Archive for September, 2007

Those environmentalists are such a bunch of Kants!

There is now a web-based “game” called Consumer Consequences where you can set up your very own avatar (kinda fun) and then answer survey-like questions about your lifestyle, e.g. shopping and transportation habits, do you recycle, do you turn off lights (super fun). The kicker is that the game then calculates how many “earths” it would take to sustain a population that consumed resources just like you. My own score was 5.1 earths.

I’m sure that American Public Media, (full disclosure: I start work for them soon) the organization responsible for the game, has gotten lots of email about it, taking the questions to task – for example, the concept of “food miles”. You get a better score if you eat locally grown food, because it takes fewer miles to get to your table. OK, but I’ve heard that while that may be true, locally grown food may “cost” more in energy per calorie because of the inefficiencies of smaller farms compared with evil agri-business, as well as regional differences (Spain is a better place to grow tomatoes than Ontario). People are, I’m sure, angry that the game simplifies so much of the debate on consumption and energy use.

I dunno. That’s not my problem. Whatever other complexities there may be, the game has made me think about turning off lights more. and I like my “trash” score. Go the Minneapolis recycling program!

My problem is with Kant.

There are lots of expressions of the categorical imperative. But the one that I remember from PHIL101 is: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

Basically: if everyone acted like you, then where would we be, hmm? This is the principle behind the Consumer Consequences game – It would take 5.1 earths to support 6.5 billion me’s, but gee, we only got the one, buddy, so think about wha’cher doing, there.

So what! We’re heterogeneous! There aren’t, thank God, 6.5 billion me’s.

If all 6.5 billion people played this game, the average of their score wouldn’t be 5.1, it would be 1.0! This must always be true because there are only 1.0 earths! And no matter how environmentally friendly our behaviour becomes, the average of everyone’s scores will still be 1.0.

And I know what they’re trying to get at – don’t you get it, you fat american, that you cause way more damage to the earth than your average Indonesian? That they suffer the consequences of your consumer choices more acutely that you do? Sure I get that. I just think that we should bring more nuance to the debate than pointing out how slovenly I am in view of the sheer number of planets I’m gobbling up.

Kant’s ethical yardstick just bothers me: no two situations, no two people are the same – when you get down to a person’s specificity, universal laws don’t make too much sense. If you are a 23-year-old american male living in Minneapolis and are a vaguely liberal, crunchy sort of guy and are 6’2 and living happily with your girlfriend of 3 years, and having just eaten pie for breakfast and read the sunday, september 23rd 2007 New York Times except for the business and travel sections, basically, for everyone out there who is me, right now, WRITE A BLOG. How’s that for universal, Kant?

I think that the game’s fine, that it raises awareness, blah blah blah. But we’re not going to guilt people into making good environmental choices. We’ve got to stack the incentives so that people are better off making choices that are good for the environment. Make consumers pay the true cost of the goods they buy, and their priorities will change.


Up next: Gus and the Ideologies!

This weekend, I worked the information tent at a music festival. The festival ran for 20 hours over three days, and I spent the whole time manning a tent, which by necessity had to be as far from the festivities as possible: the information tent was also the paramedic tent.

Which meant that my job this weekend, though nominally information-giver, was actually co-vice-chief small talker. Yesterday, for 10 straight hours, Gus and I got to know each other very well.

Gus is a retired fire-fighter, a retired mechanic, a retired metal worker, and an ex-marine. When he heard that I was hoping to work in radio, he said “oh! like Sean Hannity!” (on a side note: is it ethical to hyperlink quoted text? does that depend on where the hyperlink points?)

I should have known better, and I guess it came up because he’s a paramedic, but we started talking about health care. Gus was mad because a) the insurance companies can charge whatever they want, and so can the doctors b) the liberal communist socialists wanted him and 300 million of his buddies to pay for their heart transplants and c) what the hell’s all the fuss about, we already have universal health care, I mean, anyone can go to the emergency room!

My responses were all about the efficiency of pooling risk among the greatest number of people, that while price is the most effective tool for distributing limited resources, giving health care to people who can’t pay for it is a value of mine, and lastly, that I didn’t want it to cost nothing each time you used a medical service – some marginal cost should be incurred on the part of the consumer, so that frivolous uses of the health care system could be reduced.

Gus said yeah! When I was still with the department, we would sometimes go and try and help these poor little old ladies, who would be bawling their eyes out because we were going to take them to the hospital. She says she’s still paying off the last ambulance ride – and what could we do, we had to take her, that’s our job. I said to her, don’t worry about paying for the ambulance – they’ll try and collect for a few months. you just ignore those bills. eventually, they’ll think its uncollectable and drop it. I didn’t feel no qualms about telling her that, because we only have to charge for the ambulance to stop some of the minorities – not ’cause I’m racist, just ’cause that’s why they had to – stop some of the minorities from using the ambulance to get to the hospital for a routine checkup! That just about broke my heart.

I wanted to ask him, so, are you a socialist or a racist?

Doctor Seuss may get his way

My sister alerted me to this.

I’d say that the National Taiwan University’s Department of Animal Science and Technology owes Doc. S. something in the way of royalties, kickbacks, uh, you know, like some GREEN!

(and may I suggest checking out the byline)

Drew Dir’s Graduation Speech

No disrespect – no, disrespect – to Danielle Allen, but Drew Dir’s speech to the University of Chicago Class of 2007 at their (my) commencement was the only thing worth hearing that day, excepting, of course, my name and like maybe 10-20 of my best friends’.

I was pissed, because I couldn’t find any video of this online, or even a list of the speakers at graduation. I had to call my friend’s parents who kept a copy of the booklet (and still know where it is, unlike my parents) for Drew’s name, then I had to facebook him and plead for a copy. See what I go through for my readers?

So consider these sources cited. Drew, I bet people made all kinds of c-colon-backslash jokes about your name, but this was a pretty cool speech. I’ve updated it, and now it’s web 2.0!

“Life. . . naturally pulls us down toward death.” . . . Welcome to your graduation. As a product of a U of C education, I feel compelled to cite my sources, and so I’ll tell you that what I just said was a quotation from Anne Bogart, a renowned American theater director, who was paraphrasing writer Italo Calvino from one of six lectures he wrote but never finished. He didn’t finish them. . . because he died. Now Anne Bogart is not a U of C student and moreover, she’s an artist, so she isn’t required to cite anyone—for example, she fails to cite Rudolf Clausius. Who is Rudolf Clausius? He’s the German physicist who stated the second law of Thermodynamics. But it’s not like his idea was original—he was only revising Sadi Carnot‘s theories, which were addressing advances made by James Watt, who was standing on the shoulders of Thomas Newcomen, who synthesized Thomas Savery and Denis Papin, and so forth, and so forth. Five hundred years of neglected citation, but I will not perpetuate such irresponsible scholarship—all of my information was taken from Wikipedia.

For example, Wikipedia tells me about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that since the Big Bang, entropy has been rising—which means that the energy of the universe has been dissipating and will continue to do so until it arrives at equilibrium, fatal and final. That event is otherwise known as the Great Heat-Death of the Universe. Now this will happen billions of years from now but you’re graduating today, and entering a world, as Anne Bogart conceives it, of dissipating human energy. For the rest of your life, you will get tired. You will shy away from risk. You will cathect to comfort. You will watch lots of television. It’s a gentle process, and it’s completely unstoppable. We will lose energy. The universe will end. We can’t stop the Great Heat-Death of the Universe.

But by God, we are University of Chicago students. And we can fight.

How do you pick a fight with the Second Law of Thermodynamics? Anne Bogart, artist and abstainer from Chicago-style citation, argues that the act of creation is inherently an act of resistance against our own death. To fight entropy, I might add, is to have the audacity to act against the universe’s inclination to settle and our own impulse to simply live a comfortable life. This of course puts me in the mind of Plato’s allegory of the cave. The cave, we forget, is a really cozy place to be. It’s warm, there’s a big long couch—there’s even a sweet television and all your friends are there watching it. But the cave is part of a universe that yearns for stagnation, and so here at the U of C we leave it. It’s uncomfortable and even painful but it takes a damn good shot at entropy. If we’ve learned one lesson from Plato, it’s that discomfort is often a sure sign of something worthwhile. We take up discomfort, we take up the fight because to fight entropy is to transcend our own fate and the single most important thing we can do as human beings is to confront the Great Heat-Death of the Universe and to defy it. For four years, you’ve been doing just that—talking, writing, collaborating, creating—fighting entropy 10 weeks at a time. Today you decide—do you go back to the cave? Or do you stay outside and fight?

Life naturally pulls us down toward death, but today you graduate; and today, entropy meets the University of Chicago. This is your graduation. This is your fight.

Tax-Deductible Tits

I read in Elle, I think, that this site actually exists.