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A Speculative Political Ecology of Genetically-Modified Carbon-Capturing Trees

I'm a bit late to the party in talking about Freeman Dyson's idea that we can solve global warming by genetically engineering trees to capture extra CO2 and store it underground. Most of the commentary has consisted of ridicule, though a few folks think it's a great idea.

I'll say up front that of the geoengineering proposals out there, some form of carbon capture and storage is the most reasonable, and I think worth pursuing in some form. (It's far better than the other most popular idea, shooting massive amounts of sulfur into the upper atmosphere to shade the Earth -- I can't imagine such a plan not having catastrophic unintended consequences.) Nevertheless, I think Dyson's plan for carbon-capturing trees (CCT) is a bad way to approach the problem.

Most of the ridicule has centered on Dyson's optimistic estimates of how quickly the technical barriers could be overcome (in terms of timeliness, and of making the carbon capture effective). I'm willing to grant him that, because what's more interesting to me is to try to imagine how the political ecology of implementing the technology would play out. We have enough experience -- from reforestation schemes in India, ecological reserves in Brazil, palm oil plantations in Indonesia, old-growth logging in the USA, etc. -- to make some reasonable predictions on this front.

The first thing that would have to be done is to make CCT worth people's while to plant. The obvious mechanism here would be a carbon tax -- either the government would collect the tax from carbon emitters and pay it own agencies, or a private firm, to carry out the planting, or carbon emitters would preemptively plant CCT to offset their emissions and reduce their tax burden (or ensure compliance with a more command-and-control type of carbon regulation). It's likely that mainstream environmental NGOs would get in on the action, planting CCT as part of their mission to improve the environment. The main point here is that it's big, elite-controlled institutions that are going to be able to access these funds, to sell their proposals to the money-controlling agencies (though it's possible that poor households will be used as the footsoldiers, on the pattern of many resettlement and cash-crop-encouragement schemes in the Third World).

So if we have CCT seeds, and money to make planting them profitable, the last thing we need is a place to plant them. The search for this land is likely to result in significant social injustice. It would be simple if we could just replant the extensive areas of the Earth that have been deforested over the past couple centuries. But forests are not simply cut down and abandoned -- that land gets used for other things (farms, homes, etc.), and the people living there may, rightly or wrongly, not be keen on having their land reforested. Dyson, to his (inadvertant?) credit, does recognize that most CCT will be planted on land that is currently forested with non-CCT.

In either case, however, we have to ask how the CCT planters will get access to the land. I'm going to go out on a limb here and predict that CCT will get most of its land the same way as virtually every other big-money land use project ever -- it will be stolen (morally if not legally) from vulnerable populations, especially indigenous people. Governments, of whatever level of ostensible democractic-ness, (and some land-owning corporations) will hand out permits to plant CCT in certain areas, disregarding the existing local uses of the forests. Around the world, poor and indigenous people have repeatedly been -- and are still being -- forced out of land they had used for subsistence activities because the authorities wanted to use it for logging, industrial plantations, or wilderness-style nature reserves. This would lead to severe negative impacts on the displaced people, as well as potential militarization of the area to prevent sabotage by disgruntled peasants (and simply attempts to continue using the land).

Dyson imagines that, with CCT in place, the forest ecology would bounce back and the forests would be able to serve a dual role -- carbon capture and the other ecological benefits we get from preserving natural forests. I think there are three reasons to be skeptical of this. First, we have to consider the incentives in place. The dominant incentive is going to be to "produce" carbon capture. The money is coming from taxes (and perhaps charitable donations) aimed at removing CO2 from the atmosphere. So the clearest and easiest way to measure payouts is to pay per CCT or per unit of CCT biomass. In the face of such a bureaucracy-friendly indicator, side constraints demanding ecological preservation are likely to be weak in practice. The result will be carbon farms, not functioning naturalistic ecologies. This problem would only be exacerbated if, instead of simply sequestering the carbon, the trees produced something marketable -- such as fuel -- from it. That would add a second motive running counter to preserving the prior ecological values of the forest.

Second is that the CCT would not be suitable for preserving the pre-CCT ecology. Current forests contain a great deal of biodiversity, both intra-species and inter-species. CCT, however, will have a much more restricted range, being one variety each of a few species (particularly if, in the interests of defending their intellectual property, the genetic engineers insert some equivalent of the terminator gene or make the carbon capture gene recessive, thus preventing the CCT from incorporating the existing diversity in their wild relatives). Even-aged dominant-species monocultures are unlikely to be optimal for preserving ecological balance, even assuming (probably over-optimistically) that the projects always use genetically modified versions of species native to the biome where they're being planted.

Finally, bouncing back is a time- and space-intensive process. It takes time for trees to grow. And for the ecosystem to recover from a disturbance of the replanting-new-trees type would require a substantial area of undisturbed area in the neighborhood from which other species could spread back in. The likelihood that the genetic modifications would be preferentially made to fast-growing "weedy" species like pine, in order to let CCT operations get up and running quickly, would partially address this point at the expense of exacerbating the previous one.

Ultimately, these ecological problems with CCT plantations will not just hurt the environment (and thus indirectly all of us), but they will specifically hurt the people living in those ecosystems. I can imagine a potential limited role for CCT, in cases where people are intending to replant trees anyway (e.g. for shelterbelts between farms). But there would have to be safeguards in place to prevent the emergence -- and environmentalist endorsement -- of large-scale CCT plantations. Meanwhile, mechanical-chemical routes to carbon capture seem more promising as a way of undoing the effects of our emissions.

(The speculations in this post are based on a wide variety of political ecology studies I've read. The most on-point one is Paul Robbins' "Tracking invasive land covers in India" from the Annals of the Association of American Geographers in 2001.)


Three Notes on Food

1. If there was ever a biological organ that would convince me that creationism is true, it wouldn't be the eye or the bacterial flagellum -- it would be the avocado. I find it positively creepy how perfectly suited a ripe avocado is to have its fleshy part scooped cleanly away from the seed and rind, and spread directly on a sandwich.

2. Most of my diet consists of "foreign" food -- curry, burritoes, stir fry, etc. That's not surprising, since the standard American diet, even for the poor, is so meat-heavy. But I have to give the USA credit for developing what I would consider the world's most perfect food -- the peanut butter and jelly sandwich*. It's not fine dining (and I think it loses something if you try to fancy it up beyond using low-budget whole grain bread), but it's a workhorse. I've gone long periods, including the present, in which I ate PB&J for one meal every day.

3. In theory, veg*ans have a more restricted diet than omnivores. And certainly I've encountered the problem of having to search the whole menu for the one item that is, or could be made, meat-free (though at this point I've come to like the way my choices are limited -- I think if I went to a dedicated vegan restaurant the amount of choice I'd have would be overwhelming). But it occurs to me that the restrictions aren't always one-way. There are many omnivores who refuse to eat certain foods (particularly tofu) because they're vegetarian foods. This goes beyond simply preferring the meat versions of dishes, to treating "vegetarian foods" as somehow polluting, as if eating them would turn you vegetarian, with all the social stigma and emasculation that entails (similar to many men's paranoia that certain behaviors or desires will turn them gay). (Note that I said "many omnivores" -- if my description doesn't fit you, there's no need to leave a comment about how you just really don't like the taste of tofu.)

* Perhaps not so perfect for people with nut allergies or celiac disease, but then again you can find someone who's allergic to pretty much anything.


The Verdict Of History

On a message board elsewhere on the internets, I got into an argument with a friend over the validity of "verdict of history" arguments. That is, arguments that we should do something (in this case, support same-sex marriage) because otherwise people in the future will look back on us as embarassing or even reprehensible troglodytes for our backwards views. The discussion made me get a lot more clear in my own head about what I found problematic about such arguments, so I'm copying my final post over here:

The argument I'm objecting to goes "We should do X, because people in the future will see X as obviously right."

One line of objection to that argument is to ask whether people in the future will in fact see X as obviously right. The (usually implicit) argument in favor of that happening is that history is trending in a certain direction, and X lies in that direction. The argument that history is trending in a certain direction is, in turn, based on the idea that policies that are right eventually win out. That means that we have to first have an argument that policy X is right: X is right, therefore X will be accepted in the future, therefore we should do X. But in that case there's no need for the middle term -- you could reason: X is right, therefore we should do X.

If you don't start with "X is right," then you need another argument for why 1) X will be accepted in the future, and 2) why I should care whether people in the future approve of my actions.

A related objection can be made if the future's knowledge of X's rightness is based on new information that they will have access too -- for example, they'll have experience of whether a certain policy is successful or a failure (e.g. Massachusetts and California will see that the sky still hasn't fallen after a decade of letting same-sex couples marry). The problem here is that, on the one hand, if we can be certain in the present which way that data will turn out, then we don't need to launder that certainty (or rather, the reasons for it) through hypothesized future events before we can use it in the argument. On the other hand, if we can't be certain how events will turn out, they can't be a reason for picking one side or the other of the present argument. (This is not to say you can never express confidence that events will prove you right -- just that those events cannot provide an independent reason for someone today to change their mind to agree with you.)

Veridct of history arguments are comforting (most of us want to believe that justice will prevail and society will come to see that we were right). And they may be rhetorically effective because they play on others' desire for social conformity. But they don't provide a logical justification for any position.

Too Old And Sick? Or Too Conservative And Hypocritical?

Belledame's post reminds me of something that's been bothering me for a while: the propensity of many liberals -- including many who are quick to condemn sexism that's used against Hillary Clinton or racism used against Barack Obama -- to resort to bigotry against John McCain. Specifically, I see a lot of people pulling out ageism and ableism/healthism(?) (e.g. here). Recently, for example, many liberals were just so very concerned that the media hadn't gotten an adequate look at McCain's health records, and hadn't interpreted his occasional pre-cancerous skin growths in the worst possible light. And oh dear, he hasn't had a psych eval -- why, he could have PTSD or something!

Here's the thing: John McCain is hardly a newcomer to the political stage. He's been a member of Congress for 26 years -- and an extremely prominent one, too (how many people can even name Arizona's other senator*?). He's been campaigning rather energetically for the past year. So we have plenty of relatively direct information about how he'd govern. So there's no need to make tenuous inferences from his health records.

I'm not saying this because I love McCain -- I voted against him in 2006, will vote against him in November, and assuming he loses then (and I'm still living in AZ), I'll vote against him again in 2012. But I'm not voting against him because he's old and might get skin cancer. I'm voting against him because he's pro-war, anti-soldier, pro-torture, anti-immigrant, anti-environment, anti-abortion, anti-GLBT, pro-corporation, and a bunch of other things of that nature.

Making a big deal over McCain's health reinforces the idea that old people are frail and unable to contribute to society, that we should judge someone's moral worth by the pronouncements of the medical establishment, that people with health problems can't be relied on to have significant responsibilities, that any views or behaviors we don't like in someone else should be attributed to mental illness. That's not cool, even when the person you're saying these things about is loathsome and would make an awful president.

*Jon Kyl, who is even worse than McCain -- he's just quieter about it.


Religion And Hurricanes

Via the Evangelical Ecologist, I see Jonah Goldberg making the entirely unoriginal argument that environmentalism amounts to a religion. I think there's actually a grain of truth to this -- environmentalism, like any other philosophy, including a pose of clear-headed pragmatism, is too often turned into a practice of personal purity rather than a goal-oriented project. Unfortunately, when conservatives like Goldberg try to make this argument, they get twisted around and start labeling anything that would advance us toward the environmentalist project's goals as mere personal purity. Telling anyone they ought to do something differently becomes inappropriate sanctimonious moralizing.

What makes this iteration of the argument interesting is the parallel Goldberg draws between (allegedly) religious blame for Hurricane Katrina and Cyclone Nargis:

I heard Gore on NPR the other day. He was asked what he made of evangelical pastor Joseph [sic] Hagee's absurd comment that Hurricane Katrina was God's wrath for New Orleans' sexual depravity. Naturally, Gore chuckled at such backwardness. But then the Nobel laureate went on to blame Katrina on man's energy sinfulness. It struck me that the two men were not so different. If only canoodling residents of the Big Easy had adhered to "The Greenpeace Guide to Environmentally Friendly Sex."

I think if we deconstruct the two claims, we can see how environmentalism can avoid both being a religion in the bad sense, and being the kind of ineffectual lip servce Golberg advocates (under the term "conservationism").

Take Hagee's claim about Katrina first. Here's the alleged causal chain leading from sexual license to deadly weather: New Orleaneans had un-Biblical sex, God saw the sex, God decided the sex was bad and should be punished, God directed Katrina to strike New Orleans.

Then do the same for Gore's claim*. People (mostly outside of Myanmar) burned fossil fuels, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. CO2 trapped the sun's energy on the Earth, causing a rise in temperature. The rising temperature increased the number and strength of cyclones, and one such enhanced cyclone was Nargis.

Notice a key difference here: Hagee's claim requires a conscious power to intervene -- there's no other remotely plausible way for un-Biblical sex to cause a hurricane than for an intelligent God to see the sex and make a moral judgment that it deserves punishment. Gore's claim, however, can be stated in purely secular, physical terms. It's not that fossil fuels are bad, and therefore the people of Myanmar got flooded, but rather that fossil fuels cause the people of Myanmar to be flooded, and therefore fossil fuels are bad. Burning fossil fuels is not an act of personal sin for which we are punished, it's an act of (indirect) violence against other people.

It's possible to re-frame Gore's claim in a religious way, as some sort of revenge of Gaia against a sinful humanity. But that is, at root, a misstatement of the claim, because it improperly imputes a moral judgment as part of the description of events, rather than as a conclusion drawn from them. It's a misstatement whether it's made by a wooly-headed greenie who thinks it's a good argument, or whether it's made by a conservative who thinks that's the only way to interpret environmentalist claims. And therefore, Goldberg's attempt to draw a moral equivalence between Hagee and Gore, and thereby to paint all environmentalism as moralizing, fails.

(I obviously don't believe that Hagee's claim is based on anything more than hate. As for Gore's, his hypothesis is still very much up for debate among scientists -- but challenging its empirical foundations as a matter of atmospheric physics is entirely different from, and indeed antithetical to, challenging its rhetorical form as inappropriate religious moralizing.)

* Gore actually, and quite rightly, hedged his comments on Nargis much more than most conservatives have admitted. But "climate change caused Nargis" is still a respectable hypothesis, and it can stand in for the general class of environmentalists' claims of harms due to poor environmental management.



I haven't updated the Kiosk (the spot in my sidebar where I list things that irritate me) in a while, so here's a new one. I'm currently irritated by people who take pictures that were perfectly funny as-is, and insist on sticking a "HAY LET ME EXPLAIN THE JOKE" caption on them so they can be LOLcats and get posted on icanhascheezburger. LOLcats are limiting our range of creative expression!


Are Veg*ans Oppressed?

Nosnowhere mentions the phenomenon of veg*ans who see themselves as being oppressed on the basis of their diet. This is strange, she says, because veg*anism is really about the oppression of animals. In the comments, Elaine Vigneault offers a list of the hardships that veg*ans face.

I've long agreed with nosnowhere's side -- I think it doesn't make sense to think of ethical veg*ans as an oppressed class. To explain why, I look to the contrasting aims of tolerance versus universalization, and an analogy with feminism. To be oppressed is basically to be treated as if you or your activities are less valuable, and to suffer added costs and harms, on the basis of some characteristic. By this standard, women constitute an oppressed group in our society -- in a variety of ways, women and feminine activities are treated as less valuable than men and masculine activities, and women face higher hurdles in their lives. When someone recognizes oppression, their desire is for what I'll call "tolerance" (admittedly a word troublesome history). Tolerance means that people oppressed on the basis of a certain characteristic want to be able to live their lives free of the oppression that disadvantages them relative to people without that characteristic.

When enough people recognize a form of oppression, they can form a movement with its own name -- in the case of oppression of women, "feminism"*. The goal of a feminist with respect to women is to end the oppression and achieve the above-mentioned tolerance. But the goal of feminism with respect to feminists is not tolerance but universalization. Feminists don't want society to tolerate feminism, allowing feminists to do their feminist thing on an equal basis with anti-feminists. They want to win, converting everyone to their views about the existence and badness of oppression of women -- aiming at tolerance of feminism undercuts its ability to achieve tolerance of women.

Feminists do face hardships for being feminists, over and above the hardships they may experience as members of the movement's intended beneficiary class (i.e. women) -- for example, being stereotyped as unattractive and humorless, and having their views discounted as coming from an irrational fringe. But these hardships take on a different meaning because of the different status and desired end goal of feminism versus womanhood. Since feminism is a movement aimed at changing the prevailing social system, it is unsurprising that the system would -- passively or actively -- throw up obstacles. So while it's entirely reasonable to work to reduce those obstacles so as to enable feminism to achieve its goals more easily, there is a real difference between the first-order oppression perpetrated by a social system and its derivative resistance to people who challenge the first-order oppression.

The analogy here, I'm sure you've figured out, is that animals are like women in being first-order oppressed, and veg*anism is like feminism in being a universalizing movement encountering resistance in its quest for tolerance of the first-order oppressed group. To call veg*ans oppressed, then, is to conflate two different sorts of relationship to an oppressive social system. (Though the situation is muddied by the fact that even many ethical veg*ans adopt a posture of seeking only tolerance for veg*anism as a way of avoiding unproductive conflict with omnivores.)

The hitch, though, is that this analysis applies only to "ethical veg*ans" -- people who take up veg*anism as a way of advocating for the interests of animals. But there are other reasons to be a veg*an -- because it's cool, as a personal spiritual practice, because you think it's healthier, because you hate the taste of or are allergic to animal products, etc. Such "non-ethical" veg*ans adopt the same diet as ethical veg*ans, but because their aims are not built on achieving tolerance for animals, they can consistently advocate for tolerance, rather than universalization, of veg*ans. And because of that, I think non-ethical veg*ans -- who face the same hardships qua veg*an as ethical veg*ans -- can lay a claim to being victims of a first-order oppression (in somewhat the same way that a lack of accommodation for kosher diets is an aspect of first-order anti-Semitism**).

*For convenience, I'm using "feminism" in the very broad sense that covers anyone opposed to women's oppression, though I recognize that some people dislike that term because they see it as referring to a specific and problematic diagnosis and program for action.

**I found this post interesting because an Orthodox Jewish friend once told me -- and I don't know how widely this theory is held -- that the whole point of the kosher laws is that non-Jewish society will be unlikely to tolerate people who practice them, thus encouraging Jews to maintain a close-knit autonomous community rather than blending in with their neighbors. And while I'm tangenting, I also wonder whether, given that AFAIK all vegan food is kosher, an attempt to tolerate both Jews and vegans with the same meal would actually fail to fully tolerate Jews because it would impose added dietary restrictions (e.g. "if you don't want to be forced to eat a cheeseburger, you have to give up hamburgers too").


Language Footprints and Individualism

Navel-gazing aside: I do most of my blog reading these days at work, but I've made a commitment to never post to this blog from work. So I have a tendency to have post ideas floating around for a while before I get around to actually posting them (if I even do at all -- in a large part, blogging is for me a way of getting ideas to settle down in my head by fixing them to a page, but if I wait long enough they settle on their own and writing them out becomes just a chore), by which time the conversation I'm responding to has often moved on.

Lauredhel mentions the idea of a "language footprint." Patterned after the common idea of an ecological footprint, your language footprint is the extent to which your activities negatively impact the survival of other languages.

Raising awareness of the problem of language extinction, in which a few global languages drive out other languages spoken by smaller and less powerful groups*. But I think the "footprint" metaphor tends to frame the problem in too individualistic a way. The description on the language footprint site lends itself easily to being thought of as a matter of individual choices of language, a la a rude tourist asking the waitstaff for "water" rather than "agua" or "yaku." And indeed, the comment section of the above-linked Hoyden About Town thread is full of people proudly professing that they study a phrasebook before travelling internationally.

The issue here is not that learning the local language before traveling is unimportant**. It's that it addresses only a small aspect of the problem of language extinction. Language extinction is fundamentally a structural problem. English is not encroaching on other languages because Anglophones are ruder than speakers of Pitjantjatjara or Saami. English is encroaching on other languages because our world is becoming more and more globalized and the global political-economic system is dominated by English-speaking countries.

Ecological footprint calculations can break down this sort of structural responsibility and apportion a share of the blame to individuals to a limited degree, because it's possible to distinguish differential environmental impacts of different lifestyle and consumer habits -- driving a Prius vs an SUV, being a vegan vs a meat-and-potatoes person, etc. (I forget where I found this first, but it's interesting to note in connection with the structural factors in environmental impacts that even Buddhist monks in the USA have twice the world average ecological footprint.) But with respect to language dominance, the negative structural effects on smaller languages are a result of the system as a whole (i.e. the level of global integration and dominance of Anglophone countries), making it next to impossible to talk about more or less "language-friendly" practices beyond the small potatoes of learning the languages of your tourist destinations. Certainly one could engage in activism aimed at changing these structures (either at a global level or in more locally-focused projects), but factoring that in as an element of your individual language footprint seems to warp the metaphor beyond utility.

*This can be a complexly multi-scalar process. If I recall my freshman-year class on Peru correctly, English is encroaching on Spanish at the global level, while within Latin America Spanish is encroaching on indigenous languages such as Quechua, and at the same time Quechua is actually encroaching on less-popular indigenous Andean languages as the region's Indians consolidate a new form of native identity in the face of globalization.

**Although it is interesting to me the different motivations involved. I've only traveled once to a non-English-speaking area, and while I did study my German phrasebook en route to Bonn, it was less out of a desire to be conscientious about my impact on German speakers or a desire to get a real experience of local culture, than it was because I was afraid I might get hurt and not be able to tell people "Rufen Sie die Krankenvagen!"


Disability And Moochers

Meep writes something that I think is very revealing about how our society handles disability:

Apparently AT&T assumes that the only people who would want an iPhone would be hearing people. Now AT&T has announced that they're going to offer a data only plan, but if you check the Text Accessibility Plan page, the PDF form explicitly states that you have to have a certifying agent in order to even get the plan. Why should anyone have to prove they are disabled? I suppose this is their way of separating hearing from deaf so that only "deaf" people can have this option.

We tend to think of accommodating disabilities as making special concessions or exceptions to the rules for disabled people. We think that disabilities constitue an extra burden on some people, so we'll give those people a sort of bonus subsidy to make up for it. Thinking that way sensitizes us to worry about moochers -- people who feign or exaggerate disability in order to get the subsidy without suffering the burden that it's supposed to offset. (Elizabeth Anderson wrote a good article some years back taking to task all the liberal political theorists from Rawls onward for using this sort of "equality defended from moochers" framework.) I would suspect it also *generates* wanna-be moochers, by effectively telling people "hey, there's a special bonus here you could be getting."

The alternative to this is to think not about subsidizing disabled people so that they can be on a level playing field with the normals, but rather about rearranging the options so that suitable options are available for everyone, given the diversity of human brains and bodies. There may be limits at which we'd have to fall back on subsidies-plus-mooching-safeguards, but we're far from reaching them. AT&T's iPhone plans, as described by Meep, could be a good example of the second strategy -- offering various appropriately-priced combinations of voice and data, so that people can pick the one that suits their way of being in the world. In this context, a person who can hear but buys the data-only plan would not be getting some sort of illegitimate bonus. But AT&T is so deeply buried in the subsidies perspective that it assumes that it has some sort of nonsensical need to protect the data-only option from hearing moochers.

This is also a reason to be leery of the argument Harry Brighouse mentions at the end of a long post on whether parents should be allowed to deliberately "design" their children, picking and choosing their genetic endowments. He suggests one possible rule would be that design is OK for correcting defects, but not for giving children extra excellences (e.g. you could take a kid who was going to end up 3'8" and make them 5'4", but you couldn't make them, or their naturally 5'4" sibling, 6'3"). This type of scheme would force the government to officially promulgate a blueprint for what constitutes a "normal" body and mind, and labeling variations from that blueprint (at least in one direction) as defects which is is permissible -- or even potentially mandatory -- to correct. If we had a social system that fully accommodated the breadth of human variability, we wouldn't need to either fix so many genetic "defects" (shortness would no longer be a "defect" if we ended height discrimination), nor to worry that people were going to exploit that fixing process in order to get an unfair advantage.


Tim Haab notes that it's becoming increasingly popular to talk about "resilience" as a goal in environmental policy. Resilience refers to the ability of a system to withstand crises. He finds resilience to be a somewhat preposterous proposition, because a resilient system is meant to be able to withstand even unforseeable crises. How, he asks, can we be expected to plan for things we by definition don't know about?

The trick to resilience, and what makes it an important concept, is that we don't need to know the specifics of a crisis in order to know some general things about what will help us deal with it. By looking at what things have been helpful for withstanding past crises (including ones that were major surprises at the time), we can deduce generalized crisis-handling capacities.

For example, one such generalized crisis-handling capacity is resource buffers. A crisis is likely to demand additional resource expenditures to handle, or even to directly attack and reduce the resource base itself -- whereas the reverse is highly unlikely. So if a system limits its resource use to something less than what would be optimal in a crisis-free world, it will, ceteris paribus, be able to weather the crisis better than if it had been straining its resource base to the max.

Democratic information processing is another generalized crisis-handling capacity. It would be easier to handle any crisis -- whatever its nature -- if the system gets an early warning and full information, which we know from past experience is more likely to happen when hierarchies don't restrict the flow and sharing of information.

Diversity -- genetic, cultural, psychological, etc. -- is another useful generalized crisis-handling capacity. An un-diversified system may be optimized for the pre-crisis conditions, but a crisis necessarily changes those conditions. If the system is diverse, there is a greater likelihood that the answer to the crisis is somewhere to be found within the system already

Resilience is always a matter of degree -- no system is perfectly resilient to every possible crisis (though Haab seems to think such a thing is being demanded), and increases in resilience often come with costs (e.g. in the form of foregone profits from leaving a resource buffer). That leaves us with an eminently political question of how much of various types of resilience we want to build into our social system.



I've gotten several hits recently from people searching for "What to do if your wife uses VAWA." So as a public service announcement, I'd like to recommend that your first course of action should be to stop being violent towards her.


A Real Tro(u/o)per

Here's something non-political for a change. A little while ago loree_borealis linked to a copyediting quiz. I got a perfect score -- luckily, since I earn a living as a copyeditor. But one item stuck out as worthy of further comment. The quiz asked you to find the error in the following sentence:

My hard-working nature and get-it-done attitude inspired a former boss to remark several times that I was a real trooper.

The correct answer was that it should be "a real trouper." But I think "trooper" is an "error" only in the sense of "if the person reading your resume is anal about this kind of stuff, they'll throw you on the reject pile for it." But it's quite likely that "trouper" is an error in the sense of "accurately representing the speaker's meaning."

The expression originated as an analogy to a member of an acting troupe, with their "the show must go on" ethos. But the alternate spelling is, I think, being eggcorned into acceptability. When most people who aren't usage mavens hear the expression, they interpret it as a metaphor for a military trooper. And that interpretation makes sense, since members of the military are also known for their perseverence, as they, well, "soldier on" in the face of adversity. And when such a person -- and I include myself in this group -- turns around and uses the expression at a future date, the military analogy rather than the theater one is what's in their mind. So in that sense, when I (and I assume most other people) utter that set of sounds, what I'm really saying is that someone is a "real trooper," not that they're a "real trouper." My expression just happens to sound the same as one that's spelled differently.


USA! USA! USA! ... no, that's not right

Lauredhel has a roundup of reports on the negative mental health implications of Australia's immigrant detention policies. After a few months, detainess manifest progressively more severe symptoms of depression and self-harm. It's pretty sobering stuff.

Even more sobering is the fact that from what I can tell, Australia's detention conditions are objectively better than the US's. The reports Lauredhel links to call for the demolition of the "jail-like" Stage I building at Villawood -- but in the US, all of our detainees are kept in actual working jails in the same conditions as the convicted murderers and drug dealers (except for the ones in Sheriff Joe's tent city in the Arizona desert). One report comments positively on the improvements in internet access for detainees -- but in the US, detainees are lucky if the jail will let them recieve letters in envelopes. And there are concerns about policies on letting detainees have "excursions," for example when a loved one is hospitalized -- but in the US, detainees are lucky if they get to leave their dozen-cell "pod."


Voices from Detention II

I mentioned Part I of this story when it came out. Here's Part II.