Thursday, May 31, 2012

FRACK YOU: "Get used to it."

Jeff Dick is the Chair of Geological and Environmental Sciences at Youngstown State University, and a proponent of fracking. His past with the oil and gas industry has led him to trust them so much so that he has leased his own land to a company to frack for natural gas. He believes that the environmental regulatory agencies of Ohio are doing a good enough job to keep him safe from the potential ill effects of fracking. In fact, he believes that fracking causes little to no ecological harm or pollution. To those people who oppose fracking in rural Ohio, in what Dick has called his little "patch of paradise", he says, well, "Get used to it."
...[J]ust like in those other states [like Texas] where the culture of the people is very accepting of it, I believe with time, the culture of people here in Ohio is going to shift to where they say this is acceptable. Obviously to a lot of people it won't be acceptable, but probably...a good number of people, and I'd suggest probably...a majority of people, because that's where we're at right now, I believe, are accepting of this industry. You have to keep in mind, and this is very important, that eastern Ohio has been economically depressed for a very long time. And so, this is a big opportunity for new industry to come into this area and provide new jobs and all sorts of economic growth opportunities. And that's quite frankly why the majority of people throughout this region are behind this oil and gas development.
So, let us take sand from Leopold's Sand County in Wisconsin so that those in Ohio and North Dakota and Pennsylvania and New York can shove it, mixed with proprietary chemical blends, deep into the ground so that we can the energy we want today. Let us take so much sand away that sand no longer remains in Sand County. The lure of temporary jobs paying eighteen dollars an hour that result in nearly permanent geologic and ecological degradation can be too much for county boards to resist. And be sure to know that your wastewater treatment facility is doing all that it can to keep your drinking water safe from the chemicals.

You see, it just takes getting used to. Just like people in Delray eventually got used to noxious fumes from an incinerator in their backyard. Just like the people in the Maldives will get used to their country being submerged bit by bit into the ocean because of climate change. It'll be a few years before their country is entirely gone. By that time, they will have gotten used to it, because when it comes down to it, oil and gas is here to stay.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

When specificity is a roadblock

For today, I will just quote a passage that I came across in the remarkable book, Steady -State Economics: The Economics of Biophysical Equilibrium and Moral Growth (1974), by the ecological economist Herman E. Daly. Please let me know what you think.
Why do we insist on ignoring the ethical character of so many major economic decisions? Why this compulsion to substitute mechanical calculation for responsible value judgment? Perhaps it's because our mechanistic paradigm has reduced values and ethics to mere matters of personal taste, about which it is useless to argue. Quality involves difficult judgments and imposes self-definition and responsibility. Quantity involves merely counting and arithmetical operations that give everyone the same answer and impose no responsibility. Thus university deans make promotion decisions by counting words published and number of citations rather than by attempting a qualitative judgment about the true worth of a scholar's work, which is bound to cause some disagreement. Counting is an easy way out--a retreat from the responsibility of thinking and evaluating quality.

An especially important role in the quantitative short-circuiting of responsibility is played by randomness. Randomness is, in fact, an excellent moral scapegoat. Consider that some 50,000 Americans are killed annually by the automobile. Suppose that the specific identities of these people were known in advance. To save 50,000 specific individuals, we might lower speed limits drastically and return to bicycles for local transportation. To save 50,000 unknown, randomly determined individuals, we do nothing. If a soldier kills specific women and children at close range with a rifle we are horrified; if a bomber pilot kills many more women and children, whose numbers are predictable but whose identities are unknown before the fact, we are only vaguely upset...'Thou shalt not kill thy specific identified brother, but mayest murder random persons at will, in order to achieve thy 'progress,' however shallowly defined.' How much economic growth is based on this expanded version of the shorter, less sophisticated commandment?...We cannot throw responsibility for such collective existential decisions on to the moral scapegoat of randomness with its phony numerical calculations.

The way in which these phony calculations work is via "economies of ignorance and scale," as John U. G. Adams ("...And How Much For Your Grandmother?" Environment and Planning, Vol. 6, 1974) has scathingly illustrated. Consider what happens when we apply the concept of Pareto efficiency to the cost-benefit analysis of a project involving the predictable loss of life. Let Vj be te compensatory money payment to individual j to make him indifferent to the proposed project. That is, if j is to be hurt by the project, then Vj is what he must be paid to accept it, and it carries a minus sign.; if j is to be benefited, Vj is what he must be paid to forgo the project, and it carries a plus sign. If the algebraic sum for all individuals is positive, then there is a potential Pareto improvement; that is, the winners could compensate the loser and still be better off.

Suppose now that individual j would be killed as a result of the project. Consistency with the Pareto criterion requires that he be compensated for the loss of life according to his own valuation. Since most people would put a very high or even infinite cash value on the remaining years of lives, the result is that any project involving predictable loss of specific lives would fail the test of Pareto improvement and could not be justified by cost-benefit analysis. This is so even if more lives are saved than lost by the project, since there is no way for those saved to compensate those killed, and any cancelling out by the analyst of lives saved against lives lost violates the Pareto rule of no interpersonal comparisons.

It is obvious that many projects justified by cost-benefit analysis do result in the predictable loss of life. This is true for any projects that increase air or ground traffic, radiation exposure, or air pollution, for example. What allows cost-benefit analysts to "justify" such projects? It is essentially the fact that we never know in advance the identities of the specific people who will be killed. Th result is that we never have to compensate anyone for his certain loss of life but instead we must compensate everyone for the additional risk to which he is exposed as a result of the project (E. J. Mishan, "Evaluation of Life and Limb: A Theoretical Approach," Journal of Political Economy, July/August 1971). If the population is large, the individual risk becomes very small, perhaps below the minimum sensible, so that everyone is indifferent to such a negligible risk and no compensation at all is required, and the project passes with honors.

Note that in theory we have passes from a case requiring infinite compensation to a case requiring zero compensation, simply by throwing away information, that is, by remaining ignorant of the specific identities of the victims. This is odd, to say the least. In practice, of course, we never have the specific identities of victims beforehand, but that fact does not resolve the theoretical anomaly. The population subset most at risk could often be specified but usually is not, so that the risk often appears more diluted than it really is.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Being dismissed

No Impact Man is a documentary about Colin Beavan, who, along with his family, tried to live for a year in New York City with no impact on the environment. The Beavans lived practically trash free, without running electricity, ate food that came from only a 250 mile radius, and traveled around using only human power, among other things. Many people felt that Beavan undertook the project solely for searching for a topic for his next book, that the project was just a self-indulgent, privileged, power trip. Others thought he was sincere in his efforts. Some people changed their opinions over the course of the project.

Regardless of your opinion of Beavan and his efforts, what was undeniably surprising was the amount of media coverage he received. The blogosphere was abuzz. The New York Times, WNYC, media outlets from Japan, Italy, France, and elsewhere interviewed him and covered his efforts. Good Morning America followed his family around for several weeks.

The part of the movie that I found most fascinating was Beavan's relationship with a long time community activist and gardener, Mayer Vishner. In an effort to be more connected with the food he ate, Beavan helped Vishner work the land in a small community garden. Vishner looked exactly like someone who rallied during the sixties and seventies--long hair, bearded, with simple clothes. He and Beavan would sit in the kitchen and talk about how the project was going, but also about the larger issues that were being raised by the project. What must be done about American corporate capitalism? What about the fact that your wife writes for Business Week, which promotes this corporate capitalism? And what should be made of all the media coverage that Beavan was receiving?

Dorothy Day has said, "Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed so easily." Yet, Vishner believed that this was exactly what was happening to Beavan. All of the attention Beavan was receiving seemed to mean that he wasn't a threat to the system. That his advocacy would be viewed as extreme, impractical, unhygienic, and profoundly anti-American. This was apparent when Beavan was being interviewed by Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America. In one scene, she asks people in the audience whether they could ever do something like this. It sounded more like a parent asking their child, "Will you ever put your hand on the stove?", seeming to goad an answer of no. And that's exactly the answer that she got from the audience.

It is clear that Beavan has been able to reach a wide audience with his efforts, which to me seem sincere. In trying to affect larger policy issues, he has chosen to run for US Congress, as a Green Party candidate, to represent central Brooklyn. But what about his efforts to show people what might need changing in their daily lives?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Where neoliberalism ends and community resiliency begins

You've heard the news from Detroit (or even from Cleveland, Hartford or the Bronx for that matter). People living in certain parts of the city continue to be subjugated to toxic living conditions. 48217 is the most polluted zipcode in the state of Michigan. Industrial complexes larger than neighbourhoods provide nothing but suffocating air and brownfield land to the people living in their vicinity.

The government--federal, state, or city--provides no favours to these people. It can seem that all the government cares about is tax breaks to the rich and preserving their elite status. That is why public school teachers are continually laid off, and funds for basic city services such as law enforcement and fire protection are hacked. The New International Trade Crossing, the publicly-owned bridge being proposed between Ontario and Detroit, will provide a handful of temporary construction jobs, and even fewer permanent jobs, while cementing the relationship of this culture on large-scale manufacturing and ecologically degrading industrialism. Money laundering, corrupt politicians, government kickbacks run rampant in the City of Detroit, where until recently, city council members were elected at large, thus holding them accountable to no one other than their colleagues and cronies. At the same time, as Ulrich Beck notes in Risk Society, industrial modernity makes it close to impossible to link long-term human health impacts to the slow violence of pollution. People do suffer, the environment does suffer, at the hands of this culture. Regardless of your position on these issues, people such as those in Delray, and our Earth are being continually oppressed and polluted.

In response to these issues, I have wondered whether it is possible to develop community resiliency, which I conjure as a reliance not on changing who is in office or expending energy on failed politics, but rather on dealing with issues at a more tractable level, a level at which community members can participate directly and are appreciated, while at the same time creating small institutions that directly address complicated problems. Recently, urban gardens in Detroit and other cities across the country have provided wonderful models of how community-based, community-scale projects can foster neighbourliness and provide healthful food opportunities for youthful engagement with the land. Are there other ways in which communities of oppressed people can address the problems they face themselves?

In some sense, such community resiliency may seem like a form of the libertarian and neoliberal agenda...People doing it for themselves. YEAH! Screw government. YEAH! Screw regulation. YEAH! (Followed closely by, Lower taxes. YEAH!) However, I see stark differences between the neoliberalism of industrial, corporate capitalism and the community resiliency I describe above. People that have bought into the neoliberal agenda believe that the government hinders their ability to earn money for themselves. They believe that only if the government got out of the way, they would create long-term employment for people and "economic growth", while changing global standards will in time address the massive ecological issues we face. (I haven't drunk that warped Kool-Aid.) On the other hand, community resiliency, like that fostered in the urban gardening movement, first and foremost recognises that the lines between government and the private sector are blurred, that indeed they rely on each other for stability, that they do not care about you or me, let alone oppressed peoples. A government guided by neoliberal principles is not interested in community development or neighbourliness or the capacity of people to endure changes themselves. Community resiliency is the antidote to such principles. Community resiliency is about what we can build for each other, not for our individual selves. Collective, small-scale action allows us to imagine and live new possibilities without reliance on misguided economic and social philosophies.

Of course politics need to change. Of course we must fight corruption and get politicians at every level of government to care about the people they represent and the environment we live in. But who knows, maybe those oppressed know best about what is oppressing them, making them best people to address the problems head on.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Imagining the possibilities

On our way back from Detroit a few nights ago, Kristin, Ethan, Marwa and I got into a discussion about something that has come up time and again over the past two years: What does it matter whether or not individuals do anything about the problems we face? For, if things don't happen on a larger scale, nothing matters in the end.

I have written about this many, many times before, as have others on this blog, but each time I think about this particular issue, I feel as if I am thinking about it anew. It seems that with each passing day, the power of taking matters into our own, individual hands--not in the sense of doing whatever we want with our world to destroy it, but imagining new possibilities for our own lives--seems more and more complex, yet more and more compelling.

When it comes down to it, the only way in which possibilities of any kind are envisioned is if someone actually does something, if someone brings the possibility into the world. Take, for example, new technologies. Radically new technologies can have the capacity of outmoding older ones, depending on who backs them. We grant all sorts of protections to such "entrepreneurs" and "innovators" who "invent". They get intellectual property rights and patents. They can make money off of their ideas by selling them. They are seen as visionary, and they are seen as essential to creating a utopian world. It doesn't really matter, though, what one does as long as there are social structures and institutions that support what you do. Our social structures, as they stand, cheer and laud such people.

Many people would claim that the lives that we live are based on all that we know. I disagree. There are things we know that fundamentally question everything we do--from driving to work, to eating food that has travelled fifteen hundred miles before arriving on our tables, to being able to buy the latest electronics from China by clicking a mouse in Ann Arbor. So, what about imagining possibilities that are counter to the grain of culture? First of all, most social institutions that exist in this culture are not built to accept their demise. (Take, for example, corporations, which are social institutions and organisations that we think must grow ad infinitum.) But more fundamentally, my sense is that people are fearful of new possibilities because they will make outmoded what they have held on to dearly--we have built our entire lives on assumptions; on "experts" that know what is "best" for the economy, for the environment, for public policy; on stories and myths about industrialism, growth, and efficiency that we have to tell ourselves to make us feel good about what we are doing in our day-to-day lives. Therefore, for someone to come along and question all of these foundations will make most anyone throw up their guards.

The uncertainties of large scale policies on our daily lives make people uncomfortable with accepting them. What would it mean if everyone had to have health insurance? Well, there are a group of people that are scared of such possibilities because they think "government will take control of Medicare", that there will be loss of "freedom" and "liberty". Their opponents may think that these fears are unfounded, but actually, they are real, for they are felt and voiced. And so when it comes down to actually doing something new, in creating a fundamental change, it cannot start from anywhere else but our own lives. Understanding the scale at which new possibilities much be introduced is essential. The scale of individuals, of our daily lives make possibilities more tenable. Talking about possibilities and trying to live them openly allow others to be engaged in shaping these possibilities. For example, when Rowena said that learning primitive skills made her feel more peaceful, it was very easy to accept this, because I could feel and sense her peace. This made learning primitive skills more compelling to me, as I am sure it did to anyone that spent any amount of time around her. It was clear that she wasn't a "hippie" or "crazy". She was just doing something new. She was imagining new possibilities.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A changed relationship with materials

I have spent the better part of this past semester thinking about technology and materiality. We live in a material, dualistic world, one in which we think of ourselves as separate from the world we inhabit, and one in which materials are a source of happiness. We have structured entire cultures and economies on this philosophy, and while it would be wonderful to live in a culture that was non-dual and less materialistic, it is difficult to see inroads into how that culture would be spawned. Such a drastically different culture is necessary, although it may not be possible.

Humans are no longer only homo sapiens sapiens. We are now homo faber--man that makes. We make little toy trinkets for children and we erect mega dams that can block silt and water from following gravity. We build infrastructures, some in space like the GPS system, and some under ground and under water like the oil distribution network in the Gulf of Mexico. We technologise and we valuate materials.

But these technologies and materials are not valuable in and of themselves. Rather, it is how we perceive them, the politics imbued in them, how we are sold on them that lends them their power. These materials and technologies shape our world, our views of the world, and our views of ourselves as human beings. They lend many people a great deal of power, and allow people to affect politics in their interests. For example, no one can disagree that fossil fuels have lent the Western world a great deal of power, many times to the detriment of those people living in the Middle East. It is clear then that our cultural identities are tied to materials. We will go to any length to gain access to these materials. We will wage all sorts of wars, physical and those guised under "diplomacy". A competitive material world is the race to nowhere of megalomaniacs.

A similar picture can be painted for our individual lives. A broad survey of television advertisements and street corners during move out days in a college town seems to say that the value of our lives is proportional to the materiality of them. We are judged by our materials--the more the better it seems. We thus fill our homes and fill our lives with stuff we buy from our weekly trips to the mall. We line up to get the newest cell phone just because our service provider says that we are "eligible" for a new one. We brag about the time we will spend suspended off of the slide of a shear cliff with a new set of modular crampons from Petzl. Materials lend us status and power in small and intricate ways, whether it is bragging rights or whether it is climbing a rock.

It is difficult to separate ourselves from our materials. It seems that everywhere you look, you find someone interacting with some manufactured material. While we did interact physically with the world millenia ago, power and control now form the foundation of material use in our daily lives, and for our governments. And so, I understand that our views of ourselves are shaped by what we have--infrastructures such as roads just cannot be done without now, it seems, for everything from our daily commutes to our food makes use of such an infrastructure. Our cell phones become tied to our capacity to communicate with loved ones.

But I still feel that there is something we are forgetting about ourselves in all of this--that our fate cannot be tied to our ability to constantly change our world materially in the way that it currently does. My contention is that no amount of solar energy or wind energy or new efficient technologies will address ecological problems. They will indeed create their own problems of an even larger magnitude, of that I am certain. Our demands will change from wanting wind energy in the first place to wanting wind energy to provide enough energy so we can drive our Hummers.

Can we imagine a different relationship with the materials of daily life? How might this unfold in our communities and in our governments? Part of it surely comes from changing the framework from thinking about how newer things are more efficient to how newer things out to be more sufficient. But can this be taken a step further to make what we already have sufficient?