Archive for January, 2010

Freaks of nature

So I found some apples today, when due to some long and stupid circumstances I ended up going through the fridge of another tenant in my building who’d skipped out on his lease about a month ago. Needless to say, said fridge had gotten pretty nasty, but there was a bag of apples in which about half of them were still good enough to make pie with. So I started cutting up the apples, and this was the weird part. No seeds! I’ve never seen apples without seeds in them before. I looked at the package. Mixed apples from Washington. No mention of them being seedless (and you’d think that’s the kind of thing they’d advertise as a selling point, right?). Really odd. Three different varieties of apples in the bag and only one apple that had any seeds in it.

Intellectually I know that seedless apples aren’t really any odder than seedless bananas, which have a long and honourable (?) history. So there’s no reason to assume these are weird genetically-modified part-llama deliberately-sterilized freak apples. But there’s nothing in Canadian food labelling requirements that requires anyone to tell me if they are. Which is unsettling.

And, yeah, I know I said a few weeks ago that I was going to pay more attention to where my food comes from; but I’m not being inconsistent here, cause I feel like avoiding the throwing away of perfectly good food trumps most other considerations. I have no idea what the provenance of these apples is (other than “Paul’s fridge”, obviously) but the pie smells good so far, so, hey. If I get some sort of alien bursting out of my chest tomorrow, y’all will know what to blame.

(Oh, and today’s Dinosaur Comics is, as usual, topical and awesome.)

F(l)ail: How the Establishment Protects Itself While the Earth Declines

Today’s special guest post comes from Professor Peter G. Brown of the McGill University School of Environment, co-author of
Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy
and author of two previous books.

* * *


1. DROWNING IN OUR WORRIES. One of the common problems of our news-saturated culture is “idea fatigue”. People are so overloaded by the constant barrage of new things to worry about, that they become narcotized and unable to be roused to action. We get tired of hearing about the environment, about Afghanistan, about the federal government’s latest shenanigans, about the spread of wildfire zones north and south, about countless other issues – precisely because they *are* countless and no-one’s mind can deal with them all at once.

2. APPOINT A COMMISSION. This is another of the ways in which entrenched institutions protect themselves: by encouraging a sense of powerlessness in people who might otherwise feel called upon to change them. The internal reform efforts which are then put forward by these institutions are welcomed despite their toothlessness – because they allow people to put that issue at the bottom of the worry pile, comforted that at least something is being done.

3. NARROW THE MANDATE. The current Angelides “Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission” is very much a case in point. Even leaving aside its actual inquiry process, which remains to be seen, the very questions it is asking fail to do more than scratch the surface of the problem. But, because it’s being trumpeted as a major reform, a lot of people will sit back and think “Well, at least that’s taken care of” and be distracted by the next new thing to worry about.

4. PRESERVE THE FRAMEWORK THAT LEGITIMIZES YOU. The “Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission” principally looks at how to keep capital markets stable, but pays no attention at all to the fact that these very markets are destabilizing the earth’s life support systems on which the well-being of life on Earth depends. With all the talk about the “getting the economy moving again” and the “recovery” they are able to distract everyone from the biggest disaster humankind has ever experienced. Summers and Secretary Geitner have pulled the wool over our eyes.

Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do…

One of the arguments often made by people who don’t understand science very well is that the evidence for climate change is “circumstantial”. Yes, the increase in global temperatures correlates with the increase in human-produced carbon emissions – but that could all be a coincidence! Yes!

My dad told me a story once, about one time when he decided to go over to the courthouse and listen in on the cases being tried that day. (Incidentally, if you’ve never done this, I highly recommend it. Most trials are open to the public, and it can be surprisingly edutaining to watch the justice system in operation.) (Yes, I did just use a very silly word. If we don’t use made-up words every once in a while, the prescriptivists will have won. Whatevs.)

So he went into a courtroom where a trial had just begun, and the prosecutor was in the process of giving instructions to the jury. “Now,” he said, “the defense attorney is going to tell you that the evidence against the suspect here is mostly circumstantial. And he’s going to say it in such a way as to try to make you believe that circumstantial evidence is flimsy evidence, hardly worth considering.”

Which is, indeed, how a lot of people interpret the word.

“I’d like to give you an example of circumstantial evidence,” the prosecutor continued. “Suppose you were to wake up in the morning to see snow on the ground, and in the snow, there’s a set of footprints going from one side of your lawn to the other. You might think this meant that someone had walked across your lawn during the night – but the evidence is only circumstantial! You didn’t actually see anyone there. For all you know, the footprints could be the result of extremely localized earthquakes, or a kangaroo wearing boots, or someone leaning out of a hovering helicopter and poking holes in the snow. But if you were to assume, based on this purely circumstantial evidence, that someone had walked across your lawn – then you would almost certainly be right.”

Yes, there is a possibility, albeit a wildly unlikely one, that global warming is being caused by strange unobserved solar activity of which we have no evidence, or cosmic strings, or it’s sent by God with no scientific cause whatsoever, or it’s all a mass hallucination actually. You could call the scientific evidence circumstantial, and, in the strict definition of the word, you would be right.

You could also call it convincing, and you’d be right about that too.

The word of the day: praxis

I read an article today on “The Religion of Sustainability”, in which the author calls for less theory and more practical work.

Oh for the day when we all cared about the environment and the human race and that was our single mission. When we didn’t spend most of our time in meetings and forums discussing the issues, rather we were out in the field working on the problem. How many trees have died to produce position papers and minutes from meetings only to be filed away?

I don’t think I was around during this purported Golden Age, but I’m sure it was very nice. (Although, parenthetically, this sounds a lot like the complaints I’ve heard from certain groups of feminists decrying the fragmentation of the feminist movement and wanting a return to the good old days when feminists were much more united in purpose, ignoring the fact that that comparative unity [if it existed] was largely due to the systematic exclusion of Black women, trans women, lower-income women, etc. As you gain a diversity of viewpoints, of course you’re going to have different ideas of what should take precedence, and people are going to argue about them. That’s what people do. Likewise the environmental movement, which has grown enormously and brought in people who weren’t talking each other about this stuff until recently [insert “Twitter will save us all” rant as appropriate].)

So I’m not sure I agree with this article, but it got me thinking about the divide between theory and practice.

Here’s the thing. We’re basically theorists here at the Moral Economy Project. Our core group is largely academics; our mission is largely the promulgation of ideas. I’ll admit, this took some getting used to for me. The main thing I’ve had trouble with is that it’s a lot harder to quantify progress, with theory. When you’re doing concrete physical work, there are benchmarks. Planting ten thousand trees. Reducing energy usage by thirty percent. Preventing fifty tons of electronics going into the landfill. That sort of thing.

How do you do that with ideas? Sure, there are things you can count, if you feel so inclined. Number of books sold, number of people who sign up for your mailing list, that sort of thing. But it’s really, really hard to know exactly what effect you’re having on the minds of the people who hear you. Except when they contact you directly, of course, and only a fraction of readers, listeners, etc. will ever do that.

Which I think is part of what leads to perspectives like in the article above: the idea that because physical work is more quantifiable, it’s accomplishing more, and that theorizing is therefore a waste of time, resources, etc. And I think we’ve all known people who seemed to be “all talk” and had the urge to tell them that if they were really serious they’d push off and go plant trees someplace far, far away.

But one of the main things we’re striving for, in our re-envisioning of the world, is balance – a balance between rights and responsibilities, between pessimism and hope – between our obligations to others, to the world, to God, and to ourselves (insofar as those four things can ever be separated in any meaningful way). That sense of balance has to apply to the blend of theory and practice that makes up our movement as well.

I’m not strong on theory – that’s why all of this has undoubtedly been said before, and better. But I can’t help but appreciate its value. In their own way, the seeds of ideological reform grow into beautiful trees too.

New Year News

So here are some interesting things from around the internet on this the first EcoMonday of the new year:

Other Worlds Are Possible: the sixth report from the New Economics Foundation. If you’re looking for something to read that isn’t wholly pessimistic, this is pretty interesting stuff. Note that it’s a PDF download and pretty big.

Law requiring solar energy heaters in new homes – well, I guess if any state was going to do this, Hawaii’s the one to start it.

Chemical regulations that might actually work: the Environmental Defense Fund’s blog discusses the EPA’s new “Chemical Action Plans”.

Peace Teaching: stories from North Kivu, the Congo – by Zawadi Nikuze.

The Obligatory Bicycle-Related Link.

Finally, things to write to your MP about! Here are some private members’ bills you may be interested in.

Establishing a National Ecosystems Council

Prohibiting the Export of Water

Establishing an Oil and Gas Ombudsman

And then there’s The Tartan Day Act – yeah, I don’t know either.