Tag Archives: environment

Science & Self-Identity

English: The smallpox vaccine diluent in a syr...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The assuming an authority of dictating to others, and a forwardness to prescribe to their opinions, is a constant concomitant of this bias and corruption of our judgments. For how almost can it be otherwise, but that he should be ready to impose on another’s belief, who has already imposed on his own? Who can reasonably expect arguments and conviction from him in dealing with others, whose understanding is not accustomed to them in his dealing with himself? Who does violence to his own faculties, tyrannizes over his own mind, and usurps the prerogative that belongs to truth alone, which is to command assent by only its own authority, i.e. by and in proportion to that evidence which it carries with it.

-John Locke

As a philosophy professor who focuses on the practical value of philosophical thinking, one of my main objectives is to train students to be effective critical thinkers. While true critical thinking has been, ironically, threatened by the fact that it has become something of a fad, I stick with a very straightforward and practical view of the subject. As I see it, critical thinking is the rational process of determining whether a claim should be accepted as true, rejected or false or subject to the suspension of judgment. Roughly put, a critical thinker operates on the principle that the belief in a claim should be proportional to the evidence for it, rather than in proportion to our interests or feelings. In this I follow John Locke’s view: “Whatsoever credit or authority we give to any proposition more than it receives from the principles and proofs it supports itself upon, is owing to our inclinations that way, and is so far a derogation from the love of truth as such: which, as it can receive no evidence from our passions or interests, so it should receive no tincture from them.” Unfortunately, people often fail to follow this principle and do so in matters of considerable importance, such as climate change and vaccinations. To be specific, people reject proofs and evidence in favor of interests and passions.

Despite the fact that the scientific evidence for climate change is overwhelming, there are still people who deny climate change. These people are typically conservatives—although there is nothing about conservatism itself that requires denying climate change.

While rejecting the scientific evidence for climate change can be regarded as irrational, it is easy enough to attribute a rational motive behind this view. After all, there are people who have an economic interest in denying climate change or, at least, preventing action from being taken that they regard as contrary to their interests (such as implementing the cap and trade system on carbon originally proposed by conservative thinkers). This interest would provide a motive to lie (that is, make claims that one knows are not true) as well as a psychological impetus to sincerely hold to a false belief. As such, I can easily make sense of climate change denial in the face of overwhelming evidence: big money is on the line. However, the denial less rational for the majority of climate change deniers—after all, they are not owners of companies in the fossil fuel business. However, they could still be motivated by a financial stake—after all, addressing climate change could cost them more in terms of their energy bills. Of course, not addressing climate change could cost them much more.

In any case, I get climate denial in that I have a sensible narrative as to why people reject the science on the basis of interest. However, I have been rather more confused by people who deny the science regarding vaccines.

While vaccines are not entirely risk free, the scientific evidence is overwhelming that they are safe and very effective. Scientists have a good understanding of how they work and there is extensive empirical evidence of their positive impact—specifically the massive reduction in cases of diseases such as polio and measles. Oddly enough, there is significant number of Americans who willfully deny the science of vaccination. What is most unusual is that these people tend to be college educated. They are also predominantly political liberals, thus showing that science denial is bi-partisan. It is fascinating, but also horrifying, to see someone walk through the process of denial—as shown in a segment on the Daily Show. This process is rather complete: evidence is rejected, experts are dismissed and so on—it is as if the person’s mind switched into a Bizzaro version of critical thinking (“kritikal tincing” perhaps). This is in marked contrast with the process of rational disagreement in which the methodology of critical thinking is used in defense of an opposing viewpoint. Being a philosopher, I value rational disagreement and I am careful to give opposing views their due. However, the use of fallacious methods and outright rejection of rational methods of reasoning is not acceptable.

As noted above, climate change denial makes a degree of sense—behind the denial is a clear economic interest. However, vaccine science denial seems to lack that motive. While I could be wrong about this, there does not seem to be any economic interest that would benefit from this denial—except, perhaps, the doctors and hospitals that will be treating the outbreaks of preventable diseases. However, doctors and hospitals obviously encourage vaccination. As such, an alternative explanation is needed.

Recent research does provide some insight into the matter and this research is consistent with Locke’s view that people are influenced by both interests and passions. In this case, the motivating passion seems to be a person’s commitment to her concept of self. The idea is that when a person’s self-concept or self-identity is threatened by facts, the person will reject the facts in favor of her self-identity.  In the case of the vaccine science deniers, the belief that vaccines are harmful has somehow become part of their self-identity. Or so goes the theory as to why these deniers reject the evidence.

To be effective, this rejection must be more than simply asserting the facts are wrong. After all, the person is aiming to deceive herself to maintain her self-identity. As such, the person must create an entire narrative which makes their rejection seem sensible and believable to them. A denier must, as Pascal said in regards to his famous wager, make himself believe his denial. In the case of matters of science, a person needs to reject not just the claims made by scientists but also the method by which the scientists support the claims. Roughly put, the narrative of denial must be a complete story that protects itself from criticism. This is, obviously enough, different from a person who denies a claim on the basis of evidence—since there is rational support for the denial, there is no need to create a justifying narrative.

This, I would say, is one of the major dangers of this sort of denial—not the denial of established facts, but the explicit rejection of the methodology that is used to assess facts. While people often excel at compartmentalization, this strategy runs the risk of corrupting the person’s thinking across the board.

As noted above, as a philosopher one of my main tasks is to train people to think critically and rationally. While I would like to believe that everyone can be taught to be an effective and rational thinker, I know that people are far more swayed by rhetoric and (ironically) fallacious reasoning then they are swayed by good logic. As such, there might be little hope that people can be “cured” of their rejection of science and reasoning. Aristotle took this view—while noting that some can be convinced by “arguments and fine ideals” most people cannot. He advocated the use of coercive habituation to get people to behave properly and this could (and has) been employed to correct incorrect beliefs. However, such a method is agnostic in regards to the truth—people can be coerced into accepting the false as well as the true.

Interestingly enough, a study by Brendan Nyhan shows that reason and persuasion both fail when employed in attempts to change false beliefs that are critical to a person’s self-identity. In the case of Nyhan’s study, there were various attempts to change the beliefs of vaccine science deniers using reason (facts and science) and also various methods of rhetoric/persuasions (appeals to emotions and anecdotes). Since reason and persuasion are the two main ways to convince people, this is certainly a problem.

The study and other research did indicate an avenue that might work. Assuming that it is the threat to a person’s self-concept that triggers the rejection mechanism, the solution is to approach a person in a way that does not trigger this response. To use an analogy, it is like trying to conduct a transplant without triggering the body’s immune system to reject the transplanted organ.

One obvious problem is that once a person has taken a false belief as part of his self-concept, it is rather difficult to get him to regard any attempt to change his mind as anything other than a threat. Addressing this might require changing the person’s self-concept or finding a specific strategy for addressing that belief that is somehow not seen as a threat. Once that is done, the second stage—that of actually addressing the false belief, can begin.

 

My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Enhanced by Zemanta

Talking Points & Climate Change

English: Animated global map of monthly long t...

English: Animated global map of monthly long term mean surface air temperature (Mollweide projection). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While science and philosophy are supposed to be about determining the nature of reality, politics is often aimed at creating perceptions that are alleged to be reality. This is why it is generally wiser to accept claims supported by science and reason over claims “supported” by ideology and interest.

The matter of climate change is a matter of both science (since the climate is an objective feature of reality) and politics (since perception of reality can be shaped by rhetoric and ideology). Ideally, the facts of climate change would be left to science and sorting out how to address it via policy would fall, in part, to the politicians. Unfortunately, politicians and other non-scientists have taken it on themselves to make claims about the science, usually in the form of unsupported talking points.

On the conservative side, there has been a general shifting in the talking points. Originally, there was one main talking point: there is no climate change and the scientists are wrong. This point was often supported by alleging that the scientists were motivated by ideology to lie about the climate. In contrast, those whose profits could be impacted if climate change was real were taken as objective sources.

In the face of mounting evidence and shifting public opinion, this talking point became the claim that while climate change is occurring, it is not caused by humans. This then shifted to the claim that climate change is caused by humans, but there is nothing we can (or should) do now.

In response to the latest study, certain Republicans have embraced three talking points. These points do seem to concede that climate change is occurring and that humans are responsible. These points do have a foundation that can be regarded as rational and each will be considered in turn.

One talking point is that the scientists are exaggerating the impact of climate change and that it will not be as bad as they claim. This does rest on a reasonable concern about any prediction: how accurate is the prediction? In the case of a scientific prediction based on data and models, the reasonable inquiry would focus on the accuracy of the data and how well the models serve as models of the actual world. To use an analogy, the reliability of predictions about the impact of a crash on a vehicle based on a computer model would hinge on the accuracy of the data and the model and both could be reasonable points of inquiry.

Since the climate scientists have the data and models used to make the predications, to properly dispute the predictions would require showing problems with either the data or the models (or both). Simply saying they are wrong would not suffice—what is needed is clear evidence that the data or models (or both) are defective in ways that would show the predictions are excessive in terms of the predicted impact.

One indirect way to do this would be to find clear evidence that the scientists are intentionally exaggerating. However, if the scientists are exaggerating, then this would be provable by examining the data and plugging it into an accurate model. That is, the scientific method should be able to be employed to show the scientists are wrong.

In some cases people attempt to argue that the scientists are exaggerating because of some nefarious motivation—a liberal agenda, a hatred of oil companies, a desire for fame or some other wickedness. However, even if it could be shown that the scientists have a nefarious motivation, it does not follow that the predictions are wrong. After all, to dismiss a claim because of an alleged defect in the person making the claim is a fallacy. Being suspicious because of a possible nefarious motive can be reasonable, though. So, for example, the fact that the fossil fuel companies have a great deal at stake here does not prove that their claims about climate change are wrong. But the fact that they have considerable incentive to deny certain claims does provide grounds for suspicion regarding their objectivity (and hence credibility).  Naturally, if one is willing to suspect that there is a global conspiracy of scientists, then one should surely be willing to consider that fossil fuel companies and their fellows might be influenced by their financial interests.

One could, of course, hold that the scientists are exaggerating for noble reasons—that is, they are claiming it is worse than it will be in order to get people to take action. To use an analogy, parents sometimes exaggerate the possible harms of something to try to persuade their children not to try it. While this is nicer than ascribing nefarious motives to scientists, it is still not evidence against their claims. Also, even if the scientists are exaggerating, there is still the question about how bad things really would be—they might still be quite bad.

Naturally, if an objective and properly conducted study can be presented that shows the predictions are in error, then that is the study that I would accept. However, I am still waiting for such a study.

The second talking point is that the laws being proposed will not solve the problems. Interestingly, this certainly seems to concede that climate change will cause problems. This point does have a reasonable foundation in that it would be unreasonable to pass laws aimed at climate change that are ineffective in addressing the problems.

While crafting the laws is a matter of politics, sorting out whether such proposals would be effective does seem to fall in the domain of science. For example, if a law proposes to cut carbon emissions, there is a legitimate question as to whether or not that would have a meaningful impact on the problem of climate change. Showing this would require having data, models and so on—merely saying that the laws will not work is obviously not enough.

Now, if the laws will not work, then the people who confidently make that claim should be equally confident in providing evidence for their claim. It seems reasonable to expect that such evidence be provided and that it be suitable in nature (that is, based in properly gathered data, examined by impartial scientists and so on).

The third talking point is that the proposals to address climate change will wreck the American economy. As with the other points, this does have a rational basis—after all, it is sensible to consider the impact on the economy.

One way to approach this is on utilitarian grounds: that we can accept X environmental harms (such as coastal flooding) in return for Y (jobs and profits generated by fossil fuels). Assuming that one is a utilitarian of the proper sort and that one accepts this value calculation, then one can accept that enduring such harms could be worth the advantages. However, it is well worth noting that as usual, the costs will seem to fall heavily on those who are not profiting. For example, the flooding of Miami and New York will not have a huge impact on fossil fuel company profits (although they will lose some customers).

Making the decisions about this should involve openly considering the nature of the costs and benefits as well as who will be hurt and who will benefit. Vague claims about damaging the economy do not allow us to make a proper moral and practical assessment of whether the approach will be correct or not. It might turn out that staying the course is the better option—but this needs to be determined with an open and honest assessment. However, there is a long history of this not occurring—so I am not optimistic about this occurring.

It is also worth considering that addressing climate change could be good for the economy. After all, preparing coastal towns and cities for the (allegedly) rising waters could be a huge and profitable industry creating many jobs. Developing alternative energy sources could also be profitable as could developing new crops able to handle the new conditions. There could be a whole new economy created, perhaps one that might rival more traditional economic sectors and newer ones, such as the internet economy. If companies with well-funded armies of lobbyists got into the climate change countering business, I suspect that a different tune would be playing.

To close, the three talking points do raise questions that need to be answered:

  • Is climate change going to be as bad as it is claimed?
  • What laws (if any) could effectively and properly address climate change?
  • What would be the cost of addressing climate change and who would bear the cost?

My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Enhanced by Zemanta

Water & Food

Česky: Pitná voda - kohoutek Español: Agua potable

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since most of the earth’s surface is covered in water it no doubt seems odd to be worried about the availability of water. Of course, this seems less odd when one considers that much of this liquid bounty is too salty for humans to drink or use in most forms of agriculture. When pollution and distribution (people have an irrational propensity to build cities where water is scarce) are taken into account, then the grounds for worry become clear.

While people normally think of water in terms of something we drink, 92% of our water usage as a species is due to agriculture. Plants and animals need water directly, but water is also used for other purposes in the industry. For example, the feed given to animals requires water. In addition to the direct use of water, water is also “consumed” (that is, removed from being useful to humans) by contamination from agriculture. The chemicals and waste of agriculture often ends up in rivers and other bodies of water, rendering it unusable or at least harmful.

Looking just at the direct water costs, the creation of animal “products” imposes the highest water costs per kilo-calorie (kcal). Growing edible roots and cereals requires .5 quarts per kcal, making these foods very water efficient. Fruits are rather more costly, requiring 2.2 quarts per kcal. For meat product, pork is relatively efficient, requiring 2.3 quarts per kcal. Beef is by far the least efficient, using 10.8 quarts per kcal. As might be imagined, the use of water raises both practical and moral concerns.

One obvious practical concern is working out how to efficiently handle water resources as the population increases. Adding to the difficulty of this matter is the fact that economic improvements in developing countries will most likely lead to a significant increase in the desire for meat, especially beef. Given the water cost of meat the agriculture industry will be hard pressed to meet such increased demand especially if the water supply is under even greater strain.

As might be imagined, there are various practical solutions to the technical problems of water. For example, more efficient agriculture would enable more food to be grown using less water. As another example, the development of cheaper means of purifying water of salt or pollutants would help. Obviously enough if the world eschewed meat in favor of plants, then that would have a significant impact on water usage.

The main moral concern is one of distribution. That is, using moral values to determine how the available water will be used and who will benefit from its use. As noted above, the growing of meat and other animal products is water intensive relative to growing plants. While there are practical grounds to moving away from animal agriculture, the decision to do so (or not do so) is a matter of ethics. After all, decisions about who is entitled to the water resources and how these resources should be distributed are moral decisions. If, for example, it is decided that water resources will be allocated to the beef industry, then this means that less water will be available to grow more water efficient foods, thus potentially reducing the food supply while also creating food that is relatively expensive for the consumer.

As the population grows, the moral concerns will become even more serious. After all, it is certainly worth considering that the demand on water resources will eventually be high enough that choosing between growing beef and raising more water efficient crops will be a choice between providing the more affluent few with a luxury food and providing the less affluent many with the food they need to survive.

An obvious counter to this is that we have always managed to find a solution to such problems in the past and hence we will surely find one (or more) in the future. After all, the population doomsdays predicted in the past all turned out to be in error.

While this response has considerable appeal, it is worth noting that there must be a point at which our ability to solve the water problem reaches its limit. After all, the supply of water on the earth is finite and even if we were to use the water with incredible efficiency there would be a point at which the available fresh water could not support a population of a certain size. Naturally, this can be countered by reducing population size—but determining whether we should do this or not and the details of the reduction would involve moral choices.

It is also worth noting that there are many practical (rather than theoretical) problems that could prevent us from adequately solving the water problem. The droughts that affected the United States in 2012 had an impact on food production and if these droughts become more common, then the matter of distributing water resources will become even more pressing. There are also the political considerations, such as political entities controlling the distribution of water to serve their own ends. Even the United States has political conflicts over water distribution and these will probably only worsen as the population increase and water distribution changes as the climate changes.

As a final point, it is worth noting that water is a resource that is almost endlessly reusable. Unlike oil, our use of water generally does not destroy the water. For example, when we drink water we are not digesting it into hydrogen and oxygen to provide energy—rather we use it to hydrate our tissues, remove waste and so on. Roughly put, the water that goes in eventually comes back out. Of course, the water that we use does become contaminated and this contamination can render the water useless to us. For example, while urine is mostly water it is rather unsuitable for drinking. As another example, water that is contaminated with chemicals, feces or radiation is useless for many purposes. Fortunately, we can purify water (although this can be rather costly) and purification also occurs naturally. Unfortunately, we have been rather busy damaging many of the natural purification systems and even more busy contaminating water. Also unfortunate is the fact that being “pro-environment” (favoring the preservation of natural purification systems and being in favor of limiting water pollution) is often cast in a negative light and dismissed by mockery and hyperbole. However, there are very practical economic reasons for preserving and restoring the natural purification systems, not the least of which is that nature does for free what would cost a fortune to do artificially. These same reasons apply to avoiding water contamination as much as possible. After all, cleaning water is generally more costly than avoiding polluting it. For example, keeping feces contaminated runoff from agriculture out of the water supply is certainly cheaper than removing the contamination.

My Amazon author page.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Climate Change & Skepticism

Al Gore

Cover of Al Gore

While I am not a philosophical skeptic (I do believe that knowledge is possible), I am a practical skeptic (I require proof before I believe). While some folks are skeptical of climate change, the evidence seems adequate to support the claim that humans have had a measurable impact on the climate. Given the scale of human activity, this seems inherently plausible. The climate data and causal explanations also seem fairly compelling.

Naturally, there are skeptics regarding climate change. Some of these folks are rational skeptics. That is, their doubts are founded on legitimate concerns about the methodologies used in climate science as well as the data in question. This sort of doubt and skepticism is actually a rather important part of the scientific approach: just as Socrates argued for the importance of the gadfly in the context of society, there should also be gadflies in science. Scientists are, after all, only human and are subject to all the same cognitive biases and frailties as everyone else (plus are especially vulnerable to certain biases).

Some folks are, however, irrational skeptics. They base their doubt not on legitimate critiques of the methodology or the data. Some of these folks base their doubt not on logic, but on their emotions. They feel hostility towards the idea of climate change and the people who claim it is real. They feel positive towards the folks who deny it. However, feeling is not a good guide to the truth. John Locke argued quite effectively for this in his essay regarding enthusiasm. However, you can test this yourself: try taking a chemistry test or solving a complex engineering problem solely by how you feel about the matter. Let me know how well that works out. To be fair, there are folks who believe in climate change based on how they feel. While I am inclined to say that their belief is correct, I am even more inclined to say that they are not warranted to hold said belief since it is based on feeling rather than on actual reasons (that is, the belief might be true, but is not justified).

Some of the skeptics base their doubt on the fact that the truth of climate change would be contrary to their interests. In some cases, they are not consciously aware that they are rejecting a claim based on this factor and they might very well be sincere in their skepticism. However, this is merely a form of wishful thinking. Other folks are well aware of what they are doing when they express their “skepticism.” Their goal is not to engage in a scientific debate over the matter-that is, engage in argumentation to achieve the truth. Rather, their objective is to persuade others to doubt climate change and thus protect their perceived interests. To be fair, there are folks who push climate change because doing so is in their own interest. As Al Gore will attest, there is considerable money to be made in this area. This, of course, does not show that Al Gore is wrong-”reasoning” this way would be to fall victim to a circumstantial ad homimem fallacy. Saying that the climate change deniers are wrong because they have an interest in denying it would also commit this fallacy (the sword of logic cuts both ways).

Interesting, while whether climate change is occurring or not (and whether or not it is our doing) is a scientific matter, much of the fighting is done in the realm of politics and rhetoric. However, factual claims about climate are not settled by who has the best rhetoric or who can get the most votes. They must be settled by scientific means. As such, it is important to cut through the rhetoric (and fallacies) and get to the heart of the matter.

While the consensus of the experts is that climate change is real and is caused, at least in part, by humans, I am not an expert on climate change. But, I am rational and, as such, I will accept their view unless adequate contrary evidence is provided from unbiased sources.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Greening the future with the help of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers

It’s great to be joining the TP blog as a regular blogger. I thought I’d start by mentioning what my main philosophical research is about, right now.

So; my current project is a particularly small and easy one ;-)
…I’m working to find a solution to the central problem of our time: our (humans’) fairly-rapid and at-present seemingly-inexorable collective destruction of our collective life-support mechanism…

One of my proposals, being developed along with my main co-author Phil Hutchinson, is that Wittgenstein and the Pragmatists can help – that these are in fact ‘environmentalist’ philosophers (To read more, see my book PHILOSOPHY FOR LIFE, chapter 1).

It can seem shocking to suggest that James, Dewey and Wittgenstein be cast as (everyday) environmentalists. For we are accustomed to thinking of ‘environmentalism’ as a political category, and of philosophers as above politics. That widespread notion is however multiply-flawed. Firstly, the whole point of the suggestion in the previous paragraph is that one cannot make any sense of supposing creatures such as ourselves to exist except as utterly dependent upon and in an important sense therefore utterly immersed in our environing circumstances. Secondly, the merest common-sense for the species, of survival, ought to make ecologism, i.e. the sense that everyone is ‘downstream’ of everyone else (See Helena Norberg-Hodge’s marvellous film and book, ANCIENT FUTURES, for detail on this notion), into something that is genuinely basic for all politics, rather than being politically controversial. It is their not yet being common-sensical that makes things appear ‘political’ in some problematic and controversial way; what is needed is a politics that successfully acts so as to render the ideology of ecologism – an Earth-based ‘ideology’ – part of the ground, rather than figural. ‘Hegemonic’, in Gramscian terms. Thirdly, given that our societies are so tragically far from such far-sightedness, there is no way that being ‘politically controversial’ can be avoided – in making the transition to a thinking and a conducting of ourselves as if tomorrow truly mattered. And fourthly, it is in any case misguided to fantasise philosophy as would-be politically-neutral. This fantasy, fairly widespread in the English-speaking world, but much less attractive on the Continent (and directly contested in Dewey’s corpus, and also in Cornel West), is based upon a resistance to thinking deeply about the ‘therapy’ that our culture needs to go through, the changes that are required if it is to be truly assertible that we love wisdom and act accordingly. The drive toward depoliticisation of as much as possible is itself an aspect of the ‘liberal’ philosophy of mutual indifference that precisely requires challenging, if these changes are to occur.

How is this kind of thinking to become reality? How does the transition get made from philosophy to political action?

This writing that I am doing in itself could not possibly be enough, however brilliant it was and however widely read it might be. It needs to be ‘completed’– by you, and many more. In part, in action, including in actions that we do not anticipate and perhaps would not in some cases even welcome. (For Wittgenstein, the deepest meaning of philosophy being a ‘therapeutic’ enterprise is that the reader / listener needs truly to enter into the conversation.)

A truly Wittgensteinian solution to our problems, compatible I/we suggest with the best of the spirit of Pragmatism (with for instance the Jamesian right-to-believe; the Deweyan emphases on human animals as through-and-through environed, as through-and-through not subjects facing objects, as through-and-through not in need of a quest for certainty conceived of as knowledge-immune-to-doubt; the Peircean suggestion that belief is not really belief unless it be articulated into action (so long as this is not a tacit behavioristic claim, but rather a kind of moral or political one: On what basis are you (and are you not) prepared to act?); and so forth), _depends_ on the reader; and, ultimately, on there being a decent number _of_ such readers.

Which is one reason why it seems appropriate to canvass it here on this blog.

Carbon Sequestration

In an interesting coincidence, I happened to be reading an article on carbon sequestration at the same time the History Channel was showing a series of programs on disasters. Naturally enough, this got me thinking about potential disasters relating to carbon sequestration.

In very general terms, carbon sequestration is part of a process intended to keep atmospheric carbon levels from increasing by capturing and storing carbon dioxide emissions. The process is mainly intended for use with large scale emission producers, such as power plants.

From a moral standpoint, one stock way to justify the use of carbon sequestration is by using the standard utilitarian argument. If the utility created by carbon sequestration outweighs the disutility, then the method is morally acceptable. If not, then the method is unacceptable.

Given three important assumptions, this method seems to be morally laudable (or at least acceptable). The first is that the method will significantly reduce emissions. Second, the effects of atmospheric carbon dioxide are negative. Third, the method does present significant harms of its own.  For the sake of the argument (and brevity), the first two points will be conceded.

In regards to the third factor, there are five matters I will consider.

First, there is the environmental impact of the method to consider. Once the carbon dioxide is captured, it must be transported to a storage area. While there are alternatives, this will probably be done via pipelines. Naturally enough, such pipelines will have an environmental impact which must be taken into account when assessing this method. After the carbon dioxide is transported, it must be sequestered. Currently, the most popular proposal is geological storage. However, there are proposals to use the oceans for storage as well as mineral storage (essentially converting the carbon dioxide into rock). Obviously, the environmental impact of storing carbon dioxide in the ground or ocean could be considerable and also must be taken into account. It would be somewhat ironic if the method did more environmental damage than it prevented.

Second, there is the possibility of disaster. While carbon dioxide is much less noxious than other industrial by-products (it does not explode or burn), it still poses a significant threat. Obviously, humans and other animals can tolerate certain levels of carbon dioxide. However, high enough levels can lead to harmful effects and even death. Should a pipeline or containment location suffer a disaster, this could result in significant harm to humans and animals in the area. While I am not an engineer, the history of disasters seems to indicate that a major disaster is all but inevitable. As such, the disaster factor is something that needs to be taken into account.

Third, there is the concern that the cost of the method will take resources away from alternatives that would be safer and perhaps more effective.The earth already has highly effective means of dealing with carbon, namely plants and its own natural storage methods. It might well be a better use of our resources to protect and enhance these natural methods rather than adding an artificial method that might have serious negative consequences. Of course, there might not be as much profit in these alternative approaches as in carbon sequestration. After all, companies will need to build and maintain the systems and none of this will be free. This is not to suggest that people would use the cover of environmental concern in order to make money. It is truly hard to imagine that anyone would try to make money that way.

Fourth, there is the concern that as innovative as carbon sequestration might appear, it is really just a variation on the old models of dealing with pollution. Two of these models of dealing with waste are “sticking it in a hole in the ground” and “dumping it in the ocean.” History has shown how well those approaches have worked. Of course, it might be countered that these methods are well understood and hence involve less risk than new alternatives. However, there is much to be said for moving away from the old approaches  and finding something that will work better.

Fifth, there is the concern that this method merely masks the symptoms without addressing the underlying disease. While sequestering carbon dioxide might be better than dumping it directly into the atmosphere, it might not be better (environmentally) than switching from carbon producing processes to alternatives. While carbon sequestration allows existing power plants to operate with some modifications, the fundamental problem remains. This problem is, of course, our reliance on fossil fuels. Carbon sequestration would, if it worked, make it easier to keep using fossil fuels and hence would likely have the effect of retarding the development of alternatives.

Given these factors, carbon sequestration should be carefully considered before it is taken to be the right approach.

The Ethics of E-Waste

People in the West enjoy their technological gadgets and new technology appears at a relentless pace. Thus, it is hardly surprising that there is an ongoing replacement of older technology by newer items. Mobile phone users generally switch to a new phone every 18 months. People update their computers less often, typically every three years, but a computer system is considerably larger than a phone. Televisions and other items are updated less often, but are replaced as they break or are considered obsolete. Naturally enough, most people just toss the old hardware into the trash. In accord with the cute naming practices of the internet age, this waste is commonly known as e-waste. While most people do not think about what happens after their old technology is carted away, obviously all that e-waste must be going somewhere.

A significant proportion of the items, at least in the United States, end up in landfills. For example, currently less than 1% of mobiles phones are recycled. There are two main problems with the landfill solution. First, it is wasteful of resources and space. Second, many high tech items contain toxic elements and thus pose environmental and health risks. Give the harm generated by dumping high tech items into landfills, this approach is not morally acceptable.

Some high tech items do end up being recycled. While there are some recycling plants in the United States and Europe, a significant amount of e-waste is shipped outside the West to places in Asia and Africa. While Western recycling centers must meet fairly stringent guidelines, those outside the West tend to be poorly regulated at best. Even worse, a considerable amount of the recycling is done by individuals who, from necessity, follow extremely risky practices. For example, people burn the insulation off copper wire in open fires-thus exposing themselves and the environment to dioxins and heavy metals. In another example, people melt lead from circuit boards using the same pots and pans they later cook their meals in. Not surprisingly, the impact on the health of those around the plants and those individual working directly with the e-waste is rather serious. This recycling can come back to harm the West as well. For example, it is suspected that the lead tainting those toys imported from China was recycled from Western sources.

From a moral standpoint, these recycling practices are unacceptable for two main reasons. The first is the matter of responsibility. The West is enjoying the benefits of high technology while passing a serious cost on to people who do not benefit from such technology. While this has long been the way of the world, it is irresponsible to cause others to pay the price for the benefits one receives. To use an analogy, this would be like one person getting the enjoyment out of smoking cigarettes while contributing to someone else suffering all the ill effects of smoking. The second is the matter of harm. The unregulated and crude recycling practices are clearly injurious to the health of the people involved (and those in the area) as well as to the environment. Allowing such unnecessary harm to take place is, intuitively, wrong.

One common proposed solution is that the West should recycle its e-waste and thus bear the cost of its technology luxury. This addresses both of the moral concerns raised above. First, the West would be taking responsibility for its e-waste. Second, the recycling conditions in the West would be far safer for individuals and the environment.

Of course, this solution does raise another problem. The people outside the West who are involved in this recycling are obviously not doing it for their health or as a hobby. They are recycling the material in order to make a living. Thus, one irony is that recycling in the West would deny them the means by which they have been earning a living. While they would be protected from the harms of dangerous recycling, they would need to find another way to earn a living. Presumably these people chose recycling over something they regarded as even less desirable. Hence, they could well be worse off if the West were acting responsibly by recycling the e-waste.

A more ethical solution would be to establish properly equipped and regulated recycling plants in these countries- with the West bearing a portion of the costs. This practice would have three main virtues. First, the people of the West would be acting in a responsible manner by taking a role in dealing with the waste generated by their way of life. Second, the environment and individuals would be protected from the harms of unregulated and unsafe recycling practices. Third, a better source of income would be available to the local people, thus enabling at least some people to have a better life. The recycling would also save money in the West. For example, a PC built using recycled material would require 43% less energy and thus would be cheaper to make. Obviously, it could also be cheaper to buy-thus allowing Westerners to save money. Thus, e-waste could very well become an opportunity for doing what is right while also doing what is economically advantageous.