Author Archives: almes1013

Response to Social Ecology B

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Bookchin’s comprehensive approach to environmental problems echoes the weak anthropocentrism ethic proposed by John Huckle in his essay “Sustainable Development.”  It is only appropriate to approach an interdisciplinary and comprehensive problem like environmental exploitation with integrated solutions that incorporate dimensions of society, economics, and science.  Many approaches to environmental exploitation and subsequent consequences of it only treat symptoms of the problem rather than addressing the root cause.  For example, soil toxicity problems are treated by removing top layers of soil and disposing of them at a landfill as hazardous waste.  Clearly, this approach to remedying soil quality does not prevent further soil pollution or address any issues of quality control regulation or environmental injustice likely associated with this problem.  If Bookchin’s social ecology was applied in a soil toxicity case study, it would serve as a preventative measure against pollution in the first place.  Additionally, such an approach would naturally and elegantly integrate the precautionary principle. 

I feel that a comprehensive approach to environmental issues comparable to social ecology or weak anthropocentrism would so successfully focus on treating exploitative activity that arguments from climate change deniers would hold no water.  That is, if the exploitation of environmental resources can be addressed (which can be agreed upon by a reasonable majority as a phenomena that occurs and does not require elaborate model-based scientific data to prove), activities that contribute to climate change would be reduced by default.

A drawback to implementing social ecology is the breadth and scope of changes in contemporary social values, policy, and regulatory enforcement that would have to take place.  Such a social paradigm shift would occur in no less than a decade.  While this may seem grim, the 1973 Oil Embargo catalyzed an environmentally conscious movement in the United States that spurred alternative energy research, increased the enforcement and strength of environmental legislation, and made environmental conservation a hot button voting issue. 

John Huckle states, “We should balance our rights to self-determination and development, with responsibilities towards the rest of the human and biotic community” (emphasis mine).  I disagree that this statement should merely be a prescription of human behavior, but must become a description of contemporary behavior within the next decade if we are to avoid positive feedback loops that would send climate/ecological cycles into a tailspin. 

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Response to Prompt 3: Animal Rights and Speciesism

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Throughout the lecture on animal rights and speciesism, I felt a question was absent from the discussion: why are non-humans are tested on in the first place?  The answer to this question cannot be answered solely with ethical concerns: for example, testing eye irritants is preferable on rabbits because their eyes do not generate tears to expulse irritants, unlike human eyes (which, not to mention, have different tolerance thresholds for generating tears).  This question spawns additional concerns, however, as there are obvious issues with applying the results from experimentation on non-humans to humans. 

 While I agree with Peter Singer’s premise that non-humans should not be subject to unnecessary harm, I do not agree that by the same token, non-humans (or humans, for that matter) have a right to experience pleasure.  All organisms, upon inception as independent beings from their host (egg, mother, etc.), have only the right to attempt to survive in an attempt to pass on their genetic legacy and maximize it. 
In The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, defines life as a condition where an organism is aggressively trying to resist succumbing to the conditions of its environment.  (For example, my body’s internal temperature is 98.6F.  The outdoor temperature is currently 52F.  If my body’s temperature becomes 52F, the biochemical processes in my body will be unable to sustain the conditions that qualify me to be considered “alive.”)   The process of being alive, that is, an internal system resisting the conditions of an external environment, are innately hostile and are incompatible with the right to experience pleasure.    

 To continue on Peter Singer’s statement, diagnosing what qualifies as a “trivial human interest” is a nebulous task.  While dismissing the importance of testing the potential of mascara as an eye irritant seems valid, one has to agree that such an argument dismisses the importance of aesthetics (which may or may not be problematic depending on who you’re discussing this with).  A more nuanced argument would involve the possibility of using Rhesus monkeys as test subjects for remedies for a rare disease that affects a small percentage of the population.  Would the rarity of that disease qualify the research as “trivial”?  Is animal testing for, say breast cancer cures, less trivial/more significant?  Additionally, an argument can be made that any biomedical research is trivial because there are seven billion humans on the face of the Earth.  In a nutshell, I find that the idea of describing certain research as “trivial” or “non-trivial” as too subjective.

 I find Carl Cohen’s interpretation of non-humans as non-moral agents to be problematic for a variety of reasons:  One is that biological research has found evidence of non-humans displaying behavior that is consistent with “morality.”  Another is that such a view is dangerous to developing empathy. 
For personal reasons, I find inter-species empathy to be a reflection of the greatness of human consciousness, reason, and capacity for rich social interactions which can only serve to elevate the capacity of humans as stewards for each other and, by extension, all life.  Perhaps that idea is along the same lines of the logic used by Polyface Farms to justify their business ethics. 

(For what it’s worth, I hold Peter Singer in high esteem – his Wikipedia article is worth checking out.  He donates a quarter of his income for third world causes.  Sounds like a great guy to have a drink with.)

      

Response to prompt 3: Connecting

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“Pseudoscience is easier to contrive than science … Naturally people try various belief systems on for size, to see if they help.  And if we’re desperate enough, we become all too willing to abandon what may be perceived as the heavy burden of skepticism.  Pseudoscience speaks to powerful emotional needs that science often leaves unfulfilled.  … In some of its manifestations, it offers satisfaction of spiritual hungers, cures for disease, promises that death is not the end.  It reassures us of our cosmic centrality and importance.  It vouchsafes that we are hooked up with, tied to, the Universe.

–          Astrophysicist Carl Sagan,  “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark”

The rationale of mysticism behind the idea that humans have access to a deep connection to the Earth through experiences within or exposure to natural spaces is similar to the rationale behind pseudoscience (Wikipedia is offers great simple explanations).  As Sagan states in the quote above, pseudoscience speaks to unfulfilled emotional needs in humans (needs which arise from “cut-and-dry” objectivistic models of thought).  Furthermore, humans rely on such rationale to reassure us of our cosmic place and value.  In the context of a human connection to the Earth, I feel that humans have an unfulfilled need to be included in the ecological community and express that through mysticism, which resorts to romanticizing the Earth as an entity that one has an innate purpose in or sense of belonging to (“For creatures as small as we the vastness is bearable only through love.” – Sagan).

While mysticism can take the form of religious doctrine, the two are not necessarily mutually inclusive.  In my experience, I have often found that mysticism is offered as an explanation for powerful experiences that are instead attributable to the depth and breadth of the human condition.  Such experiences are not mystical in nature (that is, they can be quantified through biochemistry and/or neuroscience and transcend culture and time).*

Because science education offers a valid and sound premise from which to understand natural resources, it provides an avenue to increase one’s appreciation and wonder for our environment and the universe from which it originates.  I like the idea of moving away from a merely geocentric model of thought as inspiration for wonder and awe.

* I would like to highlight that notions of mysticism are wholly unnecessary to provide spiritual fulfillment from natural spaces.  Spiritual fulfillment, a term which is friendly to secular and theistic worldviews, is offered through the aesthetic and recreational value of the environment.  Camus said, “In magnificentia naturae, resurgit spiritus.”  (Off-the-cuff Latin translation: The spirit resurges in the magnificence of nature.  Quoted from Camus’ essay “Death in the Soul”)

(As an aside from my strictly secular criticism, the idea of a connection with Earth as emotionally fulfilling seems uncreative.  If one aims for comprehensive emotional or spiritual fulfillment through that concept, one should argue for a connectedness with the cosmos – not just Earth.  I will resist quoting Sagan on “starstuff.”)

Week 5, Response to Prompt Prompt 4: Climate Deniers and the Case Against Environmentalism

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Climate change dialogue is overwhelmingly present in the non-scientific community as part of popular culture, often in the form of controversy and/or a partisan political issue.  In contrast, the scientific community has largely come to a consensus on climate change (see question 1 in link) and actively investigates the phenomenon with interdisciplinary support.  With the release of the 2013 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report on September 27th, climate change dialogue has once again been revitalized in the public and scientific spheres.

The report contains conclusive statements that support anthropogenically accelerated climate change, such as, “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. … Human influence on the climate system is clear.”

In response to the prompt’s citation of climate change denial as present in American politics and popular culture, such dialogue is not solely dominated by non-scientists.  Dr. Richard Lindzen, an atmospheric physicist and professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has openly criticized the IPCC report for, “hilarious incoherence,” about anthropogenic changes to global temperatures.  He cites limitations of modeling and research that fails to prove significant global temperature rise in the last 17 years.
A variety of perspectives on climate change, including skepticism, are essential for science to continue aggressively vetting itself as it investigates and makes conclusions about climate change, an issue whose origins and catalysts are inherently nuanced.

The idea that environmental regulation is at odds with job creation and economic growth holds little water as a legitimate concern.  The Clean Air Act, one of the most successful pieces of environmental legislation, is known for its environmental and economic benefits that are a direct result of unpolluted air.   Similarly successful legislation includes The Clean Water Act, carbon tax credits, and cap and trade (emissions trading).  In response to criticism of the EPA’s newest standards to cut emissions from power plants, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy remarked, “We have proven time after time that setting fair Clean Air Act standards to protect public health does not cause the sky to fall.”  This demonstrates that there is no need for a dichotomy between the interests of environment and industry; environment and industry are mutually inclusive entities which share the benefits of sustainability efforts.

Discussing the cause of extreme partisanship on environmental legislation involves a conversation that is inclusive of scientific illiteracy, corporate interests, corporate personhood (Citizens United), increasingly polarized party platforms, the flaccid U.S. Green Party (it does not even have a representative), the innately exploitative nature of low-regulation capitalism (in the context of natural resources), and the caustic political climate that has been present since this administration was set to take office.  However, I find that the conservative attitude on the environment can best be summarized by Regan’s response to public forest conservation efforts in the 60’s: “If you’ve seen one Redwood, you’ve seen them all.”

A relevant article that might be of interest to some: Republicans Block Science Laureate Vote Over Climate Change Stance Fear

Response to Prompt 2, Week 2: Environmental Democracy

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This prompt implies that President Obama is responsible for environmental policies, however, it would be more appropriate to name the Senate Committee of Environment and Public Works and/or the Department of Energy/Interior/Agriculture as agencies responsible for environmental policies.    
In response to the prompt (reformist vs. radical approach to environmental policy), I’m fond of Dryzek’s interest in enhancing ecological values in liberal democracies by shifting the content of politics from anthropocentric values to biocentric values.  A reformist approach is most conducive to such a shift.  However, this is made difficult by what the reading named as institution capture, where special interests influence the goals and/or resources to achieve such goals of liberal democratic institutions.  

For example, the Environmental Protection Agency is swamped with responsibilities but lacks the funding to perform them.  While the EPA may have goals that favor advancing the environmental agenda (ie: enforcing the Clean Air and Water Act), its funding is targeted by special interests.   

Ultimately, the author of “Seeking Homo ecologicus” coalesced the views of the social scientists he quoted into “deliberative democracy,” an approach to democracy that, in an environmental context, values shifting the focus from “green goals to green processes,” in the words of Torgerson.  Modeling our liberal democracy as a deliberative democracy would successfully promote federal and state level changes in favor of sustainability, resource conservation, and investments in natural science research.  

Here’s a nice example of ideal reform in action: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-o_8aQx4r8 a clip from “And the Band Played On”, a movie about the spread of HIV in the 70’s – 80’s.  In this scene, an epidemiologist lashes out in a hearing with the Centers for Disease Control, which was dragging its feet instead of responding to the epidemic.