Deceit and development

An interesting article in New York Magazine discusses the development of lying in children. While one might superficially expect truthfulness to be the greater virtue, deception is highlighted as the more advanced behaviour:

Although we think of truthfulness as a young child’s paramount virtue, it turns out that lying is the more advanced skill. A child who is going to lie must recognize the truth, intellectually conceive of an alternate reality, and be able to convincingly sell that new reality to someone else. Therefore, lying demands both advanced cognitive development and social skills that honesty simply doesn’t require. “It’s a developmental milestone,” Talwar has concluded.

This really isn’t too surprising. It is, after all, the development of strategic thinking that differentiates sophisticated actors from unsophisticated ones, and the ability to avoid revealing strategic vulnerabilities is crucial to effective action in many circumstances.

While parents probably feel as though their children should be willing to trust them with anything, they also need to appreciate the degree to which an ability to mislead is crucial to success in pretty much all significant engagements with strangers, and probably even colleagues and friends. After all, how many dates, weddings, or job interviews is a person liable to get through successfully without a strategic awareness of information and an ability to leverage it through everything from tactful suppression of facts or details to their outright misrepresentation.

The hopelessness of the voluntary

Old train station, Ottawa

Energy Saving Day in the United Kingdom has produced no measurable results. While this is a blow to the “everyone recycle your used Coke cans and we will be fine” form of environmentalism, it is less surprising to people who have a sense of the scale of the climate issue and an awareness of the (in)effectiveness of past voluntary efforts.

Even if the day had been successful, it would have been more about displacement than reduction. Consider the much touted ‘Buy Nothing Day‘ espoused by certain rejectors of the dominant consumerist culture. Even among those who observe the occasion scrupulously, it is plausible that overall consumption doesn’t fall at all: it just gets displaced to the days before and after. Overall, the idea that serious societal issues can be tackled through 24 hours of voluntary abstinence by a handful of devotees is profoundly flawed.

What is the alternative? Price carbon and de-carbonize infrastructure.

Pickton should face another trial

PCO building, Ottawa

The decision of the British Columbia Attorney General not to prosecute 20 additional murder charges against Robert Pickton seems like a failure to strike the proper balance between the good use of government resources and the pursuit of justice. It has frequently been pointed out that had his victims been less marginalized members of society their initial disappearances would have been much more thoroughly investigated. Similarly, the failure of the police to appreciate what was occurring and put a stop to it over such a long period of time would have been deemed negligent and unacceptable. By choosing not to prosecute all the murders for which the Crown has evidence, the marginalization of these women is being further entrenched. It is inconceivable that the second trial would not occur if the victims had been wealthy residents of Shaughnessy or the British Properties.

The creation of a detailed public record of what transpired has societal value: both for those who knew the victims and for those who hope to improve the future operation of the police and justice systems. The argument for having a trial is therefore similar to the case I made previously for completing Slobodan Milosevic’s trial after his death. In such cases, the point is not to punish the offender; it is, rather, to make the facts of the situation known, demonstrate places where errors were made, and provide some guidance for future behaviour. On an important but less practical level, a second trial would also be an assertion of the equal human worth of the second group of victims: an especially important message to send given the ways in which the supposed equality of law is not always as meaningful or substantial as it ought to be.

Contraction and convergence

The interim version of the Garnaut Review (mentioned earlier) includes a numberless graph illustrating what the principle of contraction and convergence in per capita greenhouse gas emissions would resemble:

Contraction and convergence graph from the Garnaut Review

A few features are especially notable. The first is the relative trajectories in the opening years. States with very high per capita emissions, like Australia and Canada, would have to reduce emissions sharply right from the outset. Rapidly growing poor states like China would be allowed to grow until per capita emissions are comparable to those in relatively low emission developed states, such as the EU. Gradually, everybody’s per capita emissions become lower and more similar.

This approach becomes a lot more politically feasible when you take these lines to represent emission allocations rather than actual emissions. Developing states would have a choice about how to use the extra space allocated for their development. They could opt to use the allocation for their own emissions, allowing the growth of GHG emitting industry; alternatively, they could sell the allocations to more developed states at a globally established market price. That way, poverty reduction and development goals could be served at the same time as total GHG emissions trend towards a sustainable level. The big advantage of allowing global trading is that it should equalize the international marginal cost of abatement. In simple terms, that means that it will ensure that the emissions that can be avoided at the lowest cost will be addressed first, minimizing the overall cost of mitigation.

The Garnaut Review rightly highlights that it would be incredibly politically difficult to establish such an international regime. At the same time, it is probably also right to say that a general approach that embraces contraction and convergence has the best chance of stabilizing global greenhouse gas emissions at a level that avoids dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system, and does so in a way that minimizes total costs and manages the distribution of costs and benefits in an acceptably fair manner.

Ethics among the doomed

Discarded hubcap

There have been a number of arguments here before about how excess can be justified: specifically, how emitting more greenhouse gasses than is sustainable per-capita based on the present human population can be morally justified. A new logical possibility occurred to me today: it is possible that we are already doomed. By that, I mean that pretty much all aspects of life that we consider to be deeply meaningful or important are already destined to be obliterated as a result of past action or inevitable future actions. For instance, the amount of climate change already locked into the climate system as the result of lags and positive feedbacks may be sufficient to make human civilization untenable.

If this is true, it changes the dynamic somewhat. The standard view of climate change is that we are all on a big ship in the middle of the sea, completely isolated from any help, and a serious hull breach has occurred. If most of us work together selflessly, we can plug it and save the ship. There is, however, the logical possibility that the leak is so bad that even the complete commitment of everyone aboard will not stop the rising water, and will not save a single one among us.

If we have crossed that threshold of inevitability, we are released of our obligations to prevent the sinking of the ship. Of course, the extent to which the sinking was preventable or not can only be known after the fact. Either we find ourselves in the position of being saved, on the basis of whatever efforts were made, or we find ourselves in oblivion, in spite of whatever was done to encourage an alternative outcome.

How to foster discussion

This site is at its most interesting when there are active discussions ongoing involving multiple participants. Unfortunately, such occurrences are not as frequent as might be desired. The overall number of people visiting the site is generally pretty constant: around 100 to 120 a day. The level of discussion during any particular period, however, is intensely variable.

Are there mechanisms people can suggest to encourage more discussion and debate? Are there aspects of the blog as it stands that put people off commenting?

Suggestions are always much appreciated.

Useful A570 IS setting

Canon’s point and shoot digital cameras have many features to recommend them. Among the most important is the intelligent design of the controls. Critical things like exposure compensation, white balance, and flash status can be altered intuitively. The single setting I change most often is probably ISO (the sensitivity of the sensor). You want it to be as low as possible (to avoid graininess) but high enough to avoid blur from subject or camera shake. If you are working in changing light conditions, this is a balance that changes all the time.

One neat thing I discovered is that the A570 lets you program one of the buttons to be a one-touch shortcut to something you do very often. To do so, follow these steps:

  1. Turn the camera on and put it in photo shooting mode
  2. Press the Menu button
  3. Scroll all the way down to “Set X button…” (where X is a picture of a printer)
  4. Press FUNC / SET
  5. Choose from among: ISO speed (my choice), white balance, digital teleconverter (useless), display grid overlay, and display off
  6. Press FUNC / SET

Now, pressing the button in the upper right corner below the printer icon becomes a quick shortcut to whichever you do most often. It might only save a fraction of a second each time, but it amounts to a very worthwhile convenience in the long run.

Seed vault opening

Skaters on the Rideau Canal

A particularly tangible sort of insurance policy is being initiated today, with the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The underground facility is intended to protect the genetic diversity of plant species, in recognition of the risk that other seeds could be destroyed by a worldwide disaster. Eventually, the vault is meant to contain 4.5 million seed samples, deposited by governments from around the world.

The vault is buried 120m inside a sandstone mountain selected for remoteness, persistent cold, and lack of tectonic activity. The selection of a site 130m above sea level ensures that, even if all the world’s ice melts, it will not be submerged. The seeds will be kept at a temperature of -20 to -30 degrees Celsius using electrical power. In the event of a failure of refrigeration, several weeks would elapse before temperatures rose to the -3 degree temperature of the surrounding rock. The packaging of the seeds – along with their natural durability – should make at least some viable for long periods of time, even in the absence of refrigeration.

The $9.1 million project was financed by the Global Crop Diversity Trust. While there is no particular reason to believe that the world’s 1400 or so other seed banks would be universally unable to survive something like a nuclear war or a comet or asteroid impact, $9.1 million is probably a sensible expenditure when so many potentially vital species are to be protected. Less sensational disasters are also being insured against: from the destruction of national seedbanks through conflicts or errors to administrative blunders or localized natural disasters.

An interactive tour of the facility is accessible online.

New UNEP report: ‘In Dead Water’

This blog has documented a number of the most important threats facing fisheries and marine ecosystems, including over-exploitation, ocean acidification, harmful fish farming practices, invasive species, and climate change. A new report (PDF) put out by the United Nations Environment Program does a good job of summarizing all of these, as well as providing a good overall picture.

Major conclusions of the report make for sober reading:

  1. Half the World catch is caught in less than 10% of the ocean
  2. With climate change, more than 80% of the World’s coral reefs may die within decades
  3. Ocean acidification will also severely damage cold-water coral reefs and affect negatively other shell-forming organisms
  4. Coastal development is increasing rapidly and is projected to impact 91% of all inhabited coasts by 2050 and will contribute to more than 80% of all marine pollution
  5. Climate change may slow down ocean thermohaline circulation and continental shelf “flushing and cleaning” mechanisms crucial to coastal water quality and nutrient cycling and deep-water production in more than 75% of the World’s fishing grounds
  6. Increased development, coastal pollution and climate change impacts on ocean currents will accelerate the spreading of marine dead zones, many around or in primary fishing grounds
  7. Over-harvesting and bottom trawling are degrading fish habitats and threatening the entire productivity of ocean biodiversity hotspots, making them more vulnerable to climate change
  8. Primary fishing grounds are likely to become increasingly infested by invasive species, many introduced from ship ballast water
  9. The worst concentration of cumulative impacts of climate change with existing pressures of over-harvest, bottom trawling, invasive species, coastal development and pollution appear to be concentrated in 10–15% of the oceans concurrent with today’s most important fishing grounds
  10. A lack of good marine data, poor funding for ocean observations and an ‘out of sight – out of mind’ mentality may have led to greater environmental degradation in the sea than would have been allowed on land
  11. Substantial resources need to be allocated to reducing climate and non-climate pressures. Priority needs to be given to protecting substantial areas of the continental shelves. These initiatives are required to build resilience against climate change and to ensure that further collapses in fish stocks are avoided in coming decades

There is still some debate about which generation will experience the first reeling blows from climate change. It is increasingly clear that the young people of today will be alive to see the collapse of the world’s fisheries and coastal ocean ecosystems.