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Anti-Immigration = Ecological Imperialism

It's not entirely surprising that some people would try to link restrictions on immigration to environmentalism, as both viewpoints are manifestations of Egalitarianism (in the Cultural Theory sense). The basic argument goes like this: if someone migrates from Mexico to the USA, their standard of living increases. Higher standards of living have higher environmental impacts. Therefore affluent countries like the United States should restrict immigration from countries with a lower per-capita environmental impact.

The problem with this as a policy stance is that it's another form of ecological imperialism. The term ecological imperialism was first coined to describe the deforestation debate, in which Northern countries, having gotten rich off destroying their forests, turned around and demanded that Southern countries clamp down on their own deforestation lest the whole world's ecology be upset. Ecological imperialism essentially says "we made a mess, so you have to stay clean for both of us."

In the immigration case, restrictionist environmentalists are essentially saying to would-be immigrants "you have to stay poor for the good of the planet." It puts the burden of making sacrifices on someone else, specifically on one of the least powerful groups in our society. In so doing, it only defers the problem of making the transition to a sustainable society for the people who are already here -- people who will, in the meantime, get to enjoy the affluence their environmentally damaging way of life has bought. The only long-term solution is sustainable development in both the US and Mexico -- after which immigration won't be a problem.

Stentor Danielson, 01:57, ,


"The Secret Ambition Of Deterrence" and the HPV Vaccine

An FDA advisory panel has just approved a vaccine claimed to be 100% effective against Human Papilloma Virus, which causes 70% of cervical cancers and genital warts. But widespread use of the vaccine is opposed by conservative groups who claim that it will encourage promiscuity. Abyss2hope neatly dispatches that argument. Even granting for the sake of argument that sex is a (moral, if not legal) crime:

Since I doubt the fear of cervical cancer is the deciding factor when girls choose whether or not to have sex, this vaccine won’t spark a sexual boom.

But I wonder if it doesn't miss the point to focus on deterrence arguments. Dan Kahan has a great article (from which I took the title of this post) arguing that deterrence arguments are typically a publicly-palatable rationalizaton for a policy supported for substantive reasons. Thus, rather than a direct clash of ideologies, we agree to present our disputes in the idiom of dueling deterrence arguments.

Conservatives' real preference is not for a deterrence-based theory of punishment, but a retributive and message-sending one. Deterrence is guided by seeking to reduce the number of crimes committed in the first place. But retribution cares less about the number of crimes than about making sure that if a crime is committed, it is followed by commensurate punishment. Given our society's insufficient willingness to directly punish sex, the natural consequences of sex -- STDs and pregnancy -- become the fall-back retribution. The HPV vaccine may not stop anybody from having sex, but it stops some people from being punished for it, thus robbing them of the retribution that they deserve.

But why is it that deterrence theories have so few genuine adherence, despite the seeming reasonableness of them that makes them a good rationalization for our substantive preferences? I think Erving Goffman was on the right track in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Goffman argued that social life is all about putting on a show of doing things, even at the expense of actually accomplishing them:

In their capacity as performers, individuals will be concerned with maintaining the impression that they are living up to the many standards by which they and their products are judged ... But, qua performers, individuals are concerned not with the moral issue of realizing those standards, but with the amoral issue of engineering a convincing impression that those standards are being realized.

Deterrence focuses exclusively on actually accomplishing things. A genuine consideration of deterrence may lead us to the realist conclusion that there's nothing that can affordably be done about a problem, or the pragamtist conclusion that a small fix can correct a big problem. Neither realism nor pragmatism make a good show, however. The dictates of the dramatic form insist that a big problem requires a solution commensurate in scope and cost. Yet that commensurability is the central axiom of retributive and message-sending theories of punishment. The tendency to emphasize performance over substance is stronger when an issue is a more central dramatic stage in society -- and there are few stages more central in modern American society than sex.

Stentor Danielson, 19:05, ,


Framing Opponents and the Argumentum ad Ethnocentrism

Amanda Marcotte drew a little diagram to show why double-speak is not the same as framing -- rather, it's a subset of framing used dishonestly. The fact is that all comprehensible thought is always already framed. Framing is the tool the human brain uses to make sense of the world -- to pick out what's important in our sensory inupts, to know what to actively look for, and to fill in the gaps by inference.

Nevertheless, many on the left resist the idea. They claim that speaking plainly and simply is preferrable. They balk at the idea that their way of thinking would or should need to be translated in order to make sense to people with different cultural backgrounds.

But the rejection of framing is itself a frame. It invokes the powerful idea of "people who speak the plain and honest truth" versus "people who use convoluted and tricky wordplay." This framing is particularly interesting because of the way it operates through denial of itself, like the bumper sticker that says "question authority" or the commercial that says "people who aren't influenced by ads drink Sprite." Call this the Argumentum ad Ethnocentrism.

Ethnocentrism is the claim that other people have culture, but we have common sense. It's antithetical to the values progressives ought to stand for. And it's a political loser, since people from different cultural backgrounds will easily see how progressive "common sense" rests on assumptions specific to their coastal-urban culture. The smugness of believing you spoke the unadorned truth and the sheeple are just too dumb or duped to see it is small consolation.

It would be helpful, I think, for progressives to temper their view of George Lakoff as the scholar of framing, because doing so (framing the idea of framing in this way) makes it sound like a new idea. But the basic idea behind framing is so deeply woven into the social sciences (outside of economics) that it can hardly be said to have a single progenitor (or even a single terminology). Indeed, anthropology might be said to be the study of frames. Most use of the idea in progressive discussion is on a general enough level that the detailed differences between Lakoff's concept of frames, Mary Douglas's idea of cultural bias, or Alan Fiske's relational models (for example) don't make a difference.

Perhaps another concept from sociology and anthropology can help make framing seem less threatening -- the idea of "reflexive modernization," advanced in different forms by such thinkers as Anthony Giddens and Jürgen Habermas. The modern era was characterized, in effect, by the interrogation of existing frames. Religious and proto-scientific ideas were put to the test, and it became acceptable -- even desirable -- to seek new ways of thinking rather than adhering to the old. But modernity did this by closing off its own ideas and practices to such scrutiny. It knocked down old ideologies, but it did so in the name of unmediated common sense, not in the name of a better ideology. Giddens and others argue that we must push modernity into a "reflexive" phase, in which, by turning modernity's critical tools against itself, we become self-aware about how we socially construct our world. Modernity was the recognition of bad frames, while reflexive modernization is the acceptance of good ones.

Stentor Danielson, 23:32, ,

Ticking Population Bomb Scenarios

The role played by concerns about overpopulation in contemporary political discourse is interesting. Though overpopulation was a central concern for earlier waves of environmentalism, today's self-professed environmentalists rarely mention it. You see concern most often raised by people who are liberal but who focus their energies on other causes, as one of their occasional nods to the environmentalist wing of the progressive coalition. Most often, it's used as a rebuttal to nativist complaints that (white) people aren't breeding fast enough, or as a moral-high-ground justification for choosing not to have kids.

The framing of the population issue -- for example in this comic strip -- resembles the ticking time bomb" scenario used to argue in favor of torture. In both cases, a neat logical setup is created that makes a certain conclusion ("we should torture" or "overpopulation is a problem") rational. But in both cases, the relevance of the hypothetical to the real world situation it analogizes is questionable. Real conterterrorism problems simply do not resemble the ticking time bomb scenario in important ways.

So it's quite true that, given a finite amount of a rivalrous resource, and a fixed minimum per capita demand, it's possible to have simply too many people. The question is, is that a useful way of conceptualizing the environmental problems we actually face? To say that it is, we would have to establish that population size is a primary driver of environmental problems, and that we are now (or will be in the forseeable future) at a population size that cannot be cost-effectively offset by changes in other factors. It's important to note here that population is expected to level off, at least at the global level, sometime this century, meaning that critics of the population bomb have a finite number of humans whose sustainability they have to account for. At the global level and within the developed world, at least, I'm far from convinced that sheer population size is a key problem.

I'll limit my discussion to environmental problems that can be usefully framed as problems of resource inadequacy (while noting in passing that this excludes the two environmental issues that I've researched most extensively, inappropriate fire regimes and brownfield cleanups). This includes both the classic not-enough-to-go-around scarcity problems, as well as situations in which human use of a resource (while sufficient for immediate human purposes) undercuts the sustainability of the environmental system, and also problems of overloaded "sinks." It's tempting here to reason that if there's not enough to go around, the solution is to have fewer people for it to try to go around to.

Yet there are numerous other contributing factors. One huge one is inefficiency. Modern resource use is incredibly wasteful, so that much of our resource base ends up neither used nor conserved. The problem of inefficiency is typically conceptualized as a problem of insufficient technological advancement, and that's often true. But it's also a result of social organization -- society does not provide incentives to make the fullest use of the theoretically available resources. Energy is a good example. Decentralized generation would be much more efficient at using our fuel resources (due to its flexibility and minimization of long-distance power transmission over leaky lines), but our political economy is set up to favor the construction of large, centralized generators. An example of a combined technological-social case would be culturally inappropriate farming technologies exported to the third world by anthropologically ignorant first world researchers and companies.

Perhaps the most common rebuttal to the overpopulation thesis is to point to the role of affluence or overconsumption. The simple overpopulation argument presumes a fixed per capita consumption -- but in reality, consumption levels can vary drastically from one person to another. The modern conception of the good life is overreliant on resource-intensive pursuits. If we had a different view of what made life good, we would greatly reduce the amount of environmental damage done by each person.

When local scarcity does occur, it's quite often the result not of an absolute shortage, but of a maldistribution. Social inequality and the resulting lack of access to resources have the same effect as an absolute shortage, but the causes -- and hence solutions -- are quite different.

The flip side of maldistribution of resources is maldistribution of people. In studies of dryland degradation and deforestation, it has often been found that, insofar as population is a problem, it's a problem of "over-migration." Too many people in the wrong place is a different story than too many people overall. The roots of over-migration then go back to the social structures that provide incentives and constraints that drive people into environmentally sensitive areas.

If the kinds of concerns described above were effectively addressed, I think we would find that the current human population, as well as the populations projected to occur in the future in the absence of policies directly motivated by concern for overpopulation, is comfortably within the bounds of what the Earth can support.

Stentor Danielson, 08:21, ,


What You Chose Is Not The Issue

Hugo Schwyzer has waded into the last name wars again, with a long post on why he's delighted that his current wife (unlike the previous three) is "Mrs. Schwyzer." (Along the way he includes some truly bizarre claims, like saying that it can't be patriarchy because it wasn't invented until the 16th centry and isn't practiced in Latin America.) I think one of the reasons this issue is so contentious is that it's framed as an analysis of individuals' choices. This is symptomatic of a larger set of issues in feminism and elsewhere whenever the issue of choice comes up.

(To lay my own biases on the table, I would be distinctly uncomfortable with my wife taking my last name, and I'm aesthetically opposed to hyphenation.)

The usual arguments go like this: one person asserts that they have freely chosen to personally do something that the patriarchy commands. Someone else responds that their choice is so shaped by subtle social pressures that they aren't really free to choose what the patriarchy commands. But as soon as we start asking about whether the person made the right choice, we've lost track of the real issue.

The problem is not that it's intrinsically bad for a woman to change her last name. Given that there are good reasons why some families would want to share a last name, in an ideal world we'd see an even mix of women changing their names, and men changing theirs, alongside some amount of hyphenation and non-changing. So focusing on individual couples' choices is looking at the wrong scale, and too late in the process. The real problem is the social forces that rig our menus of choices, making it plausible and useful for women to change their names, but difficult for men. We need to focus on the social pressures that stigmatize (albeit often mildy -- and all the more insidious for the mildness) people based on their name choices, and the assumptions people make about each other based on their names.

And we need to change the decision process, not police the outcomes. In the name-change case, doing so is not that complicated (though it can be emotionally straining to fight your conditioning). It simply requires taking whatever arguments seem to weigh in favor of your choice -- including arguments in favor of hyphenation or not changing, since patriarchy can divert couples that would be better off with the husband changing his name into the middle ground of no change -- and swapping the genders. Then you give the arguments honest consideration. Many of the traditional arguments -- such as Schwyzer's claim that it demonstrates his wife's trust -- collapse when you reverse the genders. Nevertheless, you may find that the balance of reasons still weighs in favor of the wife changing her name, and that's fine. But to get to a non-patriarchal taking of the husband's name, you have to refuse to think only about whether the wife should change her name, and you have to be genuinely open to considering the full set of possible options. Interestingly enough, despite all the weird emotional baggage and non-sequitur rationalizations that Hugo attaches to his wife's choice, it appears that he has done a better job than most people of making a balanced consideration.

Incidentally, it's a pet peeve of mine that those who support patriarchy-compliant choices always talk (though usually under the shelter of a joking tone) about having their feminist credentials taken away. Obviously I'm in no position to be decreeing how feminist someone is, but on my home turf of environmentalism a person's membership in the cause is never all-or-nothing. Your sins don't wipe out the other good work you've done, but the other good work you've done doesn't earn you indulgences. Talking about losing your credentials implicitly frames your opponents as narrow-minded and purity-obsessed, and puts them on the defensive so that they feel compelled to stroke your ego by reassuring you that you're a good fellow traveler.

Stentor Danielson, 05:43, ,


Against the Corps II

At the end of the article on the US Army Corps of Engineers that I discussed in the previous post, the author asks why Americans aren't outraged. I think there's a simple explanation: Americans (and people in general) get outraged by people, but the problem with the Corps is structural. Americans have a basic and unquestioned trust in the system, in large part because the system is so embedded in their common sense that it doesn't occur to them that things could be organized differently. So when something goes wrong, they look for a person to blame. The only kind of explanation that makes sense is that some individual subverted things through personal malfeasance. So Abu Ghraib is the fault of Lynndie England, abuse of executive power will cease once we get George Bush and Dick Cheney (or possibly the whole corrupt cabal of the GOP's current leadership) out of office, and racism is just a matter of individuals committing prejudiced acts. We don't see that personal malfeasance (real and blameworthy as it is) and responsibility happen within a larger system of human relationships, relationships that create perverse incentives and barriers to action.

So when Katrina levels New Orleans, we blame George Bush and Michael Brown because they exhibited personal failings like ignoring warnings and worrying too much about looking fashionable at photo-ops. But we can't sink our teeth into the structural failures of the Corps because there's no individual to point our finger at.

Stentor Danielson, 21:51, ,

Environmentalists Against Hierarchy

Via the Commons Blog, I found this sobering article on the rampant malfeasance of the US Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps has long been my least favorite federal agency, since my first foray into environmentalism was a 7th grade research paper on the Everglades (which has the distinction of being the Corps' greatest debacle -- and one they're unsurprisingly failing to fix as promised).

The article unfortunately falls into a common environmentalist trap -- seeing any misconduct by the government as being basically a result of government being bought off by corporations. The article notes this happening mostly indirectly, through pork barrel projects in which members of Congress use the Corps to give economic gifts to their funders and constituents. I don't deny that this dynamic is significant and problematic. But we shouldn't focus on it alone as an explanation. The article notes in passing that the Corps itself is a strenuous advocate of bigger and bigger boondoggles, often offering them to members of Congress as potential pork. Here we have the intrinsic weakness of the hierarchical form of organization. The Corps is focused on expanding its own size, prestige, and authority, counting its successes through anemic proxies like the number of dollars appropriated to its projects. Its projects are economic disasters as well as environmental ones -- hardly what you'd expect from a mere pork processor or handmaid of the bourgeoisie.

In Cultural Theory terms, environmentalism has long been an uneasy alliance between an Egalitarian ideological core, and a pragmatic Hierarchist wing. Environmentalism has painted the Individualist market as its main enemy, and therefore accepted the use of Hierarchist means -- regulation, protected areas, etc. But as Galbraith and others have pointed out, modern capitalism is as much a Hierarchical enterprise as it is Individualist. Where I part ways with Galbraith is his desire for better and more responsible hierarchy. Instead, I think environmentalism needs to evolve into an alliance of Egalitarianism and real Individualism. By "real Individualism" I mean something deeper than just "green business" selling us "environmentally friendly" products we didn't need in the first place. I mean a commitment to the Individualist ideals of freedom, responsibility, choice, and decentralization. While the core of environmentalism will remain Egalitarian, Egalitarians and Individualists can find common ground in opposing environmentally destructive hierarchies both in the capitalist system and the state.

Stentor Danielson, 21:16, ,