliens has been made possible. The habitat of our law-abiding citizen saguaros is now under serious threat from Mexican saguaros. What are their intentions? Why do they want to migrate to Arizona? Even if their intentions are relatively benign and they only are seeking a better life for themselves and their extended family of cacti at home, they are only going to be able to do at the expense of legal saguaros. The Mexican saguaros will take the saguaro jobs, bump legal saguaros out of the yards they’ve been standing in for years, create saguaro overpopulation issues that we’ve never before encountered, perhaps even threatening the sacred space of the Saguaro National Forest.
My suspicion, though, is that not all of the migrating, illegal saguaros have benign intentions. I’ll bet some of them might be coming across the border in order to spawn new cacti here in the United States. Due to our overly liberal citizenship laws, these “anchor cacti” will have full citizenship—but is that right? What if their parents have evil, terrorist intentions and are seeking to embed a whole generation of cacti with evil terrorist DNA about whom we can do nothing, because they will technically be here legally. To those of you who respond that you are unaware of any terrorist activity that any saguaro, Mexican or otherwise, has ever engaged in, I suggest that you have not surfed the Internet as thoroughly as I have. I’m just saying.
As I described the seeds of my saguaro concerns to Jeanne as we drove home, she laughed at me. Imagine that. But this whole exercise, ludicrous as it is, illustrates where an overly zealous commitment to consistency can get you. All of us treat our beliefs as pieces of self-evident certainty, then are willing to twist and morph them in ludicrous ways in the interest of consistency. I’m inclined to agree with Montaigne who writes “that nothing is so firmly believed as whatever we know least about, and that no persons are more sure of themselves than those who tell us tall stories.” A huge dose of skepticism is appropriate, especially in those realms of human investigation—for example, politics and religion—where we tend, either through laziness or natural limitations to be most uninformed. Certainty on the cheap is a plague, and leads only to rigidity and closed-mindedness.
But watch out for the anchor cacti. I’m just saying.