Category Archives: Cultural Perspectives

And I was hoping for spring…

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’Winter is coming’… is the motto of one of the rivaling clans in the very popular HBO TV-series Game of Thrones based on an even more popular book series by George R. R. Martin calles A Song of Ice and Fire. It depicts a small world with rivaling political forces fighting for influence and power in the shadow of a pending natural disaster – The Winter – that will make the battles, intrigues and cunningly laid plans to dominate others seem like child´s play.

’Winter is coming’… Soon the different groups and parties will be forced to join rank against this common enemy – or be overrun by forces much greater than their own. At least that is the impression I am left with having seen the first two seasons of the series. It might just be me looking through a distorted perspective, but I cannot help see the series as an allegory of the political landscape today and the fight for power, resources, influence and economic advantages that takes place in the shadow of the ”winter that is coming” in our reality: climate change. I am not sure whether it is this resemblance with the current political situation or the surprising amount of very scantily clad young women, blood filled action scenes and mythological scenery that has given the series the huge success it has had.

But it does seem fitting that the series is aired in a situation where we basically seem to have given up on climate change and are just focusing on getting the economy back in growth mode.  It is very hard not to hear the words ”Winter is coming” as a comment to our own situation. A situation that is characterized by the inability of democratic societies to recognize that the idea of perpetual growth in a closed system is suicidal. A situation characterized by our common ability to close our eyes to the dire warnings from climate scientists that we are heading for 4 degrees temperature raises or more within the next 100 years (for some reason nobody seems concerned about what will happen in 150 years).

’Winter is coming’… and as the as the severity of the situation grows, reality to an ever incressing degree resembles a lazy tv-movie: from the stereotypical scientists warning us about a pending disaster to the stereotypically uninterested politicians that are more concerned about re-election than taking care of the public good. It is like watching ’Jaws’, ’Earthquake’ and ’Vulcano’ at the same time with the only difference being that we are all playing the part of the politicians these days.

No matter how many hyped concepts such as ’green’, ’sustainable’, ’responsible’ or environmentally friendly’  we place before the basic notion of ’growth’ there can be little doubt that the current tehcno-fetishism and daydreaming about golden technologies that will allow us to continue our patterns of consumptions and save the planet, are wearing thin. Techo-optimism is a new phrase describing the bankrupcy of a culture that is left hoping for the impossible while digging its own grave. A culture so unimaginative and fearful that the mere idea of changing our life-styles seems more threatening than the catastrophic climate changes caused by our current way of life.

’Winter is coming’… and as it approaches we go on with our daily lives: watch Game of Thromes, song contests, Champions League, make babies, laugh at stupid pictures on Facebook, and generally forget about the reality we live in. The human ability to hope in the face of hopelessness and continue to live everyday lives in the shadow of events out of our control is a beautiful phenomena. There is strength and hope in that. But what about our ability to deny that we are in a situation where we need to hope and fight? Our ability to simply close our eyes to the havoc we create and vaguley hope that spring will come no matter what we do? It is hard to see that as anything else than part of reason why the winter is still coming – and it is already April.

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Why Environmental Philosophers Fly to Conferences (or Not)

After some reflections on conference tourism (here, here, and here), we asked for statements “Why are you flying to conferences? If not — why not?”

Martin Schoenfeld (this is his blog) said:

Yes, I do restrict my air travel. Why? Frankly, because I think not doing so would be bad karma. How? In that I only go to places now where the trip serves multiple purposes, such as attending a conference and giving a departmental colloquium at the same destination, or combining personal reasons, such as visiting friends or looking up relatives, with professional activities. But just going to one place for one purpose—nope, not anymore. Karma!

Robin Attfield said:

I find this difficult. In practice, I try to avoid long-haul flights, but continue to travel to places in Western Europe, which can sometimes be done by train. I have passed up invitations to go to Hawaii and to China, in each case sending my paper by other means. (In the case of China, I made a DVD and posted it to the relevant conference, which apparently appreciated it.) But I did travel to Pennsylvania and Notre Dame to honour two invitations in 2011. On the other hand, I managed to send a paper to a conference in 2010 in Washington State electronically, and to reply to live questions by telephone.

I also had some thoughts:

yes, I do travel to conferences. And I now even accepted a job abroad which I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t also said Yes to the “love miles” involved in visiting friends and family at home. I tried to justify work-related air travel to myself by envisioning these emissions as the university’s emissions rather than as my emissions. Though, to be honest, when I flew to Japan my curiosity to see a new country was just as much a motivation to attend the conference as the purely academic interest. In such a case, it’s much more difficult to claim that these emissions are not my emissions — which is only partly true anyway, if at all. And anyway, even if they aren’t my emissions, I am still the one in the position to do something about them.
While I do travel to various places for work-related reasons, this reduces my desire to travel for private reasons (it’s as if my privileged position as an academic allowed me to tick off the box “See the world” on my life’s to-do-list – a box which I shouldn’t have put on the list in the first place, though…).
I currently lack the will to restrict myself more, and if I would do more, I would start with other things. Still, I feel a lot of tension about flying and I refrain from acquiescing in my current stance. I also welcome hostile remarks from friends as a helpful reminder not to acquiesce…

If you’re willing to share some lines (also anonymously), please do so! You can contact us here.

Enforcing Mindsets and Lifestyles?

There is a widespread view that a liberal state may prevent people from harming others but that it should not promote certain comprehensive doctrines about the good life. In environmental policymaking this means

  1. that the state may prevent us from harming others (by limiting or taxing our emissions)
  2. but that the state may not prescribe by which means we should reduce emissions, whether this be eating less animal produce, travelling less, buying less stuff in general, etc. — that’s a matter of personal choice
  3. and that the state may not prescribe to reduce our emissions out of a certain motivation; as long as we reduce our emissions, the state should not care whether we do so grudgingly, whether we do so out of love of nature, whether we do so by embracing a lifestyle of simplicity, whether we embed this change in a religious lifestyle, etc.

Here is one specific way to challenge the 2nd and 3rd aspect of this widespread view. It is just terribly cumbersome if the state refrains from enforcing certain means of reducing emissions and refrains from engendering certain motivations in the citizenry. It is inefficient to let individuals decide individually on their preferred ways of reducing emissions. Coordinating lifestyle change would save costs. Changing mindests and motivations is simply much easier and needs less willpower, when it’s done together. The state could save each of us lots of trouble by using tax money to celebrate green changes in mentality, by inculcating new green paradigms in schoolkids, by coercively enforcing the normality of reduced mobility rather than letting us commit to this goal in isolation, by publicly creating momentum for a change in diet, etc.
Given that in the long run we have to change our mindsets and lifestyles anyway in order to refrain from harming others and given that travelling this road together is just much less pain, one might argue that the sheer cost savings of the community doing this with state enforcement and state encouragement justifies the accompanying curtailment of liberty.
I am making this point very hesitantly. It’s more of a question: How far do the mere psychological cost savings — the size of which is often  underestimated in my view — go in allowing illiberal environmental policy measures?

The Extremism of Moderation

Idealists with integrity are pretty annoying and demanding to be around. These are people who emulate Gandhi and hold that we should be the change we want to see in the world. Most others prefer to talk about what should be done and then find a host of excuses for not doing so.

One way to avoid acting upon our values is by making people who actually do so seem suspicious. Often we use a word borrowed from the world of religion to ward them off. They are: ‘fanatics’!

I have come across this phenomena several times over the last few weeks. One instance was in connection with the commercial collaboration between Tivoli in Copenhagen – a famous amusement park, but also national heritage in Denmark – and Kopenhagen Fur. Also, I experienced it in several discussions about eating meat. Allow me to briefly explain both contexts.

Tivoli made a deal with the fur industry that would benefit them financially. In return, the fur industry could use Tivoli to promote their products and thus sprinkle themselves with fairy dust from the stories of magic and innocent childhood that are usually associated with Tivoli’s brand. This was a very odd mixture of child amusement and brutal fur production, wherefore Tivoli received more protests than expected. What is interesting though is the discourse used by supporters of the collaboration in the social media (online newspapers, Facebook etc.)

Two strategies were employed: the first strategy was to point out the inconsistency of those who objected to the cooperation. ”How can you oppose the fur industry if you eat meat? If you want to be against this you must be a 100% vegan – it is just another way of using animals”.

However, it is obviously not a viable position to place each and every use of animals in the same category. One can argue that A and B are not the same and that there e.g. are differences in the way free-range pigs and mink are raised that make it possible to enjoy the first but not the other without being ethically inconsistent. Disregarding this it is striking how self-evident consistency is taken as an ethical prerequistite. If situation A and B are alike, you must without a doubt judge them in the same way. But this view-point is not self-evident, but much discussed within ethics, usually under the heading of the importance of context for ethical decision-making.

Behind this, however, lies a much more far reaching claim: If one is not 100% consistent, then one should not act at all! If one is not perfect in a moral sense then one might as well be an utter bastard. At least this is viewed as being better than inconsistency or, as it is also known, hypocrisy. The question must be whether this is actually the case though? Can you ward off criticism of your behaviour merely by pointing out the imperfection of your opponent? Should we refrain from acting, if our actions are not totally consistent? What if we give the homeless man 10 euros on the way home, but then stop at the liquor store to buy a bottle of wine for 20? Somehow it seems that I would be more consistent, had I not given the money to the homeless person.

The demand for perfection thus becomes an excuse of oneself on logical grounds. It is an avoidance of actually engaging with a life where perfection might never be attainable. Nonetheless, everybody is to some degree able to help other beings to a better life in countless situations – even if we could do even better. However, the moral demand becomes senseless, if it is reduced to an alternative between perfection and indifference. Morally the task must be to do the best you can and find practical ways of dealing with your shortcomings.

The demand for consistency has also played a big role in the current Danish debate on how to act in light of animal contributions to climate change. One way to reduce emissions is to limit the amount of meat and animal products (dairy, eggs etc.) in your diet: less meat is preferable, vegetarianism more so, and going vegan the optimal solution for the climate. The fewer animal products, the fewer emissions (However, this is only a rule of thumb, since e.g. food miles may be highly detrimental for the positive effects of eating fruit and vegetables.). At the same time animal production causes a range of other problems with regard to deforestation, changes in savannas, drainage of wetlands and desertification, water use among other issues.

It seems there are a host of good reasons to change our diets. Nonetheless, many people promoting this change are very careful not to become purists. ”Let us not become fanatics/extremists” they warn. Other times they insist there is ”…no need to become religious about it.” Indeed, many similar expressions are frequently heard in public debate. It seems that vegetarianism and especially veganism is viewed as being fundamentally wrong – too drastic. This perspective marks vegetarians as a kind of food-Taleban militia with no regard for common sense. This would perhaps make sense if changing one’s diet were received in revelation as a divine command. The deity demands veganism as a sacrifice: the lord giveth vegetables and taketh away the meat. This is not the case though: vegetarianism/veganism is actually a rational choice in the scientific knowledge of our day and age.

Rather, the prevalent rhetoric seems designed to preserve the status quo instead of actually discussing the values, arguments and choices in front of us. Interestingly, those who call opponents of the fur industry hypocrites also often use the discourse of religious zealotry in other connections – and the result always seem to be that they are excused from changing, their behaviour

The discussions surrounding the human use of animals shows how many of us use concepts to get off the hook. Finger pointing and shouting ”Hypocrite” or ”Extremist” is enough for most to feel justified in continuing on the given path although the charade is wearing thin. Indeed, it is becoming ever more apparent that we are putting up a show to avoid admitting our indifference about our victims, about changing our ways, or about the paralyzing effect our fear has on us.

Perhaps it is time to follow those who act, however imperfectly, rather than be afraid of them. Perhaps the world would be better off with more hypocrites. Perhaps it is the time to be afraid of our amazing ability to lie to ourselves and invent excuses that allows us to do anything. Who knows – we might even make things a little better along the way if we avoid the extremism of moderation!

The author would like to thank Thomas Derek Robinson for valuable suggestions.

Money, Motivation, and Nature

Emissions trading faces opposition from many sides. One specific argument against emissions trading is based on the fact that humans are to some extent intrinsically motivated to care for the environment. This intrinsic motivation can disappear, however, if people are also paid for caring for the environment. Emissions trading can thus “crowd out” the intrinsic motivation to care for the environment. Therefore, it may ultimately lower environmental protection.

The effect of motivation crowding has been shown in spectacular experiments. For example, in one experiment people were asked whether they would be willing to host a radioactive waste site in their village (the idea being that this counts as some sort of altruistic act; it is driven by a sense of civic duty since some village in the country has to host the waste site). Other people were asked the same question but in addition they were told that the national government would compensate the village that hosted the site. Interestingly, people were less willing to host the waste site in their village if they knew that they would be compensated!

Without compensation people agreed to host the waste site because they probably thought something like: “One village or other has to host it, nothing speaks against us — so the right thing is to agree to it.” With the compensation people opposed the waste site because they probably thought something like: “Well, it’s a deal. We host the site and in return we get compensated. So, is that a good deal for us? No, it isn’t.”

The same with emissions trading. Without emissions trading, people might lower their emissions due to a sense of duty to play their part in the common effort. With emissions trading, they might get the impression that releasing emissions is in principle fine so long as one does not exceed one’s “cap” on emissions or so long as one buys emission rights off from others. One can get paid for emission reductions below the cap — so why do it voluntarily?

So — should we oppose emissions trading because it crowds out intrinsic motivation to reduce emissions voluntarily? I think not. My (semi-tentative) objection is this. I agree that emissions trading crowds out intrinsic motivation. I agree that this crowding out is bad. However, I think it’s unrealistic to avoid the motivation crowding effect anyway. Why?

  1. Firstly, I assume that there will be some “putting a price on carbon” anyway. It is completely unrealistic that future environmental policies will rely purely on voluntary (or command-andc-control) measures for the protection of the environment.
  2. Secondly, I assume that the motivation crowding effect depends much more on whether there is a “price on carbon” at all rather than on how extensively a “price on carbon” is used as a strategy for reducing carbon.

In other words: Given that people are already accostumed to the idea that there is a price on carbon (and carbon reductions), I doubt that much additional intrinsic motivation will be crowded out if emissions trading is used. Motivation crowding may thus not be a strong objection to using emissions trading more widely.

People in 1900 predict our times…

ImageIn yesterday’s seminar, we discussed Matthew Rendall’s fascinating article about protecting our grandchildren against climate catastrophe at their own expense. The article builds on the idea that under certain assumptions our grandchildren might be much better off than we are.

This assumption about rising levels of welfare caused a lot of protest. The point that still bothers me in this whole discussion is this: How on earth could we actually give reasons for claims to the effect that future generations will be better off than us or worse off than us?

I suggested some ways of giving reasons for such claims here. Here’s a further method one could use for avoiding arbitrariness about predictions about the future:

  1. Estimate your own gut feeling about the future being richer or poorer than us.
  2. Think hard and carefully about the direction in which our gut feeling is probably distorted by biases.

In that context, it might also be instructive to see whether the past over- or underestimated future welfare rises. A fun and interesting example is from the Ladies Home Journal of December 1900. A journalist asked the “wisest and most careful men in our greatest institutions of science and learning” what they expect the world to look like in 2001. Read here for yourself.

They predicted peas as large as beets and strawberries as large as apples. Sometimes the forecasts are quite good, though. Twitter even seems to have made this prophecy come true  “Spelling by sound will have been adopted, first by the newspapers. English will be a language of condensed words expressing condensed ideas (…)”.

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

In a previous  post, I indicated two particularities of the link between institutional trust and corruption in post-communist countries.

I would like now to mention a third one. It is more general and, though not a direct cause of corruption, it could be part of the self-reinforcing mechanism on which corruption thrives: the problem of simultaneity.

As Elster et al (1998)  have shown, transition countries with unconsolidated democracies must focus their efforts on three simultaneous tasks: building their economy, building functional democratic institutions and solving their national identity problems (ethnic conflicts, rights to minorities, etc).

One important consequence of not doing ‘one thing at a time’ is that legislation is often ill designed and incomplete, failing to incorporate goals from all three areas. The case of environmental regulations in Romania is instructive in this respect. Here are three examples:

–          For many high-impact environmental projects carried out by private investors, experts elaborating the reports are employed directly by the investors themselves, because environmental authorities lack either the prerogatives, or the funds to do so.  This has raised suspicions about the neutrality of these assessments, as well as about the division of responsibilities between the government and private companies.

–          EU environmental law is excessively transposed into domestic law by regulations which can be easily amended by administrative procedures (resolutions, emergency ordinances etc). One visible effect of this is the rising influence of lobby groups trying to keep this provisional system in place.

–          For major environmental projects with trans-border impact, ethnic divergences can be used to fuel a rhetoric hiding risks and deficiencies of such projects. This would be the case of the Roşia Montană mining project, to which Hungary has officially opposed, and to which all environmental ministers from the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania refused to issue the environmental permit.

Your thoughts and suggestions are welcome, as well as your personal experiences about social capital and post-communist countries.

Thinking like an airport

COP 15 was held in Copenhagen in December of 2009 – just 3 years ago. As with meetings of this kind before and after, there was a sincere hope that this would be a, or even the turning point for the approach of post-, hyper-, and almost-industrialized societies in dealing with their physical and biological environment. The escalating and converging crisis of climate change, loss of biodiversity, environmental degradation, and general disruption of the only planet that we humans have to dwell on simply seemed too acute to ignore politically. But nothing happened.

In March of the same year, the University of Copenhagen co-hosted an international climate research conference, gathering most internationally recognised experts in the field. This was done to provide politicians with the most recent scientific knowledge, when COP 15 was to take place later in the year. A report (1) was written by a group of prominent researchers, seeking to summarize the content of more than a thousand contributing presentations. The future is here described in the following words: … scientific evidence has now become overwhelming that human activities, especially the combustion of fossil fuels, are influencing the climate in ways that threaten the well-being and continued development of human society. But nothing happened in December later that year.

The political system might still deny reality, but people are now waking up to the sad facts around the globe and evermore find the courage to abandon the futile position of total denial. However, as political solutions continue to evade international society, an increasing number find themselves ending up at the opposite side of the continuum: absolute despair. There are many reasons for this: The complexity and magnitude of the issues makes it hard to see how we as individuals can do anything with a noticeable impact. The grief and loss that follows in the wake of comprehending the astrocity of our destruction and killing simply leaves many of us paralyzed. The fear and challenge of altering personal and cultural traditions and habits into sustainable practices leads many of us to reject the possibility of change at all, even in the face of permanent and catastrophic disruption to the home of humans, animals, and plants. As the author of ’Illusions – The adventures of a reluctant Messiah’ has noted: Argue for your limitations and surely they are yours (2)

Sitting in Frankfurt Airport waiting for a plane to Graz, on my way to yet another workshop on ethics and climate change, I couldn’t help thinking that this very act constituted an important part of the problems that confronts us. Not so much in the obvious sense of using fossil fuels to go to a conference on ethics and climate change, which is self-defeating in a very real sense, but more in terms of what kind of thinking that can take place in an airport or a similar environment. Basically my question was: What kind of human do you become in an airport? It struck me that the advise from Aldo Leopold that we should try to think like a mountain (3), suddenly became very scary indeed, if the word ‘mountain’ was replaced by the word ‘airport’.

The British author Douglas Adams has said that it is no coincidence that in no language has the expression ’pretty as an airport’ arisen (4). But even more important is it that airports seem to be so removed from nature as to make it obsolete. At most nature is allowed to participate in our life-worlds in the airport as a disturbance. As something that takes the shape of snow, wind, and thunder storms and delay us in our travels

Sitting in the airport, it struck me how easy it is to forget our reliance upon and relationship with nature in such a setting. How the human order imposed on this tiny bit of the universe, with all its clean surfaces, straight lines and square perspectives seem designed to tell the story of human mastery over a disorderly universe; how the notion of being in control is embedded into almost every artefact in an airport, from the systematic ordering of flights and gates, to the more than predictable sandwiches and generic coffee that is so processed and removed from nature that you can almost believe it was cooked by engineers in some secret room below the helter-skelter of the transit area.

In an airport it is easy to believe that humans are in control – that we are distinct from nature or that nature is an obstacle to overcome through technological means so as not to disturb our plans. In an airport nature becomes environment. Nature is no longer the all-encompassing reality that gave birth to us, but that which we see around us as a resource – from high above, if we manage to get off the ground. The notion of environmental problems as something that must be managed seems almost to grow out of the shining walls. The idea that we as humans have the right to change our surroundings to fit our needs is almost embedded in the rationality of the uncomfortable plastic-chairs. In an airport it is very easy to believe that we will be able to control the environment, to continue our lives without delay. Through technology we will be able to find fuel for transport systems that will not change the climate, meat for our plates that does not come from suffering animals, and resources for our consumption that will not pollute the air, land, and water during the phases of production, use and decomposition. In an airport, humans seem to be in control.

The question must be asked however: what if the claims made by eco-psychologist, -philosophers, -theologians and others that have not bought into the idea of human supremacy, are true? What if is only when we are exposed to nature as that which is at the same time independent from our selves and that which we are embedded within that we can see our nature? What if we need o see our being embedded in the more than human life world (4), as David Abram terms it, if we are to be fully human? What if it takes hugging a tree to understand that we are not merely dependent on the physical and mental nourishment we receive from the world everyday, but that we cannot actually realize who we are until we engage with it? That we only become human when we realize we are more than humans? Arne Næss termed it discovering our ’Ecological Self’ (5). It is the experience that our skin, the very outer layer of our bodies should not only be seen as a boundary that divides me from the rest, but also as a horizon and meeting place where I meet that which is also me.

If there is some truth to the claim that our psyche needs nature to develop in a healthy way; if we need all our capabilities to figure out what is actually going in the mysterious meeting point between humans and nature; if we want to know how to proceed from here and if we are to come up with a responsible response to the crisis that we have brought upon ourselves and the rest of us – then an airport might not be the best place to think about these ideas. Or even stronger: An airport is definitely not the place to do this. On the other hand, perhaps it is only through experiencing the total alienation from nature that exists in such settings, that we, if we take the time, discover that there is something important missing. That in the very confrontation with the artificiality and functionality of architecture and technology a longing for nature can be found. The point must then be, however, to leave the airport and seek what we miss.

In that light it certainly seems problematic that we usually leave the airport and go to meetings to discuss issues of climate change, loss of biodiversity and extinction of species in settings that resemble airports so. Meeting rooms are seldom designed as places where we meet the wilderness of the world. Congress centres are often equally as devoid of non-human life and natural objects as airports. Basically it seems that we try to think about nature surrounded by stuff brought into the world by humans for the sake of humans.

It is therefore hardly a surprise that we, in these temples of what Chellis Glendinning calls techno-addiction (6), run the risk of underestimating the issues, because it is easy to forget that we are destroying and killing a part of our selves. Politicians and civil servants sitting in designer chairs at tables made of wood bent and shaped by humans to satisfy an aesthetic sense, eating nature shape and bent by humans to do the same, might just have a hard time remembering how serious the situation is – indeed why they are in such a setting at all. In other, perhaps more simple words: As the illusion of human detachment from nature pervades the setting they are in, it also pervades their understanding of the enormity of the problem.

The other risk is that the setting generates the illusion that science and technology are the only answers. When living, breathing, and moving around in environments almost exclusively designed by and for humans, we run the risk of overestimating the ability of technology to shape the world to meet our needs. We begin to see the ’technofix’ (7) as a sufficient solution. At the same time as our belief in scientific and technological abilities is being stretched to the limit, we seem to have lost the trust in our own ability to adapt to the situation. Current levels of consumption are seen as inevitable and even suggestions of moderate reductions of meat intake by for instance 1/3 are seen as hysterically idealistic, while public money is spent on research into growing animal proteins in factories. We are, so to speak, stuck in a circle of needs and technology, unable to see other options.. We have become the species that simply refuses to adapt to the rest of nature, but insist on bending everything until it meet our needs or indeed snap in our faces. If we spend some time in nature, we might, however, be reminded that this is what life is: adapting to the life-world one is embedded in.

All this leads up to a simple suggestion: next time you want to think about who you are and what to do – go sit under a tree! Next time you wonder why you are here and what it is all about – dive into the ocean! Let us arrange the next international political meeting on climate change in a forest; let us meet there and sit by campfires, sleep in tents, and forage for food. Let the politicians and the rest of us feel the connection to the rotting leaves, the dew on the leaves, the mosquitos and the smells and sounds of the more-than-human-life-world. Let us seek to remember who we are, before we decide who to become. In that way the economic interests, the fear of change, the overestimation of abilities and techno-addiction could perhaps be balanced a bit – just a little bit.

Thanks to Thomas Derek Robinson for valuable suggestions

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Mickey Gjerris is an associate professor at the Institute of Resource Economics, Faculty of Science, University of Copenhagen. Originally trained as a theologian, he did his Ph.d. in bioethics. Today he works within a phenomenologically inspired philosophical framework on the subjects of climate change, animal ethics, bioethics and ethics of nature. Mickey is also a member of The Danish Ethical Council (www.etiskrad.dk), a strong believer in smoked tofu, enjoy hugging trees & watching clouds and has an almost passionate relationship with his iPhone.

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(1)   Richardson K et al (2009): Synthesis report from ‘Climate change: Global risks challenges and decisions’. http://www.climatecongress.ku.dk/pdf/synthesisreport.

(2)   Bach R (1977): Illusions. The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. Random House

(3)   Leopold A (1949): A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press

(4)   Adams D (1988): The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. Simon & Schuster

(5)   Abram D (1996): The Spell of the Sensuous. Vintage Books

(6)   Naess S (1982): Self-Realization, in Gullvåg I & Wetlesen J (eds.): In Sceptical Wonder. Inquiries into the Philosophy of Arne Naess on the Occasion of his 70th Birthday. Oslo, pp. 270-281

(7)   Glendinning C (1994): My Name is Chellis and I`m in Recovery from Western Civilization. New Catalyst Books

(8)   Kunstler JH (2012): Too Much Magic. Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation. Atlantic Monthly Press

 

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

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.