Real value

October 25, 2016

We take time out today to consider free speech on campus.

Then, our next hopeful turn with Tim Flannery is to a post-peak future of declining oil dependency. We don’t have to wait for it to run out, to turn down the spigots. Building retrofits, hybridization and electrification, housing densification, new rail, light rail, are bicycle-friendly infrastructure will all contribute to dialing down demand.

Natural gas, long touted as the indispensable transitional bridge to a renewable future, is looking increasingly less attractive as better alternatives come on line faster than predicted. “Solar is anticipated by some to be globally competitive with coal by 2020.” And wind turbines, far from blotting the landscape, look to a lot of us like the surest sign of progress. But of course we all “see what we want to see” as long as we can, so we can expect continuing wind (and solar) resistance.

The big point is, “market-driven increases in global supplies of unconventional natural gas do not discernibly reduce the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions or future climate change.” Gas is a bridge too far. We can’t trust it to get us where we’re going. We’re on our way to blasting through our carbon budget and bursting the bubble by 2028. The short-term skimming of profits in a parasitic and dying industry, “a  geriatric with hardened arteries,” is criminally short-sighted and (by the terms of the analogy) ethically maleficent. “If it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage.” We may have to sue for malpractice.

In practice that means: divest from the old and invest in the new. Leave coal, oil, and gas in the ground, support high-sustainability companies and practices, buy (green) bonds, and recognize real value. Sun and wind are priceless. It’s not too late to stop squandering and start appreciating our most vital life-giving resources.
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Utility and revolution

October 24, 2016

It’s Bentham, Mill, and Marx in CoPhi today, three thinkers divided by their shared commitment to change the world and not simply understand it. “Simply”? Is the world ever simple enough to understand from a singular point of view? Of course not.

It should by now be clear to us all that our survey of philosophy’s history is not a quest for the holy grail of exclusive ideological purity, it’s an expanding conversation. None of these philosophers is going to be voted off our island of “Co,” which in the parlance of Stone contributor Robert Moor is an increasingly-interdependent network, a mutual dependence society, an Exarky. In his terms we could think of our study of western philosophy as akin to a through-hike on the Appalachian Trail. Nice twist on our peripatetic theme.

We all know what an endarkist looks like. America has practically mythologized the type. Most of our best-known nature writers were vocal proponents of endarky: John Muir tramping off with a crust of bread tied to his belt, Thoreau hammering together a cabin beside Walden Pond, Edward Abbey advising his readers to “brew your own beer; kick in your TV; kill your own beef.”

In the past, we may have called these people “rugged individualists.” They tend to internalize information and skills. They grow their own food, build their own furniture, distill their own whiskey. Truly endarkic people crave solitude and, perhaps less consciously, cataclysm, if only for the opportunity to prove their self-reliance.

The exarkic person, on the other hand, is utopian, the type who believes in improving systems, not rejecting them; who does not shy from asking for directions; who would rather rent or share or borrow a home than own one; who has no qualms uploading his digital memories to something called the Cloud; who welcomes the notion of self-driving cars. Exarks prefer a well-trained police force to a well-oiled firearm. They walk, nimbly, with a kind of holy faith, atop wires others have installed.

If Emerson, Thoreau, Muir, and Abbey were endarkists, Bentham, Mill, and Marx are exarks.
Marx said he was not a Marxist, much as Darwin was not a (Social) Darwinist. The best thinkers, though they may inspire others to embrace rigid ideology, do not submit to it. They start a conversation and would love nothing more than to continue it, like old Socrates in heaven. They start out on the trail, and secretly hope the trail doesn’t end. They want to understand the world in order to change it, but they resist the idea of oxymoronic permanent change.
Some questions for today: Is there more than pleasure and pain to utility, and more than utility to personal happiness and social flourishing? Is quality an issue or is “pushpin” – let’s just say football – really as good as poetry, from the standpoint of utility? Are philosophy and the good life for everyone? Is utilitarianism a coach potato philosophy? Is it softheaded and softhearted to seek the greatest happiness of the greatest number? Does “ought” imply “can”? Do our desires, for example the desire for food, come before or after “the calculation of pleasures and pains”? Do all desires deserve presumptive consideration, to be discounted only when shown to conflict with the greater good? Why does Russell say that questions concerning competition, property, and state ownership of land and capital are not “matters for philosophy”? What did Thoreau mean about “killing time” and “injuring eternity”? 
5:50/7:04, 54/77/47, 5:58

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Beyond the climate event horizon

October 20, 2016

The last disheartening presidential election debate of this interminable campaign is finally behind us – celebrate! Such a “nasty” forum, anathema to serious discussion.

Last night the climate got two whole seconds of attention. No hint that we face what Tim Flannery calls a climate event horizon, an atmospheric black hole, a “one-way trip into the unknown… abrupt, catastrophic and irreversible.” It could be triggered by any of several known unknowns, like a collapsing Gulf Stream, rainforest destruction, or large-scale methane release. Or, who knows? Our best climate models are unclear. As our guest the facilities manager said on Tuesday, that his office must be prepared for the most extreme days of maximum peak energy demand, so we must prepare for the worst imaginable scenario awaiting us just beyond the horizon.

What’s the best way to prepare for all those possible unknown triggers? Divestment. “Taking your money away from companies involved in extracting fossil fuels.” We still don’t know, at our school, how much of our money is still involved in extractcion. Our new governing board will soon be constituted. We need to make sure they know we want to know that. We need to be clear: keep it in the ground.

We do know some things. We know that politicians and lobbyists will do all they can to reinforce the knowledge deficit that forestalls sustained attention to climate science and commitment to climate action. We know that “climate skeptics hold greatest sway in the nations with the greatest investments in fossil fuels.” We know that science denialism and techno-fantasy are nothing new. Did you know that in the 1950s “American oil men wanted to use nuclear weapons to mine Alberta’s tar sands”?! Or that Rachel Carson was savaged by the chemical industry when she published Silent Spring?

We know that coal is still a huge factor in our overall electrical generation profile, on our campus and in our country, but that it’s begun a precipitous decline (a quarter by 2020).

We know that our worst politicians, like Australia’s, will always engage in “unconstructive behavior in international forums.”

And, the good news: we know that “consumers are more powerful than ever, and social media allows them to organize efficiently to express their displeasure” with polluters and deniers and liars.

So what’s stopping us?
On this date in 1892, Chicago threw a parade to dedicate the World’s Columbian Exposition. The Columbian Exposition was a world’s fair commemorating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas… Gottlieb Daimler displayed a boat and an automobile powered by combustion engines: an exhibit that would inspire Henry Ford to come up with his own “Quadricycle,” his first car, which he successfully tested three years later.

Happy birthday John Dewey, who “said there was so much knowledge at universities because the freshmen brought everything they knew to college with them, and the seniors never took anything away.” WA

6 am/7:00, 72/78/49, 6:02

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Schopenhauer & Nietzsche

October 19, 2016
It’s Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in CoPhi, a sad and notorious pair of Teutonic misanthropes who wrote well and retain an enduring appeal among artsy elitists, alienated romantics, and those who feel shut out, underappreciated, and misunderstood – hence their particular attraction among a certain class of disaffected, anxious adolescent. Picture Dwayne in Little Miss Sunshine

James deplored “Poor Nietzsche’s antipathy,” and indeed Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were both full of contempt for much that most of us treasure. Bertrand Russell says Nietzsche’s repudiation of love is his least admirable aversion. The same may also be said of Schopenhauer, though he does seem to have loved his puppies. As for humans,

“There is only one inborn error, and that is the notion that we exist in order to be happy… So long as we persist in this inborn error… the world seems to us full of contradictions. For at every step, in great things and small, we are bound to experience that the world and life are certainly not arranged for the purpose of being content. That’s why the faces of almost all elderly people are etched with such disappointment.”

And yet, both had their moments of insight. Both can still inspire. Alain de Botton is Schopenhauer’s biggest fan, urging his kind of pessimism as a good fit for our times (vid) and finding deep consolation in bleak, terse aphorisms like To marry means to do everything possible to become an object of disgust to each other… Every life history is the history of suffering… Life has no intrinsic worth, but is kept in motion merely by want and illusion.

After spending a lot of time trying, yet failing to be famous, and trying, yet failing to have a good relationships, towards the end of his life, Schopenhauer eventually found an audience who adored his writings. He lived quietly in an apartment in Frankfurt with his dog, a white poodle whom he called Atman after the world soul of the Buddhists – but whom the neighbouring children called Mrs Schopenhauer.

 Maria Popova looks to Nietzsche for guidance in “how to find yourself and the true value of education,” and the recognition that “embracing difficulty is essential for a fulfilling life.”

“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life. There may be countless trails and bridges and demigods who would gladly carry you across; but only at the price of pawning and forgoing yourself. There is one path in the world that none can walk but you. Where does it lead? Don’t ask, walk!”

He’s right, we must each walk our path. But his pessimistic predecessor at least understood the wisdom of Schulz: if you cultivate your canine relationships you’ll never have to walk alone.

But they both lacked the wisdom of the Bard: This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long…

It’s the birthday of motion picture pioneer Auguste Lumière (1862)… he wasn’t much interested in pursuing further developments in motion picture technology, being more interested in medical research. He reportedly said, “My invention can be exploited … as a scientific curiosity, but apart from that it has no commercial value whatsoever.” WA

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Acid & extinction

October 18, 2016
Ocean acidification and animal extinction are Tim Flannery’s next subjects, neither presently offering much promise for the atmosphere of hope he’s seeking.  

Two hundred years ago the pH of the ocean surface was a tenth of a percent higher than today, meaning the oceans are 30% more acid, What does that mean for complex and delicate marine ecosystems? Nothing good. “The current rate of CO2 increase is the fastest in Earth’s recorded history,” so the oceans aren’t getting time to assimilate the change and absorb the acid.

It’s ironic, or even perverse, that we first began to learn about this problem while exploring the possibility of colonizing Mars. Does it make sense to dream of creating a new human habitat in an alien world before we’ve learned to manage our impact on the old home world? That’s a rhetorical question to which many will reply with a resounding No. I vote for boldly going, myself. We always learn more by going and doing, than by staying and fretting. But the irony and the perversity are palpable.

Will seaweed save the sea? Happily, its potential to reduce acidification and warming are huge. Unhappily, time is not on our side.

“How are the animals doing?” Not well, as Elizabeth Kolbert has documented. The extinction rate is 1,000 times too great, the prospect of species loss over 20% is real. “Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature,” Kolbert writes, “it’s not clear that he ever really did.” We’d better learn quick.

A little perspective: “a hundred million years from now, all that we consider to be the great works of man—the sculptures and the libraries, the monuments and the museums, the cities and the factories—will be compressed into a layer of sediment not much thicker than a cigarette paper.” Look on our works and despair, Ozymandias.

Or, we can get to work cleaning up our mess so we don’t leave a colossal wreck in the dirt for tomorrow’s archaeologists to dig up.

And we can divest. Leaving the oil in the soil may be our greatest work of all. How are we doing?

5:30/6:58, 72/88/65
Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick was first published as The Whale on this date in 1851. The novel begins with the famous line, “Call me Ishmael.” It continues: “Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation …” WA

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Kant and Hegel on Adderall

October 17, 2016
Immanuel Kant turned up in an unlikely place over the weekend: an article in the Times on Adderall addiction.  

It’s the briefest of cameos. A college student, cowed by an assignment, is offered an Adderall and begins a roller-coaster ride of focused intensity alternating with severe anxiety and depression.

My friend pulled two blue pills out of tinfoil and handed them to me. An hour later, I was in the basement of the library, hunkered down in the Absolute Quiet Room, in a state of peerless ecstasy. The world fell away; it was only me, locked in a passionate embrace with the book I was reading and the thoughts I was having about it, which tumbled out of nowhere and built into what seemed an amazing pile of riches. When dawn came to Providence, R.I., I was hunched over in the grubby lounge of my dormitory, typing my last fevered perceptions, vaguely aware that outside the window, the sky was turning pink. I was alone in my new secret world, and that very aloneness was part of the great intoxication. I needed nothing and no one.

I would experience this same sensation again and again over the next two years, whenever I could get my hands on Adderall on campus, which was frequently, but not, I began to feel, frequently enough. My Adderall hours became the most precious hours of my life, far too precious for the Absolute Quiet Room. I now needed to locate the most remote desk in the darkest, most neglected corner of the upper-level stacks, tucked farthest from the humming campus life going on outside. That life was no longer the life that interested me. Instead, what mattered, what compelled, were the hours I spent in isolation, poring over, for instance, Immanuel Kant’s thoughts on “the sublime.”

And that’s it, for the Sage of Konigsberg. He pops in just long enough to provide content for our protagonist’s chemically-compulsive studiousness, and exits. He doesn’t even get the opportunity to tell our focused young scholar to skip the pills, bite the bullet, and just sapere aude. If he’d been invited to hang around he’d also have asked if writing a paper on Adderall is an act the maxim of which you could will to be a universal law. He’d have said you should do your duty and ditch the pharmacological cheat.

We’ll ask about that ourselves today, in CoPhi. And we’ll ask what Hegel would say about all this too. Hegel on Adderall would be an experience, possibly to rival James on nitrous oxide. Some Hegelisms, maybe most, are easy to parody. But wouldn’t it be nice if we were, in fact, spiritual beings having the material experience of coming at last to a full consciousness and realization of freedom, if the real were the rational, if history made permanent progress?

On that last point, it’s nice to note that Peter Singer – no Hegelian, but he too speaks of an expanding circle of empathy and ethical inclusion – says the world is in fact becoming a better place. Our better angels may triumph in the end. Or not. “Inevitable” progress can crash, like students on pills.

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Atmosphere of Hope

October 13, 2016

We pick up a new text today from Aussie Tim Flannery. A decade ago his Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth gave early warning of the climate science denialism that’s since become so depressingly common among the loudest and least informed.

“As long as scepticism is based on a sound understanding of science it is invaluable, for that is how science progresses. But poor criticism can lead those who are unfamiliar with the science involved into doubting everything about climate change predictions.” Ironic, such selective skepticism from people who are generally so credulous about all manner of incredible conspiracy confabulation.

In Atmosphere of Hope, Flannery is back searching for solutions and finding real (though rapidly narrowing) promise for a renewed optimism based on the deployment of “exciting new tools in the making that could help us avoid a climate disaster.” Last December’s Paris climate agreement, recently engaged as more ratifying nations exceeded its “threshold for entry into force,” furnishes (let’s hope) some of the needed geopolitical tools. Next month’s election will determine whether those tools do actually get deployed.

“Digital connectedness,” also noted by Naomi Klein as an invaluable tool to multiply the climate movement’s growth and influence, “has brought new opportunities: for divestment, effective dissent, encouraging uptake of new technologies, and for legal action.” We begin at last to see the polluters’ profits in relative decline, as “clean power” more visibly rises. Flannery’s “third way” is to begin “creating our future out of thin air” by sucking the CO2 out of it. He insists this is realistic, not utopian. But we have to make it happen quickly, “we’re seeing the climate change before our eyes.”

Some of us are. Some of us are still just seeing what we want to see, not seeing climate change as a dire threat to our health and well-being, not seeing the melting glaciers and shrinking ice caps, not daring to imagine the impact of an inundated planet. Blindness is not hope.

6:15/6:54, 65/73/56, 6:12

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Hume and Rousseau

October 12, 2016

Back from the break, which graced middle Tennessee with wonderful weather. Walked my path both days, and enjoyed the MLB postseason. How about those comeback Cubbies!

David Hume, unlike some students, knew how to take a break. His occasional friend Jean-Jacques Rousseau knew how to take a walk and enjoy a reverie too, but had a temperament unfit for public office. Ironic that he would make his name as a defender of the public interest (“General Will”) and of inborn human civility.

Hume’s disappearing Self has important implications for metaphysics, theology, and knowledge, but perhaps its biggest potential impact is in deconstructing the kind of ego-centrism that made Rousseau such a difficult fellow. To be Humean in this respect is to understand that the bundle of perceptions terminating in your present perception is not inherently more isolated, persecuted, or privileged than the other bundles. Empathy and fellow-feeling follow from this insight, and perhaps a mistrust of intellect and pure reason. We don’t know as much as we think we do, we don’t know cause; but we should still value what we feel. That’s why Hume advised philosophers to get away from the desk and out of the study, when their metaphysical cogitations became oppressive. He’d also have advised less screen time.

Rousseau’s position on civilization is paradoxical. He didn’t think it improved us, but unlike Hobbes he didn’t think we “naturally” contaminated it. He did think our civilizing institutions, though necessary, naturally take on a pernicious life of their own. So why did he embrace the “general will” rather than question its institutional sources?

Tough questions like that call for a walk. And a ballgame.

6:15/6:53, 54/81, 6:13

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Maternal Earth

October 6, 2016

Naomi Klein couldn’t look at any body of water for two years after the BP gulf spill without imagining it covered in oil. Then, her climate activism helped her “imagine various futures that were decidedly less bleak than the post-apocalyptic cli-fi pastiche.” So maybe you’ll want to postpone screening Deepwater Horizon until after you attend a few more rallies.

It’s true, imagining a brighter future sheds a bit more light on how to navigate a challenging present. So does having kids, and the experience of trying to have them. Klein’s “fertility factory” adventure brought home for her our need to address the root causes of climate stress, just as those for whom pregnancy is elusive must address the biological conditions of reproductive success.

Klein’s adventure did finally succeed, and it was then that she developed a greater sensitivity to our culture’s neglect of child safety with respect to drugs and chemicals. “Entire regulatory systems are predicated on the assumption that all members of the population basically act, biologically, like middle-aged men.” What a short-sighted assumption, of the very sort that drove BP’s recklessness in the gulf.

It doesn’t take an asteroid to wipe out or compromise a species anymore, as the total impact of spilling and warming interfere with reproduction and post-natal ecological integrity. Consider the reputedly-indomitable salmon, for instance, threatened by human activity in so many ways overfishing, logging, damming, spilling…

So we close Klein’s book with these crucial questions: If we’re to get back to homeostatic Mother Earth, must we entirely renounce geoengineered Monster Earth? Is it monstrous to place a monetary valuation on a world in which the salmon still swim? Isn’t that priceless?

Can we do it? Can we change everything? What will be our catalyst?

We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we may be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong, and of good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. If death ends all, we cannot meet death better. Will to Believe

Humans can do amazing things. Courage! “It was on this date in 2007 that Jason Lewis and the Expedition 360 team completed the first entirely human-powered trip around the world…” WA

Next, Fall Break. And then Tim Flannery’s Atmosphere of Hope. 

6:15/6:48, 60/88, 6:22

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John Locke

October 5, 2016

Sorta sorry I encouraged my students to watch last night’s veep debate, now they’ll all be talking at once.

John Locke, the great liberal empiricist and not the castaway, offers a more decorous (though not always more consistent) example. He imagines us descended from reasonable and virtuous anarchists, not Hobbesian warriors. Our native liberty “is not a state of licence,” but there are just enough outliers and property-usurpers to make it prudent to institute laws and enforcers and leave the state of nature. The social contract that marks our exit therefrom is “an affair purely of this world” that does not vest the sovereign with divine authority. We the people (excepting women and the poor) retain our rights, mostly so we can retain our property.

One might have expected Locke to say that our political values and virtues, like the social contract, are also “of this world.” Instead he invokes God to impose our mutual equality “without subordination or subjection; unless the lord and master of them all” says otherwise. That’s out of this world, isn’t it?

Here’s a surprise: “The civil compact which institutes government binds only those who made it; the son must consent afresh to a compact made by his father.” But we don’t really think that, we traditionalists and patriots, do we? If for instance the “son” plays football and takes a knee during the anthem, he’s broken the compact. Locke wouldn’t (shouldn’t) agree.

The obsessive Lockean emphasis on property must have embarrassed Jefferson, who borrowed life and liberty but preferred the pursuit of happiness.

Locke’s famous common-sensical distinction between primary from secondary qualities failed to impress the Irish Bishop George Berkeley, who said solidity, extension, figure, motion and number are no less dependent on a percipient than sound and color. Good thing God’s watching the quad.

Russell thinks the Locke-Berkeley dispute is unsatisfactory, and overly entangled with old-school metaphysics about “substance.” Better to treat both concepts as constructs and events to be filled out by physics and more experience. No matter, never mind.
Happy birthday to Encyclopedist Denis Diderot, one of Locke’s biggest French promoters, who said, “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” And, to rocket man Robert Goddard, who said “Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it; once realized, it becomes commonplace.” WA

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