Archive for the ‘business as usual’ Category

The Cost of Living

May 12, 2008

Up around my neck of the woods, there is a huge debate going on as to whether a nickel mine should be allowed to open. The land that sits on top of the nickel deposit belongs to the State of Michigan. The mining company, Kennecott Minerals, argues that there is money to be made. The opponents argue that the cost to the environment will be higher than the financial payout. It really is as simple as that.

Now everyone knows that the non-sentient entity known as “Kennecott Minerals” doesn’t care about the environment. Like an earthworm, it’s only concern is to continue feeding so that it may continue living. If an earthworm found out that it’s poop was toxic to the soil that it lived in, it would simple keep moving forward, leaving the poop comfortably behind; it will keep doing this until there is no more ‘forward’ and it must do this right up until its own toxic poop kills it. It has no other alternative.

The question of whether Kennecott should be allowed to open a nickel mine on the Yellow Dog Plains is a pretty simple equation: will we end up paying more for it than what we get out of it? Kennecott is very invested in convincing the State and the locals that the payoff will be significant and the costs negligible.

The other two speakers in this debate are the locals and the State of Michigan.

Like a corporation, the State of Michigan is also a non-sentient entity. But instead of requiring profits for its survival, it requires reelection. I concede that there are officials who will make a stand for what they believe is right against public majority opinion, but for the most part, party officials will not throw their support behind a cause that is unsupported by their constituency.

Which leads to the locals, the people who will be left to live in Kennecott’s poop trail. There are several reasons why the locals are comfortable with the notion to open a new nickel mine on the Yellow Dog Plains.

Organisms strive toward life. First and foremost, living things must take in nutrients, dispose of waste, and breed new life. This truism flows from the cellular level on up through the whole organism. Because of this, an organism will become toxic to itself if it must do so to live. An example of this is the disease phenylketonuria, or PKU. Some newborn infants are born with a defective enzyme. The infants are unable to correctly metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine, an amino acid in breast milk. When these infants are nursed at their mother’s breast, their bodies cannot convert the phenylalanine into tyrosine. Toxic levels of phenylalanine cause severe mental retardation. But the baby has no choice; it must eat to live, even if eating causes causes her system to become toxic. Severe retardation is still life, and the organism always strives towards life.

In the same way, many locals are convinced that the immediate financial payoff of jobs that will provide sustenance to themselves and their families is more essential than the eventual toxicity of their environment. This is mining country, and the people here are used to having to acclimate to toxicity in order to live.

And besides, the poop pile is over there. Since most people live a significant distance from over there, they are more comfortable with making that place toxic. It’s a shame, but folks gotta make a living.

Finally, Kennecott has spent a lot of time and money convincing the locals that the damage won’t be any more significant than what they’ve known all their lives, and the payoff is worth a little sacrifice.

In the meantime, the people who actually live on the Yellow Dog Watershed are going absolutely apeshit. They are being betrayed by their neighbors, and they are angry, hurt and horrified. Because they are a small group of people with limited assets, there is a good chance that they will not be able to convince their neighbors that the payoff will not be worth the sacrifice.

Deciding whether sacrifice is worth averting probable future pain requires a level of sentience. I’m curious of what a sentient community would look like. I wonder how “American” it would be; We The People are so invested in individual rights that we forget that we live communally in our environment. There really is no over there.

I think that it’d be a good idea to move toward sentience. Does our society really need this nickel mine? Does our community really need these jobs? Is the toxicity worth it?

I believe that sacrifice now might better insure life for our grandchildren. That is my answer. Perhaps you have a different answer. I would be willing to debate the question.

Currently, the decision process includes applications to the DNR and EPA. The DNR is holding a hearing in Lansing, Michigan as this post is being written on whether it is legal, by the laws of Michigan, for Kennecott Mine to open.

The hearing is being conducted before Richard A. Patterson, an administrative law judge with the state Office of Administrative Hearings and Rules. It involves two permits — one for building and operating the mine, and the other for groundwater discharge. Patterson could uphold the DEQ’s ruling or recommend that it be rejected. The final decision would be made by DEQ Director Steven Chester, who already has endorsed his staff’s recommendation to approve the mine. Entire Associated Press Article

Most of the locals think that the hearing is about whether the mine will be safe enough; what the hearing is actually about is “a challenge filed by the National Wildlife Federation, the Huron Mountain Club, the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. They contend the DEQ wrongly concluded that Kennecott’s plan meets environmental protection standards set under a state nonferrous mining law enacted in 2004.”

I think that we, as a society and as a species still think of this planet as one of limitless resources. There is no end to the air in the sky and the sea is vast beyond our imagining. But, like the people of the Easter Islands, our resources are finite. And like the Easter Islanders, our choices may spell out disaster.

Or maybe we are canny enough, intelligent enough, and sentient enough to ask the right questions, to find the answers that point down a path toward survival. This new path will take courage and belief in our fellow humans. It will take hope. It will be frustratingly difficult. But working toward solution is the only really interesting option.


Deus ex Machina

April 8, 2008

I’ve been quiet for a while.  Sometimes it just gets too much and I have to step away.

The big environmental news story on MSN today is that beer drinkers might have to pay more for their brew.

I wonder how many people know that scientists were shocked to see how fast Antarctica’s Wilkens Ice sheet is breaking up.

It takes an awful lot to shock a scientist.

I wonder how many people know that “If global emissions of CO2 from human activities continue to rise on current trends then the average pH of the oceans could fall by 0.5 units (equivalent to a three fold increase in the concentration of hydrogen ions) by the year 2100. This pH is probably lower (more acidic) than has been experienced for hundreds of millennia and, critically, this rate of change is probably one hundred times greater than at any time over this period. The scale of the changes may vary regionally, which will affect the magnitude of the biological effects.” The Royal Society, Ocean Acidification Due To Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, 2005 (my ephasis)

I wonder if people know that scientists who thought that the arctic ice cap would be ice-free by 2070 are now predicting that it’ll be ice-free by 2015?

I know that there is a growing sense of unease. But I don’t think that decreasing our use of shopping bags is going to make much of a difference. It might make people feel better, but it will not deflect the load of buckshot that has already fired and is speeding toward our collective faces.

“Deus ex Machina” is a latin phrase — “God from the machine.” In Greek theater, when all was lost, God would jump out of a box and save the day.

I’m going to school, to University, and I’m surrounded by young people every day. Eating, laughing, studying, typing away on their laptops, chatting on their cell phones, they are seemingly unconcerned by their future. They talk about their future as if the world will always be as it is right now.

And it’s certainly not just the 20-somethings. I hear 40-somethings talking about their retirement funds and whether they are saving enough to support themselves when they are in their eighties.

I look around at all of this and I wonder if any of the current world governments will survive through the end of this century. I wonder if the ocean die-off will be gradual or quick. I wonder what will happen when their is no more money left for public schools, public housing and public medical care. I wonder what will happen when we face starvation in the cities.

We aren’t saving ourselves, and the hand of God or science will not sweep away the self-inflicted death-shot flying toward us that is our future.

Sometimes I have to set it aside and think about the day — getting kids to school, making dinner, walking the dog, listening to the first birds of spring, lifting my face to the late day sun. Sometimes I have to just take a deep breath and think about my own personal plan.

I wonder how many other people, these people who are seemingly unconcerned, are like me.

The Philosophy of Objectivism

March 26, 2008

I saw “The Corporation” last night, a 2003 Canadian documentary film critical of the modern-day corporation, considering it as a class of person and evaluating its behaviour towards society and the world at large as a psychologist might evaluate an ordinary person.

I found this quote particularly compelling:

“Drawing the metaphor of the early attempts to fly. The man going off of a very high cliff in his airplane, with the wings flapping, and the guys flapping the wings and the wind is in his face, and this poor fool thinks he’s flying, but, in fact, he’s in free fall, and he just doesn’t know it yet because the ground is so far away, but, of course, the craft is doomed to crash.

That’s the way our civilization is, the very high cliff represents the virtually unlimited resources we seem to have when we began this journey. The craft isn’t flying because it’s not built according to the laws of aerodynamics and it’s subject to the law of gravity.

Our civilization is not flying because it’s not built according to the laws of aerodynamics for civilizations that would fly. And, of course, the ground is still a long way away, but some people have seen that ground rushing up sooner than the rest of us have.

The visionaries have seen it and have told us it’s coming. There’s not a single scientific, peer-reviewed paper published in the last 25 years that would contradict this scenario: every living system of earth is in decline, every life support system of earth is in decline, and these together constitute the biosphere, the biosphere that supports and nurtures all of life, and not just our life but perhaps 30 million other species that share this planet with us.”

—Ray Anderson, founder of Interface, The Corporation

 Robert Hessen, who critiques “The Corporation,” calls it propaganda and makes an argument that “The Corporation” should not be shown in 8th grade classes because children of that age do not have the intellectual sophistication to make an argument against what is presented.

“Everyone in the world could, at a cost, reduce the chance of his or her death.  You could chose to not to walk across the street.  The question is, is whether that person is willing to pay for it.  Consumers should be free to decide what type of risk they want to bear.  And the government has the right to provide courts of law to allow people to sue corporations if (for example) they fraudulently conceal gas tanks that are not sufficiently safe to protect the consumer.  

Strangely, people are not willing to pay very much.   And people do many stupid things that can lead to their death.  People jump out planes, people smoke, even thought they know that it’s bad for them.  But the underlying principle is that individuals should be able to decide how much they are willing to pay.  It has nothing to do with evil corporations.”

So, the folks who are promoting “The Corporation” are jumping up and down, saying that our current economic system is not sustainable, and we’re gonna crash because we’re gonna run out of resources to use.

Hessen replies that there are plenty of resources, and doing things much differently than we are currently doing it would be cutting our own throats, for no reason.

Hessen’s main critique of “The Corporation” is that corporations are an agreement between individuals — “the corporation” and “the consumer”;  the corporation is a product of the freedom of association, and Hessan sees that any criticism of the corporate form is a criticism of that freedom. 

Hessen is a “Randian”, a follower of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.  The Objectivists believe that the fundamental right is the right to life— that is, the right to act in furtherance of one’s own life — not the right to have ones life protected or to have ones survival guaranteed by the involuntary effort of other human beings.  Secondly Objectivists believe in the right to property: one person’s right to life cannot entail the right to dispose of another’s private property, under any circumstances. 

Objectivism holds that human beings have the right to manipulate nature in any way they see fit, as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others.

 Ok, so if you’ve read this far, this is what got me — from Wikipedia:

“On the Objectivist account, the rights of other human beings are not of direct moral import to the agent who respects them; they acquire their moral purchase through an intermediate step.

An Objectivist respects the rights of other human beings out of the recognition of the value to himself or herself of living in a world in which the freedom of action of other rational (or potentially rational) human beings is respected.

Ones respect for the rights of others is founded on the value, to oneself, of other persons as actual or potential partners in cooperation and trade.”

Really, the fact that very powerful humans, humans who control our planet through the use of its resources and disposal of commercial waste, live and operate by this philosophy is terrifying. 

And it explains a lot.

It’s The Stuff

March 2, 2008

Last week I watched The Story of Stuff.  Although the narrator Annie Leonard was pretty upbeat about our ability to change, it left me feeling even more hopeless.

What it comes down to is this:

The US economy is based on increasing levels of consumption – Annie’s “Golden Arrow”.

Even the conservative IPCC report issued last October claims that the world needs to reduce carbon emissions by 20%-40%.  “If we continue to do what we are doing now, we are in deep trouble,” said Ogunlade Davidson of Sierra Leone, who served as co-chair of the IPCC Working Group that produced Working Group III Report “Mitigation of Climate Change”

IPCC thinks that we can all work together to reduce green house gas emissions. Annie Leonard urges us to work together to decrease our consumption.

But last week, I was sitting with my client, a nice little old lady named Martha, and listening to my boss talk to Martha about a stained bath robe. “Look at this Martha!  We need to get you a new robe.  This stain looks terrible!”

Martha clutched the robe to herself.  “I like this robe.  There’s nothing wrong with it.  So what if it has a stain?  It’s not like the President’s coming for breakfast.”

My boss tsked and shook her head.  “You deserve to have nice things, Martha!  I’m going to get rid of that old, stained robe and buy you a new one.”

This is a classic example of Golden Arrow Head;  we have been trained for a generation to consume, and our industry is locked into planned obsolescence. 

Do you buy a new pair of sneakers ever six to eight months?  How about only buying them every twelve to sixteen months, instead?  What?  They’ll fall apart before then?  Oh, right.

In 2007, Dr. Michael Raupach reported that greenhouse gasses are now rising three times faster than they were in the 1990’s.

Our green house gas emissions are rising three times faster since the signing of the Kyoto Protocol.

And, according to surveys, though most folks believe that the Earth is getting a might toasty, only about 15% think that it’ll get bad enough to effect their grand-children, let alone themselves.

The majority of Americans continue to oppose carbon taxes as a way to address global warming — either in the form of gasoline (67 percent against) or electricity taxes (71 percent against).

If we won’t agree to a rise in gasoline or electricity tax, I really don’t think that we’ll cut our consumption and increase our recycling to the level necessary to save us.

We just won’t do it.