Saturday, November 20, 2010

"Mountains Without Handrails"

Gee, you think the National Park Service likes Sax's book? They've posted it in its entirety on their Web site:

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Why Environmentalism is a Conservative Concern

As luck would have it, from today's Guardian at .

An excerpt:

Why Environmentalism is a Conservative Concern
Conservative thinking provides a deep well of arguments for protecting the environment and tackling climate change.
The Tea Party movement struck its first electoral blow in the recent US elections. But consider this: 30% of tea party supporters think, wrongly, that President Obama was born outside the US and therefore is not a legitimate president, while just 12% think global warming is a serious problem now.
In the US, anti-environmental beliefs have gained traction on the right, which views action on climate change as "big government". Indeed, such views are considered "conservative". But they are not conservative beliefs.
The reality is that conservative thinking provides a deep well of arguments for protecting the environment and tackling climate change. I would argue the long political and philosophical heritage of environmentalism is in essence, conservative rather than radical. If the action needed to enhance the security of our own and future generations seems radical, that is merely a reflection of the extent to which we have collectively lost touch with the conservative tradition.
The right in the US has abandoned this tradition. But it is a tradition to which the leadership of Conservative party here in the UK seems to have returned. Being the "greenest government ever" is consistent with a conservative creed. But, crucially, the case for looking after the planet is rarely put in terms that appeal to the right or centre right.
Good government has always been concerned with improving people's quality of life and protecting their futures. This responsibility to safeguard the resources we have inherited is a feature of conservatism that has been more often associated with the preservation of political and religious institutions, finances and culture. Yet the same principles apply to the environment.
As the grandfather of modern conservative political thinking, Edmund Burke, put it: we are "temporary possessors or life renters" of this world and have a moral obligation not to squander our natural inheritance, lest we "leave to those who come after … a ruin instead of a habitation." Respect for the past and responsibility to future generations creates a duty to conserve our resources and protect the environment.

Read the rest here. Additional discussion at

Thursday, November 4, 2010

If Henry Could See Us Now

an excerpt:
"Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged?" So writes Henry David Thoreau in the first chapter of Walden, in the middle of a lengthy disquisition about the meaning of shelter in mid-19th century America. Using white pine from the shores of Walden Pond and lumber salvaged from an old shack, Thoreau stimulated his own poetic faculties by constructing his 10- by 15-foot dwelling at the outset of his famous sojourn.
With Thoreau’s exhortation and example firmly in mind and the blessing of the college administration, the department of environmental studies and sciences undertook the reconstruction of Thoreau’s cabin as our contribution to Ithaca College’s First Year Reading Initiative for 2010. The president had selected Walden as the text that would be sent to all incoming first-year students. Few books could serve as so stimulating a provocation in our hyper-mediated age, when it is harder than ever "to front the essential facts of life," when more people than ever seem to be living lives of quiet desperation. Reconstructing Thoreau’s cabin, therefore, not only resonated well with my department’s values, but would offer students an opportunity to, in Thoreau’s own vision of higher education, "not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end." (Emphasis original.)
Over the course of the summer everyone we contacted about helping with the project was enthusiastic. The local timber framers who had the tools and expertise to lead the build, the salvager who would provide us with the wood, and the local re-use center where we would get the windows and which would help us with the de-nailing — all leaped at the chance to participate, in many cases offering their services free or at a steep discount. Students, faculty, alumni, and community members who learned about the project all expressed a desire, even a craving, to become involved, to be able to build with their own hands. Their answer to Thoreau’s question, "Shall we ever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter?" was loud and clear.
And so sketches were made. A crew of students and faculty spent a day and a half pulling hemlock boards and timbers from a collapsed 120-year-old barn. The campus site for the build was selected. We sent the hand-drawn sketches to an architect friend to be rendered as computer-designed drawings.
And that was the moment when the magic of creative possibility conjured by Thoreau dissipated in the reality of 21st-century America. We can't say we weren’t warned by Henry himself, who had observed even in the 1840s that human institutions often serve those who created them in unwelcome ways. Our well-meaning friend innocently inquired, "Are you sure you won’t need a building permit for this project?"
An educational project temporarily occupying a space for a year, a 150-square-foot cabin? Surely not.
But, alas, once even our innocent inquiries were made, the Town of Ithaca bureaucrats scampered into their iron cages and set about their regulatory duties — duties, it should be said, the people have charged them with. Unable to see how irrelevant modern building codes were for this project, the director of code enforcement immediately declared our plans as drawn were a menace to public health and safety. The entire thing was transformed from frustration to farce when he insisted that the cabin would need ... a sprinkler system.
At least as frustrating was the inability of the college’s own bureaucracy to either defend the principle that this project was not even subject to review (there were precedents for such an argument) or to advocate for an expedited process. Not without reason, the college administration was fearful of alienating the local government over a project that was a low priority compared to the massive building projects under way and anticipated. No matter how powerful the experience of reconstructing the cabin might be for a few hundred students, no matter that such a project conforms more closely to the vision of higher education I believe in (and Thoreau seems to have as well) than the new 130,000-square foot athletics and events center, no one was willing to challenge the town’s misapplication of rules, at least not in time to make a difference.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Trolleyology in the news

from today's Practical Ethics:
In the October edition of Prospect magazine, Practical ethics blogger David Edmonds provides an accessible and thoughtful insight into "Trolley problems"
A shocking memo leaked to Prospect, drafted by civil servants from the treasury and the department of health, exposes the stark reality of future cutbacks. Harsh decisions are inevitable, says the memo; in one NHS trust people on life-support systems are to be “finished off” on 1st November—either by smothering, or by having the plugs pulled out. Their organs are then to be used to save the lives of others on transplant-waiting lists, who have themselves become a considerable burden to the taxpayer. The total saving to the trust is estimated at £2.3m a year.
Hogwash, of course. But the government will make some tough choices in its spending review on 20th October, and these will cost lives. Whether “efficiencies” are made in the department of transport, the military or the NHS, there will be victims, even if they are unidentifiable. Governments always have to prioritise—choosing, for example, between a cheap medicine which benefits few people a little, and an expensive one which benefits many people a lot. But in hard financial times, such predicaments become more acute.
Moral philosophers have long debated under what circumstances it is acceptable to kill and why, for example, we object to killing a patient for their organs, but not to a distribution of resources that funds some drugs rather than others. To understand the debate you need to understand the trolley problem. It was conceived decades ago by two grande dames of philosophy: Philippa Foot of Oxford University (click here to read more about Foot) and Judith Jarvis Thomson of MIT.
David sums up both the nature of the burgeoning philosophical field of analysis of the trolley problem and its variants, but also the bigger questions about the role of such thought experiments in moral philosophy
The most vehement of trolley-phobes believe this whole approach to ethics is profoundly wrong-headed and, in a most fundamental way, mischaracterises the nature of morality. The world is too complex, judgements are too multifaceted, and the qualities of virtue and wisdom too subtle, for us to peel off intuitions from the trolley scenarios and usefully transplant them onto the real world. The riposte is that it’s hard to know how to do applied moral philosophy any other way. If it is indeed right to kill the spur man but wrong to kill the fat man, we need to untangle the principles at stake. Judith Jarvis Thomson once referred to the trolley problem as a “lovely, nasty difficulty.” Solving this lovely, nasty problem has repercussions for how we regard actions that weigh up lives.
Is the trolley problem a useful tool for moral philosophy?
If our intuitions lead us to not push the fat man, but to divert the trolley - does that mean that we should embrace the doctrine of double effect (or some variant of it), or does it mean that we should reject our instinctual responses to these questions?
Jim here: the trolley problem finds its way into countless public policy discussions--I'd be interested in collecting more examples if anyone runs across any.