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30.4.06

Mother Earth

Some environmentalists like to argue that we should imitate certain hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies* in thinking of nature as a parent -- "Mother Earth." But what it means to see nature as Mother Earth depends critically on how we relate to our human elders.

Most modern environmentalists have a sort of "Medicare" version of Mother Earth. She has given us much, but now she is fragile and in need of care. It's our responsibility, as the young and strong children, to nurse her back to health. This, of course, parallels our society's view of our human elderly.

Hunter-gatherers who think of nature as a parent take a very different view. The modern trajectory -- from cared-for child, to independent adult, to care-giver in the parent's old age -- does not characterize hunter-gatherer life. Rather, the original parent-child relationship persists in some form throughout life**. So Mother Nature is like a village elder, taking care of her juniors. The respect shown toward nature is on the model of the gratitude shown to the powerful and benevolent, not on the model of the care given to the fragile and powerless.

* Often they lump all "primitive" groups together, assuming that they all had a similar pro-environment ideology. But there is great diversity in how such peoples conceive of their environment and their relationship to it -- for example, some tribes see it as fearsome, while others expect it to be infinitely resilient.

** Note that saying that someone has not progressed as far in a developmental cycle is not to say that they are doing something wrong. The idea that comparative "immaturity" is automatically a bad thing is part of the anti-youth side of our ageist culture.

28.4.06

Fuzzy Grading

This is probably boring to anyone who came here expecting analysis of major social injustices and environmental problems, but it's also inevitable that academics will eventually discuss pedagogy.

I've recently encountered some discussion about the relative merits of different types of grading scales, particularly on the question of grading scales with lots of places (e.g. 0-100% or letter grades with pluses and minuses) versus those with few places (e.g. letter grades without pluses and minuses, or check plus/check minus).

Insofar as the people involved are willing to discuss the relative merits of grading systems (rather than rejecting the whole idea of grading), they seem to agree that scales with fewer places are better. The rationale is that grading is a highly inexact process -- but having lots of places on the scale presumes an unrealistic ability to discriminate between, say, 85% and 86%-quality work.

In my opinion, the inexactness of grading cuts the other way. If you only have a few scale places to work with, your decisions about borderline cases take on heightened importance, since the difference between the grades on either side of the border is so much larger. How can I be certain that all the papers I gave Bs to are definitely better than all the ones I gave Cs, given the inexactness of grading? But if I have more places on the scale, I can give a B- or a C+ to those borderline students, acknowledging the fuzziness of the categories and the uncertainty inherent in grading.

Use "Billabong" In A Sentence

Australia is considering making prospective new citizens take an English test. Last night I heard a proponent of the plan quoted on the TV news saying something to the effect of "the English test is no big deal, because most people in Europe and Asia already speak some English." Way to take a big spotlight and shine it right on your racism, dude.

26.4.06

test

A Critique of Deep Ecology

I've posted before about my dislike for Deep Ecology. But it's difficult to find an intelligent critique of deep ecology. Most non-Deep Ecologists either ignore it completely, or find it so absurd as to be worthy only of mockery or "well duh" responses rather than argumentation. Some Deep Ecologists do little to help this, as they admit that the Deep Ecology position is one that can only be reached through a religion-like "conversion" (sometimes described as a Kuhnian paradigm shift) rather than through logic, and thus they focus on emotional appeals rather than the careful marshalling of evidence.

As a small attempt at a more intelligent response, I'd like to give some commentary on the eight-point "Deep Ecology Platform" constructed by George Sessions and Arne Naess. Naess has argued -- and other Deep Ecologists have enthusiastically followed -- that these eight points are the only things common to all Deep Ecologists. Anything more, such as theories about the basis of intrinsic value, is only a feature of the particular "ecosophy" of a certain subset of Deep Ecologists. I'm only dealing here with the first four points -- I may come back later to the other four, but I've had this post sitting half-written for many months now, so I can't promise anything.

1) The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: inherent worth; intrinsic value; inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.

Whether I agree with this point depends on whether I approach it as a textualist or as a originalist. As a textualist -- looking only at the words on the page -- I find nothing to disagree with in the literal meaning. I even agree with the implication that there are some nonhuman things that have intrinsic, as opposed to instrumental, value. But as an originalist, I have to recognize that what Naess and Sessions mean by this point is quite different from my own viewpoint. It all turns on the definition of well-being. In my view, well-being is a subjective state, and thus it's only meaningful to talk about the well-being of entities that are subjects -- that are capable of having experiences and forming counterfactual preferences. Not only can an entity such as a mountain or a chair or a flower not have "well-being," I don't even understand how one would go about defining what that well-being would consist in (in later posts I may deal with my objections to attempts by some Deep Ecologists to define the well-being of non-subjects either through a revived Platonic theory of the Forms, or through ascribing to them a non-conscious telos). Based on my own experience and reading of the science on this point, my evaluation of which entities are subjects lies somewhere between Descartes and animism. I would confidently ascribe a morally relevant (but not necessarily equal) degree of subjectivity to most humans, other primates, ceteceans, dogs and cats, and crows. A number of other animals (notably pigs) are potential candidates as well. However, I do not go as far as some Deep Ecologists toward the animist end of the spectrum in ascribing subjectivity to plants, much less to ecosystems or the planet as a whole, because I see no evidence for it (much less any way to determine what the content of their subjectivity is).

2) Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.

I offer no contest to the first clause here as a rule of thumb -- as an empirical matter it has been well established in ecological science. I would, however, raise a note of uneasiness about the way placing it as the second of eight basic points elevates diversity, turning it into the essence and measure of ecological health. Certainly diversity is generally a good thing, but I worry at times about the biodiversity fetishism of certain parts of the environmental movement. For the same reasons described in my response to the first post, I object to considering diversity as a value in itself, despite its clear instrumental value with respect to the well-being of subjects.

3) Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.

The idea of vital needs versus luxuries is an appealing theory that becomes hugely difficult in practice, as those who have tried to follow Maslow have discovered. The idea of "vital needs" also tends to reify and naturalize a list of proper ends for human life. Making a list of vital needs (and certainly operationalizing that list -- eg what do we mean by "food"?) is inevitably a political project aimed at justifying one way of life that obscures its own political nature. This point of the platform does, however, point at the important idea of justifiable tradeoffs. That is, human whims can't trump environmental quality (as too often happens now), but at the same time human needs need not be completely sacrificed for the good of nature. However, we need a more flexible framework for evaluating these tradeoffs, rather than a simple categorization of vital needs versus non-vital needs and wants. Some form of utilitarianism seems to me to provide such a framework. It has the added advantage of making the tradeoffs and values involved explicit, and hence open to contestation.

4) Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.

I generally agree with the practical upshot of this point, which is critical of current human use of nature. However, as a philosophical guideline I'd rather rephrase it. I don't see human interference in nature to be inherently or necessarily detrimental -- indeed, in some cases it's positively good. As currently stated, this point treads dangerously close to the wilderness ideology, which rests on the act-omission distinction (which I find to be generally unimportant) and a separation between humans (who can mess things up) and nature (which works just fine in isolation from humans). Nevertheless, I am far from willing to give carte blanche to human exploitation of nature. I would prefer to state the point as "Present human involvement with the nonhuman world is detrimental ..." -- thus placing the philosophical starting point in the question of how, rather than how much, human activity versus human absence affect nature. Of course, human absence is still one of the tools in our toolbox, and it's a particularly useful one for dealing with the fact that we don't (and in many cases never will) have sufficient knowledge to wisely make large changes in the environment.

My Failed Predictions

Here's something that just crossed my mind. To get into Honors World Cultures in 11th grade, I had to write a short paper on what I thought was the next big threat to the US. I wrote mine about the possibility of war with China (based mostly on some stuff I'd read in Newsweek). But three wars later I think I'm going to have to stamp that old essay with a big "wrong," unless China should decide for some reason to form an alliance with Iran.

Conspiracy Theories

Rachel S. has an interesting post about cell phones, describing how they undermine family life and enable increased surveilance of, and demands on, people -- especially women. She ends by asking "Am I too much of a conspiracy theorist?" While I'm not sure how much of her post I agree with, I can say that she cannot be legitimately accused of conspiracy theory.

First let's define conspiracy theory: a conspiracy theory is a claim that something (an event, a technology, etc.) was made to happen by the centralized decision of a powerful agent (often one with more power than they let on) in order to maintain that power and use it to serve their interests. So a conspiracy theory needs two parts: a causal link between something and the interests of a powerful agent, and a causal link, based on a centralized decision, running the other direction.

Rachel's post has the first element -- she makes an argument that a thing (cell phones) serves the interests (in controlling women) of a powerful agent (the patriarchy). So the crucial question is what (if anything) the link running the other direction is.

Perhaps there is no second link. The control of women is merely an unintended byproduct of cell phones. Obviously there's no conspiracy theory here, no matter how much the patriarchy may benefit from cell phones.

Moving one step closer, a person may argue for a functional link -- the benefits that accrue to the powerful agent somehow encourage the continuance of the thing without anyone necessarily being aware of it. I can't think of a functional link to propose in the cell phone case -- perhaps keeping tabs on women increases GDP, which increases the income to be spent on cell phones. In any event, even if someone were to think up a plausible functional link, it wouldn't be a conspiracy theory. You can't have a conspiracy if the conspirators don't know about it.

Inching yet closer, one might argue for a conscious but decentralized causal link. In the cell phone case, one could say that controlling women is among the reasons that people, especially men, buy cell phones. This is still not a conspiracy theory, because the men don't coordinate their purchases in order to control women as a whole. The overall control of women is simply an emergent effect of a lot of men individually getting cell phones.

Finally, we come to true conspiracy theory. A real conspiracy theory about cell phones controlling women would posit that some powerful central decisionmaker -- a Secret Grand Council of the Patriarchy, or just the cell phone companies -- deliberately orchestrated the creation and/or spread of the technology with the goal of controlling women. I see no hint of this claim in Rachel's post, so she is clearly not a conspiracy theorist.

Of course, the fact that Rachel is concerned to avoid conspiracy theory suggests one last necessary piece of the puzzle: the claimed link between the powerful agent and the thing must not actually exist. Calling something a conspiracy theory is a tactic for rebutting an argument. So if Rachel were to make the claim in the previous paragraph, she could then still avoid the pejorative "conspiracy theory" if she were able to show some good evidence -- say some internal Nokia memos talking about how their plan to control women was proceeding smoothly -- to support her claim.

24.4.06

Moral Relativism: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Conservatives complain a lot about moral relativism. And in fact there are a fair number of liberals who espouse moral relativism as a meta-principle (even though most of them are moral absolutists in practice). But I think a good bit of the blame for the existence of liberal moral relativists can be laid at the feet of the very conservatives who complain about it.

At the present moment, conservatism has mixed success in dominating the actual content of society's moral beliefs. But it has been much more successful in dominating the framework in which we discuss morality. They way it has set up that framework has had the unintended consequence of producing adherence to moral relativism.

Most people would prefer to believe both 1) there are moral absolutes, and 2) thus-and-such is morally right/wrong. Conservatives have been very successful in promoting the idea that there is a logical link between #1 and the conservative version of #2. Their intent is that liberals would then see that continuing to adhere to #1 obliges them to give up their liberal version of #2.

But in practice, people's adherence to their specific moral beliefs (being embedded in their concrete way of life) is stronger than their adherence to abstract principles. So many liberals will protect their adherence to a liberal version of #2 by espousing moral relativism. This move is helped along by the fact that the liberal version of #2 is more permissive (often confused with relativism) than the conservative version. The liberal version is also more abstractly universalistic (dependent on higher-order principles that may work out differently in different contexts) while the conservative is more specifically universalistic (mandating similar specific actions for all people), a distinction which can also be confused with relativism.

The best solution -- which I and many other liberals espouse -- is to reject the connection between #1 and the conservative #2. That is, we believe that (to the best of our knowledge) the liberal #2 is an absolute moral code.

23.4.06

Public Humiliation For Your Own Good (Really)

Proposals for reviving "public" punishments, a la the stocks, usually focus on their negative impacts on the criminal. It is said that the shame associated with public punishments will be harder for the punish-ee to bear, and hence they will form a more effective deterrent to future criminals, and force for rehabilitation of the current one, than locking them up out of sight. But I think an argument can be made for public punishments that's based on the welfare of the criminal.

The modern prison system is hugely abusive toward its inmates. Guards often beat prisoners and deprive them of food or medical care -- or stand idly by while prisoners abuse each other. This happens because prisons have no incentive to treat prisoners like human beings. It's not like a hotel, where if you don't like the way you're treated you can go somewhere else. Prisons are paid by the government. The expense and hassle of closely monitoring inmate conditions encourages the government to turn a blind eye. NGOs could, in theory, play a watchdog role -- but their access to prisons is so tenuous that they dare not speak out very loudly. And even if they do, the average non-prisoner doesn't listen -- after all, it doesn't have a direct impact on their life.

Ex-prisoners are also no help. The way the prison system warps people's social networks and skill sets, plus social stigma against ex-convicts, means ex prisoners are unlikely to stay ex for long. And felons are stripped of their rights to vote, depriving them of what little clout them might have had. And non-felons who manage to stay clean are likely to have learned from their time in jail that the system is cruel, cold, and capricious -- hardly a recipe for feeling empowered to work for social change.

Public punishments would have the advantage, then, of putting prisoner treatment out in the open. If a prisoner is mistreated, it's happening on voters' doorsteps. Guards and other inmates can't hide their abuses. And what's more, voters can't hide from the consequences of their preference for unproductively vindictive "tough on crime" policies.

20.4.06

Precaution and Bigness

One of the key implications of the Precautionary Principle is shifting of the burden of proof -- it's up to those who want to engage in potentially risky activities to prove that what they propose is safe. Typically this point is made on purely ethical grounds, but it's made plausible by a certain (not altogether incorrect) assumption about how the world works. As Egalitarians, PP proponents see most risks as coming from large institutions, particularly big corporations. Being big and rich, these institutions -- rather than the scattered and poor individuals and communities who will be harmed if the proposed activity turns out to be risky -- are expected to have much greater capacity to do the studies needed to figure out what the danger really is. More rarely, Hierarchical opponents of the PP make the inverse claim, focusing on individuals and small companies to show that it's unreasonable to expect them to be able to meet the PP's burden of proof.

This shifted burden of proof raises a couple of interesting issues. First is the apparent claim by PP proponents that they want to base their decisions on science conducted by risk-producing companies, as well as the implicit promise that they would be willing to accept positive results from that science as proof that the activity in question is harmless. I don't think I need to do anything more than mention tobacco industry scientists to show why this is a strange position*.

The other interesting issue is the way the concern with bigness rebounds against itself. PP proponents have a (not unwarranted) suspicion of big, rich, and powerful organizations. Yet placing the burden of proof on risk-producers favors bigger companies. It's the big organizations that are able to afford the necessary research, and hence able to gain the profits from innovations that are now proven safe.

What PP proponents expect in this situation is that no potentially risky technologies will actually be proven safe. Thus this stream of profit will be denied to all companies, not just to the small ones with limited research budgets. What's more, while the big companies are bogged down in spending money trying to prove the safety of old-fashioned high tech innovations (say, genetically modified crops), smaller companies will turn to new low-tech ways of doing business (such as organic farming). The innovations found by the smaller companies will, it is thought, not be prima facie potential risks**, and hence will not be stopped by the PP.

* In the context of climate change, back40 claims that this sort of "Type M" (aka "ad hominem") argument is invalid. But ad hominem is only a fallacy when the personal attack is irrelevant to the nature of the claim being debated. When someone presents the results of a study, there's a lot we have to take on faith -- that they conducted the study with appropriate safeguards against bias, that they didn't cherry-pick their data, etc. Consideration of the character, motives, and interests of a researcher is quite relevant to this aspect of study evaluation. Of course, simply pointing out the possibility of bias is not the same as proving that the study is unreliable.

** The PP, as it is used by its main proponents, contains some contestable assumptions about when we can assume a potential risk is present, generally emanating from a bias against new and "unnatural" activities.

19.4.06

Proof Of Climate Change

Ezra Klein says, quite rightly, that "the likelihood that we'll institute such cuts [in greenhouse gas emissions] while global warming remains a journal paper abstraction strikes me as near nil." But I have to take issue with the implication that seeing the effects of climate change would change people's minds, such that once Pacific island nations start disappearing under the water, we'll all be kicking ourselves for not taking action when we had the chance.

People always assume that big events will provide irrefutable proof that their viewpoint was right all along. But that's exactly why big events entrench existing ideologies. Exactly because big events ought to be such good objective proof of the correctness of a viewpoint, whenever a big event comes along, every ideology siezes upon it and uses it as proof. Look no farther than Hurricane Katrina, which was clear proof of the racism of American society, the inherent laziness and stupidity of black people, God's judgement against homosexuals, the incompetence of bureaucracy, the failure of the free market, and every other ideology out there. (I'm not saying that these ideologies are all equally wrong and opportunistic in their interpretation of Katrina -- just that they're wrong to think that Katrina would somehow win them converts.)

So what happens when all the ice melts off Antarctica? Environmentalists will say "we told you so," of course. Climate change skeptics -- of which there are far fewer than enviros like to think -- will say it was a natural climate change. Cynics will say "see, there wasn't anything we could have done." The pro-business crowd will say that if we'd tried to take action it would have hurt our economy and we'd have even less coping resources now.

Who Is Part of Nature?

It's interesting to note how the idea that humans are a part of nature is used by both sides of the environmental debate. A good example occurs in the comments to this David Roberts post debating a good Christina Larson article about the possibility for coalition between traditional environmentalists and the hunting and fishing crowd, which is increasingly concerned about environmental issues.

In the comments, bookerly gives the standard environmentalist view of the difference in worldview between the two groups:

Many (NOT ALL!) hunters still come from the view of nature as something they need to conquer and subdue (this includes those who want to kill all predators). They tend to see humans and nature as enemies, and we must triumph over and control nature.

The environmental movement (parts of it anyway) has begun to tend towards the view of humans as part of nature, seeing a need to live in harmoney with other species, and see ourselves as one part of the grand mosaic that is nature.


But I think hunters -- as well as political ecologists, particularly those of us who try to apply political ecology to the developed world -- would swap things around. We would say that it's hunters who generally see humans as part of nature. They accept that humans can impact nature, even to the point of killing and eating parts of it. They have a developed ethical system for how to manage those interactions, respecting nature without sanctifying it. On the other hand, the traditional environmentalist view is that humans and nature are vastly separated. Humans must keep their polluting hands to themselves, interacting with nature only in aesthetic-spiritual contemplation and experiencing it in ways that "leave no trace."

18.4.06

Why Fire Suppression Continues

This article gives a fairly good summary of the current thinking on fire in the American West. It raises the important point that while the ideology of total fire suppression in the Forest Service has died (it was wounded in the 40s and finally gave up the ghost in the 70s), the practice of fire suppression remains strong.

The author does not, however, connect the persistence of suppression with another important point that he covers -- namely the increase in vulnerability. While there are more and bigger fires now than in the past (as a result of drought, climate change, pest infestations, and most significantly fuel buildup due to a history of fire suppression), the main problem is that there are too many people in harm's way. Perverse economic and political incentives encourages people to move into exurban areas. And once they're there, a combination of poor risk perception, low value placed on fire safety as compared to other values, and structural barriers (eg homeowner association rules and a lack of disposal facilities) make it unlikely that homeowners will make their homes firesafe. (Though it may betray the discipline of geography to say this, I think the author of the article overemphasizes the macro-geographical factors, with his talk of "fire plains" analagous to flood plains, when by his own admission it's the area within 100 feet of the house, not your geographical location, that makes the most difference to your fire safety.)

With lots of people in vulnerable situations, it makes sense for the Forest Service to emphasize suppression (which is not to say that there aren't other endogenous factors supporting the continued practice of suppression). The short-term risks of a major fire -- altruistically in terms of loss of life, and selfishly in terms of loss of public and Congressional confidence in the agency -- are too great for them to take the longer view. Only when the vulnerability of residents is reduced (through a combination of individuals and communities taking responsibility, and homeowner groups and local governments changing laws to facilitate, rather than inhibit, fire safety) will the Forest Service have the freedom to practice more controlled burning and let-burning. (The author of the article overemphasizes let-burning in the belief that it's better because it's "natural.")

14.4.06

There's No Hysteria Over Ecoterrorism

Writing about recent action taken by the Department of Homeland Security against ecoterrorism, David Roberts says:

The point is that the DHS is complicit in a decidedly political attempt to smear and generate hysteria about domestic opponents, on ideological, not security, grounds.


I don't think his interpretation is quite right. But let me begin by stating where we agree: DHS's anti-ecoterrorism efforts are far out of proportion to the danger it poses, particularly when compared to the agency's lackluster campaigns against right-wing and Islamist terrorism. And the net being cast is far too broad -- e.g. considering distributing animal rights pamphlets to be suspicious activity. Much of DHS's ecoterrorism campaign cannot be justified on the utilitarian grounds of protecting the security of the homeland.

However, I think "generating hysteria" is the wrong frame through which to criticize what DHS is doing. Certainly it's an appealing frame. The current administration's efforts to stoke fears over Islamist terrorism have made that frame very salient. And it's a powerful one, invoking a powerful cultural aversion to self-serving alarmism. So it would be nice if critics of the ecoterrorism strategy could hitch a ride on it.

However, I don't think ecoterrorism fits the hysteria frame. As I wrote before, DHS -- for all its wrongheaded policies in this area (which I underplayed in my previous post) -- is not pursuing the strategy that would be expected if it was trying to whip up hysteria over ecoterrorism. We've heard barely a peep about it in the media. Top administration officials are not speaking out about it. Warning levels are not being raised with great fanfare.

As a proponent of a strongly cultural interpretation of politics it goes against my inclinations to say it, but I think ecoterrorism is a case of the government pursuing a rational strategy rather than engaging in symbolic expressive action. It's a rational strategy that begins with a flawed premise -- that environmentalism (whether terroristic or mainstream) is a threat to capitalism. And it's a rational strategy aimed at an improper goal -- padding the egos and pocketbooks of business. But given those assumptions, DHS has developed a policy aimed more at stopping environmental action (terroristic or not) than at generating and exploiting fears of environmentalism.

Insofar as there's any hysteria-generation going on, it's a very targeted hysteria. It's a subtle attempt to exaggerate the threat to the business community, in order that they will then feel like DHS is doing something useful for them. It is not -- as Roberts implies -- an attempt to make the nation as a whole fear imminent ELF attacks.

12.4.06

Liberty, Equality, Polygamy

American liberalism is guided by two great overarching values: freedom and equality (in very rought cultural theory terms, it's an alliance between Individualism and Egalitarianism). In the realm of mainstream sexual politics, these two values generally point in the same direction. For example, abortion rights promote women's freedom to control their own bodies, and ensure their equality with men in terms of choosing when and how to become a parent. Same-sex marriage would grant homosexuals the freedom to choose the partner they want, and give them the equal right to have a spouse and family. (One wonders if these issues aren't salient precisely because they allow for this cooperation and synergy between the two dominant values.)

But move into some of the less high-profile issues, and the tension between freedom and equality becomes apparent. A good example can be found in this post by Amanda Marcotte fiercely denouncing polygamy. The fact that I found Marcotte's position surprising says something interesting about the way the discourse around sexual issues is set up.

Polygamy is typically raised in the context of same-sex marriage -- if we let two women marry, why not two women and one man? The link is typically drawn by relying on the value of freedom. Polygamy is framed as a matter of being free to choose the number of spouses you have. Opponents of same-sex marriage are particularly keen to point this out, since polygamy-as-freedom runs so counter to their primary (Hierarchist) value of obedience*.

So same-sex marriage supporters whose primary value is equality will often support polygamy in principle (though for strategic reasons they usually keep their views muted). Libertarians are a prime example here. However, raising the question of polygamy will also reveal who among the same-sex marriage supporters is more concerned with equality -- a camp which Marcotte and the majority of her commenters fall into.

There are at least two models for why polygamy is in conflict with equality -- the rational choice and the radical. The rational choice model states that some individuals are on the whole more desirable than others. These individuals will be able to monopolize more of the spouses. This would be unequal enough were it just a situation of inequality between the celebrities with their harems and the rejects settling for monogamy with each other. But add in the evolutionary psychology view that men are far more disposed to want multiple partners, and you end up with a large population of unpartnered men hanging around making trouble. In a sense, banning polygamy is the sexual equivalent of welfare and progressive taxation, a mechanism to prevent one person from accumulating too much of a scarce good.

The radical model (to which most of the people at Pandagon subscribe) doesn't necessarily object to polygamy in principle, but it is very opposed to it in our current sexist society. It's based on the observation that polygamy has long been used as a tool for the dominance of a small male elite. The ostensibly gender-neutral polygamy law would be easily exploited by men to acquire and control women. While monogamy may not be egalitarian in practice, it provides a much stronger institutional basis for women to defend their equal power.

My own personal inclination on sexual issues -- at least when talking about the law, rather than cultural change -- is to tend to favor freedom when it conflicts with equality. But the dilemma is not such a huge dilemma for me. My main image of polygamy is not the Mormon patriarch with a teenage harem that springs to Marcotte's mind, but rather a number of liberal polyamorous friends (who would be in polyandrous marriages if they were to formalize things). So it's hard to feel my value of equality threatened by polygamy.

*This is not to say that polygamy-as-obedience is impossible -- indeed, it has been the most common form of polygamy. But establishing polygamy-as-obedience would require a shift in the "implementation rules" (e.g. what are we to be obedient to?), and such change is destabilizing to the whole project of obedience, which requires its rules to seem self-evident and eternal.

11.4.06

A Regressive Distribution of Rights

One of the most frustrating aspects of the current conservative dominance in politics is the way it has turned the various facets of the progressive movement against each other. In order to position oneself as a hard-headed realist, various leaders on the left have proposed jettisoning other parts of the left in a bid to reclaim power. Ordinarily I'm easily frustrated with people who deny that tradeoffs are inevitable. But in much of this intra-progressive discussion, it becomes clear that the jettisoning is not truly a tough sacrifice in the name of pragmatism, but rather something that the person proposing it was in favor of all along, and pragmatism just provides a handy excuse. I'll own up to doing a bit of it myself -- I'd happily advocate the Brian Schweitzer path of discarding the gun control plank, because I never thought that gun control was all that important an issue.

The latest example is Jasmyne Cannick's proposal (via Pandagon) that we forget about fighting to preserve immigrants' rights until gay and lesbian citizens have full rights. Despite her lip service to the importance of immigrants' issues, it's clear from her rhetoric -- such as the "but they're here illegally* whine popular among nativists -- that she doesn't really care much for the immigration cause.

Her logic seems to go like this: Gay and lesbian citizens have some rights, but not a full set. Illegal immigrants have almost no rights. Therefore we should make sure that gays and lesbians have a full set of rights before we go handing out any rights to immigrants (or even defending the few they already have). The more rights you have, the more additional rights you deserve.

If we have to ration rights (not that we should), or at least ration the resources we use to fight for rights (not that they're as fungible as the tradeoff-mongers think), shouldn't we look first to the people who have the most need? I suppose she'd also advocate forgetting about food stamps until we make sure every middle class family has a swimming pool in their backyard.

* I wonder whether she thinks gay and lesbian groups should have stopped pursuing Texas v. Johnson until full racial equality (which still eludes us) was achieved -- since, prior to that final decision, gay sex was illegal in many areas.

10.4.06

The Political Ecology of Third World Countries ... Like Montana

One of the longstanding debates in political ecology is how well the ideas and theories developed in the mainstream PE literature, which focuses mostly on rural areas of the third world, can apply to urban and first-world settings. This generally involves a good deal of political angst -- the first-world parallels to the oppressed indigenous peasants of the third world are people like the Wise Use movement, who are too conservative for political ecologists to feel comfortable being in solidarity with. But events on the ground in the US seem to be bringing the two situations closer together.

The US is increasingly following the third world model of big centralized government sucking up to big centralized corporations. This strategy simultaneously entrenches the power of the Republican-Democratic establishment while alienating segments of their voter base. This is particularly notable in conservative natural-resource-dependent communities in the west, where the interests of the big corporations increasingly clash with those of the local population. Efforts to mitigate this split by framing environmentalists as a common enemy* have had partial success.

Ground zero for western conservative disgruntlement with their treatment by the Republican-Democrat establishment is Montana, where governor Brian Schweitzer was recently elected on a populist platform incorporating local power and "rod and gun" environmentalism. Montana has a strong recent history of demanding more environmentally sound practices from its extractive industries. But now it seems the feds are striking back:

Montana Pollution Rules Draw Federal Objections

Federal energy officials are opposing new rules by Montana to force companies that extract methane gas from underground coal beds to clean up the water pollution caused by drilling operations, even as state officials cite an unreleased 2003 federal report that says cleanup costs are relatively inexpensive.

... The Energy Department and the Wyoming congressional delegation are backing companies that are trying to block Montana's new rules, on the grounds that they could hamper energy development. The department submitted analyses by two of its national laboratories concluding that the state's regulations were "unnecessarily stringent" and "inconsistent."


What we have here is a classic political ecology story. A local population attempts to protect itself from the environmental damage caused by the energy industry. But the industry and central government (with the help of other localities that benefit from the energy but don't have to suffer the consequences of its production) step in to stop them.

We should also note -- following the poststructuralist turn in political ecology -- that the economic benefits to the energy industry are probably not the main thing here. It sounds nice and neutral for them to complain about the costs of cleanup, and allows the issue to be framed as a classic cost-benefit balancing question (albeit one where the option of not drilling because the costs to the environment and neighbors are too high is unthinkable). Time and again corporate whining about the costs of environmental compliance turns out to be unfounded -- even if things are tight at the outset, environmental law has proven to be a powerful motor for R&D, and in many cases environmental compliance ends up being a net economic gain.

What's more at issue is power. Big government and big corporations don't like being told what to do. They don't like people demanding things from them, or pointing out that there's a better way they should be doing things. Even if the regulations are (as in this case) not particularly confining on their individual merits, the principle of the thing and the precedent it sets are of concern. Indeed, "you local people can't tell us what to do" seems to be the guiding philosophy behind modern American environmental policy.

* Ironically (albeit not always inaccurately) through demoniznig environmentalists with the same kind of hierarchical sins that the big government-corporate alliance is guilty of.

3.4.06

Gaming Your BMI Score

I'm getting settled in in my new place just west of Sydney, so the three of you who read this blog regularly may notice posting is a bit slower than usual for the next few weeks.

I the meantime, have a look at the latest installment of Ampersand's ongoing argument against the culture and industry of weight loss. The take-home message: eat healthy food, get a moderate amount of exercise, and whatever size you end up -- even if it's in the "morbidly obese" section of some BMI chart -- is a good size for you to be.

I think my interest in the anti-anti-fat position is in part due to the fact that it can be framed as one of my "favorite" fallacies in social organization -- the overreliance on a crude proxy indicator. I talk about this phenomenon most often with respect to gender. People take a (possibly) true statement about the small average differences in men and women's abilities or inclinations, and use it to justify a social system that establishes distinct roles for each and every man and woman, regardless of whether they match the averages. In the case of fat, our culture takes the presumed correlation between fatness and poor health, and proceeds to treat weight as the quintessential indicator of health (and consequently of morality). There's no room for the idea of healthy fat people or unhealthy skinny people.

It's interesting to note that this phenomenon of overreliance on a few crude indicators is a characteristic pathology of the Hierarchist way of life in Cultural Theory. Information about the activities of other parts of the hierarchy is reduced to a few summary numbers (dollars spent or bushels of cotton grown or SAT scores, etc.). These few numbers become all-important, creating an incentive to "game" them in ways that make the indicator look good without actually improving the underlying facts that the indicator is supposed to be measuring. One of the key problems in the Soviet economy -- a quintessentially Hierarchist system -- was just this sort of number-polishing. This is exactly what the weight loss obsession does -- instead of addressing the underlying issue (health) in a holistic way, it sets up a single quantity as a measure of success, and then focuses on "fixing" that indicator. So Weight Watchers is like the Princeton Review of the medical world (and I mean that as an insult).