Surface Backfill About Contact


ANWR And Organs And Travel, Oh My

I'll be gone until late Tuesday. In the meantime, I give you my comic from this week's Scarlet:

I had an inordinate amount of fun drawing Big Oil's breakfast.

I also wrote a column, "Opt-Out Organ Donation Would Save Lives" and drew a comic to accompany it.
Stentor Danielson, 13:34, ,


Urban Legend Or Resilience?

Charles Bird has a very long post up at Obsidian Wings, giving a somewhat sympathetic conservative's take on the problems of the environmental movement. His argument is basically a combination of 1) Nick Kristof's claim that environmentalists are alarmists and extremists, 2) the standard (though not necessarily off the mark) conservative charge that liberals complain but don't offer solutions, and 3) the assertion that environmentalists need to not only reach out to conservatives, but adopt most of the conservative agenda -- basically a right-wing version of Shellenberger and Nordhaus's proposal in "The Death of Environmentalism" that environmentalists should fight for the entire progressive agenda.

In the comments, Hal casts aspersions on DoE by pointing to this page. It debunks the urban legend, used as an epigram by Shellenberger and Nordhaus, that the Chinese character for "crisis" is a combination of the characters for "danger" and "opportunity." I too was annoyed by their use of that meme. Linguistic accuracy aside, though, it's clear what DoE means to suggest by it: a crisis is a time when the status quo is fragile, which can lead to everything falling apart -- but it can also make it easier to clear away the crud and refashion things in a better shape. I happen to agree that environmentalism is facing a crisis, and that crises can in some cases be siezed as opportunities. I also thing DoE could have chosen a better way to illustrate that point. Rather than relying on a trite and inaccurate bit of consultant-speak, they could have drawn a more robust metaphor from modern ecology: the adaptive cycle.

I have a short explanation of the adaptive cycle in another post. Briefly, ecologists argue that in most biological and social systems, success (r) breeds rigidity (K), which leads to collapse (Ω) and reorganization (α). For example, a fire-prone ecosystem grows and grows, building up more and more biomass until even a tiny spark could set it off. When that finally happens, crud is cleared away, tissues are broken down, and nutrients are released to be used by vigorous new growth. DoE basically argues that environmentalism's early successes (Clean Air and Water Acts, recycling programs, Superfund, etc.) have led it so far into the K phase that it's teetering on the brink of a shift into Ω. Systems in advanced K phases become increasingly vulnerable to being disturbed by changes in their environment. In this case, environmentalism seems threatened by Republican assaults on the environment, but it lacks the flexibility and robustness to handle the crisis.

The creators of the adaptive cycle model also identified two "traps," points at which the system's progress around the cycle can get stuck. Environmentalists understandably fear the "poverty trap," a system stuck in the α phase. In the poverty trap, all of the "capital" built up in the previous r and K phases is lost, so the system has nothing with which to rebuild itself. This is like a forest that experiences a fire so severe that all of the nutrients are lost to the air or eroded away, leaving only bare rock. In the case of environmentalism, the worry is that Republican assaults will practically wipe out environmentalism, leaving us back at square one.

But DoE's analysis suggests that in their eagerness to avoid the poverty trap, environmentalists have fallen into the rigidity trap. The rigidity trap is a system stuck in the K phase, unable to reconfigure and renew itself. By maintaining the internal structure of the movement -- its hierarchies and agendas -- environmentalism threatens to become irrelevant, drifting out of contact with the concerns of Americans or their policymaking process, but at the same time monopolizing the resources that could be used to build a new, better movement.

The outcome of a system's α phase -- whether it slides off into the poverty trap, or it finds some form of successful new r -- depends in part on how the collapse into Ω happened. Being dashed against the anti-environment agenda of a Republican government is not a happy sort of Ω transition, and is likely to lead to a poor α. But DoE (and in a different way Bird) suggests a solution resembling controlled burning. To avoid the kind of poverty trap for fire-prone ecosystems discussed above, land managers will provoke a fire at a time when they can control it. This way, they ensure that the system will reorganize itself in a healthy way, recapturing the nutrients released in the fire and refreshing the growth. Similarly, a social system faced with an involuntary crisis can deliberately tear down its own organization and rework it. But it's clear that mainstream environmental organizations need to rethink their organization and agendas in order to make them resilient and adaptable to the changed political circumstances.
Stentor Danielson, 17:22, ,


Bring On The Steroids And Schiavo!

I'd like to thank Congress for wasting so much of its valuable time on investigating steroid use in professional sports and intervening in the Terry Schiavo* case. Given the Republican dominance of both houses, any legislation they pass is almost guaranteed to be pernicious. So I'd rather have them waste time on these relatively minor issues than focus on handing our national wealth over to big business.

I do wish the liberal blogosphere would take advantage of conservatives' distraction with Schiavo and make some progress on some important issues. Come on, folks, just because they're talking about it doesn't mean we have to let them define our agenda.

*Watch this mention send me to the top of Google's rankings, the way my passing reference to the Swift Boat nonsense vaulted me up above people who were actualy discussing the issue.
Stentor Danielson, 12:53, ,

Fuel-Efficient Patriotism

Some people are making a little too much of a new poll that shows that two thirds of Americans think driving a more fuel-efficient car is patriotic. Presumably many of those who said yes are indicating that fuel efficiency is compatible with patriotism, not that it's required for patriotism -- much like a civilian would not be hypocritical for calling military service a patriotic career. Certainly the question is not set up well to distinguish these differences in opinion. The poll itself (pdf) also seems a but unreliable. The fuel-efficient patriotism question offers an argument in favor and solicits the respondent's level of agreement. The previous question asks about agreement with a set of pro-fuel-efficiency findings by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Presented in this way, the questions seem likely to sway undecided respondents toward the environmentalist viewpoint.
Stentor Danielson, 09:59, ,


Settlers For A New Planet

Abiola Lapite poses an interesting problem:

... supposing that it fell to you to select a collection of individuals to reestablish as much of our current civilization as possible on a planet just like our own - with the exception that there are no humans on it - which kinds of people would you choose, and how many, keeping in mind that you're expected to keep the headcount as low as possible?

Occupation-wise, he argues for including a particular mix of scientific/technological specialists such as medical doctors and physicists. He doesn't include any computer scientists, because it will be some time before the colony is able to support a viable semiconductor industry. Yet I wonder whether that argument ought not to be extended further. Modern medicine, for example, depends heavily on an existing economic infrastructure that will be absent on our new world, rendering many of our doctors' skills moot once the ship's pharmacy runs out. It also depends on a large population to generate demand and make specialization possible, but our colonist group is probably going to be in the vicinity of only 100 people (the minimum for genetic viability) to start off with. I would be inclined to prefer some people with knowledge of "natural" medicines and other wilderness survival techniques (though their utility does depend to some degree on how closely the new planet's ecology resembles earth's, as these sorts of folk skills are often very context-dependent).

There's an interesting synergism between this concern and Lapite's other argument, that in order to maximize genetic diversity in the colonist population we should select around 70% Africans. It seems logical that any scientific specialists that we bring ought to be taken from developing countries, as those individuals would have more experience applying their skills in a context where access to resources and support infrastructure is more limited.
Stentor Danielson, 21:52, ,