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Conservatives Seeing The Root of The Problem

The New York Times has an excerpt from Roger Kennedy's new book, Wildfire and Americans. I've seen Kennedy give a talk on the themes in the book, so I have high hopes for it. Unfortunately the NYT excerpted a lot of scene-setting introductory material, so they never get to the real heart of Kennedy's argument. He says, in a nutshell, that our current fire problems are the result of a deliberate post-WWII strategy of subsidizing exurban sprawl -- both making it easier to build, and propping up communities through, e.g., expensive firefighting. So if we want to really solve the problem, we have to look at that underlying structural level.

Kennedy is a self-proclaimed Republican (albeit strongly anti-Bush), so his preferred solution is a "tax revolt" against subsidizing sprawl. I'm skeptical of that approach, but I think it's encouraging that some conservatives are seeing the kind of root-level issues of the geographical structure of society that environmentalists have long been concerned about.

Oil Is Injustice

It's unfortunate that concerns about the environmental impacts of oil seem to focus so single-mindedly on the role of oil in contributing to global warming. This tends to obscure the fact that oil production has very immediate impacts on the environment -- and those impacts are not distributed evenly. All around the world, indigenous people are having their health and their way of life taken away from them by oil production. The Washington Post highlights the case of Canada's northern First Nations:

... "The river used to be blue. Now it's brown. Nobody can fish or drink from it. The air is bad. This has all happened so fast," said Elsie Fabian, 63, an elder in a native Indian community along the Athabasca River, a wide, meandering waterway once plied by fur traders. "It's terrible. We're surrounded by the mines."

... "The environmental cost has been great," said Jim Boucher, chief of the Fort MacKay First Nations Council, which includes Cree and Dene Indians, 35 miles north of Fort McMurray. He grew up on land that is now a clawed-out mine pit. But he has led his people into the mines by creating native-owned companies providing catering, truck driving, surveying and other services. "There is no other economic option," he said. "Hunting, trapping, fishing is gone."


Slow Posting

Posting will continue to be light for the next few days, as I'm in the middle of writing up the analysis of the first half of my dissertation. It figures this would happen just as I'm getting a bit of new traffic from Alas.


Do You Trust The Forest Service?

Now that I've showered and eaten, I can give a bit more substantive comment on the article linked to in my previous post. Aside from the comparison of environmental litigation to WWII Japanese military strategy, it makes a pretty standard conservative argument about wildfires -- the wildfire risk is due to excessive fuel buildup, which we should reduce through logging, but environmentalist lawsuits are holding up the process.

This argument is a great example of one of the core threads of modern conservatism -- trust in the government. Conservatives have inherited the New Deal faith in impartial technocratic administrators who will pursue the public good so long as nobody goes poking around in their wiretapping programs or meetings with lobbyists. On the wildfire issue, the conservative position presumes that, if left alone to do its job, the Forest Service would efficiently pursue hazard reduction. Citing (misleading) statistics* on the number of logging projects that are blocked and the amount of additional paperwork the Forest Service assumes that the Forest Service's initial plan is optimal, and any changes occaisioned by public scrutiny necessarily compromise it.

But this assumption of bureaucratic good-will is exactly where the environmentalist viewpoint diverges from the conservative one. Environmentalists don't trust the Forest Service. They've seen how administrations in general, and the Bush regime especially, have turned agencies like the Forest Service into an instrument of the spoils system. They have seen that reducing public oversight of government leads not to efficiency but to corruption.

Environmentalists, therefore, don't trust either the Forest Service's general commitment to logging as a solution to fire risks, or their particular plans for fuel reduction projects. They recognize that just because the Forest Service says they're planning to mitigate fire risks doesn't mean they're not actually planning a giveaway to timber companies. The conservative argument tends to conflate the reasonable proposition that logging can -- if done in the right way and in the right places -- be a tool for hazard reduction, with the ridiculous claim that all logging, by its very nature, reduces the fire hazard.

Hideki Tojo Works For The NRDC

It's not quite Godwin territory, but it looks like people who don't buy the "logging prevents forest fires" line are at least comparable to the Japanese in World War II.


My apologies to Chris Clarke -- both attempts to link to his squirrel poem in yesterday's posts were botched. The links should be fixed now.


Natural Suffering

[UPDATE, 17 June: In the comments to Hugo Schwyzer's response to this post, Chris Clarke clarifies the meaning of his poem, which is quite different from the way Schwyzer and I read it. So take this post as a criticism of Schwyzer's interpretation of the poem, not of Clarke's views.]

Chris Clarke has written a striking poem about finding an injured squirrel, and deciding not to interfere with nature by trying to save it. Hugo Schwyzer and numerous commenters at Clarke's blog aver that they would have chosen differently, but they chalk the difference up to their sentiment getting the best of them. But I find the ethical principle behind Clarke's decision to be problematically anthropocentric. (If you have no problem with anthropocentrism, the rest of this post will be beside the point for you.)

Who among us would leave a human injured by a natural disaster to die, reasoning that we shouldn't interfere with nature? Why, then, treat a suffering non-human differently than a suffering human?

One might point out, rightly, that there's no such thing as a purely natural disaster. But there are disasters that are not purely social, and I would doubt that we can make our degree of responsibility for hurricane victims proportional to the share of the blame that human activities hold. And even so, it's strange to claim that there purely natural disasters claim no human victims, or that we should care only for the human victims of human-caused disasters.

Our moral obligation is not just to right the wrongs that we (individually or collectively) are responsible or blameable for. Our moral obligation is to relieve suffering, regardless of what the cause is.

Of course, there's a strong case for a pragmatic refusal to go actively saving wild animals from suffering. We can't dismiss the suffering of animals because it's "natural" -- there's something literally true about the Christian ideal of the lion laying down with the lamb when perfect justice is achieved. But our recognition of the injustice of nature as it exists must be tempered by a recognition of our own lack of knowledge and power, and hence our inability to effectively do anything about it. We can't reengineer nature to save the animals in it. Indeed, we may not even be able to save individual hurt animals (encountering Clarke's injured squirrel, I would doubt the usefulness of my own first aid skills). But insofar as we're able, I don't think the naturalness of suffering gives us any excuse to refuse aid.

Nature Is Not Wise, But We Are Foolish

One of the most common themes in environmentalism is the need for humans to be humble in their actions that impact nature. This is an important principle. But I'm not entirely happy with the way it's usually framed.

The most common way of articulating the need for ecolgical humility -- as seen, for example, on Dave Pollard's blog, or in Hugo Schwyzer's interpretation of Chris Clarke's squirrel poem -- is to refer to the Earth's wisdom. Gaia is smarter than us, they say, so we need to defer to her judgment about what should happen in nature. There's an obvious appeal to having a higher and wiser authority to look to for guidance, and it avoids directly knocking what wisdom we humans do have.

I would rather frame it the opposite way -- it's not that nature is wise, but that humans are foolish. We simply don't -- and in many cases can't -- understand all the ramifications of the things we do. The idea of human foolishness rejects such hubristic projects as the Three Gorges Dam, importing Canada's rivers to the US southwest, or correcting global warming through massive eutrophication of the oceans.

But on the other hand, the idea of human foolishness does not require us to hold an elevated and unjustified ideal of nature. Nature is in a constant state of crisis and readjustment, plowing forward on the basis of what works for the moment, not what's good in the long run. Nature doesn't have wisdom, it just has routines that have not (yet) self-destructed or been destructed by others. It's not a process that we should ever expect to tame or direct -- but it's also not one whose dictates need be respected in any particular case.


Grazing Is Good For Butterflies

Here's an interesting example of how, once humans have altered the environment, continued human intervention -- in this case grazing -- can help to mitigate the impacts.

The Checkerspot Mystery: An Ecological Whodunit

... the nitrogen oxide emissions from cars commuting to Silicon Valley enriched the nutrient-poor serpentine-rock soil that sustains the native grasslands on Coyote Ridge. This soil enrichment allowed invasive grasses -- which flourish in more nitrogen-rich soil -- to out-compete the native plants on which the checkerspot [butterfly] depends. When local ranchers stopped grazing their cows on one side of the ridge, it made things worse, because grazing helped keep invasive grasses in check.

Are You For The Cause, Or Just Using The Cause?

Earlbecke and jedmunds have each posted recently about incidents in which an ostensible anti-oppression ally used sexist language, got called on it, and then became self-righteously defensive. They claim that they're innocent because their intent was not to hurt their allies (indeed, in the case jedmunds points to, his intent was to advance the cause by using a sexist slur against one of its enemies). Fine -- claiming lack of intent gets you out of the first use. But let's look at what your intent is if you fail to apologize, and insist on continuing to use the language in question (this is applicable to non-verbal behaviors as well). It shows that you intend to ignore the feelings and needs of your supposed allies. It shows that you intend to avoid questioning your own complicity in the problem. It shows that you intend to elevate your own habits over the judgments of those you claim to be helping. You intend, in sum, to use the cause rather than fight for the cause.

Any cause with a strong social justice element is liable to attract users (most, but not all, of whom come from the group whose privilege is being attacked). The "Us vs. Them" heuristic is a strong one in the human psyche, and social justice causes provide a great opportunity to indulge it. You can divide the world into two camps, the good guys and the bad guys. Then, as one of the good guys, you can attack the bad guys with all your might. And you feel justified, because what makes the bad guys bad is something that really is bad. You come to see sexism (or racism or ableism or whatever cause you've joined) to be something that They do, and since you're against it, you must be innocent.

But users fall afoul of the real world. Social injustices are pervasive, and everyone -- especially those of us in privileged groups -- has been trained to participate in them. If you really care about eradicating injustice, and not just about using the injustice as an excuse to attack a perpetrator group, you also have to be willing to examine and eradicate it close to home. This is not to advocate a navel-gazing obsession with purity that comes at the expense of the larger picture. But most cases in which an ostensible ally gets defensive when called on their complicity in oppression are cases in which cleaning up your own act requires little more than paying attention to your own language.

So don't say "come on, can't we get back to the fun of fighting the big villains where I get to be on the right side?" Say "sorry, I'll try harder not to trip up the cause with my thoughtlessness." That's the difference between using the cause to identify enemies, and fighting for the cause's values.

New Comments

After yet another person told me they'd tried to post a comment but it hadn't worked, I got motivated to finally ditch YACCS in favor of Haloscan. I get few enough comments as it is, so there's no point in making it worse. This should also clear up the problem of this site taking forever to load when your browser can't load the YACCS stuff. I took the liberty of reposting all the comments from the two commented-upon posts that were still on the front page, but any older YACCS comments are now gone -- sorry.


Anti-Immigration = Ecological Imperialism

It's not entirely surprising that some people would try to link restrictions on immigration to environmentalism, as both viewpoints are manifestations of Egalitarianism (in the Cultural Theory sense). The basic argument goes like this: if someone migrates from Mexico to the USA, their standard of living increases. Higher standards of living have higher environmental impacts. Therefore affluent countries like the United States should restrict immigration from countries with a lower per-capita environmental impact.

The problem with this as a policy stance is that it's another form of ecological imperialism. The term ecological imperialism was first coined to describe the deforestation debate, in which Northern countries, having gotten rich off destroying their forests, turned around and demanded that Southern countries clamp down on their own deforestation lest the whole world's ecology be upset. Ecological imperialism essentially says "we made a mess, so you have to stay clean for both of us."

In the immigration case, restrictionist environmentalists are essentially saying to would-be immigrants "you have to stay poor for the good of the planet." It puts the burden of making sacrifices on someone else, specifically on one of the least powerful groups in our society. In so doing, it only defers the problem of making the transition to a sustainable society for the people who are already here -- people who will, in the meantime, get to enjoy the affluence their environmentally damaging way of life has bought. The only long-term solution is sustainable development in both the US and Mexico -- after which immigration won't be a problem.

"The Secret Ambition Of Deterrence" and the HPV Vaccine

An FDA advisory panel has just approved a vaccine claimed to be 100% effective against Human Papilloma Virus, which causes 70% of cervical cancers and genital warts. But widespread use of the vaccine is opposed by conservative groups who claim that it will encourage promiscuity. Abyss2hope neatly dispatches that argument. Even granting for the sake of argument that sex is a (moral, if not legal) crime:

Since I doubt the fear of cervical cancer is the deciding factor when girls choose whether or not to have sex, this vaccine won’t spark a sexual boom.

But I wonder if it doesn't miss the point to focus on deterrence arguments. Dan Kahan has a great article (from which I took the title of this post) arguing that deterrence arguments are typically a publicly-palatable rationalizaton for a policy supported for substantive reasons. Thus, rather than a direct clash of ideologies, we agree to present our disputes in the idiom of dueling deterrence arguments.

Conservatives' real preference is not for a deterrence-based theory of punishment, but a retributive and message-sending one. Deterrence is guided by seeking to reduce the number of crimes committed in the first place. But retribution cares less about the number of crimes than about making sure that if a crime is committed, it is followed by commensurate punishment. Given our society's insufficient willingness to directly punish sex, the natural consequences of sex -- STDs and pregnancy -- become the fall-back retribution. The HPV vaccine may not stop anybody from having sex, but it stops some people from being punished for it, thus robbing them of the retribution that they deserve.

But why is it that deterrence theories have so few genuine adherence, despite the seeming reasonableness of them that makes them a good rationalization for our substantive preferences? I think Erving Goffman was on the right track in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Goffman argued that social life is all about putting on a show of doing things, even at the expense of actually accomplishing them:

In their capacity as performers, individuals will be concerned with maintaining the impression that they are living up to the many standards by which they and their products are judged ... But, qua performers, individuals are concerned not with the moral issue of realizing those standards, but with the amoral issue of engineering a convincing impression that those standards are being realized.

Deterrence focuses exclusively on actually accomplishing things. A genuine consideration of deterrence may lead us to the realist conclusion that there's nothing that can affordably be done about a problem, or the pragamtist conclusion that a small fix can correct a big problem. Neither realism nor pragmatism make a good show, however. The dictates of the dramatic form insist that a big problem requires a solution commensurate in scope and cost. Yet that commensurability is the central axiom of retributive and message-sending theories of punishment. The tendency to emphasize performance over substance is stronger when an issue is a more central dramatic stage in society -- and there are few stages more central in modern American society than sex.


Framing Opponents and the Argumentum ad Ethnocentrism

Amanda Marcotte drew a little diagram to show why double-speak is not the same as framing -- rather, it's a subset of framing used dishonestly. The fact is that all comprehensible thought is always already framed. Framing is the tool the human brain uses to make sense of the world -- to pick out what's important in our sensory inupts, to know what to actively look for, and to fill in the gaps by inference.

Nevertheless, many on the left resist the idea. They claim that speaking plainly and simply is preferrable. They balk at the idea that their way of thinking would or should need to be translated in order to make sense to people with different cultural backgrounds.

But the rejection of framing is itself a frame. It invokes the powerful idea of "people who speak the plain and honest truth" versus "people who use convoluted and tricky wordplay." This framing is particularly interesting because of the way it operates through denial of itself, like the bumper sticker that says "question authority" or the commercial that says "people who aren't influenced by ads drink Sprite." Call this the Argumentum ad Ethnocentrism.

Ethnocentrism is the claim that other people have culture, but we have common sense. It's antithetical to the values progressives ought to stand for. And it's a political loser, since people from different cultural backgrounds will easily see how progressive "common sense" rests on assumptions specific to their coastal-urban culture. The smugness of believing you spoke the unadorned truth and the sheeple are just too dumb or duped to see it is small consolation.

It would be helpful, I think, for progressives to temper their view of George Lakoff as the scholar of framing, because doing so (framing the idea of framing in this way) makes it sound like a new idea. But the basic idea behind framing is so deeply woven into the social sciences (outside of economics) that it can hardly be said to have a single progenitor (or even a single terminology). Indeed, anthropology might be said to be the study of frames. Most use of the idea in progressive discussion is on a general enough level that the detailed differences between Lakoff's concept of frames, Mary Douglas's idea of cultural bias, or Alan Fiske's relational models (for example) don't make a difference.

Perhaps another concept from sociology and anthropology can help make framing seem less threatening -- the idea of "reflexive modernization," advanced in different forms by such thinkers as Anthony Giddens and Jürgen Habermas. The modern era was characterized, in effect, by the interrogation of existing frames. Religious and proto-scientific ideas were put to the test, and it became acceptable -- even desirable -- to seek new ways of thinking rather than adhering to the old. But modernity did this by closing off its own ideas and practices to such scrutiny. It knocked down old ideologies, but it did so in the name of unmediated common sense, not in the name of a better ideology. Giddens and others argue that we must push modernity into a "reflexive" phase, in which, by turning modernity's critical tools against itself, we become self-aware about how we socially construct our world. Modernity was the recognition of bad frames, while reflexive modernization is the acceptance of good ones.

Ticking Population Bomb Scenarios

The role played by concerns about overpopulation in contemporary political discourse is interesting. Though overpopulation was a central concern for earlier waves of environmentalism, today's self-professed environmentalists rarely mention it. You see concern most often raised by people who are liberal but who focus their energies on other causes, as one of their occasional nods to the environmentalist wing of the progressive coalition. Most often, it's used as a rebuttal to nativist complaints that (white) people aren't breeding fast enough, or as a moral-high-ground justification for choosing not to have kids.

The framing of the population issue -- for example in this comic strip -- resembles the ticking time bomb" scenario used to argue in favor of torture. In both cases, a neat logical setup is created that makes a certain conclusion ("we should torture" or "overpopulation is a problem") rational. But in both cases, the relevance of the hypothetical to the real world situation it analogizes is questionable. Real conterterrorism problems simply do not resemble the ticking time bomb scenario in important ways.

So it's quite true that, given a finite amount of a rivalrous resource, and a fixed minimum per capita demand, it's possible to have simply too many people. The question is, is that a useful way of conceptualizing the environmental problems we actually face? To say that it is, we would have to establish that population size is a primary driver of environmental problems, and that we are now (or will be in the forseeable future) at a population size that cannot be cost-effectively offset by changes in other factors. It's important to note here that population is expected to level off, at least at the global level, sometime this century, meaning that critics of the population bomb have a finite number of humans whose sustainability they have to account for. At the global level and within the developed world, at least, I'm far from convinced that sheer population size is a key problem.

I'll limit my discussion to environmental problems that can be usefully framed as problems of resource inadequacy (while noting in passing that this excludes the two environmental issues that I've researched most extensively, inappropriate fire regimes and brownfield cleanups). This includes both the classic not-enough-to-go-around scarcity problems, as well as situations in which human use of a resource (while sufficient for immediate human purposes) undercuts the sustainability of the environmental system, and also problems of overloaded "sinks." It's tempting here to reason that if there's not enough to go around, the solution is to have fewer people for it to try to go around to.

Yet there are numerous other contributing factors. One huge one is inefficiency. Modern resource use is incredibly wasteful, so that much of our resource base ends up neither used nor conserved. The problem of inefficiency is typically conceptualized as a problem of insufficient technological advancement, and that's often true. But it's also a result of social organization -- society does not provide incentives to make the fullest use of the theoretically available resources. Energy is a good example. Decentralized generation would be much more efficient at using our fuel resources (due to its flexibility and minimization of long-distance power transmission over leaky lines), but our political economy is set up to favor the construction of large, centralized generators. An example of a combined technological-social case would be culturally inappropriate farming technologies exported to the third world by anthropologically ignorant first world researchers and companies.

Perhaps the most common rebuttal to the overpopulation thesis is to point to the role of affluence or overconsumption. The simple overpopulation argument presumes a fixed per capita consumption -- but in reality, consumption levels can vary drastically from one person to another. The modern conception of the good life is overreliant on resource-intensive pursuits. If we had a different view of what made life good, we would greatly reduce the amount of environmental damage done by each person.

When local scarcity does occur, it's quite often the result not of an absolute shortage, but of a maldistribution. Social inequality and the resulting lack of access to resources have the same effect as an absolute shortage, but the causes -- and hence solutions -- are quite different.

The flip side of maldistribution of resources is maldistribution of people. In studies of dryland degradation and deforestation, it has often been found that, insofar as population is a problem, it's a problem of "over-migration." Too many people in the wrong place is a different story than too many people overall. The roots of over-migration then go back to the social structures that provide incentives and constraints that drive people into environmentally sensitive areas.

If the kinds of concerns described above were effectively addressed, I think we would find that the current human population, as well as the populations projected to occur in the future in the absence of policies directly motivated by concern for overpopulation, is comfortably within the bounds of what the Earth can support.


What You Chose Is Not The Issue

Hugo Schwyzer has waded into the last name wars again, with a long post on why he's delighted that his current wife (unlike the previous three) is "Mrs. Schwyzer." (Along the way he includes some truly bizarre claims, like saying that it can't be patriarchy because it wasn't invented until the 16th centry and isn't practiced in Latin America.) I think one of the reasons this issue is so contentious is that it's framed as an analysis of individuals' choices. This is symptomatic of a larger set of issues in feminism and elsewhere whenever the issue of choice comes up.

(To lay my own biases on the table, I would be distinctly uncomfortable with my wife taking my last name, and I'm aesthetically opposed to hyphenation.)

The usual arguments go like this: one person asserts that they have freely chosen to personally do something that the patriarchy commands. Someone else responds that their choice is so shaped by subtle social pressures that they aren't really free to choose what the patriarchy commands. But as soon as we start asking about whether the person made the right choice, we've lost track of the real issue.

The problem is not that it's intrinsically bad for a woman to change her last name. Given that there are good reasons why some families would want to share a last name, in an ideal world we'd see an even mix of women changing their names, and men changing theirs, alongside some amount of hyphenation and non-changing. So focusing on individual couples' choices is looking at the wrong scale, and too late in the process. The real problem is the social forces that rig our menus of choices, making it plausible and useful for women to change their names, but difficult for men. We need to focus on the social pressures that stigmatize (albeit often mildy -- and all the more insidious for the mildness) people based on their name choices, and the assumptions people make about each other based on their names.

And we need to change the decision process, not police the outcomes. In the name-change case, doing so is not that complicated (though it can be emotionally straining to fight your conditioning). It simply requires taking whatever arguments seem to weigh in favor of your choice -- including arguments in favor of hyphenation or not changing, since patriarchy can divert couples that would be better off with the husband changing his name into the middle ground of no change -- and swapping the genders. Then you give the arguments honest consideration. Many of the traditional arguments -- such as Schwyzer's claim that it demonstrates his wife's trust -- collapse when you reverse the genders. Nevertheless, you may find that the balance of reasons still weighs in favor of the wife changing her name, and that's fine. But to get to a non-patriarchal taking of the husband's name, you have to refuse to think only about whether the wife should change her name, and you have to be genuinely open to considering the full set of possible options. Interestingly enough, despite all the weird emotional baggage and non-sequitur rationalizations that Hugo attaches to his wife's choice, it appears that he has done a better job than most people of making a balanced consideration.

Incidentally, it's a pet peeve of mine that those who support patriarchy-compliant choices always talk (though usually under the shelter of a joking tone) about having their feminist credentials taken away. Obviously I'm in no position to be decreeing how feminist someone is, but on my home turf of environmentalism a person's membership in the cause is never all-or-nothing. Your sins don't wipe out the other good work you've done, but the other good work you've done doesn't earn you indulgences. Talking about losing your credentials implicitly frames your opponents as narrow-minded and purity-obsessed, and puts them on the defensive so that they feel compelled to stroke your ego by reassuring you that you're a good fellow traveler.


Against the Corps II

At the end of the article on the US Army Corps of Engineers that I discussed in the previous post, the author asks why Americans aren't outraged. I think there's a simple explanation: Americans (and people in general) get outraged by people, but the problem with the Corps is structural. Americans have a basic and unquestioned trust in the system, in large part because the system is so embedded in their common sense that it doesn't occur to them that things could be organized differently. So when something goes wrong, they look for a person to blame. The only kind of explanation that makes sense is that some individual subverted things through personal malfeasance. So Abu Ghraib is the fault of Lynndie England, abuse of executive power will cease once we get George Bush and Dick Cheney (or possibly the whole corrupt cabal of the GOP's current leadership) out of office, and racism is just a matter of individuals committing prejudiced acts. We don't see that personal malfeasance (real and blameworthy as it is) and responsibility happen within a larger system of human relationships, relationships that create perverse incentives and barriers to action.

So when Katrina levels New Orleans, we blame George Bush and Michael Brown because they exhibited personal failings like ignoring warnings and worrying too much about looking fashionable at photo-ops. But we can't sink our teeth into the structural failures of the Corps because there's no individual to point our finger at.

Environmentalists Against Hierarchy

Via the Commons Blog, I found this sobering article on the rampant malfeasance of the US Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps has long been my least favorite federal agency, since my first foray into environmentalism was a 7th grade research paper on the Everglades (which has the distinction of being the Corps' greatest debacle -- and one they're unsurprisingly failing to fix as promised).

The article unfortunately falls into a common environmentalist trap -- seeing any misconduct by the government as being basically a result of government being bought off by corporations. The article notes this happening mostly indirectly, through pork barrel projects in which members of Congress use the Corps to give economic gifts to their funders and constituents. I don't deny that this dynamic is significant and problematic. But we shouldn't focus on it alone as an explanation. The article notes in passing that the Corps itself is a strenuous advocate of bigger and bigger boondoggles, often offering them to members of Congress as potential pork. Here we have the intrinsic weakness of the hierarchical form of organization. The Corps is focused on expanding its own size, prestige, and authority, counting its successes through anemic proxies like the number of dollars appropriated to its projects. Its projects are economic disasters as well as environmental ones -- hardly what you'd expect from a mere pork processor or handmaid of the bourgeoisie.

In Cultural Theory terms, environmentalism has long been an uneasy alliance between an Egalitarian ideological core, and a pragmatic Hierarchist wing. Environmentalism has painted the Individualist market as its main enemy, and therefore accepted the use of Hierarchist means -- regulation, protected areas, etc. But as Galbraith and others have pointed out, modern capitalism is as much a Hierarchical enterprise as it is Individualist. Where I part ways with Galbraith is his desire for better and more responsible hierarchy. Instead, I think environmentalism needs to evolve into an alliance of Egalitarianism and real Individualism. By "real Individualism" I mean something deeper than just "green business" selling us "environmentally friendly" products we didn't need in the first place. I mean a commitment to the Individualist ideals of freedom, responsibility, choice, and decentralization. While the core of environmentalism will remain Egalitarian, Egalitarians and Individualists can find common ground in opposing environmentally destructive hierarchies both in the capitalist system and the state.


Accounting For Tastes

Some recent posts at Pandagon have got me thinking about what it means to say we don't understand something. By "understand," I'm referring to something deeper than just intellectual acquiescence to a proposition. I'm talking about really grasping what it means for something to be true, to be able to see the world through it -- to "grok" it, in Robert Heinlein's expression.

I think there are at least three ways you can say that you don't understand something. I'll refer to them as "conservative," "liberal," and "leftist" because they have certain resonances with those political traditions. But all three play a role in any reasonable approach to life, and hence are used by people from all over the political spectrum.

The conservative way of saying "I don't understand" is a demand for an explanation. The burden of proof is placed on the person making a claim that you don't understand -- show me how what you're saying can make sense, or I'll assume it actually doesn't make sense. This way of saying you don't understand is useful in calling people out on their unquestioned assumptions, forcing them to think about why they think what they do, and whether it really is justifiable. It can reframe the discussion, depriving supporters of the status quo of the presumption of legitimacy. Note that this is a rhetorical gambit, not a logical proof. Treated as a logical proof, it slips into the fallacious Argument from Incredulity. Made as a legitimate rhetorical gambit, it requires us to be open to the possibility that our interlocutor will succeed in getting us to understand their position.

The leftist way of saying "I don't understand" is a plea for help and an admission of ignorance -- "I know it in my head, but don't feel it in my gut." To use a less politically charged example, this is the type of "I don't understand" that I would use in asking somebody to explain the Monty Hall problem to me. I accept that switching doors is the best strategy, but I don't really comprehend why. I would do fine if someone offered me a classic Monty Hall deal, but without real understanding I would fail if presented with a variant form. In political matters, the leftist "I don't know" is an important skill for members of dominant groups to cultivate in their interactions with members of oppressed groups. A commitment to an abstract rule of justice, and taking oppressed groups at their word about what changes will help them, is good as far as it goes. But to be a really effective ally, some understanding of their situation is invaluable.

Perhaps the trickiest form of saying "I don't understand" is the one I label liberal -- "I want to share my experience and understand yours." It's this liberal "I don't know" that the commenters at Pandagon have been struggling with in their discussions of choosing whether to have children. How do you get people to understand your position without suggesting that their position is illegitimate? How can you understand multiple positions while still adhering strongly to your own?

Commenter The Magpie Herself offers one easy out, when she tells Amanda Marcotte that her list of reasons for not being a parent is unimportant -- all that matters is that she doesn't want children. This response to the liberal dilemma is common in the classical liberal tradition, including economics- and behavioralism-influenced social science. Differences are chalked up to inscrutable variations in taste, which cannot be legitimately or feasibly be queried further.

While "there's no accounting for tastes" works well enough for relatively trivial questions like chocolate versus vanilla ice cream, and can be useful in shutting up irritating critics, it does a disservice to deeply held convictions when it's applied universally. Choices about parenthood link deeply into a person's identity and way of relating to the world. I don't think it's productive to put an understanding of such issues permanently off limits. Unfortunately I don't have a good answer for how to manage a genuine liberal quest for understanding. Perhaps one key element is trust -- trust that your interlocutors are genuinely asking the liberal question and will settle for "no accounting for tastes" should your explanation fail, rather than slipping over into the conservative question.


In Which I Give Up On The Other Republicans

An open letter to Howard Dean:

Chairman Dean,

Your failure, and the failure of the Democratic Party under your leadership, to stand up for the rights of gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans is deeply shameful. At a time when the party should be articulating a clear progressive vision, you have been more concerned about pandering to the bigotry of the right wing. As a heterosexual man with a conscience, I find your efforts on this issue disappointing at best.

When you were chosen as Chairman, I hoped your experiences as Governor of Vermont had taught you how important it is to give enthusiastic and uncompromising support to LGBTQ Americans. Instead, you have sold them out.

I will save my vote for a party with an actual progressive agenda.


Stentor Danielson

The Democrats' spinelessness covers a broad range of issues, from the environment ("status quo now!") to foreign policy ("we were for it before we were against it") to immigration ("what massive series of protests?"). But the gay rights issue is the one that really gets my goat. Not because it's necessarily the most important issue, but because it's the easiest. Environmental policy, for example, is hard, because you have to navigate through a host of institutional complexities and scientific uncertainties to work out a system that reliably safeguards nature. But the next few steps that can be taken on a political/legal level with regard to gay rights are clear once you recognize the moral imperative to support LGBTQ people: come out affirmatively in support of marriage equality, and adding sexual orientation and gender identity to antidiscrimination laws. That's all I'm asking. Don't bury it behind a lot of talk about the importance of traditional families. Don't cop out by saying it should be decided at the state level (as if the Democratic Party doesn't run candidates for state-level offices).

What Common Good?

John Halpin and Ruy Texiera have a proposal out for the much-sought-after coherent progressive vision. In a nutshell, their message to voters is that progressives believe that government should pursue the common good. I could quibble with various elements of it (e.g. the downplaying of progressive freedom issues, and the vulnerability to being reframed as nanny-state-ism), but I basically agree with the premise. However, I think there's one big hole, on both a conceptual and a strategic level:

How do we decide what constitutes the common good?

Halpin and Texiera seem to take the common good as a relatively straightforward and consensual concept. They work on the assumption that we know what the common good is, so the only choice is whether you think government ought to be in the business of pursuing it. But in fact there are widely diverging conceptions of the common good. Different people have different visions of what's good for society as a whole.

Perhaps more importantly, the public has a right to be skeptical of pronouncements that government will work for the common good. Halpin and Texiera cite various polls to show that the public supports the common good principle. But that does not at all mean that they will therefore support any self-proclaimed leader or expert who claims to serve the common good. They will want to know what good, and how we know that it's common.

I think this is a key failing in the quest for a progressive identity (or perhaps a sad case of etymology-as-destiny, given the technocratic orientation of the original Rooseveltian progressives). Democracy and the grassroots is not just a matter of electioneering. It's about making the public involved in the making and implementing of policy after the election. That's the only way to get the public to trust progressives who claim to be acting in the public interest.


Focus On The Costs

I think that one of the major factors inhibiting the progress of environmentalism (as well as other progressive social movements) is the prevalence of the "costs" paradigm.

The costs paradigm presents sustainability as a cost to society. Anti-environmentalists take this to be an argument against environmental protection, while environmentalists argue that either costs are morally necessary, or the costs of failing to take action will be greater in the long run. The costs paradigm presents environmentally friendly actions as burdens for society to bear -- land placed off-limits, scrubbers to install, less effective ingredients to use, economic growth foregone, meat and out-of-season produce given up. There's a certain psychological appeal to the ascetic discipline the costs paradigm demands, and the seriousness of the costs seems to honor the seriousness of the current environmental crisis. The costs paradigm's vision is of an unfortunate set of ecological limits, which society must be jury-rigged to avoid crossing.

Cultural Theory argues that environmentalism is really about commitment to a certain way of organizing social life, not just about responding to objective environmental threats. Typically this point is expressed in a way that makes environmentalists look bad -- they're just using environmental issues as a stick to get us to share their vision of the good life. This may be part of the reason that so many environmentalists buy into the costs paradigm. The costs paradigm sounds rational, and it allows environmentalists to say "look, we love modern society too, but unfortunately we have to make some concessions to environmental limits."

But the costs paradigm is depressing, and it invites people to say "it's not worth it." The costs paradigm is happily promoted by anti-environmentalists, because when the crisis isn't immediate (as it was in the 60s and 70s) the costs paradigm helps to defend the status quo. Environmentalism needs to shift the public conception of environmental issues toward a positive vision of a sustainable society. We do, in fact, need the kind of thoroughgoing change in how society is organized that Cultural Theory sees lying behind environmentalism. A reconfigured society would fit comfortably into the environment we have, "naturally" pursuing ends that don't conflict with nature's limits rather than having to be deliberately held back from its desires. Think of it as a matter of learning to make aloo gobi (a vegetarian dish that stands on its own), rather than always buying veggieburgers (an omnivorous dish with the meat swapped out). We need to talk about positive solutions, rather than asking how high of costs we're willing to bear.

This is not to say that there will be no costs associated with sustainability. The transition from our current society to a sustainability-oriented one, in particular, will bring costs. But it's a mistake to see environmentalism as fundamentally about costs, about limits on what we could do if it weren't for nature's fragility.

Where Are The Aliens?

Alex Steffen links to Geoffrey Miller's explanation for the Fermi Paradox: if there are aliens out there, why haven't any of them contacted us? Miller's argument, in a nutshell, is that any civilization advanced enough to build an interstellar spaceship is also advanced enough to build an interstellar space ship video game, and the latter is easier and more fun. So the aliens haven't contacted us because they're all playing Xbox (or because they spent so much time playing Xbox that they forgot to have sex and died out).

The Xbox hypothesis (which actually rests on some interesting ideas about fitness versus crude proxies for fitness) may well explain the fate of some alien civilizations. But both the original hypothesis and Miller's resolution make a huge assumption: that exploring the universe is an obviously good and rational thing for a civilization to do, if it can. But while wanderlust may be an important feature of modern Western culture, I see no reason to assume it as an interplanetary universal.

What we really need to ask is: why would a species start exploring the universe? Particularly at the early stages, space travel is likely to be a hugely expensive and difficult undertaking -- so a small shift in alien psychology or social organization could nip it in the bud. Why wouldn't they be happy staying at home? And if they're playing Xbox at home, what of it? Evolution is an explanation of a factual process, not a moral imperative (although it's certainly tempting to blur that line, in order to give the imprimatur of scientific proof to one's moral convictions). Going out in a bang of Halo-induced extasy is no more irrational than an individual dying peacefully after a good life.

But even if the long-term perpetuation of the species is of value, it's not necessarily irrational for a species to eschew space travel. Going to other planets could invite conflict with other civilizations (perhaps ending in nuclear annhialation of one side), or dangerous invasive species or diseases being brought back to the home planet. Or there could be major domestic consequences -- perhaps space travel diverts precious resources from more pressing problems, or requires an oppressive hierarchical social structure that the aliens find intolerable. This is not to say that these are conclusive arguments against space exploration by humans. But they are plausible enough that only a small difference in the aliens' psychology (their attitude to risk, their facility for certain types of social organization, etc) would make them conclusive for the aliens. Evolution is a shortsighted satisficing, not farsighted optimizing, process. So we have no reason to think that human psychology is average for what an intelligent species would evolve, as opposed to being an outlier (and this is assuming that humans will eventually explore space -- a prospect I find a bit dubious).


Utilitarianism Without Data

This interview with Peter Singer highlights both the strengths and the weaknesses of his brand of utilitarianism. On the strengths side, Singer comes off as both idealistic and pragmatic -- idealistic in setting lofty goals, but pragmatic in encouraging people to make small steps in the here and now. For example, he praises Chipotle for making efforts to improve where they obtain their ingredients, and he notes that even he sometimes eats food that is merely vegetarian (not vegan) while traveling or visiting. Utilitarianism is sometimes criticized for its unattainability -- only a saint could manage to truly maximize happiness all the time, which means everyone else is condemned to be a sinner. This criticism relies on importing into utilitarianism a deontological system in which actions are categorized as either right or wrong (with the occasional addition of a "supererogatory" category). But utilitarianism sees rightness as a scale -- the more net happiness an action leads to, the better it is. This allows Singer to encourage people to move up the scale without condemning them for not reaching the top.

Utilitarianism's greatest weakness is its dependence on empirical data. You can't maximize happiness unless you know how your actions will affect others' happiness. Too often philosophers are like social scientists who don't care about that pesky "data," and Singer is no exception. He became infamous (as opposed to being simply an eccentric vegan) when he proposed euthanizing disabled babies. This claim was based on a valid application of his utilitarian principles to a fundamentally incorrect understanding of the empirical facts about what life as a disabled person is like. He could have saved himself much trouble (albeit losing much opportunity for self-righteousness about the pursuit of supposed truth) had he spent more time listening to disabled people and less time speculating about them.

But it's not as simple as just a lack of empirical data. Singer can do the research when he wants to. For example, in the interview he gives a nuanced assessment of the pros and cons of buying locally grown food, concluding that if you do it right, buying local is good, but if you focus narrowly on localness as the be-all and end-all of your purchasing, you may end up doing more harm. This is based on an actual investiagtion of the energy use and environmental impacts of various food supply systems.

Yet in the last paragraph of the interview, Singer veers back down the road toward his disability mistake. He declares that utilitarians should be concerned about obesity, and revive the moral opprobrium associated with the sin of gluttony. Here he buys into the prevailing social perspective on obesity without bothering to consider how much of it is actually true. Obesity is not, primarily, about eating too much. And even if it was, the prevalence of both fatness and fat-disparagement in our society should be enough to convince any utilitarian that more fat-disparagement is a futile strategy. The ecological damage done by what we eat, and how wastefully we get it to our mouths, dwarfs the damage done by how much we eventually put in our mouths. A real utilitarian would recognize the immense damage done to the happiness of people (including even skinny people) by the prevailing anti-fat ideology and work to combat it, rather than perpetuating the pernicious idea that we can measure people's moral worth by their waistline.

The contrast in Singer's use of empirical data in the cases of food supply chains and animal research, versus his surrender to prejudice when it comes to disability and obesity, is not terribly surprising. In our society people are far more willing to take a humble stance and look at the numbers (indeed, to trust too much in the availability of easy and objective numbers) on environmental and technical topics. Yet when it comes to social issues, hubris kicks in. This is privilege -- to realize you don't know much about the natural world, but assume that you understand, and hence can judge, other people.


"Because I Said So"

Here's one from the Emperor Norton school of jurisprudence. William Penn showed up and declared that his son had "king-like" powers, so therefore Thomas Penn did in fact have those powers. When dealing with a manifestly undemocratic regime, the question of substantive justice (in this case, did the Lenape genuinely consent to the terms of the deal) has to take precedence over adherence to the procedures unilaterally announced by one side. I don't know enough about the substantive issue to weigh in on one side or the other, but the court doesn't seem to even be asking the right question.


The Cultural Clash Of Johnny Damon

Amanda's mention of Johnny Damon reminds me of a Cultural Theory post I meant to make a while ago. Damon was a central figure in the Boston Red Sox' historic World Series victory a couple years ago, but he then signed with to the Sox' arch-rival, the New York Yankees. His switch has been greeted with great hostility (and the inevitable insulting T-shirts) by Red Sox fans. I think this incident provides a good example of how different cultures depend on each other.

The issue here is the clash between the Egalitarian culture of the fans and the Individualist culture of the teams. Sociologists and anthropologists have long pointed out that the experience of a group of dedicated fans -- even those who are strangers -- watching the game together produces the same kind of experience of shared identity as a religious service. Red Sox fans are an especially Egalitarian bunch, bonded together by the team's long and storied history and the shared oppression of the "curse." Damon's championship team added to the Egalitarianism with its scruffy grooming and declarations that they were just "a bunch of idiots." The key point here about Egalitarianism is its expectation of loyalty. Mmebers of an Egalitarian group -- whether fans or players -- have an obligation to stick with the group and work for the collective good.

But as Egalitarian as many of the fans are, the actual clubs work on an Individualist basis. Players, managers, and owners are all in it for the glory and the paycheck. Damon, or any other player, would feel little compunction about ditching the Sox if another team made him a better offer. When Damon revealed his Individualism, Sox fans -- who expected him to be an Egalitarian -- were outraged.

But for all the anger expressed over Damon's betrayal, in the long run the cultural clash is beneficial to the Egalitarian fan culture. Egalitarians face an important organizational dilemma, as they demand solidarity while refusing to enact coercive rules to enforce it. A key way that they keep the community spirit in place is by pointing to threats and betrayals from outside. A defection like Damon's reinvigorates the Egalitarianism of the fans.

On the other hand, the Individualism of the clubs relies on the Egalitarianism of the fans. From an Individualist point of view, putting so much time and money into watching a game is ridiculous. Luckily for them, Egalitarians have different values, and the community experience of shared fandom adds value to the hats and tickets and so forth that the Individualists are selling.

Affect And The Trolley Problem

Crooked Timber points to the latest media discussion of philosophical thought experiments. Such discussions inevitably end up focusing on the classic "trolley problem." In a nutshell, most people would pull a switch to send a runaway trolley down a side track, killing one person to save the five on the main track. But they would not push a fat man* onto the track in such a way that he dies but he stops the trolley from killing the five.

The first response is usually to look for rational justifications for judging the situations differently. Typically these depend on the act-omission distinction. But sooner or later someone will raise the possibility that people aren't obeying the hypothetical. They import details that make the situation more realistic (e.g. by positing that it's uncertain whether the fat man would adequately stop the trolley), or insist on finding a third option ("I'd find something else to throw on the track"). Usually this resistance to the terms of the hypothetical is interpreted as a reaction to how unrealistic the thought experiments are. Real life is complicated enough to at least present the illusion of the possibility of having your cake and eating it too, whereas thought experiments ruthlessly abstract from our experience.

But I think a glance through the risk literature shows that this resistance to accepting the terms of a moral dilemma is not limited to unrealistic hypotheticals. Social psychologists have asked people to rate the risks and benefits of various real activities, from food coloring to flying to nuclear power. And they have found that risk and benefit judgments are strongly negatively correlated -- people believe that an activity with a high risk has few benefits, but one with many benefits has little risk. What's more, presenting information that raises people's opinions of the benefit lowers their opinion of the risk, and vice-versa.

Risk perception researchers explain this with the concept of "affect." Affect is a general positive or negative feeling toward something. People derive their judgments about the details of a thing by choosing those details that will support their affect. So if you have a negative disposition toward nuclear power, you will tend to make your opinion internally consistent by evaluating the risks as high and the benefits as low.

Affect can also be an explanation to resistance to the hypothetical in the case of the trolley problem. People want to think of switching the track or pushing the fat man as either good or bad. But the way the problem is set up, either choice is regrettable, because you have to kill at least one person. Thus people search for a way to reinterpret or stretch the situation such that they have a clear choice. If you assume there's a big rock that can also stop the trolley, there's nothing compromising your feeling that stopping it is a good thing.

*Apparently all ethical philosophers are skinny.


What's the dollar value of X?

Both proponents and critics of cost-benefit analysis are on the wrong track when they talk about putting dollar amounts on non-market values. They both ignore the fact that setting dollar values is a learned skill, and one that doesn't translate easily between domains.

Proponents of cost-benefit analysis assume that it's relatively straightforward to convert non-market values into dollars. All you have to do is ask people what they'd pay for it or how much they'd sell it for. Were one to do a willingness-to-pay survey on a market good -- say bread, or cars -- the results would not be so far off the market prices. But that is because people have learned from the market what dollar value to attach to those goods. Long collective experience with bargaining between greedy sellers and stingy buyers in the idiom of money has taught people how to make that conversion.

Opponents of cost-benefit analysis, however, make the opposite mistake. It's common for critics to ask rhetorically what the price of a life or a forest is. The implication is that it's foolish to even think of such things -- the goods in question are intrinsically unable to be expressed in dollars. But in fact the problem is not the intrinsic nonmonetariness of those goods, but rather the lack of a market in them to teach us how to assign prices. Outside the modern west, placing a dollar value on land was/is considered patently impossible. Yet in the modern west, we have a thriving real estate market. Common sense about whether and how a thing can be priced is a remarkably contingent thing.

Note that this is not an argument for marketizing everything. It's dubious whether even the market's prices represent "value" in any sense relevant to the social decisionmaking that cost-benefit analysis is used for. Rather than facile assumptions that everything can be meaningfully priced, or unhelpful declarations that certain values cannot be compared, we need to focus on ways of making an explicit analysis of tradeoffs without recourse to dollar values.