Monday, September 29, 2008

Why green?

Welcome to this blog! Though the second post, this will be its introduction. I named (and colored) it to fit with my prime interests as a biologist, which are to promote sustainability in all its aspects, including ecological and intellectual.

Here is how I put it in a letter to my sister, who works for a coal-intensive electric utility:

There is a large paradigm shift underway, from the primeval conviction that nature is infinite, our place minuscule, and our effects minor, to a realization that the planet is finite, and that we are deranging the biosphere in major ways. Everyone except the current administration sees the reality of global warming. So the issue becomes one of how to calculate the costs we are imposing on future generations and incorporate them into our current choices. The extinction of the arctic ecosystem... the "fishing-out" of most large ocean fish... the eventual loss of all large rain forest species (such as the apes), and most smaller animals.. the mysterious disappearance of most amphibians... When you take a thousand year, or 10,000 year, or beyond perspective, these are incalculable costs. I can not say how this generation will be damned by the future for despoiling their world, but the costs are clearly not showing up on any one's balance sheet yet. To say that we should do only what is easy, satisfying our greed now and leaving the future to fend for itself seems deeply wrong if we are unalterably changing the world they are to inhabit.

We know a great deal about the bounds of what that future will hold. Life will go on in any case. If we kill off the rich diversity of animal species, the microbes will persist in their vast profusion in any case. We are also in little danger of killing ourselves off. If we turn the whole earth into a farm, the oceans into a microbial soup, and the air into a miasma of pollution, people will find surely some way to survive, and in large numbers. The question is what kind of existence that will be. It is also completely implausible to expect to live anywhere other than the earth. No other planet is habitable on any practical basis. In fact, this would be a good time to add my critique of the administration's Mars policy, which sacrifices the high-tech robotic exploration of space, which has been spectacularly successful, as well as being an engine of positive economic benefits, to the idiocy of manned trips to places we do not need to send people, and for truly astronomical costs. The impracticality of getting to Mars, let alone living there, is monumental. So, though I am as much a Trek fan as anyone, I have to say that the physics of the situation places our long-term and exclusive home here on earth.

What all this boils down to is an imperative to move quickly to a more sustainable way of living, both in terms of the overall number of people, and in the per-person cost of inhabiting the earth. The motivation is more aesthetic and moral than it is any problem of absolute self-preservation, but man does not live by bread alone, and should aspire to live on a beautiful earth, not a degraded one. My view of the environmental and sustainability issue is that we have big choices to make now in order that future generations can live decently and in a nature that nourishes them in spiritual as well as physical ways. Otherwise we can live in a Blade-runner or other science fiction dystopia. The rest of the world is willing, through the Kyoto process, to make baby steps in that direction, and it is shameful that we are not willing to join that process.

It is thought that early people contributed to the demise of many big animals through over-hunting. The field is controversial, but at any rate, we generally forgive them because they did not have the knowledge and consciousness we have today. We will not have that excuse vis-a-vis future generations. We know full well that we are doing irreparable harm to the biosphere. In economic terms, it is a tragedy of the commons, since the current institutional system pays little attention to the "external" costs of general environmental degradation. Pleading that we should only do what is convenient is not looking the problem in the face. Unfortunately, since the economic incentive system is so poorly designed, it falls to those who regard the issue in moral terms to call for greater action. This kind of moral persuasion is weak enough, but I believe it is at least right.
Whew! Needless to say, the letter had little effect. But to expand a bit, what realizing a sustainable future will take is not only consciousness-raising, but also a high intellectual level of personal cultivation and cultural discussion. To have rational foresight centuries and millennia into the future, and to value those future inhabitants of the earth takes both great insight and great imagination. There is no time to lose. This is surely no time to be debasing our discourse and dumbing down our children, as seems to be the primary aim of much organized religion.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Country first?

As the presidential debates get underway, it is worth looking beyond the headlines and scorecards to what was actually said. The first debate with Jim Lehrer as moderator was deemed a "tie" by the media, though anyone actually watching would have seen the distinct advantage Obama had in strategic vision, presence, knowledge, and compassion.

One passage was emblematic for me, and that was a response McCain gave to Lehrer's question about what of his spending plans the candidate would give up in light of the current debt market bailout plans, which are going to put a crimp in the next president's budget. McCain said "How about a spending freeze on everything but defense, veteran affairs and entitlement programs?". On a practical level, as Obama pointed out, spending freezes are a blunt instrument, used when the "decider" has lost the will or capacity to make difficult decisions. Freezing our priorities in the past is no way to run a government, especially one that espouses "change".

But this proposal was far more telling than its surface impracticability. It evidently came right off the top of Mc Cain's head, with little prior thought. Note how it was phrased as a question- a plea tossed out to a hectoring questioner.. how about this? would that be OK? It almost reminded me of Bob Dole, and his famous use of "whatever" as his final policy refuge. McCain was not on solid ground, and he knew it. He may know about waste in the Pentagon, and that big government is "bad", but getting his head around the big picture of overall government spending and budgeting seems to be more of a challenge.

Secondly, the exceptions McCain provided are even more telling. Where does McCain get his income from? Social Security and the military as a veteran, as well as his senate salary. So the impulse to protect the programs he knows and loves come right out of his gut, and all his talk of new energy programs, more education funding, national service, etc. seems to be window-dressing. His strong bias here and in his convention speech has been on the care and feeding of the military, as if that equates with the country. Country first, indeed!

Better and more effective support for veterans gets support from across the political spectrum- they have been treated shabbily both in Iraq and when they get home. But exempting the military in general from a freeze when we spend more than the rest of the world combined? That is open to debate, to say the least. If our military is overstretched due to an unnecessary war and because we have been asking soldiers to perform nation-building that they are ill-suited for, the answer is not to "expand the military", but to practice a little abstinence. We need to be using military forces more appropriately, dividing forces into specialized segments like classic-military, special forces, and nation-building, and beefing up other entities that need to be more central to the fight, like the state department and aid agencies.

At any rate, this response showed one more time how John McCain shoots from the gut- (and a rather parochial one it is)- a quality that entertains the press corps and is relatively harmless in the Senate, but is not what we need in a president, especially after eight long and disastrous years of being governed from the gut of another Republican.