Matt Yglesias’ Run-of-The Mill Specieism

Matt Yglesias scoffed at a commenter who pointed out that requiring companies to provide maternity leave constitutes a subsidy for having children, excess children is bad for the planet and therefore we should remove such subsidies:

The beginning of wisdom here is to note that pollution isn’t “bad for the planet.” The planet is a gigantic roughly spherical chunk of rocks that can easily survive whatever level of greenhouse gas emissions or whatever else we care to pump into the atmosphere. The big picture ecological threat is a threat to human beings [...] Radical population reduction would sharply reduce the quantity of anthropogenic ecological impacts, but to what end? The goal needs to be to reconfigure human activity in order to make it sustainable over a longer time horizon.

I won’t get into how I feel about the conservative notion that it’s the government’s job to encourage people to live the standard American lifestyle – suburbs, cars and kids – or, indeed, any lifestyle* beyond to say that I’m not exactly a fan and that he neglects that lower population is a saner alternative to lifestyle adjustments alone for ecological issues. I’ll just address the specieism his post espouses and the oversimplification of what exactly our planet is and does.

If you take a raccoon from the woods, take it into your home and then drown it, you will rightly face animal cruelty charges (among others)**. If you purchase property that is habitat to a hundred raccoons and flood it to provide a reservoir, somehow the mass cruelty flies under the radar. This of course makes no sense. If cruelty to one animal is indefensible, then cruelty to many is more so.

Biodiversity itself may only be of instrumental value. Just like there isn’t much of a difference morally between a mass murder of 1000 individuals and genocide consisting of 1000 individuals, there isn’t that much of a reason to get worked up about minor biodiversity loss itself so long as it is eventually recovered and there remains enough in the present time. However, habitat destruction and the reduction of numbers means that individual sentient organisms are starving to death or otherwise dying in a bad way or living a more impoverished existence. For this reason, any environmentalism that doesn’t make the welfare/rights of all beings, not just humans, central isn’t worth discussing. Matt Yglesias seems to be suggesting we all need to do our part to use less resources to make room for more people. This fails because as we can see it disregards the welfare of wildlife and it also fails because it takes a total view of happiness. Two people living okay existences aren’t really better than one person living a fabulous existence. In a true eco-utopia, everyone will have plenty of unharmed wilderness to explore and achieve oneness.

Another minor point is his assertion that the planet is just “a spherical chunk of rocks.” Clearly, when people say planet, they are not referring to its geology, though the bulk of the mass is, indeed, lifeless silica and minerals. They are referring, of course, to the ecosphere, which supports us and all the other life on the planet. It is perhaps of only instrumental value but very great value indeed. If we fix up Señor Yglesias’ comments accordingly, we still don’t see a powerful argument to reduce humanity to the stone age nor to view children as little packets of evil (however annoying they may be), but you also certainly don’t come to the conclusion that child rearing, something people gladly voluntarily do anyway, needs to be subsidized so as to encourage it anymore than our biology and existing social pressures already do.

* I don’t want zen fascists telling me to live in an apartment, ride the bus and not have kids either.
** Actually, this depends on the jurisdiction. If you at least feed the raccoon first, it will then be your [illegal] pet that you are being cruel to. If you at least agree that someone 
ought to get in trouble for kidnapping, then drowning a raccoon, then you should agree with my logic, even if the law isn’t quite like I make it sound.

What Good is “No Gas Day” Supposed to do?

It would be so entertaining to see well-meaning people engage in some sort of symbolic act that does nothing material other than “sending a message” were the joke not so tired. Seriously. What the hell good is going to the gas station on Wednesday or Friday instead going to do? (incidentally, I won’t run out of gas until this weekend and even that’s only because I’m going way out to the desert) It is exactly like meatless Mondays. How about meatless every day of the week except for Mondays? How about no gas week instead of no gas day? If there is any value to be had in these symbolic demonstrations (and that’s a pretty big if), it is this – it could be a chance to genuinely try out a habit or lifestyle or to think about something one generally avoids thinking about. Maybe.

What most bothers me about the whole concept isn’t the empty symbolism; I’m used to that and expect such from facebookistan. It is that it is yet another example of this cognitive dissonance I too often see in our movement – conflating the very different concerns of the health of the planet on one hand with very separate egalitarian goals, however laudable, on the other. The protest is about gas prices. If the prices are high, great. Maybe alternatives will finally be viable in the market. Don’t get me wrong; there is reason for environmentalists to protest gas prices – for being too low. It’s time to end the gas subsidies, end our oil diplomacy (and “diplomacy”) and end the socialization of costs where otherwise Americans’ stinginess (a force that knows no parallel) might otherwise prevent unwise use of scarce resources.

Soil Pill

My wife tells me I’m 天の邪鬼, meaning I go out of my way to be strange or not conform. Perhaps from a Japanese perspective I am. Maybe she’s right. All I know is I’ve resisted every temptation to blog about the spill. What can be said about it that hasn’t been said? Well, I have come to realize that it’s time to conform and give my two cents, though it may take wading through everyone and their dog’s opinion to find the gem that is mine. The real injustice I’m seeing, the reason I must write, is that, by the very nature of environmental catastrophes and our system, it’s impossible for all those affected to be duly compromised for damages done to them as well as for damages done to non-humans (turtles, manatees) to be duly punished, but I’ll defer the issue about critters for now.

Am I on crazy pills? Everyone I know misses that he's obviously a sea sponge made out to look like a household sponge. It's called artistic license!

Many people say that the best salve for environmental issues is strict enforcement of property rights with activists legally assisting those affected by pollution, etc. It’s worth a try as state environmentalism causes people who otherwise would want to do their part to protect the planet to instead resent the whole movement and feel as if it were forced upon them*. If our system was just, it should be possible for everyone along the gulf coast (and not just in America, but even in other islands sufficiently close to be affected) to do a class-action lawsuit against BP and actually get compensated for the damages. If BP truly believed this was possible, they would have made sure no one cut any corners in meeting safety regulations or, in the absence of safety regulations, would probably have paid to develop their own. Experience tells us that instead of this happening, the rabid pragmatists in our legal system won’t allow for a company that’s an important part of the economy to be utterly destroyed by mere tort. Exxon managed to delay and delay having to pay and managed to get only a slap on the wrist in the end, despite decimating an entire community and doing untold damages to wildlife. Even the ship is alive and well, living on as the the Dong Fang Ocean. This, however isn’t the bigger problem since it’s “simply” a matter of not having a state that claims to act in the interests of the people, but instead acts in the interests of the bureaucrats’ friends. No, the bigger problem is that cases like this amount to such a tiny fraction of the depreciation of natural resources. Wetlands, for example, that make up the invisible bedrock to our economy by performing services we’d pay as much as necessary to get if it wasn’t free, are being nickel and dimed to oblivion by numerous polluters and it’s affects are divided equally by everyone in the vicinity.

You may own a piece of property and essentially do with it as you wish, but on what grounds can you be said to own the air above it or the water below it? These things are passing through and as you use and abuse these things, you automatically damage everyone else’s property. Everyone’s part of the burden is sufficiently small that it’s not worth it for them to seek damages. If that alone were the problem, I think we would have a problem that everyone can live with. Of course the market is going to have negative externalities and if it’s sufficiently minor, there’s no need to bother addressing it. However, not just what I do on my property to the air, but what every single manufacturer contributes to the air adds up to something that harms peoples’ health and destroys the beauty of un”improved” land. Though I said I’ll defer the issue, let’s not forget what we do to creatures who no doubt can suffer, but lack the ability to legally defend themselves. To such situations, I propose an alternative.

Earlier, I blogged about my idea of EcoTax, which turns out to be very similar to Henry George’s idea, though with important differences. I’ll post later with an updated version of my idea, but to summarize, I propose as a practical alternative to numerous mini-torts the government** having an alternate plan for companies (or individuals – a company is just a bunch of individuals) that must pollute as part of their operations. For such companies, they can opt to, instead of being subject to numerous torts, which they will then be forced to actually pay up on, they can simply pay in proportion to how much they pollute, and the funds shared with everyone. This will make it cost to pollute and it will make products that carry a heavier eco-burden to reflect more accurately their ecological costs. The market, which is to say, the creativity of everyone working together, will then work towards solving ecological problems in a bottom-up way, instead of us hoping that the commands from a distant bureaucracy, funded and controlled by elites is the right one, as it would be the one we’ll all be stuck with. Furthermore, it will let people have their freedom to live as they choose rather than a specific brand of green living forced on them.

* There are other problems with state environmentalism too, like the fact that the government bureaucrats and their private supporters don’t have the spotted owl’s best interests at heart.

** The government or whatever legal order(s) there may be. My basic idea is perfectly compatible with a libertarian society. It doesn’t need an army to prop it up!

Livable Hamlets

Lately, I’m scouring statistics to find places to move to and really just feed my curiosity. Going through city-data’s top 101 lists and was curious which places have the most people walking to work (once I saw the list existed). Naturally, a great many of them are military bases, but I also see that most of them tend to be small towns, not the dense metropolises that make up the wet dreams of the new urbanists.

Newscientist: Horizontal and vertical: The evolution of evolution

Lately, I’m increasingly thinking, especially after reading this article, that evolutionary computing would benefit greatly from using a more bacterial type of evolution, where genes are shared between often unrelated organisms, rather than brute inheritance. Another way of looking at it, is it might be good to deal with the complexities of subroutine sharing (which functional programming would make easier) than the complexities of sexual reproduction which make my eyes glaze over to read the solutions offered for. Maybe I’m just not clever enough (my earlier post on genetic programming had a little ruby script and it only uses asexual reproduction).

I am skeptical of the article’s claim that the shared genetic code of all organisms must mean that genes were shared between organisms like bacterium do today. Firstly, bacterium don’t all share some common genes due to the passing of genes between species as it is. Secondly, clade evolution – where clades that are just better at evolving edge out others over time could be sufficient explanation. Surely DNA-based life had immense advantages over life with less fault-tolerant code. Just the same, the article makes a good point that biologists are, being human macro-centric – they focus on multi-cellular organisms even though most of the biomass, even more of the variety, along with the vast, vast majority of the history of life on this planet, is prokaryotic.