Friday, 4 September 2015

Thoughts on that clerk in Kentucky (oh, and that dentist who killed Cecil)

According to my Facebook and Twitter feed, this county clerk in Kentucky is the worst bigot to walk the earth in some time. Of course, just ten years ago, 60%+ of Americans shared her views on gay marriage. Obviously I don't agree at all with what this woman was/is doing but I find this worldwide sanctimonious pile on of one single person far more troubling than the actions that precipitated it. Same goes for all that (far less justifiable) demonization of the dentist who killed the lion a few weeks back.

The reactions are somewhat hypocritical and incredibly mean-spirited. If some low level clerk failed to carry out state or federal law on the death penalty or issue a permit for fracking or some such, I suspect that I and many of those demonizing this woman would be celebrating the acts of civil disobedience. At the very least we wouldn't be attacking the bureaucrat with personal attacks or digging into obscure details of her past or noting how unattractive she is or stupid crap like that. So, it's not as if we have some general principle that says, "government bureaucrats who refuse to carry out government policy despite personal objections don't deserve to be part of society and are beneath contempt." This is less about the evil of her not doing her job and more about her position on gay marriage. But her position on gay marriage is one that many of her opponents and large portions of society shared recently. It's a bit much to argue that taking a position that we seem to have been okay with for an awfully long time is now worthy of the most utmost contempt we can muster. I assume, after all, that the victims of her bigotry have recourse and will, I'm sure, be able to obtain a license fairly soon (even today, it seems). This isn't to trivialize her bigotry or her refusal to recognize the rights of those who want to marry - it must end and we can't let it stand -  so, throw her in jail if she's in contempt but enough with all the other bullshit.

(The hypocrisy in the case of the lion killer is far more pronounced and contemptible. How many of these lion lovers happily munch on veal or chicken or steak that involved subjecting animals to far more cruelty than that suffered by Cecil the lion? )

In the new social media age we seem to have found a way to very effectively, and capriciously, destroy lives for acts of this sort. I mean acts that weren't outrageously evil and utterly depraved compared to any number of acts committed anywhere in the world/country that day. However, for reasons having less to do with the morality of the act itself and much to do with the current zeitgest or capriciousness of the news cycles or other factors (lions are pretty!). they somehow caught the world's attention. These kinds of nasty vicious pile-ons really seem to me like something we expect to see in a novel about some dystopian Orwellian state, not an enlightened civilization encouraging diversity and freedom of thought and expression. We don't realize the pile-on power that Facebook and Twitter have to exaggerate and magnify and thereby destroy lives for screw ups or for taking unpopular positions or for failing to do one's job appropriately or even for being a total asshole. 

Thursday, 29 January 2015

The Environmental Impact of the State Department's Keystone Environmental Impact Review

Last year the State Department completed a review of the Keystone pipeline proposal which made the dubious claim that the pipeline would have low environmental impact. (NY Times link) The basis for their argument was not that tar sands oil extraction is ecologically sound but that that oil is going to be extracted from the tar sands regardless of whether the pipeline exists or not. That strikes me as an incredibly tortured interpretation of what it means to do an environmental impact review. As an ethical justification this is like arguing that it's okay to drive the getaway car from a bank robbery because "hey, those bank robbers are going to rob that bank regardless of who's driving them away." Or try that as a response to a question of whether your participation in the getaway drive contributed negatively to the overall crime rate in the city. If your doing X facilitates the performance of P and that is the intention of X, then surely any rational agent concurs that assessing the impact of X must also involve assessing the impact of P.

In fact, this isn't just an abstract moral argument, but I think there's a very clear practical reason to worry that this very argument creates an incentive to extract oil that might not otherwise have been extracted.

Consider that the review is becoming relevant again because the the review writers acknowledged that there is a scenario in which their denial of impact foundered. If the price of oil is so low that it's not economical to extract unless there's a pipeline to transport it away, then even the State Department's denial of environmental impact falls apart. In that case the willingness to supply a pipeline becomes a prerequisite to the continued extraction and the refusal to create the pipeline has a hugely positive environmental impact. So, in that case, arguably the current state, not even the State Department can argue that Keystone has no environmental impact. It does, it makes the tar sands extraction economically viable and without it, they'd stop pumping.

But, let's consider the original argument again, i.e., that if we have reason to think the oil production would continue with or without Keystone then we can ignore the effects of oil production when assessing the impact of Keystone. Consider what effect that has. It provides an incentive for oil producers to continue extracting oil from the tar sands regardless of the price. If they do that, then even in a low price scenario the State Department can invoke the original argument and say that oil production will occur regardless, so now we're again justified in arguing that the Keystone has minimal environmental impact.  So, in effect, the State Department has removed an important economic disincentive to tar sands extraction. The State Department's report itself with its specious moral reasoning may well have or may have had a negative environmental impact by creating an incentive to continue pumping oil.