Climate Policy Lectures 1-3
October 4, 2009

It's all gone but the mountains.

It's all gone but the mountains.

Three weeks ago, I started attending a weekly lecture series on climate policy. Since all of the speakers have been very informative, and because I form strong opinions easily, I have a lot to say about each of the talks so far. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me until today that I can and should record my thoughts about these talks here, on my blog. So now I’ll attempt to recap the first three lectures in this post, and then add new posts every week on the subsequent lectures. I think for now I’ll leave the names of the speakers out of the posts for the sake of Google anonymity, but I haven’t really thought about it too much and might be willing to reconsider.

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More NPR Listening
September 30, 2009

Here are two more NPR shows worth a listen.

The first is last week’s episode of the Diane Rehm Show on natural gas. It starts off with twenty minutes of interviews with a natural gas executive and two sympathetic experts, congratulating each other on the amazing progress and future prospects of natural gas as a fuel source. Then they start taking calls from the listeners, and spend the rest of the show desperately trying to play down the barrage of angry callers recounting how natural gas drillers have devastated their homes and poisoned their water. It’s worth noting that the whole hour was sponsored by the natural gas industry. Whoops.

Second is yesterday’s episode of Fresh Air, featuring an interview with Taylor Branch about his new book, “The Clinton Tapes”. Branch and Clinton secretly recorded interviews throughout the Clinton presidency in an effort to produce an oral history for posterity. Amazingly, these tapes remained secret, even throughout all the subpoenas and investigations Clinton faced. Most of the interview is a summary of the history Clinton administration, but it’s told almost in first-person present, since Branch is drawing off contemporary secret interviews of the main character in this history. Pretty fascinating.

The Irony of Sustainability
May 13, 2009

In lieu of a full blog post, please allow me simply to connect two dots. First, read this long passage from the preface to Neibuhr’s The Irony of American History, which was published in 1952 and primarily refers to the America’s ethical position in the Cold War:

We frequently speak of “tragic” aspects of contemporary history; and also call attention to a “pathetic” element in our present historical situation. My effort to distinguish “ironic” elements in our history from tragic and pathetic ones, does not imply the denial of tragic and pathetic aspects in our contemporary experience. It does rest upon the conviction that the ironic elements are more revealing. The three elements might be distinguished as follows: (a) Pathos is that element in an historic situation which elicits pity, but neither deserves admiration nor warrants contrition. Pathos arises from fortuitous cross-purposes and confusions in life for which no reason can be given, or guilt ascribed. Suffering caused by purely natural evil is the clearest instance of the purely pathetic. (b) The tragic element in a human situation is constituted of conscious choices of evil for the sake of good. If men or nations do evil in a good cause; if they cover themselves with guilt in order to fulfill some high responsibility; or if they sacrifice some high value for the sake of a higher or equal one they make a tragic choice. Thus the necessity of using the threat of atomic destruction as an instrument of the preservation of peace is a tragic element in our contemporary situation. Tragedy elicits admiration as well as pity because it combines nobility with guilt. (c) Irony consists of apparently fortuitous incongruities in life which are discovered, upon closer examination, to be not merely fortuitous. Incongruity as such is merely comic. It elicits laughter. This element of comedy is never completely eliminated from irony. But irony is something more than comedy. A comic situation is proved to be an ironic one if a hidden relation is discovered in the incongruity. If virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue; if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed upon it; if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its own limits — in all such cases the situation is ironic. The ironic situation is distinguished from the pathetic one by the fact that the person involved in it bears some responsibility for it. It is differentiated from tragedy by the fact that the responsibility is related to an unconscious weakness rather than to a conscious resolution. While a pathetic or tragic situation is not dissolved when a person becomes conscious of his [or her] involvement in it, an ironic situation must dissolve if men or nations are made aware of their complicity in it. Such awareness involves some realization of the the hidden vanity or pretension by which comedy is turned into irony. This realization must either lead to an abatement of the pretension, which is contrition; or it leads to a desperate accentuation of the vanities to the point where irony turns into pure evil.

Bearing in mind this distinction between pathos, tragedy, and irony (which includes a wonderful definition of irony for students in English class – eat your heart out, Alanis!), now read this essay by Chris Clugston on the sustainability crisis America faces. Once one is aware that our society is unsustainable, if you agree with Niebuhur there are only a few choices. One can decide that the virtue of economic growth is more important than the virtue of sustainability, embracing the “tragic” path. One can feel contrition and try to change things. Or one can continue as before, desperately accentuating the vanities of overconsumption.

A Brief Dialogue on Neighborhood Design
May 3, 2009

streetcomparison5

URBANITE: Check out this image, which was published by the Congress for the New Urbanism last year and publicized by Matthew Yglesias last month.

SUBURBANITE: Why do you keep showing me these things? Stop being so sanctimonious about your urban lifestyle!

URBANITE: But don’t you see? This image perfectly explains why my glamorous urban lifestyle is so superior to your wasteful suburban existence. The layout of the major roads and civic buildings is identical in these two neighborhoods; the only difference is in the road network design. In my urban paradise, it’s easy for my kids to walk to school from the purple house, which reduces car usage (good for the environment!), promotes exercise (good for public health!) and fosters a sense of neighborhood and community (good for socialization and instilling values!). In your suburban neighborhood, a family living in the purple house would have to drive to get there, or really to get anywhere, because of the labyrinthine roads.

SUBURBANITE: Yes, I see that. But look how large a yard is available to the purple house in my neighborhood. You have to give that up to live in a high-density urban environment. Yards are highly desirable to me; they provide a safe environment in which me, my children, and my pets can all play.

URBANITE: That’s true, each house does have a much smaller yard in my city. For one thing, that’s good for conserving water and energy. But also, some of those green rectangles in the image represent public parks, where you, your children, and your pets can still play with each other, as well as with your neighbors and their pets! How lovely!

SUBURBANITE: How dangerous! Parks are for homeless people and child abductors – I want nothing to do with them! In fact, even if I lived in your urban neighborhood, I wouldn’t want my kids walking around unsupervised. There’s too much crime in cities!

URBANITE: So your overblown fears about crime are keeping you from moving downtown where you’d be living a lifestyle that is healthier, more sustainable, and more satisfying?

SUBURBANITE: They’re not overblown! Per capita, cities have 50% more violent crime than suburbs! And I also happen to like driving and having a big yard. You know, many people actually prefer the suburban lifestyle to the urban lifestyle, regardless of crime.

URBANITE: And of course plenty prefer the urban lifestyle. But even if suburbia did appeal to me –- and it doesn’t — there are plenty of things I enjoy but abstain from for ethical reasons, like using plastic bags. Your selfish and overindulgent suburban lifestyle is destroying America!!

SUBURBANITE: See, this is what I meant about your sanctimony. Good day.

Civil Disobedience
January 18, 2009

I saw this story about a month ago, but I still think it’s cool and worth a comment. The story is about Tim Dechristopher, a 27-year old college student in Utah who performed a pretty awesome act of civil disobedience. This six-minute Rachel Maddow video provides a good summary of the case (I’m still figuring out how to embed videos in WordPress, sorry). I see the issue of environmental sustainability as an analogue to slavery in 19th century America, so I’m in pretty strong support of this kind of civil disobedience.