B.C.’s latest move against the Kinder Morgan pipeline

When it comes to stopping unsustainable fossil fuel development, anything that creates investor uncertainty can be useful. By that metric, the British Columbia government’s announcement of a diluted bitumen shipment expansion moratorium while it studies how a diluted bitumen spill would unfold is a small contribution to shifting Canada to an acceptable development pathway.

Still, I wish governments would look squarely at the real problem: the fundamental contradiction between continued fossil fuel exploitation and the climatic stability objectives that states including Canada asserted in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement, and in their own climate announcements. Making it all about local issues may be politics as usual, but it misses the main ethical issues at play.

Breaking loops

As an experiment in living and in an effort to protect my sleep I have set my router to disable internet access from all my devices between 2:00am and 7:00am seven days a week.

Especially when I am feeling down and wishing I could avoid things, there is a temptation to just keep clicking through YouTube videos, Wikipedia articles, or news stories.

Contrary to the pervasive idea that being well-informed is all about being apprised of the latest information, there is good reason to think that the newer information is the more likely it is to the incorrect, incomplete, or useless. Over time, we filter information by quality, put things together, and benefit from additional context. That makes the news from a weekly or monthly magazine more likely to be informative than the news from the current Google News page or a social media feed, and it means reading a book which society has determined to be important almost certainly carries more lifetime value than reading the same number of words from breaking news stories.

There are other self-harming loops I have been working to disrupt in myself and better understand in other people. Despite a lot of anguish and turmoil, the overall experience of the last couple of months suggests that improvement is possible.

A new MacBook Pro or a nice digital SLR

Reporting on the Credit Suisse Research Institute’s global wealth report, The Economist explains:

If the world’s wealth were divided equally, each household would have $56,540. Instead, the top 1% own more than half of all global wealth. The median wealth per household is just $3,582; if you own more than that, you are in the richest 50% of the world’s population.

Even for those who believe that it’s ethical for your wealth to be determined by the amount of economic value you create for others, the evidence that high wages are deserved is weak (especially for top executives).

2017–18 course 1 essay 1

This term’s first big batch of grading — essays for my Canadian politics course — is due no later than Monday evening. Please wish me fortitude in getting through the last three dozen.

I believe basically everyone finds grading stressful and tedious. It invalidates my ordinary procrastination flowchart, since it is always possible to devote time to long-term projects or self-care activities instead of reminding people that essays need to have a thesis, or tabulating grades in Excel and U of T’s poorly implemented online portal.

Pullman on authoritarianism and eroded democracy

Along with The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Phillip Pullman’s essay “Malevolent voices that despise our freedoms” must be one of his most radical pieces of writing. It corresponds to his general concern about lack of oversight over powerful institutions and speaks out powerfully against the authoritarianism that can arise in parallel with public fear:

And the new laws whisper:

We do not want to hear you talking about truth

Truth is a friend of yours, not a friend of ours

We have a better friend called hearsay, who is a witness we can always rely on

We do not want to hear you talking about innocence

Innocent means guilty of things not yet done

We do not want to hear you talking about the right to silence

You need to be told what silence means: it means guilt

We do not want to hear you talking about justice

Justice is whatever we want to do to you

And nothing else

One early passage in his new novel La Belle Sauvage evokes a similar theme:

She tried to keep a steady pace. She had nothing to fear from the police, or from any other agency, except like every other citizen she had everything to fear. They could lock her up with no warrant and keep her there with no charge; the old act of habeus corpus had been set aside, with little protest from those in Parliament who were supposed to look after English liberty, and now one heard tales of secret arrests and imprisonment without trial, and there was no way of finding out whether the rumors were true. (p. 153–4)

Authors like Pullman and Margaret Atwood play a valuable societal role in drawing attention to such dangers: that fear will drive us to hand over control to unaccountable entities and that a drift toward dystopia is possible. Among all the dangers we face, we mustn’t forget the nightmares the state is capable of imposing.


The Chiron and humanity at its worst

I’ve written elsewhere about how The Economist doesn’t understand climate change. In their science section and the occasional editorial they stress the need for massive and urgent action, but their thinking is not joined up. Their general editorial stance remains that economic growth is the greatest good, every new fossil fuel discovery is a boon, and that largely business-as-usual politics is either desirable or inevitable.

One passage from a recent special report on France demonstrates the chasm between their enthusiasms and what is necessary for a sustainable world:

The word “factory” does not do justice to Bugatti’s state-of-the-art production site in the shadow of the forest-clad Vosges mountains in eastern France. There is no grease or grime around the assembly line. The floor is a shimmering white gloss. The airy space feels more like a museum of modern art, gleaming eight-litre engines displayed like so many design exhibits. Workers wear white gloves, as if handling treasures. In fact, they are building the world’s fastest supercar.

A Milanese engineer, Ettore Bugatti, founded a car factory in this corner of France in 1909. Germany’s Volkswagen, which later bought the brand, chose Bugatti’s historic French site to develop the Veyron, a car designed to combine elegance and speed. The French factory turned out every one of these luxury record-breaking cars after their launch in 2005. This year Bugatti unveiled a successor, the Chiron, which pushes the limits of physics and sleek design further still. The car reaches 100km (62 miles) an hour in two-and-a-half seconds and has a starting price of €2.4m. Christophe Piochon, head of the French plant, compares the exquisite craftsmanship that goes into the construction of a Bugatti car to haute couture.

This schoolboy hard-on for a product that embodies everything that is putting humanity in peril is both telling and depressing. There’s a pretty strong case that nobody should be allowed to be rich enough to own a €2.4m car. Most people in that position are probably corporate executives, and there is little reason to believe they deserve it. It does not seem that the people who are given such lavish compensation produce that level of value for their employers, and even if they did it doesn’t necessarily follow that they should get to keep it for themselves.

Beyond the issues of economic inequality, there is the fundamental inappropriateness of the technology itself. Car racing is spectacularly pointless in itself, but a race track is essentially the only suitable venue for such a vehicle. Having people driving them around city streets as status symbols demonstrates much about what’s sick in our culture.

Astrology is foolishness

Astrology maddens me, especially when generally sensible people treat is as harmless fun. Back in 2006, I said: “astrology is utter nonsense, and … human life in general would be better if everyone could completely and finally reject it as bunk”.

I just learned another way in which the practice goes beyond being a harmless form of entertainment. Not only have people with way too much power sometimes put credence in it (Ronald Reagan is a frightening example), but apparently having an “unfavourable astrological chart” is a sufficient impediment in the Indian marriage market as to justify specialist dating sites for those thus afflicted. Including horoscope details in matching algorithms is similarly questionable.

Richard Dawkins was right to note that “a constellation is of no more significance than a patch of curiously shaped damp on the bathroom ceiling” as each is “a miscellaneous set of stars all at different distances from us, which have no connection with each other except that they constitute a (meaningless) pattern when seen from a certain (not particularly special) place in the galaxy (here)”.

If people remain unable to internalize that, it doesn’t leave one with a lot of hope that we will do better on more important matters.

U of T summer gym fees

A small but indicative example of how the University of Toronto doesn’t prioritize the welfare of its students is the way in which the gym access included in student fees during the fall and winter terms is cut off in the summer, requiring students to pay a per-facility fee to keep using it. This is especially bad for grad students, since they are likely to be around during the summer and also likely to be impoverished, since U of T’s exceptionally stingy funding packages usually provide nothing during the summer (though full-time work on your research project is still the tak of PhD students) and there are few TA positions available.

Given the demonstrated benefits of fitness and exercise, the significant psychological challenges of grad school, and the millions it spends on fancy new buildings it seems like it would be much more sensible for U of T to make gym access a year-round service for year-round students.

In any case, I went to the attractively faux-Gothic gym in Hart House yesterday and found that my fitness has degraded less than expected since my wrist injury pulled me out of Judo. My mind has been full of worries lately and 90 minutes alternating between elliptical and rowing machines was a considerable help.

I should make a point of going at least twice a week as a Judo replacement.

Civil disobedience as a climate change activism tactic

Friday’s episode of “The Current” discussed the case of Michael Foster who — after warning the pipeline control centre to shut off the pumping stations — turned a valve to shut down the flow of bitumen through the Keystone pipeline in North Dakota. It’s a very self-conscious act of civil disobedience, with Foster sending video to the company in real time showing that the shutdown was imminent and discussing beforehand his expectation that he would be convicted of a crime (transcript / MP3).

Few who take climate change seriously would see this action as unjustified. Canada should have started shutting down the oil sands decades ago and should never have developed them to their current size. There is much debate, however, on the effectiveness of such actions. Their logic depends on influencing external actors: either the general public or the legal system.

Fairly recently my friend Stuart was involved in a non-violent direct action blocking automobile access to Heathrow airport. The objective was essentially “consciousness raising” (he said it was to “stir up the national debate about Heathrow”), that the willingness of activists to put themselves in legal jeopardy would make people accept how terribly unethical our casual use of air travel is.

In the Heathrow case, it’s hard for me to imagine that outcome. Air travellers are stressed and deeply entitled. They feel totally justified in complaining about any inconvenience, and I doubt more than a trivial number would reconsider the broad context of their air travel use when exposed to an action like this.

The situation discussed in the pipeline shutdown case podcast seems to offer a little more hope, largely because of the opportunity to use the legal proceedings as a vehicle for public education. Pipeline companies are already seen as villains by many, and the public and the courts may be more sympathetic to the value of disrupting them than of disrupting the air travel of ‘normal’ people. That said, the courts are a bad mechanism for trying to change climate policy for several reasons: they tend to defer to elected politicians on questions of policy, they can prohibit specific things but rarely order broad outcomes, and rulings requiring broad policy changes are often ignored.

We don’t have good options though. The general public are entitled, selfish, and determined to defend the status quo even when it imposes catastrophe on others. It’s common to say that they are apathetic, but I think that’s a misdiagnosis; it’s less that people have accepted the need to act but are unwilling to do so personally and more that they are constantly acting to support the system that is destroying nature and the prospects of all future human generations. They are unwilling to change their lives or their politics nearly enough or nearly quickly enough to avoid climate catastrophe. No political party in Canada, the U.S., or U.K. has a serious plan to meet the Paris Agreement targets, much less to actually avoid dangerous climate change. And so, in an unprecedented situation and with no good options, activists are trying what’s available and sacrificing their freedom to do so.

One of the most insightful comments about climate change is George Monbiot’s observation that:

[The campaign against climate change] is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but against ourselves.

No matter how strong the scientific consensus and how undeniable the real-world evidence becomes, nothing so far has convinced people to take action even slightly commensurate with the scale of action required, and people turn all their intellectual and rhetorical skills to justify that inaction (such as by pointing to the other good things they do). Overcoming those psychological responses may be just as important as breaking the power of the fossil fuel industry in a global campaign that can keep us from imposing so much suffering on future generations that we threaten the very ability of human civilization to endure.


Leadership lacking

The Bagehot column on the U.K. in this week’s Economist contains some of the harshest language I have seen them use, about the Theresa May government trying to implement Brexit, saying: “Britain is ruled by an incestuous clique of frenemies who delight in turning even the most serious issues into melodramas”.

It’s worrisome that so many of the world’s most important countries seem to be badly led at present. Likewise, at a time when we need to be thinking beyond narrow national interests and building an equitable low-carbon global energy system, instead people are defining their allegiances more and more narrowly and expending their energy on unworthy causes and petty conflicts.