Cold, Hard Economics: Why changing your old lightbulbs and toting your eco-friendly canvas shopping bag around won’t save the planet
November 10, 2011
Global warming is happening faster and with more intensity than anyone expected, yet the fossil-fueled right has succeeded in removing the issue almost entirely from the agenda through a false pretense of defending “free markets.” In response, environmentalists have tended to retreat further into their own organically padded corners, when what’s needed is to get back to economic basics: Markets cannot be free when benefits are privatized and enormous costs are being socialized. The only way out of this environmental crisis is to align citizens’ economic self-interest with the planet’s health.
The problem is that the very people who can help us do so — economists — have been pushed aside in the public debate.
On one side, you have climate scientists who, if anything, have underestimated the true effects of global warming — the North Pole now looks to be free of summer sea ice within this decade, a half-century earlier than scientists predicted in consensus documents as late as 2007.
On the other side, you have the true believers: Environmentalists, who seem to want to reduce, reuse, and recycle our way out of every situation and would never touch an out-of-season grape, let alone a plastic bag.
The mismatch is striking. Our current technologies will allow no level of personal action or sacrifice to achieve anything close to what is truly necessary to turn this ship around. We need to decrease global greenhouse-gas emissions by at least half by 2050 compared with current levels. Individual action won’t and can’t do that. As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama put it most succinctly: “We can’t solve global warming because I fucking changed light bulbs in my house. It’s because of something collective.”
Let’s start with plane travel. A flight from California to New York results in about half a ton of carbon dioxide pollution per passenger. A flight across the Atlantic pollutes the planet to the tune of around 1 ton per passenger. Each ton of carbon dioxide pollution causes at least $20 worth of measurable damage to society – right now, not sometime in the distant future, when it will be a multiple of the current cost.
Knowing that, the most moral of flyers opt to offset their emissions. You can turn to any number of online vendors and voluntarily pay a few dollars to have someone else plant a tree or cover a methane pit on your behalf. Prices vary, though they often hover around $20 for a trans-Atlantic flight.
Some airlines now even offer this option to their passengers. First, you pay for the ticket; then, you pay for the damage your journey will cause. The point, of course, is not to make anyone feel bad about flying. Quite the opposite: Airlines want you to feel good about flying and perhaps do more of it. But providing this option isn’t a solution; only a small number of people are going to choose it, while the rest of us freeloaders will go on with our lives and might even fly more as a result.
The biggest problem with these kinds of voluntary offsets is that they provide no incentives to the airlines themselves to fly more fuel-efficient planes or plan routes to minimize carbon emissions. When airlines do take these steps, they do so only in so far as it helps them save money. This, of course, is part of the airlines’ DNA: When oil prices go up, for example, the time between actual takeoff and landing tends to go up as well, as airlines fly more slowly to save on fuel and fuel costs.
Sensible climate policy ought to prompt these kinds of changes on a much larger scale and also encourage many more ambitious technological innovations. Air travel may account for only about 3 percent of industrial global-warming emissions, but it is a rapidly growing segment of total emissions. It is also one for which few alternatives currently exist, at least when it comes to traveling long distances. That points to a clear case for the need for technological breakthroughs…
November 10, 2011
Selling Asymmetric War at the Unmanned Vehicle Systems Trade Show
For the second straight year, I attended the annual trade show of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the world’s largest nonprofit advocacy organization for what many refer to as “drones.” This August’s gathering took place on the huge floor of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the AUVSI’s home turf, Washington, D.C. With more than 8,000 attendees over four days, the ever-expanding event illustrates the recession-proof nature of the U.S. military-industrial complex.
A highlight of the more than 500 exhibitors was the Monrovia, California–based AeroVironment, Inc. A small contractor relative to the likes of Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin—which were also present—AeroVironment has seen dramatic growth since 9/11. According to the Los Angeles Times, the company’s annual sales have increased from $29.4 million to $292.5 million over the last decade, thanks to its “smaller, cheaper but powerful high-tech weapons” that are “vital to waging guerrilla-type warfare.”
One of the company’s biggest successes is the decade-old Raven, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that weighs less than five pounds, fits into a backpack, is easily assembled, and is launched by human power like throwing a paper airplane. The Raven, The Economist says, is “a flying pair of binoculars that can look over the next hill, or escort a convoy from above.” Ravens provide imagery mapped to GPS coordinates, have infrared-sensing capacity, and can mark people and objects with a laser for targeting by heavy firepower. All branches of the military use Ravens. Last year the U.S. Army alone bought almost 1,300 Ravens—at about $56,000 each—according to The Economist.
However, I took a greater interest in the “Switchblade,” AeroVironment’s new toy, advertised on constant video playback at the company’s booth.
The commercial begins with two armored vehicles driving through a rugged desert. Suddenly, several unidentified individuals—one of whom is wearing a keffiyeh, the traditional Arab headdress—hit the first vehicle with some sort of mortar. Four soldiers jump out of the vehicles, and immediately come under heavy gunfire.
“Launch the bird,” one of the soldiers yells. Another then withdraws a tube from a backpack, quickly stands it on its two legs, and launches a projectile that immediately takes flight and sprouts wings. The device, a small UAV, provides the operator with a view of the surrounding terrain. Once he spots the two shooters in the hills above, he locks in and directs the Switchblade, what is essentially a remotely piloted missile, to hit the targets…
November 10, 2011
Remember the scene in “Reality Bites” where Wynona Ryder is asked to define irony? “Irony. Uh … Irony. It’s a noun. It’s when something is … ironic. It’s, uh … Well, I can’t really define irony but I know it when I see it!” Irony is one of those terms that can be hard to define, particularly since it is often used interchangeably with other related (but distinct) terms like satire, sarcasm, cynicism and snark. Why is irony such a difficult concept to grasp?
Philosophy professor Jonathan Lear sets out to answer this question in his new book, “A Case for Irony,” attempting to redefine and flesh out this term from the pat and the vague. In Lear’s view, irony is not just about humor: It’s meant to serve as a sobering mirror to our lives and actions, revealing and reaffirming to us our passions and beliefs. It shows how exactly we measure up to our professed ideals, all in an effort to strive for excellence – to become better at whatever it is we devote our lives to. Irony asks us, in a fundamental way, “Am I really who I say I am?”
Lear spoke with Salon over the phone to discuss this obscured meaning of irony, its connection with erotic impulse, its usefulness in the political arena, and Lincoln’s smarting humor.
You set out to define irony in this book and find that it has little to do with what is commonly understood by the term (i.e., wit and detachment). What do you understand irony to be?
I’m trying to go back to what I think is an old conception of irony. You can find it in Kierkegaard if you look hard, and he found it in Socrates. It’s almost the opposite of what irony is taken to be in contemporary culture, although if you start to look and think about it, one can see how they’re related.
How do they differ and what’s the connection?
I was just reading the paper the other day, and you begin to wonder: Is there any such thing as a euro anymore? Or when was the last time we had a president of the United States? Or among all our liberals, can we find a real liberal? One of the points of these questions that I think is very important in the central usage of irony is that it is not the opposite of earnestness. When you’re asking these questions, you’re not just being a smartass, or saying the opposite of what you mean in order to be recognized as saying the opposite of what you mean. These questions can be asked with intense seriousness, deep earnestness. You can be saying exactly what you mean and not the opposite of it. And unlike the contemporary culture’s understanding of it, it can be asked in the sense of “this really matters to me.”
It’s very complicated. When you say something like, “Is there a euro anymore?” or, “Is there a president anymore?” – on the one hand, you are, of course, somewhat detached from the current engagement, or that question wouldn’t even arise. But I think in its most important sense, it’s not meant to be a form of detachment. It’s because ultimately having a real president of the United States, or having a real liberal, or a having a solid currency matter to you that these questions arise. It’s not a question of, “Like, I’m not going to be attached to anything,” or, “I’m going to show how detached I am.” It’s actually quite the opposite. In its primary use, irony is a sign of how much things can matter and ought to matter and what they really ought to be like. So, I think that although there may be a moment of detachment in irony, it’s really, deeply in the service of trying to reattach to a more serious and committed way of living. And that, I think, is a complete 180-degree, just opposite view of contemporary culture’s understanding.
So if it’s not fundamentally about detachment, how is irony experienced? You write that it is linked with ignorance. How so?
Irony has to arise in the first person [i.e., has to be directed at oneself first]. There are a lot of derivative uses about how it’s about striking out at other people, or the world, or what you think about it. But, the really core issue of irony is when it hits you about yourself and the living of your life. Am I really succeeding as the kind of person I want to be? What outstrips what I’m now doing? Where do I stand with respect to that? What am I going to do with that? That, I think, is the key experience of irony.
In other words, irony is sort of like having an identity, or existential crisis where you question your ideals and purpose in life and whether or not you are actually living up to those, but this crisis moment doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative experience because it reveals or reaffirms the things/values we deem most important to life and who we are as individuals. Do you believe, then, that humans are always striving for excellence? That complacency is not inherent in us? Transcendence seems to be a running theme in your book.
I think there’s a tendency toward both. The thing that is more surprising is this kind of hopefulness and striving, which seems to me to be built into the kind of creatures we are. When you think about your own ambitions [and the steps you take to fulfill them], there’s a kind of excitement in that. That excitement, Plato thought of (and Freud picks up on this) is part of your erotic life. Your Eros has gotten into doing this thing, or being this kind of a person, and there’s something just exciting and alluring and fun about it. It’s that kind of erotic pull that, in a way, won’t let you rest content with being mediocre. Insofar as you fall into routines, that original love affair with what you might become makes you discontent with settling for the routine. That’s the moment of conscience.
On the other hand, we’re born helpless. It’s not just a psychological fact about us, I think it’s a structural fact. We’re very dependent for a long time. We get inducted by parents and teachers into a natural language and routines, everything from potty-training to eating food at a dinner table to not pushing to sharing, and all these things. It’s in our nature that we have to be inducted into society’s patterns and rituals and habits. There’s a tendency toward complacency – of fitting into the group, not questioning things too much. It’s an inherent part of who we are, and yet there’s also this countervailing tendency to disrupt that, to be discontent with it, to not settle for it. You can see this. Once you start looking for it, it’s everywhere. This [moment of discontent] is something important about being human…
November 10, 2011
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.