Archive for April, 2007

Capitalism and its Discontents

Sharon April 30th, 2007

Entertaining essay on the discursive impossibility of ever critiquing capitalism over at “Counterpunch.” Definitely worth a read. Of course, we’d never say anything bad here about capitalism…Nah.

“We know that capitalism is not just the most sensible way to organize an economy but is now the only possible way to organize an economy. We know that dissenters to this conventional wisdom can, and should, be ignored. There’s no longer even any need to persecute such heretics; they are obviously irrelevant.

How do we know all this? Because we are told so, relentlessly — typically by those who have the most to gain from such a claim, most notably those in the business world and their functionaries and apologists in the schools, universities, mass media, and mainstream politics. Capitalism is not a choice, but rather simply is, like a state of nature.

Maybe not like a state of nature, but the state of nature. To contest capitalism these days is like arguing against the air that we breathe. Arguing against capitalism, we’re told, is simply crazy.We are told, over and over, that capitalism is not just the system we have, but the only system we can ever have. Yet for many, something nags at us about such a claim. Could this really be the only option? We’re told we shouldn’t even think about such things. But we can’t help thinking — is this really the “end of history,” in the sense that big thinkers have used that phrase to signal the final victory of global capitalism? If this is the end of history in that sense, we wonder, can the actual end of the planet far behind?”


Poetic Interlude

Sharon April 30th, 2007

Ok, I must pause from my regularly scheduled rant to post Simon’s first poem, as typed and spelled by the author. He made this up some weeks ago, and memorized it, and Isaiah now knows it too.

Yes, I know it is dorky to post your kids cute things on your blog for complete strangers, but I never claimed I wasn’t a dork.

(Part of a collection Simon has modestly titled “great poem’s for youg readers” - he says it has 100 poems in it, but so far I’m only aware of 3. Kind of like the elephant in the block of stone.)

i did not eat your ice cream

i did not eat your ice cream i did not drink your wine i did not swipe your pasta i did not wish to dine i did not rip your poster i did not brake your saw i did not give you a hair wash i did make it a law i did not mess up your kalimba i did not bang on your drum i did not do any
thing good bye i gess im done.

by simon

I shall return to my normal ranting tomorrow. For now, content by my five year old.



The Limits of Responsibility: Revisiting Eichmann

Sharon April 29th, 2007

My post about Eichmann and the applicability of the banality of evil argument to those who cause climate change was extremely controversial. I got a lot of comments and private emails that argued out with me in great detail. The discussion was overwhelmingly wise and respectful, and I learned a lot from it. I’m very grateful to those who took time to debate and discuss this subject, and I appreciate the degree to which you’ve improved my thinking. I think the subject who who is responsible, and how responsible, deserves more consideration than I gave it in my comparatively short and designed-to-provoke post, so I’m going to address some of the responses here. I’ll be delighted if this causes more discussion. This is rather long, philosophical and wordy, as is my wont, so I’ll forgive you if you go off and have a beer instead, though ;-).

The first argument that I encountered, that I think was absolutely on target is the claim that if everyone is Eichmann, no one is Eichmann. And, of course, that is absolutely true - there is no doubt of that. Kiashu, Michelle and others all persuasively argued this, and, of course, they are right. I actually never intended to imply that every person in the world was equally responsible, but neither did I clarify what I meant.

My error came in not defining who I was speaking of, and expressing myself more generally than I should have. It is obviously true that there are a large number of people in this country, probably the vast majority, who are completely unequipped to work their way through the network of complicated information to find out what the impact of their actions are. For those who do not understand, who are not equipped to understand, for those who have not the ability to sift through the disparate connections between their actions and their impact, or for those who are so caught up in other exigencies that they cannot, there is no question that they are not evil. They are acting, for the most part, inadvertantly. And in fact, I never intended to claim that every person was Eichmann. As Michelle points out, her 2 year old (and mine) are off the hook, as are a lot of other people. But maybe not all of them.

If we are to recognize categories of moral responsibility, we might divide us up into four such categories.

1. Those who do not know, and cannot know, and who thus act inadvertantly (the majority at this point)
2. Those who do not know, but could know and choose not to.
3. Those who do know, and do understand, but either choose not to act or to admit responsibility
4. Those who do know and do act.

I think it is important that we recognize that these are different categories, and their degree of complicity is different. Now let me first say that I have no real interest in trying to figure out who falls into what category - this is merely a way of thinking about the problem of responsibility.

For those who cost others their lives but do not know, and do not intend, and could not easily know, I would argue that they are not doing evil, but they are *responsible* for their actions. That is, they are obligated to try and compensate others for what they have done. That is, even if you inadvertantly cause harm to others, you still owe those others some debt - apology, reparations, comfort, aid. If you knock someone over by accident, you help them up, apologize, if you have broken their packages offer to replace it. The same is true of inadvertant harm you do others. That means that those who did not know are not feed from responsibility, but they are freed from the accusation of moral evil.

But what about the next two categories? They were the ones I was thinking of when I wrote my post about Eichmann in my living room. They are people like me - well educated, priveleged, comparatively well off, fortunate in many ways. They (we) read whatever the Very Important Paper is in their region, and take in a variety of news and information. They track their stocks and research their restaurants, travel destinations and medical conditions (I won’t write we here because I don’t have any stocks, don’t travel and am healthy, but I’m not so very far away, either). These are usually the people who do the most harm in their society - they consume more energy that poorer people, they have more stuff, they spend more money, they (we) are the ones investing in the World Bank and keeping the growth economy moving.. They (we) tend to have all the skills and abilities necessary to know, and they have at least some exposure to the material - they look at the climate change headlines, consume the news, and they don’t necessarily take it any further. Again, I am not tarring anyone here - this is how I began, and sometimes it is who I still am. I am still figuring out my own degree of complicity in the destruction of the world.

But are these people innocent? That is, if you know very generally that climate change is a threat, if you read the headlines and look at the stories, see the movie and watch the news, but choose not to devote any more intellectual energy to discovering what your role in this is, is that an accident or a choice? I would argue that it is a choice, and a disturbing one - the “if I choose not to know, I don’t have to change.” That is, these are people who choose not to offer the future of their own lives and their children’s lives, and those of people elsewhere in the world the same attention that they give the latest film offerings, a new restaurant or an allergy medication. I would argue that there is a real and meaningful degree of will involved in this - an act of intention that says that their own responsibility can be obviated as long as they close their eyes as tightly as possible. This is wrong - IMHO, this falls in the category of at least criminal negligence. The question becomes - do we have any moral responsibility to ensure that we are not killing other people.

And that’s a new question for us. The history of the 20th century was one of people being able to kill more and more at a distance, and more and more people being able to kill on scale none of us has ever fully grasped. Even now we don’t understand what we can do in most cases. But with this increase of power has not come an increase of personal responsibility, or a willingness to bear that responsibility, and it has expanded our incentives to deny. My own belief is that unless people are held responsible for their denial, they will continue to close their eyes as the corpses pile up. Is this evil? I don’t know, but for many philosophers, denial of the suffering of others is right at the border of moral evil. And to me, as we become more aware of peak oil and climate change, and more and more people develop the tools to understand what we are facing, this question will become more and more acute - are you relieved of your responsibility by maintaining plausible deniability? And what will we become if we allow that to excuse us?

Next come those who know, but deny responsibility, or do not act. Perhaps my largest difference with some of my critics is that I think this group, and the one preceeding it, are more significant than they do, and more numerous. There are many people out there who admit that global warming is a problem, but have not changed their lives, or believe that the responsibility lies with someone else. Now I will be the first to admit that changing your life and yourself is a process. I am not directing my criticism at those who are beginning, and seeking another move, but at people who do not admit that they are responsible to resist, as Arendt put it.

These are people who understand that the consequences of their actions are presently and will lead to harm to others - maybe even harm to themselves, but who don’t act. They do this (and I understand this because I am one of them), from inertia, or fear, or the sense that it is hopeless to begin without leadership or without government initiative. Or they think their own reasons for what they do are justifiable - that is, “I’m a very busy person and I have to pay the mortgage.” They tend to prefer not to express their justifications explicitly, because we all know “I have to pay the mortgage so people in Bangladesh have to die” is not going to cut it, so we leave unexpressed (and often unthought) the outcome of our action. It doesn’t make anyone less dead, but it is more palatable. Christopher Buckley, in his novel _Thank You For Smoking_ calls this the “yuppie neuremberg defense” and I think that’s pretty close to right.

I have done this. I do do this. I understand that it is frustrating to act when it seems hopeless, it is easier to rely on governments and others to take responsibility, and we do all have good reasons. But if I cannot end my sentence of justification with “And thus, it is perfectly reasonable that Vietnamese children starve to death because of me” and believe that, then I can’t do it. Why? Because such reasoning is evil. Not just bad, but evil. To say my actions justify killing others for my convenience and comfort is evil. And it is not less evil if we choose not to say the words aloud. As Arendt points out, resistance is always an option. It may not get us the results we dream of. But sometimes that isn’t the point - sometimes the point of resistance is that without it, we become something we do not wish to be.

My old friend George Franklin is one of the smartest people I know, and also has a much deeper and more subtle grasp of both philosophical and legal categories of responsibility than I do, and he argued ,

“By defining conduct as genocide that is not willfully aimed at exterminating races, you criminalize that conduct and create a Manichean situation–the elect and the damned, those who reduce emissions and those who, for one reason or another, don’t). The problem here is that if the damned are guilty, they deserve punishment. This thinking creates a slippery slope that may even lead to certain persons feeling justified in committing violent acts against those they perceive to be guilty of genocide. After all, wasn’t violent action justified against the Nazis? (Remember, Eichmann was executed.) Should we blow up the houses of persons who don’t recycle? I am exaggerating, of course, but remember that the red brigade and weather underground started from similar white/black premises. Hortatory rhetoric does what it’s supposed to do; it persuades people to take action. We can’t always know what form that action will eventually take.”

I think George has raised some good issues. The first is that I should take a greater degree of responsibility for my own rhetoric, and be explicit about what it is (and is not) that I am calling people to do and not to do in response. So I will do so now.

I am calling people to do - nothing. Or rather, nothing, save to look at themselves. All I suggest we do is take a good, and close look in our mirrors. It is certainly not my job to single out the sinners and the saints - I’m not sure there any saints to find, and that kind of reasoning is more the purview of a different faith than mine. For me, this is about one’s responsibility to be an ethical person, and I have enough trouble doing that for myself without sitting in judgement of others. But I would quote Ralph Waldo Emerson here on the subject of “Compensation,”

“The fallacy lay in the immense concession that the bad are successful; that justice is not done now. The blindness of the preacher consisted in deferring the base estimate of the market of what constitutes manly success, instead of confronting and convicting the world from the truth; announcing the presence of the soul; the omnipotence of the will; and so establishing the standard of good and ill, of success and falsehood.”

Emerson argues that we are punished now, not just in some future life, for the ill we do in the world. And I agree. We are punished by the kind of people we become - by the fact that when we look in our mirrors, if we have any great honesty, we see the things we deplore looking back. We are punished imperfectly by the responses of others - that is, those we sinned against judge us, and they devise their own punishments. We saw the two towers fall, and claimed that it was done because they hate our freedom - but, of course, Bin Laden and others told us why. They took their revenge, and we ours, and so on until the whole world perishes. And there are millions of people who will do the same - they will imperfectly render back the evil done to them, and bring more harm into the world. And someday, we will face our children, or our grandchildren, or if you believe in one, G-d, and we will be called accountable. What will our grandchildren say to us? What will they do when they know that we wrought this evil upon them. Will they accept our protest of innocence? Justice is not done once, but over and over again, imperfectly. Better that we not bring the imperfect hand of justice down upon ourselves. I do not wish to see this happen, and I think it is better to see the evil in ourselves and rout it out than to face whatever fraction and shape of justice we will see.

George also accuses me of “us and them” rhetoric. I don’t think that’s actually true. The first person plural was not an accident in my original message, and I do not exempt myself from responsibility for my own action and inaction. There is only “us” here, all with varying degrees of responsibility and exculpation. And no matter how carefully we mend our ways, there is no doubt that we will continue to do some harm. The world has progressed to the point that whatever we do impacts others, both negatively and positively. But that’s not an excuse for not reducing that harm to its absolute minimum. It is true, however, that I am drawing a line in the sand - if you know, or can know, your obligation to resist doing harm is absolute.

Many people took me to task for my claim that intentionality isn’t required to do evil. George pointed out that Eichmann intended the consequences he caused. Kiashu argued,

“Whether they should feel bad or not is irrelevant. Believing in Jewish ethics, I believe that only actions and results matter; if a bad person does something with good results for bad reasons, it’s still got good results, so their motives are irrelevant - except insofar as they affect their future actions.”

I agree that Eichmann did intend the consequences of his action, but one of the important points that Arendt makes is that he didn’t much care (this may or may not actually have been true of Eichmann personally, but for the purposes of this discussion we’ll accept Arendt’s claim) what harm he did. Yes, he did his harm knowingly, but his interest and intention were not focused on what he accomplished, but on his own personal ends. I think there is more common ground here that either of my critics is inclined to admit. In this case, we may not intend our ends, but we share with Eichmann the condition of being mostly concerned with achieving our personal ends. The difference is that for those who could know or do know, they choose not to carefully consider the outcomes, an option Eichmann didn’t have.

I would use a legal analogy - we do believe that intentionality matters in how we judge the crimes we commit. If for example, I stab my husband with a tuning fork in the heat of passion, others will judge me differently than if I take the tuning fork, and plot an elaborate scheme to murder him with it. But only up to a point. The act is still murder. At best, if I were to accidentally murder my husband (in some way I can’t figure out) with a tuning fork, one might call that an accident, or at worst, criminally negligent homicide. But what would happen if I kept doing it, over and over and over again, and stream of tuning fork induced corpses appeared in my yard (ok, this is past silly)?

Intentionality matters in how we judge - but not enough to erase the stigma of evil. That is, the avoidable things we knowingly (or willfully unknowingly) do to others are still acts of murder. Our responsibility may be somewhat diminished - although each such act and each bit of knowledge we reject or ignore raises our responsibility. But is lack of intentionality enough to make what we do not evil? I tend to think not, although I’m open to debate here.
I do think Kiashu gets it wrong about Jewish Ethics. I take this fairly seriously, and I do realize that my prior post and my current one may well be committing the ethical error of failing to judge fairly. What I will say is that I am doing the best I can on this one, but I do recognize that it is a real concern.

But Kiashu’s claim that motives are irrelevant is better support for my case than hers (his?). But more importantly, Jewish law is very clear, I think that we are responsible for what we *do not* do, at least as deeply as we are for what we do do, and that we bear moral responsibility for things we do by accident. I am no Talmudic Scholar of any sort, so I’m sure my arguments are open to dispute, but as I see it, the Talmud and Torah both support the notion that we are obligated to understand the consequences of our actions and also to make amends for them.

For example, Rabbi S. R. Hirsch says of the person who sins inadvertantly, speaking of Parsha Vayakira,

“A shogeg sins because of inadvertence or forgetfulness, i.e., because at the moment of sinning he is not attentive with body and soul to acting in accordance with the commandments and the Torah, because he is not, in the words of the prophet, “concerned (hared) about My word” (Is. 66:2). This lack of concern and rigorous attention to living according to the Torah and its commandments is the essence of the sin committed “unwittingly.” Therein lies the “transgression” which comes in the wake of the “sin,” as it is written, “of transgression, … whatever their sins”[mipish’ehem lekhol hatatam] (Lev. 16:16).”

That is, we are obligated to keep up a reasonably high level of consciousness and self-awareness. The word “rigor” here, is, I think important. This, I think, supports the notion that we can hold some people at least to the standard of being obligated to know what the consequences of their actions are.

Moreover, the Jewish concept of repentence is relevant here. In order for us to repent from any sins we’ve committed (and harming others is undoubtably a sin), we must engage in four steps.

1. Acknowledge the wrongdoing (ha-karat hachet) - that is, we are obligated to understand fully what we have done. This involves speaking our failures aloud, without minimizing or lying. So we have no choice but to fully understand the consequences of our actions in order to be forgiven for them.

2. We must undo the damage and ask for forgiveness. This, of course, leads to the great problem of murder - because the victim cannot speak or give forgiveness (even if they wanted to), you can never be forgiven for killing others willfully. This would be, IMHO, a strong reason for those of us committed to Jewish ethics not to kill people. And how can we undo the damage of a warmed planet? We cannot. We can never be forgiven for that either.

3. We must ask G-d for forgiveness. Rabbi Telushkin notes in his _Code of Jewish Ethics_: “Even when vicimts of te most terrible crimes extend forgiveness to their
assailants, we cannot assume that, in the absence of sincere repentance, God forgives the criminals.” (Telushkin, 166).

4. We must resolve not to sin this way again.

The simple fact is, IMHO, within Jewish Ethics there is no justification for defending actions based upon an incomplete understanding of their consequences. We are simply held to a higher standard than that. We *have* to know both what is right and whether what we’ve done has met that standard.

Squrrl asks if this isn’t primarily about guilt. The answer is no, I don’t think it is. Guilt is an emotion I don’t have a lot of truck with - we tend to feel guilty about things that we don’t intend to stop doing. “Oh, I really shouldn’t eat this cookie…oh, I really shouldn’t eat this next cookie.” To me, this is a deeper issue - guilt doesn’t do us any good. But responsibility, there’s a different animal.

For me, the issue is never how you should feel about things, but about how you should act. But moral knowledge is the only tool we have to enable us to act well - when we choose our actions, there is a great deal at stake. And unless we understand that this will lead us in a particular direction, including making us into particular kinds of people, we cannot choose wisely. For me, the Eichmann analogy is useful not because it makes us feel bad, but because it helps me dissect the impact of my actions. The question is not “am I pure enough” but “am I doing the right thing.” And when the answer is no, that means I have to change.

The one thing almost everyone who criticized me argued was that arguments like this are fundamentally alienating, that they turn off people we need to attract. And maybe that’s true. I don’t know if it is or isn’t - I think, for example, most formal religions would not exist if some people didn’t want to hear firm designations of right and wrong laid out. But the question that comes up for me is whether it even matters if this is alienating. To me, the relevant question is whether it is true or not. That is, if it is true that we are murdering people by our actions, and that we are doing so with some degree of understanding (or willful misunderstanding) of what we do, does it matter whether it alienates people to say so? Is it right not to say so? I don’t know the answer to this. I do know that I personally believe we do more harm by giving tacit permission to leave the consequences of your actions unexamined than we do by alienating them. This is a judgement call, of course, and I may be wrong. But as more and more people come to understand the consequences of their actions, I believe we must make denial, or failure to participate a non-option for all those who could do so. If I’ve alienated you, my apologies. If you go away and stop trying because of me, I’m sorry. But I’m not sure that that loss is enough to make me leave the truth as I see it off the page. If nothing else, realize you are in good company - you’ll hardly be the first person I’ve ever alienated, often for less good reasons ;-).

My doctoral dissertation was in part about Renaissance skepticism, which is roughly defined as the failure to recognize that other people are as real as you are. And of course, that’s natural - Stanley Cavell in many of his books observes precisely how normal it is not to believe that other people’s pain is like your pain, and their joy like yours, and not, deep in your gut, to believe that other people matter quite as much as you do. And this, I think, is the root of things here.
We are killing people, because we do not believe that they are fully real. We cannot grasp that the Pakistani mother who walks half a mile to scoop water for her child from a muddy ditch because the planet has warmed and her usual sources of water are gone, and who watches her children die from contaminated water is as real as we are, and loves her children and suffers as much as we. We cannot imagine that the native American people who see one loved one after another fall through the ice and die while hunting for food, and weep because their children are hungry are as real as you and I and our children. On some level, we have trouble even believing that our children are as real as we are - that some day their experience of insufficiency and poverty and fear will be as real as the fear we feel about change - and immeasurably greater.

There is no meaningful way to make others as viscerally real to ourselves as we are. If we have a good imagination, we can begin to try, but that’s far to contingent a solution. The only means out of this problem is this - to grant other people their subjectivity and their reality regardless of how it *feels* to us - that is, to recognize what Rabbi Hillel said is the whole of the Torah “That which is hateful to you, do not do to the other.” It doesn’t matter whether we understand them, or love them or care about them at all. The only way we can recognize and accomodate and live together is this - if you would not want it done to you and yours, do not do it to another. And for that, we must look, and learn. We extend subjectivity to the other as a gift of one human being to one another - because even though you may not feel as real as I do to me, the basis of any possible connection - of courtesy, respect, love, or even simple extension of human dignity is this - that I grant the possibility that you are fully real.

Ok, this was long and heavy and most of you probably got bored and wandered off ;-).
On to something more fun. On Monday, just to prove that I also want to hold hands with those who want to change, I’m going to start the first of my 52 week lifestyle change posts. I’ll offer 1 way per week to change your life to make it more sustainable, and hope that for those who have just begun (and those who might have missed one of these), doing something for a week will lead to doing it for a lifetime.



Jevon’s Paradox, Exponential Growth and Reallocation

Sharon April 26th, 2007

Jeff Vail is one of the smartest people out there writing about peak oil. His focus is designing a sustainable future. I don’t agree with everything he says, of course, but even when I disagree, I learn from him. He’s got a fascinating article on the limits of conservation over at The Oil Drum here: Some good comments and discussion there as well. You can read more of his material over at I particularly recommend his material on EROEI - he’s the person I go to if I have questions on this subject.

I was particularly engaged by this post, because I’ve argued in the past that Jevons’ Paradox (explained over at Jeff’s article) is, in fact, not inevitable, but to a large degree culturally constructed. Or rather, I think that Jevon’s Paradox will always limit to some degree the return you get from conservation and culture change, but you can minimize its effect.

For example, Juliet Schor in her book, _The Overspent American_ documents that the better educated you are, the more you spend, the more indebted you are, and the less you save. Got a Ph.d? You probably are carrying significant credit card debt (over and above any student loans), have a whopping mortgage, a couple of car payments, etc… Now you also probably make (even if your Ph.d was in something comparatively useless like mine) more than the average bear. But you are spending even more than you make trying to gain status and establish yourself as authentically different from other people who are trying to gain status. Not that you call it that, of course - but that’s how it operates.

Now the poorer you are, interestingly, the more likely you are to spend your money on necessities, of course, and the less likely you are to status buy. The most likely people to drop out of cultural status competitions, according to Schor, are poor African-Americans. They also have a higher savings rate for their income than average (important, since our national savings rate is now negative.) So a strategy, for example, that passed the benefits of conservation along to poorer, urban, African American people would see us return greater net benefits from conservation as a whole.

The poorer you are, the less energy you use. That is, you are more likely to take the bus, live in a densely populated neighborhood and walk places, and you buy less stuff, and more of it used. Thus, you might estimate that a dollar that comes back to a poor person in gas savings lose only 10% of its value in Jevon’s Paradox, while one that came back to much richer person would lose up to 30%. These aren’t exact figures, of course, but I think they are important, because they point up that a. the scope of Jevon’s paradox is something that can be regulated by a number of things, including *who* gets the benefits of demand destruction and the cultural context they come from. If Jevon’s Paradox isn’t an absolute truth (or perhaps it is, but an extremely contingent absolute truth), than we can focus our energies in part on limiting its impact.

In fact, this reallocation could *reduce* some of the places where poorer people do consume more energy than richer ones - in food, for example, if people were enabled to work less and offered classes in cooking and its energy impact. Health care would almost certainly be a reduction - that is, more money in the hands of the poor would enable them to use doctors instead of emergency rooms, and to treat treatable illnesses before they became acute.

All of which is why I think that simple carbon taxation, with the proceeds in the hands of the government (which has no real incentives to curb its spending), even allocated, as Jeff suggests, to design and adaptation strategies, might be less useful than a system that engaged in wide scale reallocation of wealth - that is, a tradable rationing system. That is, everyone gets a flat amount of energy for the year (it could start at 2% less than our present usage, for example - this is what Richard Heinberg and Colin Campbell’s Oil Depletion Protocol does), and those who are already below consumption levels make money. Now they will spend some of that money, of course, but if they like having more money (and people often do) they will also wish to retain their source of income - that is, they’d be forced to find lower impact ways of using their wealth.

And this would result in a large-scale net transfer of wealth to poorer people in the US. This is a growing class - 1 out of every 5 people in the US now lives on less than $7 per day, which in buying power is about equivalent to the third world’s famous $2 per day income. Wealth inequality has grown steadily over the last decades, and now is as acute as it was right before the stock market crash of 1929. Economic disparity is part of the fuel for our consumption - the richer rich gets, the harder we run to try and keep up with whoever our Joneses are. Poorer people are accustomed mostly to keeping up with poorer people - and that makes a big difference in our sum ambitions, and the energy we use for them. Getting more cash to people whose dream is to drive to Waukeegan to visit the grandparents is more useful than getting more cash to people whose dream is to fly to the Carribean.

So we’d be transferring money to people who are a. most likely not have their basic needs met (and away from the people who most likely *do* have those needs met), b. who are likely to use it in the most energy efficient way possible and c. to the people most inclined to save. Because it turns out that while the poorest of the poor are unlikely to save, America’s remaining savers are mostly concentrated in the lower middle class. And this is true all over the world - dirt poor farmers in rural China who live on less than $2 per day are likely to save up to 1/4 of their income - while Chinese urbanites save less than 1/10.

Part of this is the urgency of saving for the poor - poor people know there’s no safety net under them. They know that if they don’t have a reserve, any crisis can be a disaster. Moreover, they are more likely to have poor family members who need help in hard times because *they* don’t have safety nets. A recent study showed that the poorer you are, the more willing you are to lend money to your family.

On the other hand. wealthy people a. often don’t realize how urgent savings is, because no disaster has ever befallen them, b. they often get more credit extended to them, and thus are more indebted, and can’t save because they have to service debt, and c. they often use credit as a fall back position - that is, if they lose a job, they plan to rely on credit, with the assumption that someday they will be rich again. Because credit is an enormous part of the whole growth problem, giving money back to rich people is not only problematic because they’ll just spend it, but because they will spend *more* than what they get back, feeding their debt cycle. As a 2004 Harvard study showed, after receiving George Bush’s stupid tax rebate, most Americans spent it. But the richer you are, the more likely you were to spend not just your rebate, but more than that, based on feeling richer. And the wealthier you were, the more extra you spent.

Now a wealth transfer would almost certainly encourage poorer people to spend more money. But because that wealth transfer would create strong incentives to have it continue (that is, if you make 5K a year by not using energy, you’d prefer to keep that money coming in), and thus to find the lowest possible energy intensive uses for wealth. And it would do that not only for the poor, but for everyone - that is, every single person would experience a strong incentive to decorrellate wealth from energy use. This would be the deepest benefit of a tradable rationing system - right now, money correllates pretty strongly with energy. Can we decouple them? I think we can - if people have more wealth when they use their money to buy, say, sustainably farmed food, handwoven clothing and other things - costly, but not to our energy budgets, those professions become economically feasible for a larger portion of the population.

I’m hesitant to overstate the case for tradable rationing, but I am wondering if such a model, something like the ODP, couldn’t become the generative source of a new, more sustainable, non-growth based economy. And the backbone of that economy (more or less coincidentally) would be a vastly smaller disparity between rich and poor.

Minimizing the energy consequences of Jevon’s paradox then, is in part a project of getting the economic returns into the right hands. That is, ensuring that the people who profit from whatever system we use are the people who both need the money the most, and who are least likely to waste it. We might find that efficiency matters more in a more equitable society - and that the interests of creating an low energy society mandates a greater degree of equality and fairer distribution of wealth. And redistribution itself might be the origin of something different - maybe even better.

Now the issue of political feasibility is a real one in the short term, which is why I think that raised energy taxes may be a shorter term necessity. Ultimately, who would want to see the power to ration resources held in the hands of the present government (or in many of the candidates currently vying to replace it - Hillary is saying she may want to invade Iran too - are you surprised)? That said, everyone raise their hand who thinks that a tax dividend on gas would go into redesigning a better future under the present government. And that is the real problem of top-down solutions.

I’ve got another post in the line about Eichmann in our living rooms, because I think it deserves some more analysis. After that, I’ve been mulling over our options if top down solutions remain unfeasible. I wonder - could we institute rationing without them? Surprisingly, the answer might be yes - but it would be hard. More on this soon.


Eichmann in our Living Rooms

Sharon April 24th, 2007

In her most famous book, _Eichmann in Jerusalem_, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil.” Eichmann, who enabled one of the greatest genocides of all time, did not act from personal hatred of Jews or Gypsies, or because he was overtly, inherently evil according to Arendt. He acted because he believed in following the law and doing his job well. He did evil, but was not evil - he simply absented his own moral responsbility, and did his job, regardless of its consequences, seeking promotion and to do well by the standards of his day. If that job meant killing millions of Jews, well…ah well.

What was important about Arendt’s book is the notion that ordinary people, acting in ordinary ways could do vast evil. We tend to think of evil as psychopathic, recognizable, like a cartoon villain. Arendt pointed out that evil happens when ordinary people choose not to recognize the moral qualities of their actions.

It is a painful thing to recognize, as we must, that right now, Adolf Eichmann lives in our houses. He is us, and we are he. That is, the ordinary life that we are living right now is the cause of more harm than any Nazi ever committed. We are committing genocide all over the world by warming the planet. 1.5 billion people stand to lose their drinking water over the next century. Up to 2 billion risk famine. More than 2 billion will be displaced. We can expect 30 million to die of diseases that are gradually moving north. The people most at risk are mostly poor, many women, many non-white. Whole nations of people stand to be killed or turned into refugees. The Nazis managed to kill only 11 million people. We stand to make them look like pikers.

And we do it every day in our living rooms, in our cars, in our schools, at our jobs. Over the second half of the 20th century, there has been the gradual increase of the notion that beaurocrats, those who kill people with a pen and never have to dirty their hands are not less morally responsible, but more so. There is a special circle of hell for those who do not dirty their hands.

And for every one of us who deplores an Eichmann, ordering Jews to the gas chambers, or Clinton watching Iraqi children starve to death, or a Rumsfeld ordering torture, should look carefully at ourselves, and think about how we are different. We too are killing people. We are doing it every morning as we drink our coffee. We too are killing people when we get into our cars to go to work. We are killing people as we do our jobs. We wonder what we have done to deserve this government that we have. And the answer is this - we have the government we can expect. For those who wash their hands of the acts they are responsible for, there is a special circle of hell indeed.

What is the answer? The answer is to stop obeying the law, the custom, going on the way we are. Arendt pointed out that Eichmann missed the whole point of Kant - he thinks the law is good because it is the law. But the law (or the custom, or the way we live) is only good if it is good, and it is moral, and if each man and woman allows their conscience, their moral sensibility to do a true accounting and judge, and take real responsbility.

Arendt famously said that it was always possible to resist the pressure to do evil. She argued,

“…under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.”

There is no excuse for us to fail to resist. We must reduce our emissions individually and as a nation. Whenever anyone says to you, “one person cannot make a difference” remember this - some day you will face your children, or G-d, or your own conscience. Being able to do that, and say “I fought back” may be the greatest legacy you can leave. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps we might also enable this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.

I do not wish to see Eichmann in my mirror.


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