Monthly Archives: August 2012

Some kind of nobility

Historically speaking, humans have taken great pride in being the epitome of evolution. We have attained consciousness about our surroundings, and ourselves and are able to pose the profound question: “Who are we?” We have developed language that enables us to communicate complex and intellectually stimulating thoughts and theories, but also developed technologies that give us control over our bodies and surroundings. Indeed, our power over the planet is unrivalled!

These abilities have been used to distinguish us from ”nature”. The environment has – to an ever-greater degree – become a place without importance in itself upon which we humans play out our drama. It has literally speaking gone from being nature (that which we are born out of) into being the environment (that which we see around us). It has furthermore become reduced to only being seen as a resource from which we can wrestle what we need, in order to fulfil our ever-growing requirements. Carried on the back of anthropocentric interpretations of monotheistic religion and philosophy, with no patience for beings that do not possess human rationality, we have become masters of the universe with license to use the planet as we see fit.

In spite of all our accomplishments, we have however reached an impasse, or perhaps even a dead-end, since that which we take so much pride in seems to be in the process of failing.

When we ask: ”Who are we”, the contemporary answer seems to be: ‘consumers’! This implies a  reduction of humans to “walking wallets”, whose only reason for existing is to ingest the products of our labour at a constantly increasing rate. Faced with the glaring implications of overconsumption, climate change, dwindling resources, and economic melt down, our only response so far is: “More growth!” An understanding of ”we” as more than a species of individuals that eat till they drop, seems to be out of our collective reach. And those that do have different visions are easily over-heard in the daily white noise of commercials.

We use language to face up to problems, to share the beauty of the universe, and to ask the questions of life, the universe and everything. However, more and more it seems we are reduced to using language to fulfil our needs, escape the consequences of this, and inventing yet more needs. The public sphere teems with means of communication. We can instantly be in touch with one another, anywhere on the planet, and access knowledge about anything. We use these amazing new abilities to check sport scores, surf porn, and gossip about people whose only accomplishment is to be more visible than others in the hurricane of entertainment that we use to distract ourselves from the pressing problems of our behaviour.

Finally, we have turned technology into a holy grail. Faced with the consequences of our lifestyles and the immediate need for changes, we close our eyes and keep dreaming that somebody will turn up a gizmo that can solve all the problems and enable us to continue our lives of over-consumption and adolescent recklessness. ”Humans have always come up with a solution” it is said, conveniently forgetting that there is no instance of a human civilisation overcoming the destruction of its ecosystem. In fact, civilisations depend vitally upon their physical and biological surroundings.

All of these arguments are well known elements in the contemporary critique of Western civilisation. There is nothing new here, except for the urgency with which it is put forth as the different crises of environment, food, energy, resources, and climate converge and paint a bleaker future than most of us have the courage to imagine.

In the face of this, most of us attempt either to remain oblivious or to fly into a panic. As Al Gore mentioned, we seem to move from absolute denial to absolute despair in seconds. However, somewhere between these two extremes, we just might be able to prove to ourselves that we at least have the courage to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation. We have a chance to show that thinking ourselves the epitome of evolution was not merely a fit of megalomania.

Whether we can actually solve the problem of these converging crises and return to some kind of ”normalcy” is doubtful however. The present situation is truly more like a catastrophe that will inescapably change the basic conditions of life for us all, but also other beings and organisms on this planet. This does not negate the need or requirement to do the best we can, of trying to salvage what can be salvaged, and seeking to live responsibility rather than in denial. This may not get us out of the hole we have dug for ourselves, but rather than relegating our species to the status: ’destructive infestation’ at least it will confirm some kind of nobility for the human race. We are, after all, the self-appointed epitome of evolution.

 Thanks to Thomas Derek Robinson for valuable suggestions

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Less confidentiality for the IPCC?

Currently, the first order drafts for the next assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Working Group III) are up for expert review. These drafts are confidential and should not be cited, quoted or distributed.

Does it make sense for the IPCC to stress the confidential nature of these drafts? Not necessarily, as a friend of mine pointed out.

Why? Firstly, the IPCC is lacking the public trust that it deserves. This trust could be enhanced by extra large transparency. Secondly, given how easy it is to become a reviewer and given how incredibly many reviewers there are, chances are close to zero that the drafts will ultimately remain a secret anyway.  Journalists who try to get access presumably will find a way to do so. Even Harry Potter leaked to the internet before its official release…

Call for Papers “Global Environmental Justice” (Deadline September 7)

Global Environmental Justice

Workshop to be held at the Universität Bremen
26/27 April 2013
Keynote Speaker: Henry Shue, Oxford University

Call for Papers

In recent years, global environmental politics and its study have increasingly engaged with normative questions, including global justice. Justice and equity norms have been on the agenda of international environmental politics ever since the latter’s emergence in the 1970s, but gained much prominence in the context of more recent debates about global climate change, the conservation of the world’s natural resources (e.g. forests, fisheries or biological diversity) or the international trade in hazardous wastes. Core questions include: Who should contribute how much to the avoidance of future environmental harm? Who ought to pay the costs incurred by the need to adapt to a changing natural environment? Which obligations do current generations have towards future ones in preserving the integrity of the natural environment?

So far, two strands of literature seem to address global environmental issues from different angles. First, there is a broad range of philosophically informed writings that focus on what an appropriate conception of global (environmental) justice would entail and seek to derive broad principles of global environmental justice. Second, the more empirically minded writings have thus far primarily been concerned with how (global) justice norms emerge and develop and how they affect policy-making at different scales.

The workshop is guided by the notion that it is useful to bridge this gap and to engage political and legal philosophy and empirical social science research – most notably from political science, geography and sociology – in a more encompassing and multi-faceted debate. The kind of questions we are interested in include (but are not limited to) questions such as:

  • What are the practically relevant differences und conflicts between different concepts of global environmental justice discussed in the literature? Would different theories of justice lead us to fundamentally different assessments of real-world institutions? Or are the differences mainly a matter of degree?
  • How can we recognize and ‘measure’ global environmental (in)justice?
  • How and why do different kinds of international or transnational environmental regimes differ in their distributive consequences at different scales? And what does that mean for global environmental justice?
  • How is global environmental justice conceptually and empirically related to the broader field of global justice? And where and how are global environmental justice concerns in conflict with other values such as ecosystem preservation, the conservation of biodiversity, self-determination, institutional effectiveness, or (legitimate) self-interest?

We welcome papers from different disciplinary backgrounds, including political philosophy, political science, geography, sociology and law. The substantive focus may be on climate change, but given the fast-growing literature on this particular topic we would also greatly welcome papers that address other environmental issues.

 Abstracts of proposed papers should be up to 500 words; they can be submitted to workshop@iniis.uni-bremen.de. The deadline for submitting abstracts is Friday, 07 September 2012.

 The workshop will be jointly hosted by the Research Group on Changing Norms of Global Governance and the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies (InIIS) at the Universität Bremen. Reimbursement of travel costs will be available for a limited number of participants.

 Conference organizers:

 Klaus Dingwerth, klaus.dingwerth@iniis.uni-bremen.de

Darrel Moellendorff, dmoellen@mail.sdsu.edu

Ina Lehmann, ina.lehmann@iniis.uni-bremen.de

 

Timeline:

Deadline for abstract submissions: 07 September 2012

Notification of selected papers: 15 October 2012

Papers due: 8 April 2013

Workshop date: 26/27 April 2013

 

 

 

Social Capital and Corruption in Post-Communist Countries (I)

Many theories on institutional confidence emphasize the importance of social capital for the creation of a functional institutional structure. According to a classical definition, social capital is a public good ‘which refers to features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions’ (Putnam, 1993, p. 167).

One of the arguments developed by such theories is that there is a strong connection between trust in institutions (and especially in the legal system) and interpersonal trust. More specifically, some researchers have argued that the institutional framework and the system of public policies in a country influence the level of social capital, namely that corrupt public officials generate mistrust among ordinary citizens. Conversely, it is argued, taking efficient steps against corruption will result in increasing the levels of interpersonal trust.

As a national of a former communist country, I agree that high levels of corruption and a strong social capital cannot go together. However, I would like to highlight two particularities of post-communist countries, which should add a nuance to the causal mechanisms between interpersonal and institutional trust:

  1. The distinction between high-level and petty corruption is still fundamental in some of these countries, to the extent that in many cases only the former is perceived as ‘real’ corruption, whereas the other is ‘getting by’, i.e. deceiving ‘the system’. Though many people fall prey to this latter mechanism in everyday situations and complain about it, they have also come appreciate the usefulness of ‘not standing in the queue’ when a shortcut is possible. Therefore, petty corruption is generally perceived as a necessary evil, and people tend to be more tolerant towards this phenomenon as compared to high level corruption. Consequently, widespread petty corruption does not proportionally shake interpersonal and institutional trust. Further, in countries where high level corruption is rampant, people become somehow inured to it, and anti-corruption measures have a much slower impact on trust than in consolidated democracies. For an interesting analysis of this issue, see Uslaner, 2008 (chapters 5 and 6).
  2. Secondly, I think the idea of ‘trust in institutions’ is less clear in countries that experienced communism. At empirical level, the Romanian example shows a gap between citizens, on one hand, and the state and its institutions on the other. There is a consistent collective perception of the state as a monolithic, immobile entity, and it is difficult to think of institutions as the result of a negotiated partnership translated into public policies. Also, unlike consolidated democracies, where criteria for assessing the performance of public institutions are clearer and ordered, in countries like Romania, there is a mix of criteria leading to sometimes paradoxical conclusions. For instance, a 2010 opinion poll revealed that three out of five respondents believed that human rights are not respected in Romania, half of the respondents said they would vote for the reintroduction of death penalty, and the Police (55%) was significantly less trusted than the Church (80%) or the media (61%).

Your thoughts and suggestions are welcome, as well as your personal experiences regarding trust and institutions in post-communist countries.

Criticizing Conference Flights

In recent posts I compiled considerations that might justify flying to academic conferences, including environmental conferences (here, here, and comments). I now list points that might disapprove of “workshop tourism” (I aim at completeness rather than a systematic taxonomy):

  • Passengers on airplanes can often be said to cause harm. At least, they are complicit in harm. That’s the first and most straightforward reason that speaks for staying at home. The climate change ensuing from aviation emissions puts people at risk, especially the poor in the future. Many travellers exceed their fair share of emissions, thereby also behaving unjustly towards their less emitting contemporaries.
    Those who refrain from flying not only refrain from harming but also have beneficial secondary effects in terms of affecting the behavior of others. They are role models who change perceptions of what’s “normal”. On some occasions, these pioneer’s decision forces conference organisers to adapt the format, thereby stimulating experimentation with new ways of doing academic interaction.
  • A second reason: In virtue ethic frameworks, there are obviously many problems with flying. By putting one’s own butt into an airplane seat one uses a big complex humanly built metal bird to thunder over the earth, thereby making thousands of miles in a very short time without having any sense of the physical and cultural distance one has thereby bridged. The “metal bird” exhausts dirty emissions all along the way. All this is often just for trivial benefits and for advancing career prospects.
  • A third reason: In case one works on environmental questions there might be special duties associated with one’s role. One reason for this is consequentialist: the behavior of environmental researchers and activists is more closely observed by the public and therefore has a larger impact on public attitudes. Another reason for this is the larger knowledge (compared to the population) that environmental folks have about the harmfulness of flying. But there might also be deeper reason, to do with a certain consistency between one’s core projects in life (such as one’s professional vocation) and one’s behavior.
  • A fourth reason: Travel-based cooperation filters out researchers from well-off universities for interaction. Scientific interaction based on reading each other and internet-based interaction would give better access to people from less well-off countries and lead to a less biased sample of voices in the scientific dialogue.
    Also, travel-based scientific cooperation is more closed in the sense that you typically need institutional funding to participate. This excludes voices that are important but less well integrated in institutional structures (such as independent researchers).
  • A fifth reason: Flying may be bad for you. A former economics professor who limited himself (vacation included) to three flights per year questioned the value-added that large conferences have for established professors.[1] This might not only be so for established academics: More generally, time spent at the desk rather than in airport terminals might possibly be more productive…
    In addition: The mental stress experienced in airports will probably let you die at least two years earlier than you would otherwise die…

Many further suggestions are welcome. I would especially like to collect some personal statements and thoughts on “why and how” of researchers who deliberately restrict their air travel (also anonymously, if you prefer).

[1] Neue Zürcher Zeitung 19.10.2009, Nr. 242, p. 37.

People are pessimistic about the future

An interesting excerpt from the newsletter of the Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations: “An international public opinion poll recently published by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) shows that of the 13 countries investigated, only citizens in Brazil, Belgium and India believe that future generations will be better off than today’s generation. 66% of respondents from all countries believe that future generations will be worse off, while only 27% believe they will be better off. According to the survey, the French have the most pessimistic outlook, with 93% of respondents feeling that future generations will be disadvantaged. The findings represent the opinions of over 1.4 billion people. The full study is available on the ITUC’s website.”

Justifying the emissions for flights to environmental conferences II

In a recent post,  we discussed whether researchers can justify jetting across the globe for their research (in particular for environmental research). We collected three reasons that could be adduced for the justifiability of “conference tourism”. We now add three further strategies for defending airmiles:

A fourth and prominent reason is this: the carbon emissions can be offset. If offsetting actually works and is actually done (by the university or by the researcher herself), then there is no overall environmental effect from flying to workshops.

Fifth, even if it might be a moral imperative to shift the whole research culture to more local interaction or, if international cooperation is deemed very valuable, to more electronic versions of international interaction, it might still be said that it is unfair to expect single researchers to go ahead with that shift if there is no joint action by the whole research community. There is no duty to be the lone “hero” who takes up large personal costs that others refuse to take up.

A sixth way to defend conference flights is based on doubt about the effectiveness of individual, small actions. If refraining from single flights does nothing to prevent — or not even diminish — climate change, then the reason for restraint vanishes according to many moral theories (even according to some non-consequentialist theories).

For some objections to the last two strategies, see the paper by Sabine Hohl and myself in Analyse&Kritik. Note that even someone agrees with our objections might still think that political action is a more effective and a more fair means to protect the climate than personal, small, voluntary actions such as a refusal to participate in conference travel.

The next post in these series collects reasons that speak against flying to workshops and talks. Any suggestions are welcome. Also, I need to collect a list of ideas for making international cooperation in research cooperation greener that anybody can agree on: no-regret-measures, first steps, creative solutions we haven’t thought of, etc.