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Conservative Risk-Aversion

Henry Farrell argues that conservatism is basically about the virtues of risk-taking -- conservatives "tend to fetishize risk as being a good thing in itself." I agree that the right is more likely to offer pro-risk rhetoric, and that the image of the brave risk-taking cowboy draws some people to conservatism. But I think that conservative policy is by and large risk-averse.

On the level of general philosophy, Burkean conservatism is little more than a statement of the precautionary principle. "Don't change anything, because you never know what kind of chaos it could unleash." That's profoundly risk-averse.

Economics are where we most often hear pro-risk rhetoric from conservatives, as they praise the virtues of the market and the entrepreneur. But I could count the GOP's real libertarians on one hand. Modern conservative economic policy is aimed at reducing risks to corporations, through a combination of deregulation and corporate welfare. (Note, for example, that Bush's one genuine environmental accomplishment, the regulations on off-road diesel emissions, was implemented because the affected corporations wanted to get a uniform law on the books already to reduce their uncertainty.) The fact that these policies shift risk onto consumers and workers is a side effect, not a goal.

In foreign policy, conservatism frames itself as protection from risk. The risk of terrorism or weapons of mass destruction is a motivating principle for conservative policy. (There's a nice synergy here, as the defense spending needed to protect us from the risk of terrorism and WMDs goes to keep various corporations afloat.)

In social policy conservatism is at its most risk-averse. Conservative social policy aims at having a place for everyone and everyone in their place. Much of it is motivated by the desire to have clearly prescribed roles for everyone (particularly with respect to gender), to reduce the uncertainties of social interaction. Practices that violate this order, such as homosexuality, are feared as bringers of disruption and chaos. Conservative religion places supreme value on the certainty of divine revelation, and evangelism aims to spread that committment to all of society. Media censorship reduces the risk that children may be exposed to material that their parents don't approve of.

Even Social Security reform can be understood as risk-aversion. The justification for private accounts is not the bracing effects of exposing your retirement to the risks of the stock market. Rather, it's the percieved riskiness of the status quo. Pro-privatization arguments emphasize the government's untrustworthiness. Keeping your retirement money in your own hands, then, sounds like a recipe for safety.

All this is not to say that liberals are basically risk-seeking. Both philosophies are basically risk-averse, but in different ways. They just emphasize different risks.


In Defense Of CNN

Ordinarily I'd be the last person to defend TV news, but I think some people are getting a little too worked up over the CNN segment ridiculed on the Daily Show (click on "Gaywatch") the other night. The topic was Texas' deeply immoral and anti-child law barring homosexuals from being foster parents. The anti-child guest cited a study that found that children raised by same-sex couples were more likely to be abused. Jon Stewart interjected with a rebuttal, pointing out that the study in question is scientifically worthless. Then he lambasted the CNN anchors for not making a similar rebuttal.

I wonder, though -- did Stewart know that information about the study off the top of his head? I'm pretty confident that he (or the show's writers) saw the CNN clip, thought "that study doesn't sound right," and went and looked it up before their show aired. CNN didn't have time for that, as the segment was being broadcast live. The best they can do is let the pro-child expert provide a rebuttal. Note that the pro-child speaker -- who we presume has dedicated more time to research on this issue -- also does not point out the specific problems with the anti-child speaker's study. He just offers some generalities about unspecified research and experts he's seen that have not supported the anti-child claim.

The he said-she said style is not simply a matter of the personal failings of TV reporters (though they've certainly embraced it). It's a structural effect of doing live TV news. What this really points out is the need for programs like the Daily Show that can take some time to double-check and review the first-cut news.


If I ever get to be a reporter who asks politicians questions, my question will be literally "blah blah terrorism blah blah?" I want to see if it even fazes them, or if they just launch right into their terrorism spiel.

Slipping Toward Polygamy

Matt Yglesias argues that conservative slippery-slope predictions actually do tend to come true, but by the time they do the slippage, once thought to be self-evidently bad, is considered a good thing. So racial equality did lead to interracial marriage, but most people now approve of interracial marriage. Based on this track record, Yglesias predicts that same-sex marriage will indeed pave the way for polygamy.

Some of his commenters don't buy it, arguing (correctly) that there's no reason that accepting same-sex marriage necessarily entails accepting polygamy. But slippery slopes aren't about logical relationships, they're about causal relationships. Social and cultural change are not processes characterized by a great deal of logic.

In this case, I think that the conservative slippery slope is a self-fulfilling prophecy. By making the slippery slope argument, conservatives have planted the idea in people's heads that gay marriage leads to polygamy. If conservatives fail to stop same-sex marriage, then, people will start to ask themselves "why not polygamy too?" Enough people will accept this connection and decide to give it a try without the support of legal recognition. This will swell the ranks, and increase the visibility, of the polyamorous community. This, in turn, will begin to alter our assumptions about what polyamory is like -- the first images to come to mind will be loving and egalitarian relationships, rather than the Mormon patriarch with his underage harem (a process not unlike the image-altering effects of the San Fransisco marriages last year). Eventually, attempts to get polyamory legally recognized will arise (assuming that the other conservative prediction, that same-sex marriage will destroy the institution of marriage, has not come true yet).

(As it happens, I'm way ahead of Yglesias' historical curve on this one, as I already think that polygamy is an acceptable choice.)


I'll be in DC for the weekend, so probably no posting until Tuesday.

WalMart Wilderness

Wal-Mart to Fund Wildlife Habitat

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, pledged Tuesday to spend $35 million compensating for wildlife habitat lost nationwide beneath its corporate "footprint."

Acre for acre, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said it would buy an amount of land equal to all the land its stores, parking lots and distribution centers use over the next 10 years. That would conserve at least 138,000 acres in the United States as "priority" wildlife habitat.

-- via the Evangelical Ecologist

This certainly strikes me as a step forward. It's a bit hard to judge the conservation utility of the preserved land from the information given -- its precise location and the nature of the restrictions that will be placed on its use will have a big influence.

What would be really exciting, though, is if WalMart made a big committment to incorporating green practices into the building of its stores rather than just replacing that land. Things like solar cells on those giant roofs, recycled building materials, and redeveloping brownfields rather than contributing to sprawl would all help to cut through this idea, seemingly central to WalMart's conservation proposal, that development and conservation are separate activities.


Offensive Protests Against An Evil Man

As I type, Paul Bremer is giving a no-press-allowed lecture at Clark University. I didn't bother to go, because lectures by big-name speakers are typically not worth my time (particularly lectures by people famous for things they've done, rather than ideas they've had). When Bremer's lecture was announced, there was quite an uproar on this very left-leaning campus (whose students were amusingly described by Brigitta as "Clarxists"). As I see it, there are three arguments against Bremer's lecture:

1. The resource allocation argument: In general, I oppose bringing big-name speakers. As the fame of a speaker goes up, the price tag rises geometrically while the quality of their talk rises at best arithmetically. When you get into the Paul Bremer/Hurricane Carter league, the speaker's fee is a poor investment of scarce funds. The figure of $40,000 has been thrown around for Bremer's talk, though it's unclear where that number came from, since the contracts for speakers stipulate that the real figure won't be revealed (a stipulation I am very much opposed to, incidentally -- students have a right to know where their tuition dollars are going). But $40,000 is certainly in the right order of magnitude. Bremer's salary for an hour of reciting a speech he's doubtless given many times is certainly enough to support at least one grad student TA for a year. With the university constantly whining about its funding crunch, it has no business wasting that money on a big name speaker -- be it Paul Bremer or Noam Chomsky.

2. The procedural argument: I've been told that the process of selecting Bremer as a speaker was corrupt. This information is third-hand, so it may not be accurate. But if it is, it's a serious wrongdoing. Speakers are supposed to be chosen by the Speakers' Forum, a student organization. But I've been told that Dean Little and StudCo President Kevin Ready did an end run, selecting Bremer and cutting him a check without consulting the Speakers' Forum. The contractual stipulation that the press is not allowed is highly problematic as well, and were I given a vote I would oppose any speaker who demanded that.

3. The ideological argument: Paul Bremer is a bad man, who has screwed up Iraq and will say some pretty horrible things -- that much I have no argument with. What I don't agree with is the conclusion that it was therefore wrong to bring him to Clark. The fact that a group, or even a majority, of students disagree with a speaker's view is no argument against bringing them. A university has the duty to expose students to those ideas that are influential in the world -- and few ideas are more influential today than the neoconservative case for war that attendees of Bremer's talk will get to hear from the horse's mouth.

So while I disagree with rationale 3 for opposing Bremer's talk, I agree with rationale 1, and I agree with rationale 2 insofar as the information it's based on is reliable. Yet the organizing against his talk has focused almost entirely on rationale 3. So I passed on getting involved in the protest.

The actual protest turned out both better and worse than I expected. It was better in that the focus was on expressing opposition to the war in general and Bremer's actions in particular, rather than opposing his lecture. There were rumors that the protesters would attempt to block the entrance to the lecture hall, but (at least while I was there) people were able to enter in an orderly fashion.

It was worse in that some of the messages being presented at the protest were distasteful even for a dove like myself. Hanging Bremer in effigy from a nearby tree is no big deal, since that's a standard bit of hyperbole. The signs declaring the US to be the world's worst regime don't represent my view (I'll take George Bush over Turkmenbashi any day of the week), but I can appreciate where their authors are coming from. But two out of the half dozen or so signs being displayed were rather offensive. One sign declared "Victory to the Iraqi resistance" -- that is, victory to a movement that's killing civilians and would, if given power, be at least as oppressive as anything the US has set up. Another person engaged in a bit of gratuitous fat-bashing, proclaiming "Fat America, walk! Don't kill for oil."

All three of Clark's Republicans were there too, holding "Bush/Cheney '04" signs.


Downwind States

Change to the Clean Air Act Is Built Into New Energy Bill

... Under the new provision, the "downwind" states would not be required to meet clean air standards until the "upwind" states that were contributing to the problem had done so. Currently, states can get more time but only if they agree to added cleanup measures.

Proponents of the measure in Congress, as well as a spectrum of industry groups, say that the change would give state and local governments the flexibility and discretion they urgently need to deal with air pollution from distant sources. Otherwise, they would have to impose much stricter limits on pollution from local sources, including power plants, factories and automobiles.

But House members who fought against the measure, and other opponents, say flexibility and discretion are just other words for delay, saving money for industry and posing risks for millions of people living where the air does not meet health-based standards.

-- via The Hamster

I'm actually somewhat ambivalent about this provision. The trust-based reaction -- if industry groups support it, it's probably bad for the environment -- biases me against it. And it does seem to overreach. But there's something to the idea that the law should cut downwind states a break.

I can understand opponents' view that pollution is pollution, and you're just as dead if you get cancer from the factory next door or a power plant three states over. Everyone in the country should get the same minimum standard of protection from pollution. Yet there's still a serious question about the distribution of the burden for meeting that standard. It seems unfair that an eastern state should have to shoulder the costs of compensating for pollution that they didn't create. Yet the proposal seems to also let them off the hook for the costs of pollution they did create, so long as another state is contributing to their pollution.

What would make more sense is an allowance for downwind states to adjust their targets. So if the standard is 5 ppm of chemical X, and the air in Pennsyltucky currently contains 7 ppm of domestic X and 3 ppm of X from Xohd, Pennsyltucky would be expected to meet an 8 ppm standard (i.e., meet the basic standard on domestic emissions). They would then be able to sue Xohd to force it to reduce emissions that cross state lines (or negotiate an efficient combination of reductions in the two states in order to meet the 5 ppm standard in Pennsyltucky). We might also have a higher "urgent" standard, a level at which health threats are so severe that each state has to immediately make enough domestic reductions to meet it, regardless of where the pollution comes from. So if in the example of X the urgent standard was 12 ppm and Xohd produced 8 ppm that drifted into Pennsyltucky, Pennsyltucky would have to immediately reduce its domestic emissions to 4 ppm in order to get under that standard, despite the fact that most of the pollution comes from Xohd (though they could later allow domestic emissions to increase once Xohd got its act together).

The geography of this rule is interesting too. Many environmental issues, such as the Healthy Forests Initiative, can be explained by reference to supporters' and opponents' home districts. The typical framing is that rural, federal-land-heavy districts have one vision of how to manage their land, while those from urban eastern districts want to impose rules on them for the (supposed) common good. It's unclear exactly where the supporters and opponents of this air pollution measure are from, but the article quotes a Texan and a Mainer, respectively, so it's quite likely that there's the same rough geographical breakdown. Yet in this case it's the eastern states that would benefit from the change. Or rather, it's eastern industry that benefits, by being relieved of the burden of emissions reductions. Similarly, it's rural industry that's one of the primary beneficiaries of Healthy Forests.

If these debates were primarily an issue of scale -- local people versus those claiming to act in the national interest -- the support/opposition positions ought to be reversed. An alternative framing -- representatives of industry versus representatives of citizens -- does a better job in bringing the various environmental debates under a single rubric.


Kantian Cruelty

I recently came back across the extreme anthropocentric argument against animal cruelty (used by Kant, among others) -- that cruelty to animals makes its perpetrators more susceptible to hurting humans. Empirical concerns can be raised against this argument -- cruelty to animals may just be a symptom of a more generalized cruelty, or may even vent an urge for crulety that would otherwise be directed against humans. But what interested me was a sort of philosophical inconsistency between the argument's purported goals and the empirical mechanism it employs.

The extreme anthropocentric argument charges that a more traditional or straightforward argument against cruelty to animals -- it's wrong because it hurts animals -- improperly treats animals like humans. Extreme anthropocentrists argue that humans and animals are fundamentally different, and so we can't extend our moral notions about the rightness of inflicting harm on humans to animals.

Yet the mechanism by which cruelty to animals breeds cruelty to humans depends on that very blurring of the huamn-animal line. We don't ban cutting bread on the theory that it would lead to cutting humans, because we recognize that bread and humans are such radically different things that our brains would never connect the two sets of behavior. So cruelty to animals produces cruelty to humans only when the perpetrator sees humans and animals as basically the same sort of beings. Extreme anthropocentrists are essentially arguing that conflating animals and people is morally mistaken, yet it's also unavoidable. However, a truly committed anthropocentrist ought to be able to be as cruel as they like, because they're able to maintain that distinction.

Nature Entertainment

Katherine Wroth points to the Today show's list of 50 things to do before you die. She points out that 15 of them are nature-related:

watch whales migrate; go whitewater rafting; see wild game on an African safari; dive the Great Barrier Reef; travel the Nile in Egypt; swim with the dolphins; helicopter over a Hawaiian volcano; feed sharks; ride a mule down the Grand Canyon; gaze upon a magnificent waterfall; walk the Inca trail at Machu Picchu; explore the Alaskan wilderness; dive in a submarine; scale a famous peak; explore a rainforest.

What struck me about this list is that they're all entertainment experiences. Nature appears on this list solely as the object of aesthetic appreciation. That's not necessarily unique to nature, as most of the list is entertainment-based -- a bias that is perhaps understandable, given that such experiences are easier to come by (many can be simply purchased) and much easier to put on TV. But where's the nature equivalent of an accomplishment like "write a song or poem for someone you love" or "volunteer overseas" or "say a special thank-you"? Something like "learn organic gardening" might not have the same romantic cachet as the things on Today's list, but it would make you feel good rather than just entertained.


Australia's Other

During the heyday of Smokey the Bear, Australia adopted a strong policy in favor of controlled burning. This was not merely a difference of opinion about fire ecology. It was also an attempt by Australia to show that it was different and special, to maintain its identity in the face of the scientific and practical powerhouses of the US and British India. Though fire policies have changed, some of this attitude persists, as seen for example in a recent article in The Age:

The controlled burn that became a bushfire in Wilsons Promontory National Park at the weekend is a case in point. This is a popular, much-loved park. The area had not been affected by wildfire in decades. As in most of the Australian bush, fire is a naturally occurring part of the life cycle in the park - or at least it should be.

Yet for decades, fire was largely excluded from the park, as it was deliberately excluded from other areas of public land across Victoria. This policy - slavishly adopted in Australia after the example of European and American land managers - owed more to northern hemisphere forestry practice than to any understanding of the Australian bush and how it is best cared for.

The last quoted sentence is technically true -- fire suppression has been a popular practice in the northern hemisphere, and that example has contributed to its popularity in Australia. Yet there's an implication that fire suppression is an appropriate practice for the northern hemisphere. The problem, according to this author, is not that fire suppression is an accross-the-board mistaken policy, but that it's being foisted on Australia by ethnocentric foreigners who don't understand Australia's unique circumstances.


More On Biomass Vs. Fossil Burning

Stephen Pyne's theory of the gradual replacement of biomass burning by fossil fuel burning is historically limited. No matter how optimistic you are, it's undeniable that we're eventually going to run out of fossil fuels. So even granting Pyne's simple developmental model, the fossil fuel burning stage can only be transient. I see three possibilities for what would happen next:

1. A return to biomass burning. This scenario is advocated by eco-anarchist and other radical environmentalisms, who want us to return to the more sustainable practices of non-industrial society. This scenario is also the likely outcome of an eco-catastrophe, as the economic infrastructure neccesary to sustain a fossil-fuel-using economy would be fatally disrupted by extreme environmental collapse.

2. A sort of Hegelian/Marxist synthesis of the two types of burning. Technologies like thermal depolymerization offer the possibility of using biomass as a feedstock for fossil-fuel-burning technologies -- e.g. turning scraps from turkey processing plants into gasoline.

3. A transition to a non-burning economy. This would be perhaps the most radical change, as humanity's tenure on this planet has been defined by burning. Yet ironically it's the vision of the reformists, rather than the radicals, in the environmental movement. The "ecological modernization" school of thought argues that technological advances will be able to solve our environmental problems without requiring radical lifestyle changes. In this vision, a suite of renewable energy sources -- wind, solar, tidal, nuclear -- will replace fossil fuels. Notably, few of these proposals incorporate any sort of burning-based energy source (though sustainably-farmed biomass fuels have been discussed).

AAGs, Day Three

This post is extremely late, as I got stuck in a hotel room with no internet, and then got stuck in Denver for an extra two nights due to the blizzard. But now I'm back in the Eastern time zone, so on with the show:

Friday's big event was a talk by Stephen Pyne, the guy writing about the social side of fire management. His talk was decently attended, though I'd expected more (perhaps because I'm too immersed in the fire literature to realize how un-famous he is outside of it). I also think Pyne is coasting a bit on his own famousness. It's been some time since he really bit off a substantial new chunk of conceptual territory. He seems to be circling around through the same ideas, reframing them a bit on each pass. So his AAG paper wasn't anything profoundly new, although he did have some nice graphics for it.

One of the major issues he raised was the relationship between biomass burning and fossil fuel burning. His basic thesis is that development leads the latter to replace the former. He showed a photo of the Earth at night in which you could see Europe lit up with (mostly fossil-fuel powered) electric lights, while Africa was covered in fires. By the end of the session, most people had left, so I was able to talk to him about this issue, specifically to suggest that the relationship between the two types of burning may be somewhat more complex than the simple developmental replacement model he advocated. Specifically, I raised the case of the urban-wildland interface.

The UWI is a site not only of increased vulnerability to biomass burning (wildfires), but also of increased incidence of biomass burning, as roads fragment (and hence dessicate) forests, lawn fertilizer runoff and exotic species increase biomass in "wild" areas, and human activities provide additional ignition sources. Yet the UWI as we know it today (as opposed to the more intensively managed farms and working forests of traditional rural areas) would not be possible without fossil fuel technologies -- in particular cars to drive into the city to work.

Pyne replied that the contemporary UWI was simply a transitional phase. He argued that in the short term, UWI residents would not put up with biomass fires and would turn to fossil-fuel-powered technologies to eliminate it (e.g. gas-powered mowers and wood chippers). In the longer term, the UWI is simply the leading edge of urban growth, so the "wildland" part would in due time be converted to skyscrapers. I wasn't particularly convinced by either claim, although it wasn't until later that I could articulate why.

Pyne's short-term claim seems to be contradicted by the preliminary results of Tam Ubbin's study of Montanans' attitudes toward fire. In commenting from the audience on another paper in this session, she said that her interviewees in the UWI were quite aware of the fire danger, but were willing to accept it as the price of a "natural" landscape. Pyne may be falling into the trap of many fire managers who assume they know what the public values. Or he may just be too optimistic about the likelihood of either developing a management technique that reduces fire danger without aesthetic impacts, or about altering our aesthetic principles.

Pyne's long-term claim seems to buy into a simple developmental model of urban territorial expansions (which was also a major subtext of a session earlier in the day on exurbia, which is what non-fire people call the UWI). Yet I question whether this is likely to occur. In the developed world (where the UWI problem is most salient), population growth is slow, so the "we need more space for houses" pressure is declining. What pressure there is may be in part relieved by gentrification of city centers. Also, the UWI often abuts reserved land (National Parks, National Forests, etc.), creating an irreducible wildland area next to settlement and making it harder for current UWI residents to sell their land to a developer and move further out.


Fafbloggin' the AAGs?

Jusat a day after I heard Paul Robbins present a paper titled "We Are The Elk," Fafnir posts that he is an elk. Coincidence?

AAGs, Day Two

This post is delayed because Blogger wasn't working for me last night. On with the show:

1. Carolyn Finney gave another great talk today about her research on African-Americans and the great outdoors, particularly National Parks. Her interviewees told her that the media was a major culprit in African-Americans' disproportionately low involvement with what we traditionally think of as "nature" and related environmentalism (as opposed to the environmental justice movement, where they're well represented in fighting environmental health risks). Finney pointed out that you rarely see black faces in photos of people in nature -- and when you do, they're working, not doing recreational activities. She also read a shocking letter to the editor that lambasted the National Parks' efforts to increase the diversity of its visitors, because the parks are supposed to be where white people can go to be safe from nonwhite criminals. (Addendum: This morning I went to a session in which I heard a similar thing from Nik Luka, who was doing a study of vacation cottages in Ontario. He said that later in his interviews, as interviewees got more comfortable with him, they began to talk about how they like to go stay at their cottage because the area was so white, and they didn't have to deal with "dirty Pakistanis s***ing on the beach.")

The discussant for this session was Ruth Gilmore, who offered an interesting definition of racism: "the state-sanctioned and/or legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death." On the one hand, this definition is useful insofar as it underlines the seriousness of racism. With the decline of the most blatantly overt forms of racism (e.g. lynchings), it's easy to underestimate the harm done by racism. For example, there's currently a five or so year gap in life expectancy between blacks and whites, which is almost certainly a result of racism given the lack of a biological basis for racial distinctions. Things that kill people are a Big Deal in our society in a way that other harms aren't.

On the other hand, it seems too narrow to confine the range of harms of concern to those that lead to premature death. Certainly a great many of the negative consequences of racism do (even if only in a small and remote way) raise the risk of death, and pointing out this connection can raise the percieved urgency of addressing the harms. But to make the badness of racism derivative solely of its contribution to premature death undervalues the harms that don't kill you. It seems to evoke the "technical" perspective on risk analysis, in which "risk" is defined as "probability of death." Risk researchers have worked long and hard to show that this definition fails to capture what members of the public value, and to create richer conceptualizations of the harm done by hazards. Insofar as racism is a cause of vulnerability to hazards, defining the harm as premature death is overly narrow.

2. The best paper of the conference so far was one by Peter Klepeis (my old mentor from Colgate) and Paul Laris about logging and the creation of a national park in Tierra del Fuego. In a nutshell, a logging company was planning to do some logging in the Chilean part of Tierra del Fuego. They developed a plan for doing it sustainably that was described by experts as cutting-edge. But national and international environmental groups were fixated on a wilderness ideology that would not accept any compromise. So they battled it out in court until the company ran out of money. The land was then acquired by Goldman-Sachs, which donated it as a National Park. Klepeis and Laris argue that the "wilderness reserve" model of nature preservation has been shown around the world to have limited usefulness, and particularly so in an area like Tierra del Fuego where 1) the land is not pristine wilderness, and 2) huge sectors of the forest are already reserves, so creating more is likely to suffer greatly diminishing returns. They argued that this "victory" by environmentalists is likely to sour timber companies on putting forth the effort to log sustainably.

What I found particularly interesting, given the topic of my paper (more on it Saturday, after I present it), was one of their criticisms of the logging company's strategy. They argued that the company failed to win over environmentalists in part because of their reliance on technical scientific expertise to argue for their proposal, and the environmentalists' understandable lack of trust that the company would follow through on its proposal. They argued that it would be unrealistic to expect the company and the environmentalists to be able to overcome these barriers and work directly with each other. However, they say an important role for the government (which had taken a backseat in this controversy) to step in as a mediator. The government would be able to facilitate communication between the two groups, and would have the power to demand accountability.


AAGs, Day one

Technically the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting began on Tuesday, but since I got to Denver at 11:30 pm I wasn't able to go to any of those sessions. Here I'll make some notes on a few of the interesting talks I heard today.

1. Jay Hasbrouck gave a good paper that I unfortunately missed the beginning of because the Adam's Mark Hotel -- like all conference hotels I've been to -- was apparently designed by a team of monkeys with expensive crack habits. He talked about how eco-anarchist groups, particularly ELF, make use of (often outdated) anthropological theories to construct their anti-civilization ideologies. What I found interesting was that they use not only the "noble savage" myth (in order to substantiate their claim that non-civilized society is better), but also the "barbaric savage" myth. Nonviolence, they argue, is unnatural, and it's anthropocentric to demand it as an ethical precept. This justifies their "eco-terrorist" actions.

2. Paul Robbins spoke (in his characteristically dynamic way) about the ethics of political ecology, with particular reference to game ranching in Montana. I found his empirical work interesting, as he described the rise of game ranching (an unprecedented privatization of wildlife) due to cattle ranching being outcompeted by factory farming, while the demand for recreation rises with the expansion of the urban-wildland interface. The game ranching project quickly collapsed, though, because game ranches proved to be fertile breeding grounds for Chronic Wasting Disease (an elk version of mad cow disease). But he lost me when he tried to draw out the larger philosophical implications. He's one of those people who is clearly thinking on a higher plane than I'm capable of (or else he's a far better BSer than your average academic).

3. Vine Deloria Jr. gave one of the talks at the big plenary session at the end of the day. I had read a couple of his books (Red Earth, White Lies and God is Red) and not found them particularly compelling, though they did have a bit of the same sort of voyeuristic fascination for me as Eirich von Danniken's work. I understand where he's coming from in terms of his anger at what western culture has done to Native Americans. But he has a tendency to demonstrate a lack of understanding of many of the elements of western culture that he criticizes. A good example of this came in an offhand comment about evolution in his AAG talk. His main theme was tribes' claims that gods or other spiritual beings told the tribe to settle in a certain area, and granted them a special connection with, knowledge of, and adaptation to that patch of land. Deloria clearly believes that these origin myths are (in some way) true. As support for this, he said that secular theories can't adequately explain how tribes come to be so well adapted to their homelands, because evolution asserts that life has no meaning -- yet how can such a level of adaptation be achieved without a sense of purpose?

Applied to the adaptation of non-human organisms, Deloria's argument would be a simple case of the argument from incredulity -- I can't imagine how this adaptation came about, therefore it can't have occurred through a non-teleological natural process. Applied to cultural adaptation, it's a blatant misstatement of the theory of evolution. Evolution is not nihilistic, denying the possibility of purpose in life. It simply denies that any purpose guides the process of natural selection. But cultural adaptation is clearly not driven primarily by natural selection -- it's the result, though not necessarily in a planned way, of humans who believe in various purposes for their lives. Evolution does not even contradict the (anti-existential) idea that there is one correct meaning or purpose for life. It merely holds that this purpose can only have an effect on the world by being believed in and acted on by humans. It's a bit audacious of Deloria to make this argument at a geography conference, since geographers have been in the forefront of proposing secular theories of how communities adapt to their environments.

Another Non-AAG Post

Sebastian Holsclaw draws attention to this Jane Galt post presenting the classically conservative case against gay marriage:

By changing the explicitly gendered nature of marriage we might be accidentally cutting away something that turns out to be a crucial underpinning.

To which, again, the other side replies "That's ridiculous! I would never change my willingness to get married based on whether or not gay people were getting married!"

Now, economists hear this sort of argument all the time. "That's ridiculous! I would never start working fewer hours because my taxes went up!" This ignores the fact that you may not be the marginal case. The marginal case may be some consultant who just can't justify sacrificing valuable leisure for a new project when he's only making 60 cents on the dollar. The result will nonetheless be the same: less economic activity. Similarly, you--highly educated, firmly socialised, upper middle class you--may not be the marginal marriage candidate; it may be some high school dropout in Tuscaloosa. That doesn't mean that the institution of marriage won't be weakened in America just the same.

I think there's something to this kind of conservatism. But I also think it's important to recognize the flipside argument. Conservatism tends to implicitly conceptualize society as a static entity, changing only when we deliberately reform it. But in fact society is constantly changing (at a comparatively rapid pace in the modern world, but even hunter-gatherer societies changed over time -- they're not mere stone-age relics). These changes can lead an institution that has a long and functional history to become dangerously outdated unless it is reformed. Holding onto an old institution when the conditions of its functioning are lost is just as problematic as changing an institution when the conditions are still suited to the old setup.

The other way conservatism tends to dodge this problem is by positing that the conditions that make an institution functional are basic facts of human nature (and that human nature is a relatively proximate cause of that functionality). We see shades of this in Galt's post, where she implicitly presents the gender-affirming nature of marriage as something biologically rooted. (This also explains the conservative desire to carry out a seemingly un-conservative radical democratization by force in Iraq -- we've found that democracy works in America, and assume that it works because of a universal human desire for and understanding of freedom.)

In the case of gay marriage, we may be at a point where each of these two philosophies has a different domain of applicability. In more conservative communities, the need for gender affirmation is strong, and therefore opening marriage up to couples who not only don't, but can't, fulfil traditional gender roles may well weaken the institution's appeal to heterosexual couples. (I believe that even in the most conservative areas the benefits of allowing same-sex marriage outweigh the damage to opposite-sex marriages, but the point is to understand the source of concern from the point of view of conservative heterosexuals.) On the other hand, in liberal areas, man-and-woman-only marriage has become dangerously outmoded. It's not just that we're secure enough in our marriage decisions to not need the gender affirmation of traditional marriage (as Galt argues), it's that our gender culture -- a culture asserting the uselessness of rigid gender categories -- is out of sync with marriage as it exists outside of Massachusetts. We may be marginal in a different way, turned off to traditional marriage by its insistence on gender roles just as much as the Tuscaloosa dropout is turned off by reformed marriage's lack of gender roles.

Neither side is willing to accept a "live and let live" strategy on this issue. In part, it's because the boundaries can't be sealed off -- even if you can't marry a person of the same sex in Tuscaloosa, knowing that it's possible in Massachusetts sends a message about the nature of marriage, and vice-versa. It's also because both sides have strong commitments to the cultural conditions that underly their vision of marriage, and they hope and fear -- with some justification -- that by changing the institutiuons, they can shift the culture. This is coupled with a conviction that their culture-institution combination is ultimately superior (liberals because more people are given access to marriage, conservatives because even liberals have a fundamental need for gender affirmation).

Writing About Others

So there is internet at the hotel where I'm staying. I'm still not sure how much I'll get to blog this week. In the meantime, I wanted to make a note of this quote, from an article on Hinduism linked by Ampersand:

For Sharma, author of Classical Hindu Thought: An Introduction (Oxford, 2000), the debate has shades of gray. “Both the insider and the outsider see the truth,” he writes in an e-mail interview, “but genuine understanding may be said to arise at the point of their intersection. At this intersection one realizes that the Shivalinga [the icon of the god Shiva] is considered a phallic symbol by outsiders but rarely by Hindus themselves, or that the Eucharist looks like a cannibalistic ritual to outsiders but not to Christians.” He continues, “If insiders and outsiders remain insulated they develop illusions of intellectual sovereignty. Each is required to call the other’s bluff.”

I don't know much about Hinduism, but the comment on communion-as-cannibalism is right on. Having learned Christianity as an "insider," I find it strange, and dissonant with my own experience, to hear people describe communion as cannibalism. It's got a sort of superficial resemblance, in that the bread and wine are said to represent the body and blood of a man, but it completely lacks the other connotations that are associated with real cannibalism in our culture. (It's interesting to note that it's exactly those other connotations that motivate many people to make the cannibalism-communion connection -- by drawing that comparison, they aim to make Christians out to be strange and barbaric.)


Off to the AAGs

I'm headed to Denver for the 101st Association of American Geographers annual meeting. Depending on the quality of internet access there, I may blog about the conference here. Otherwise, I'll see you on Monday.


Hazards In the Urban-Wildland Interface

I've written a number of times about the risks of wildfire in the "urban-wildland interface," the area where residential settlement edges up against, or is scattered within, more "wild" environments. In addition to the specific factors that raise fire danger in the UWI -- such as more sources of ignition from human activities and the drying out of forests due to increased sunlight penetration -- there are some factors that make the UWI especially prone to natural hazards in general. For example, because of its relatively recent origins in many locations as a result of people moving away from cities, UWI areas have not developed community and cultural institutions to make up for the lack of the kind of emergency services that are available in urban areas.

But it now occurs to me that the UWI may also be especially prone to technological hazards, such as pollution. The basic reason is that contrary to residents' implicit assumptions, the "wild" areas that make it up are not necessarily "frontier wilderness" or even traditional rural areas -- i.e. areas that have heretofore been protected from human settlement by distance or inaccessability. Take for example the case of the Ciba-Geigy Superfund site in Toms River, New Jersey. Wild lands are rare on the Jersey shore because of the increasing population and the money to be made from housing development. Nevertheless, the Ciba-Geigy site sits on many acres of "wild" land not far from downtown Toms River. The various companies that ran the chemical plant located on the site maintained a large property as a sort of buffer zone around their operation. Because this buffer zone retained its wild appearance, it exerted the kind of aesthetic pull that spurs development of the UWI. Housing developments sprung up just outside of the Ciba-geigy fenceline, benefitting from the environmental amenities of the area.

Yet concieving of the buffer zone as wild in a traditional sense led to actions by both plant management and residents that heighten the risks from the plant. It is plausible that having a "wild" buffer led to laxer safety standards at the plant, contributing to the contamination of the groundwater. A plant located closer to town might have provoked outrage at a sooner date by subjecting people to risks earlier in the contamination process and making informal monitoring of activities on the site easier (e.g. the plant could get away with dumping chemicals because it was hidden away in the woods). On the other hand, the wild buffer may have created a subtle impression that any contamination would be absorbed by nature and not threaten anyone. Meanwhile, people moving into the UWI developments near the plant suffered from a bit of wildland-induced naievete. The trees and birds evoked feelings of healthy nature, disguising the technologically-created threat in the groundwater. Further, the wildland provoked enhanced opposition when the contamination became known. Risk perception research has shown that people are more concerned when a risk seems to be unnatural or in violation of the accepted order of things -- a description that applies more accurately to pollution in a wild setting than in an urban one (where contamination is expected). This kind of elevated concern can damage trust from both sides.