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Torture Risk Assessment

Orrin Kerr says that it's "hard to know where to begin" to respond to this Crooked Timber post suggesting that torturing people in the name of terrorism prevention is worse than carrying out terrorist acts. I understand where the initial objection arises from, since it seems obvious that (aside from the most extreme tortures) torturing one person is better than killing one person. But it seems possible to construct a plausible hypothetical scenario in which the harm done by torturing outweighs the harm of the act prevented.

Let's take some numbers ex recta. Say a terrorist group has a plan that has a 5% chance of killing 100 people given our current security measures (including non-torture interrogation), luck, and their own skill. That gives an expected value for the non-torture situation of 5 deaths. Now let's say that given our current capture and interrogation techniques, there is a 5% chance that any given person we torture will provide information that makes the difference between stopping and not stopping the terrorist plot*. This means that to save those expected 5 lives, we'd have to torture 20 people -- a rate of four tortures per death.

It's not impossible to think of tortures so heinous that it's better to let one person die a quick death than to subject four people to them. And the situation gets worse for advocates of torture if the probability of success of either the terrorist plot or torture goes down. On the other hand, if you hold off on torturing until you've tried all other measures, the utility of torture goes up but the frequency goes down, because you don't use it in cases where the plot would have failed anyway. So instead of facing the 5% chance of terrorism every three months, for example, you might foil 3/4 of those plots without using torture but face a 50% chance of success from the remaining one plot per year. On the other hand, the longer you wait, the worse your success rate for torture will be -- if it were to drop to .5%, that would give the same tradeoff against a 50% plot as the original scenario.

Of course, this all rests on utilitarian assumptions. The ticking time bomb scenario -- of which this hypothetical situation is a more plausible variant -- is based on the idea that while torture is bad, it can produce results that outweigh the badness. However, many apologists for torture believe that because the victims are (assumed to be) terrorists, they are bad people, and hence torturing them is morally acceptable (even obligatory) even if they produce no useful information. Their pain simply doesn't count for anything. There are intellectual arguments in favor of this view (though I don't buy them), but there's also a strong emotional desire for vengeance and tendency to de-humanize those who have broken the social contract that motivates it.

Standard ticking-time-bomb scenarios subtly invoke this dehumanization by positing that the person to be tortured is a terrorist. I think people would draw a more restructive line against torture if the victim in question were, say, their own grandmother**. (It might take some doing to set up a situation in which she knew how to defuse the bomb but wasn't telling, but we'll set that aside for the moment.) Asking "what kind of torture would you do to your grandmother to stop this terrorist act" forces us to confront whether we're really willing to trade off a human being's suffering for the posited reward, or whether our favorable view of torture is based on an assumption that a terrorist's pain is of less moral worth. (In the extreme ticking time bomb scenario, in which torture is the only way to stop the deaths of a million people and there's no risk of failure, I would still be willing to do pretty much anything to make grandma talk.)

*For simplicity's sake, we'll say that the information in question allows us to intervene before the events that reduce the plot's chance of success to 10%.

**You can change it to a different relative if you have a poor relationship with your grandmother.


ANWR And Organs And Travel, Oh My

I'll be gone until late Tuesday. In the meantime, I give you my comic from this week's Scarlet:

I had an inordinate amount of fun drawing Big Oil's breakfast.

I also wrote a column, "Opt-Out Organ Donation Would Save Lives" and drew a comic to accompany it.


Urban Legend Or Resilience?

Charles Bird has a very long post up at Obsidian Wings, giving a somewhat sympathetic conservative's take on the problems of the environmental movement. His argument is basically a combination of 1) Nick Kristof's claim that environmentalists are alarmists and extremists, 2) the standard (though not necessarily off the mark) conservative charge that liberals complain but don't offer solutions, and 3) the assertion that environmentalists need to not only reach out to conservatives, but adopt most of the conservative agenda -- basically a right-wing version of Shellenberger and Nordhaus's proposal in "The Death of Environmentalism" that environmentalists should fight for the entire progressive agenda.

In the comments, Hal casts aspersions on DoE by pointing to this page. It debunks the urban legend, used as an epigram by Shellenberger and Nordhaus, that the Chinese character for "crisis" is a combination of the characters for "danger" and "opportunity." I too was annoyed by their use of that meme. Linguistic accuracy aside, though, it's clear what DoE means to suggest by it: a crisis is a time when the status quo is fragile, which can lead to everything falling apart -- but it can also make it easier to clear away the crud and refashion things in a better shape. I happen to agree that environmentalism is facing a crisis, and that crises can in some cases be siezed as opportunities. I also thing DoE could have chosen a better way to illustrate that point. Rather than relying on a trite and inaccurate bit of consultant-speak, they could have drawn a more robust metaphor from modern ecology: the adaptive cycle.

I have a short explanation of the adaptive cycle in another post. Briefly, ecologists argue that in most biological and social systems, success (r) breeds rigidity (K), which leads to collapse (Ω) and reorganization (α). For example, a fire-prone ecosystem grows and grows, building up more and more biomass until even a tiny spark could set it off. When that finally happens, crud is cleared away, tissues are broken down, and nutrients are released to be used by vigorous new growth. DoE basically argues that environmentalism's early successes (Clean Air and Water Acts, recycling programs, Superfund, etc.) have led it so far into the K phase that it's teetering on the brink of a shift into Ω. Systems in advanced K phases become increasingly vulnerable to being disturbed by changes in their environment. In this case, environmentalism seems threatened by Republican assaults on the environment, but it lacks the flexibility and robustness to handle the crisis.

The creators of the adaptive cycle model also identified two "traps," points at which the system's progress around the cycle can get stuck. Environmentalists understandably fear the "poverty trap," a system stuck in the α phase. In the poverty trap, all of the "capital" built up in the previous r and K phases is lost, so the system has nothing with which to rebuild itself. This is like a forest that experiences a fire so severe that all of the nutrients are lost to the air or eroded away, leaving only bare rock. In the case of environmentalism, the worry is that Republican assaults will practically wipe out environmentalism, leaving us back at square one.

But DoE's analysis suggests that in their eagerness to avoid the poverty trap, environmentalists have fallen into the rigidity trap. The rigidity trap is a system stuck in the K phase, unable to reconfigure and renew itself. By maintaining the internal structure of the movement -- its hierarchies and agendas -- environmentalism threatens to become irrelevant, drifting out of contact with the concerns of Americans or their policymaking process, but at the same time monopolizing the resources that could be used to build a new, better movement.

The outcome of a system's α phase -- whether it slides off into the poverty trap, or it finds some form of successful new r -- depends in part on how the collapse into Ω happened. Being dashed against the anti-environment agenda of a Republican government is not a happy sort of Ω transition, and is likely to lead to a poor α. But DoE (and in a different way Bird) suggests a solution resembling controlled burning. To avoid the kind of poverty trap for fire-prone ecosystems discussed above, land managers will provoke a fire at a time when they can control it. This way, they ensure that the system will reorganize itself in a healthy way, recapturing the nutrients released in the fire and refreshing the growth. Similarly, a social system faced with an involuntary crisis can deliberately tear down its own organization and rework it. But it's clear that mainstream environmental organizations need to rethink their organization and agendas in order to make them resilient and adaptable to the changed political circumstances.


Bring On The Steroids And Schiavo!

I'd like to thank Congress for wasting so much of its valuable time on investigating steroid use in professional sports and intervening in the Terry Schiavo* case. Given the Republican dominance of both houses, any legislation they pass is almost guaranteed to be pernicious. So I'd rather have them waste time on these relatively minor issues than focus on handing our national wealth over to big business.

I do wish the liberal blogosphere would take advantage of conservatives' distraction with Schiavo and make some progress on some important issues. Come on, folks, just because they're talking about it doesn't mean we have to let them define our agenda.

*Watch this mention send me to the top of Google's rankings, the way my passing reference to the Swift Boat nonsense vaulted me up above people who were actualy discussing the issue.

Fuel-Efficient Patriotism

Some people are making a little too much of a new poll that shows that two thirds of Americans think driving a more fuel-efficient car is patriotic. Presumably many of those who said yes are indicating that fuel efficiency is compatible with patriotism, not that it's required for patriotism -- much like a civilian would not be hypocritical for calling military service a patriotic career. Certainly the question is not set up well to distinguish these differences in opinion. The poll itself (pdf) also seems a but unreliable. The fuel-efficient patriotism question offers an argument in favor and solicits the respondent's level of agreement. The previous question asks about agreement with a set of pro-fuel-efficiency findings by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Presented in this way, the questions seem likely to sway undecided respondents toward the environmentalist viewpoint.


Settlers For A New Planet

Abiola Lapite poses an interesting problem:

... supposing that it fell to you to select a collection of individuals to reestablish as much of our current civilization as possible on a planet just like our own - with the exception that there are no humans on it - which kinds of people would you choose, and how many, keeping in mind that you're expected to keep the headcount as low as possible?

Occupation-wise, he argues for including a particular mix of scientific/technological specialists such as medical doctors and physicists. He doesn't include any computer scientists, because it will be some time before the colony is able to support a viable semiconductor industry. Yet I wonder whether that argument ought not to be extended further. Modern medicine, for example, depends heavily on an existing economic infrastructure that will be absent on our new world, rendering many of our doctors' skills moot once the ship's pharmacy runs out. It also depends on a large population to generate demand and make specialization possible, but our colonist group is probably going to be in the vicinity of only 100 people (the minimum for genetic viability) to start off with. I would be inclined to prefer some people with knowledge of "natural" medicines and other wilderness survival techniques (though their utility does depend to some degree on how closely the new planet's ecology resembles earth's, as these sorts of folk skills are often very context-dependent).

There's an interesting synergism between this concern and Lapite's other argument, that in order to maximize genetic diversity in the colonist population we should select around 70% Africans. It seems logical that any scientific specialists that we bring ought to be taken from developing countries, as those individuals would have more experience applying their skills in a context where access to resources and support infrastructure is more limited.


More Precuation

Now for a somewhat more serious post about the Precautionary Principle. The PP is a bit slippery, because it comes in at least two forms. The first form, which I'll call the Negative PP, was stated in the 1992 Rio declaration and is often invoked in the context of climate change:

Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

The Negative PP is an attempt to even out the burden of proof. There is a major problem of countries and companies invoking what we might call the Inverse Positive PP, demanding proof of the harm their activities cause before they change their ways. However, for many environmental risks uncertainty is endemic. There will never be sufficient "proof," or else by the time we have such proof it will be too late to do anything about it. The Negative PP strikes down the delaying tactic of saying "we need more studies," requiring that we do our best to make decisions with the knowledge at hand while remaining open to what we learn from continued experience. The idea of Adaptive Management satisfies the Negative PP.

Yet many have taken the PP farther, creating what I call the Positive PP. The Positive PP places the burden of proof on those who propose an action -- prove it's safe before we let you do it. There is a time and a place for leaning toward the Positive PP. For example, the FDA properly takes an opt-in approach to approving new food additives and drugs, because proponents of these innovations have far more resources to meet that burden than do opponents, and because there is a reasonable suspicion that innovators have a vested interest in not being very concerned about their product's safety.

Yet too strict and too universal an application of the Positive PP has its own dangers. The Positive PP represents a desire to experience the known harms of inaction rather than the uncertain harms of action. It thus leans heavily on a philosophically wobbly act/omission distinction, as well as incorporating a presumption of a sustainable baseline social organization to which the benefit of the doubt can be given. Free market types will be quick to hypothesize plausible catastrophes that might result from any particular change that fundamentally threatens the structure of capitalism, yet most environmentalists advocating the PP would agree that capitalism as we know it is unsustainable. Which course of action, then, is "precautionary"?

Aaron Wildavsky draws a distinction between anticipation and resilience when dealing with risks. The Positive PP is an anticipatory strategy par excellance, demanding that we forsee and avert harm before it hits. Resilience embraces trial-and-error, hoping to carry a broad portfolio of resources so as to be able to weather and learn from catastrophes while picking up the benefits of gambles that pay off -- a worldview held by proponents of the Inverse Positive PP who demand proof of harm. Clearly neither strategy is superior across the board, which weighs in favor of the middle position occupied by the Negative PP. The Negative PP gives more room to explore potential gains from innovations while forcing us to take into account evidence of harm that falls short of a slam-dunk case.

It's interesting to note, given Wildavsky's involvement in the development of Cultural Theory, that anticipation is the preferred strategy of high "group" biases in the CT typology -- the hierarchists and egalitarians -- while the low "group" biases -- individualism and fatalism -- prefer resilience. In the case of the fatalists, anticipation is considered impossible because nature is basically random. Likewise egalitarians see resilience as impossible, because one false step will destroy us all -- there's no room for learning and recovering once a mistake is made. For individualists (like Wildavsky), resilience is preferred because of a presumption of internalization of harms. Individualists see failure as a person's own fault, and so they don't like precautionary busybodies telling them they're not allowed to consent to risks. On the other hand, the high "group" solidarity of the hierarchists leads them to be concerned about risky activities creating externalities. The PP focuses on risks, rather than the balance between risks and benefits, because of the presumption that the benefits will accrue mainly to the proponent of a new activity while the risks will hit innocent bystanders.

Is The Precautionary Principle Un-Christian?

I've been reading about the precautionary principle and risk aversion, and it occurred to me that one could make a Biblical argument against them. The passage that came to mind was Matthew 25: 14-30, the parable of the talents:

14 [Jesus said] "Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. 15To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. 17So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. 18But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.

When the master returns, he praises the first two servants and condemns the third. It's unclear how risky the ventures were that the first two servants invested in, and we don't hear the master's reaction to the servant who bought a talent's worth of shares in But the parable does seem to suggest that a minimum-regret strategy of focusing on not losing any of the master's money is unacceptable.

The parable seems especially relevant to John Rawls' Difference Principle, which is justified by the minimax precautionary strategies pursued by the parties in the Original Position. Rawls argues that the parties would take a minimax approach, rather than the more obvious maximization approach, because they're acting as representatives of other parties not involved in the discussion. While one might accept some risks on one's own behalf, Rawls says that when acting as a representative one needs to take care to avoid the chance of harm to those you represent. I never found that rationale entirely convincing on its own merits, but this bit of off-the-cuff exegesis suggests it may also be un-Christian. The master in the parable berates the servant who took a minimax approach on his behalf.


Promoting Torture, Provoking Outrage

The latest blogospheric brouhaha was ignited by Eugene Volokh, who recently came out in favor of revenge torture:

I like civilization, but some forms of savagery deserve to be met not just with cold, bloodless justice but with the deliberate infliction of pain, with cruel vengeance rather than with supposed humaneness or squeamishness. I think it slights the burning injustice of the murders, and the pain of the families, to react in any other way.

In an update to his post, Volokh points out that whether you approve of vengeance is a matter of basic axioms, so there's no possibility of dialogue between himself and someone who finds his view reprehensible. The blogospheric reaction seems to validate that point, as the typical opponent's reaction is sputtering outrage. For those of us on the left, the idea of the law as a cold maintainer of social order is a basic, often not even consciously articulated, presupposition. By challenging something that sits so deep in our psyches, Volokh left us without the resources to respond rationally. It feels like trying to explain math to someone who insists that 2 + 2 = 5.

As it happens, I think one can have a rational argument about the permissibility of revenge torture, though I can't guarantee that pushing it back to a more basic level of axioms would necessarily find any common ground between Volokh and me. My position parallels my stance against the death penalty -- the law exists to promote the happiness of the citizens, and insofar as revenge does not efficiently further that goal (an empirical proposition, but one I believe to be true, at least in modern Western contexts), it's a waste of resources and a needless reduction of the criminal's happiness. But this kind of response seems unfulfilling. When someone has announced that they aren't bound by an axiom you had treated as unquestionable, it feels ineffective to calmly reason with them.

In this sense, the prevailing reaction to Volokh has certain similarities with the very kind of torture he advocates. Logic doesn't seem to do justice to our feelings of outrage over his violation of our moral code, because there's such a gap between expressing ourselves and prudent action. We want to escape the stultifying bounds of rational discourse and unleash our fury, to demand recognition of the emotional impact of his post even at the expense of undercutting doing something about it. But like revenge, such a reaction is both ineffective and unsatisfying in the long run. It certainly won't convince Volokh of the error of his ways. And it leaves his argument standing there, mocking us with its challenge to something we'd never thought we'd have to defend -- just like taking revenge on a murderer doesn't bring her victims back. Luckily, in this case we have the option of intellectually grappling with Volokh's ideas and satisfying ourselves of why he's wrong, rather than simply venting our outrage and using the brief respite that buys to get our minds occupied with other things.


Linguistics Of The Shire

Every now and then you come across a theory that's just really, really fascinating. In this case, it's John McWhorter's theory that the grammar of the indigenous languages of Flores provides possible evidence of contact between Homo sapiens and Homo floresiensis (aka "hobbits").



I'm happy to (belatedly) learn that the Clear Skies bill, President Bush's plan to weaken the Clean Air Act, died in committee last week. But what interested me was this quote from James Inhofe, the environment's Senatorial arch-nemesis:

"I'm afraid what has happened here is this bill has been killed by the environmental extremists who care more about continuing the litigation-friendly status quo and making political statements … than they do about reducing air pollution," Inhofe said after Wednesday's vote.

The debate over Clear Skies has been almost entirely over the amounts of reductions proposed (conservatives say it's better than nothing, liberals say it's worse than current law) and whether a cap-and-trade approach is appropriate for mercury (it's not, because unlike the pollutants that cause acid rain and climate change, mercury is very susceptible to collecting in dangerous "hot spots"). Litigation hasn't been on the agenda. So why did Inhofe bring it up alongside the predictable (but wrong) claim that blocking Clear Skies would lead to more pollution?

I think it's just spillover. Republicans have made anti-litigation a central theme in much of their rhetoric. Sometimes it's direct, like "tort reform." Other times it's painted as an insidious dirty trick used by liberals, as in the tirades against "judicial activism" on sexual issues and the demonization of the ACLU. Environment-wise, it was effective at getting the Healthy Forests Initiative passed. So Inhofe just forgot that Cleark Skies hadn't been wedded to the anti-litigation storyline.

The next question is why anti-litigation has become such a powerful theme. Part of it is that it's effective at rallying public support. Stories of bizarre suits and crazy product warning labels are standard fare for American entertainment (in any given issue of Reader's Digest, it's about 30% of the content). So there's a deep reservoir of public exasperation over the issue, particularly among people with less wonky media consumption habits.

Anti-litigation is also a useful lever for pursuing the larger Republican agenda of reducing the accountability of the elite. Filing a lawsuit is one of the only methods that citizens have to take justice into their own hands -- particularly when their opponent is a large corporation or the government. By demonizing and shutting down this avenue of redress, Republican leaders -- who occupy the seats of power in business and government -- insulate themselves from the public. Thus, it's part of the same constellation of strategies as heightened secrecy and exemptions from the rule of law.


A Poorly Informed NYT Columnist? *Gasp!*

'I Have A Nightmare'

... That essay [the Death of Environmentalism] by two young environmentalists has been whirling around the Internet since last fall, provoking a civil war among tree-huggers for its assertion that "modern environmentalism, with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies, must die so that something new can live." Sadly, the authors, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, are right.

... The fundamental problem, as I see it, is that environmental groups are too often alarmists. They have an awful track record, so they've lost credibility with the public. Some do great work, but others can be the left's equivalents of the neocons: brimming with moral clarity and ideological zeal, but empty of nuance. (Industry has also hyped risks with wildly exaggerated warnings that environmental protections will entail a terrible economic cost.)

... Given the uncertainties and trade-offs, priority should go to avoiding environmental damage that is irreversible, like extinctions, climate change and loss of wilderness. And irreversible changes are precisely what are at stake with the Bush administration's plans to drill in the Arctic wildlife refuge, to allow roads in virgin wilderness and to do essentially nothing on global warming. That's an agenda that will disgrace us before our grandchildren.

-- via Juan Non-Volokh>

It's strange that he claims to be a fan of "The Death of Environmentalism," since his analysis is nearly the opposite of the one offered there. Schellenberger and Nordhaus claim that environmentalism has become too modest and wonky, whereas Kristof faults it for having too much sweeping vision without enough careful analysis.

His solution is to focus on a set of priorities determined by the Bush administration's attacks. Strangely enough, "extinctions, climate change and loss of wilderness" seem to be the actual priorities of environmentalists today. He admits as much in his own third paragraph, where he illustrates environmentalism's impotence by stating that it has failed to make progress on its priorities, which according to him are climate change and ANWR.

What we've really got here is another case of a columnist trying to burnish his "independent" credentials by slapping together a swing at one of his own side's constituencies.


Problems With Clean Development

Kyoto Credits System Aids The Rich, Some Say

... Such complaints are being increasingly heard from environmentalists and even some business leaders around the world, said Ben Pearson, director of Clean Development Mechanism Watch, an Australia-based environmental group that monitors Kyoto's impact -- and the criticism could be the unkindest cut of all for the treaty, which took effect on Feb 16.

In what advocates call an innovative market-based strategy, the treaty allows rich nations to avoid making some of their mandated reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by buying "credits" from nations that pollute less, or by investing in sustainable development projects, which is how the Durban dumpsite [which will remain open as a CDM project] is classified. The theory is that such investments will allow rich countries to lower the global burden of emissions and simultaneously spur transfer of clean technology to poorer nations.

But activists such as [Sajida] Khan and Winfried Overbeek, who is fighting a Kyoto-inspired project in Brazil, say that the world cannot barter its way out of global warming, and that there is no way to achieve a stable climate unless people in wealthy countries use fewer resources and energy -- in other words, lower consumption.

This article blurs the line between the two different flexibility mechanisms in the Kyoto Protocol. Under Kyoto, "Annex I countries" -- the developed world -- has emissions caps, while the rest of the world does not. With the emissions trading mechanism, an Annex I country can avoid making domestic emissions by buying credits from other Annex I countries. This I see no problem with, since greenhouse gasses have the same impact regardless of where they're emitted.

What the article is really criticizing is the clean development mechanism (CDM), under which an Annex I country gets credit for paying for an emissions-reducing project in a non-Annex I country. On the one hand, an emissions reduction is still an emissions reduction, although the accounting is trickier since non-Annex I countries have no caps, so it's harder to say what their emissions would be in the absence of a CDM project.

There are two major arguments against the CDM. The first is raised by the article, although not articulated very well. There's a long history of criticism of development projects. Typically they're projects that involve huge capital investments, since those are easiest for foreign donors to do. They get dumped on local people without their consent, designed by foreign experts who don't understand the local situation. The technocratic rationale behind CDM -- helping non-Annex I countries leapfrog "dirty" technology -- and the ease of accounting for the contribution of a big project mean that CDM projects will likely include many of the worst kind of development projects. For example, big dams are widely recognized as one of the most socially and ecologically destructive development projects, but they produce "clean" hydropower. In sum, CDM is bad because it provides a new impetus for the kind of development projects that activists have opposed all along.

The second argument, not raised in this article, is based on the fact that non-Annex I countries will eventually have to rein in their own emissions. Under the CDM, Annex I countries are buying up all the easy emissions reductions in non-Annex I countries. Thus, when those countries go to make their own reductions, they'll be stuck with the harder ones. It's unlikely that governments would be thinking of this long-term consequence, however, since the CDM cash is right here right now, and many of these countries desperately need cash. The problem with this argument, though, is that non-Annex I countries will (assuming there's some measure of justice in the negotiations) not be asked to make a certain amount of reduction -- "cut X tons of carbon" -- regardless of their pre-existing condition. They'll be asked to reduce to a certain target. So a CDM project would just put them closer to that target, and they'd get it for free instead of for cheap. In either case they'd have to make the same amount of hard reductions. Meanwhile Annex I countries who made heavy use of the CDM in the first round would be socked with another high reductions target, since with their higher per-capita emissions (maintained by using CDM), they'd still have more ability to make reductions.


Thoughts On Repugnance

Joe Carter offers a short three-part series on the "wisdom of repugnance," defending the use of the "ick factor" in making moral decisions (particularly in human cloning and related technology). He points out that sometimes repugnance acts as a crude heuristic when we don't have the ability to make a rational determination -- for example, disgust kept us alive for the millennia before the germ theory of disease was developed. On the other hand, he agrees that in many cases the "ick factor" is misguided -- see, for example, his opening anecdote about the Fuegian tribesman disgusted by Darwin's cold meat. The wisdom of repugnance is a sort of limited version of the precautionary principle -- "don't do anything disgusting unless you're sure it's safe," rather than "don't do anything unless you're sure it's safe." In both cases, some middle course is clearly correct, as neither extreme position (taking disgust as the final word, or hubristically assuming logic and science have all the answers already) is tenable. Unfortunately his posts don't do much to indicate just how the line should be drawn. This is perhaps an insoluble dilemma, as it's somewhat odd to think of an objective decision mechanism that takes intuition as one of its inputs.

It's also important to look at the whole picture. Disgusting activities can't be considered in isolation from each other. In some cases, we must overcome an immediate ick in order to resolve a longer-term ick -- say, when you take out a particularly nasty bag of trash. It's in this framework that I would place a repugnance-based analysis of cloning. I think most of us would agree that debilitating diseases are repugnant. Yet these diseases could be alleviated by cloning. For reasons like those stated above, it may be illogical to expect a clear method for weighing competing disgusts against each other. But this formulation at least shows that even a very strong presumption in favor of obeying our feelings of repugnance does not resolve the question in favor of banning cloning.


Probably no posting for the next week, as I have personal business to attend to.


Scarlet Stuff

This week's column was on the death penalty. I didn't have a comic for it because I had no idea what to draw.

Radical Environmentalism

I'm a big fan of typologies. In the spirit of Ampersand and Hugo Schwyzer, I thought I'd offer a typology of radical environmentalism. Its structure is more like Schwyzer's typology of the men's movement in being an inductive clustering, rather than based on the logical combinations of underlying dimensions like Ampersand's typology of feminism or Cultural Theory.

Radical Mainstream Environmentalism
This seemingly contradictory title refers to environmentalism that is radical in its political goals, but continuous with mainstream environmentalism in its analysis of the problem. It shares the Malthusianism and concept of human activity as inherently destructive that characterize much mainstream environmentalism, though it typically sees those problems as greater in scope. It is the most accepting of mainstream ecological science, particularly Clementsian equilibrium notions. However, radical mainstreamers think the problem is too dire to be solved with the technological advances and shifts in demand that mainstream envirnomentalism advocates. Rather, they advocate major reductions in population and resource use, and a return to more local communities and economies. The Limits to Growth movement is perhaps the best known exemplar of this camp.

Deep Ecology
Where radical mainstream environmentalism gets its motivational energy from predictions of human catastrophe, deep ecology is centered on an ethical concern for the fate of the non-human world -- both individual organisms and environmental systems like rivers, mountains, and biomes. Indeed, they sometimes fear that it may be all too possible for humans to live a comfortable and sustainable lifestyle at the expense of the environment. This camp is by far the most religious or spiritual in its philosophy and practice, often claiming that worship of Mother Earth is the only way to ensure ecologically sound lifestyles. Linked to that religious attitude is a sometimes contradictory relationship to Clementsian ecology -- on the one hand it is accepted because it shores up deep ecology's holism and view of fragile equilibrium, but on the other hand science is suspect because of its inherent links to imperialist domination of nature.

Political Ecology
Political ecology is an extension of leftist social and political philosophy to environmental questions. It is decidedly anthropocentric, concerned with the social justice impacts of environmental change and rhetoric. Political ecologists are typically highly critical of mainstream positivist science, though there has been some rapproachement in recent years as the usefulness of newer notions of disequilibrium ecology has been recognized. The environmental justice movement is the main lay component of this camp. There is a great deal of diversity within political ecology. The best-known divide is the one between Marxist and structuralist perspectives on one hand, and poststructuralism and postmodernism on the other. There is also a divide about the direction from which the nature-society boundary is criticized. Early on, political ecologists extended leftist critiques of the way the dominant powers would justify social relations by ascribing them to nature (e.g. claiming gender differences are genetic) -- for example, showing how "natural" disasters are really the result of capitalist expansion. More recently, motivated in part by 1) concern that criticisms of naturalization seemed to give aid and comfort to anti-environmentalisms, and 2) the increasing adoption of mainstream environmentalist ideas by powers such as the World Bank, the direction of analysis has been reversed. Political ecologists now often write about how people -- in particular, poor third-world people -- are blamed for natural environmental changes. (Note that these two positions are not necessarily contradictory -- the line may be drawn too far on the "nature" side in some situations, but too far on the "society" side in others.)

I'm not sure I'd classify myself as a "radical" environmentalist, but insofar as I am, my sympathies lie with political ecology. Political ecology has a lot of interesting things to say, and acts as an important check on our hubris. At the same time, I recognize the political pragmatism of the mainstream environmental movement. And I am a believer in disequilibrium ecology, which has yet to make as much of a practical impact as the older equilibrium ecology (though there have been some promising baby steps in the direction of adaptive management).


Vulnerability and Inequality

Dave Roberts has a post up arguing that environmentalists need to rethink their focus on greenhouse gas emission reductions as a strategy for combatting the disastrous effects of climate change. Based on a paper by Roger Pielke Jr. and Daniel Sarewitz, he argues that it would be more cost-effective to focus on reducing people's vulnerability to climate.

I agree that vulnerability reduction needs to be a central part of our climate change strategy -- if for no other reason than that the political prospects of meaningful greenhouse gas reduction are so discouraging. Vulnerability has been overlooked too often, I think, because 1) it's studied by social scientists, who lack the credibility and clout of the natural scientists who study climate change dynamics*, 2) it doesn't fit as nicely into the technocratic "fix the environment" orientation of government problem-solving, and 3) it doesn't support environmentalists' favored narrative of "nature being destroyed by humans" -- indeed, it seems to reflect a "humans at the mercy of cruel nature" narrative that's often blamed for environmental destruction.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons to keep greenhouse gas reductions as a key part of the strategy as well. On a purely tactical level, much groundwork for raising public consciousness about the need to reduce emissions has already been done, whereas getting people interested in vulnerability reduction would have huge up-front costs. Commenters in Roberts's post raise some other issues, such as the fact that vulnerability reduction won't save wild organisms and ecosystems, which are also threatened by climate change.

The concern that occurred to me is international inequality. Basically, emissions reductions are a common good, while vulnerability reduction is a private good. While the impacts of climate change on different countries are substantially different even if we hold vulnerability constant, climate change is a worldwide package deal. A ton of carbon emitted by the US is not going to raise only the US's temperature. It goes into a global carbon bank that affects the whole world's climate. This is a major political hurdle, as negotiations over emissions reduction are plagued by collective action problems. Nevertheless, whatever reductions are made will benefit the whole world.

On the other hand, vulnerability reduction is a private good. If the US were to, say, change its tax laws to encourage people to live farther inland so as not to be so vulnerable to sea level rise, that would help only Americans -- Bangladeshis would still be living next to the ocean. In general terms, the countries that are most at risk from climate change are those with the least resources to reduce their vulnerability.

The obvious rejoinder here is that rich countries should finance vulnerability reduction in poor countries. Indeed they should. However, there are severe political and practical limits to how much that can accomplish. Politically, rich countries are simply not willing to devote much of their GDP to foreign aid. Practically, foreign aid can only do so much. The resources that are needed for vulnerability reduction are not simply financial. They're cultural, political, administrative, economic, and social as well. We can't build those resources in other countries simply by dumping money (and alien expertise) on them. Sixty years of "development" projects have shown that it's exceedingly difficult to use standard foreign aid policies to improve living conditions in poorer nations. Change needs to be deeply woven into the structure of society, not bought by an outsider. The prospects of the first world shifting to a radically new development paradigm in time to save poorer countries from the impacts of climate change are even more laughable than the prospects of drastically ramping up foreign aid money.

*Of course, social science is a necessary part of this researach too, though too often overlooked.