Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Making it Political

In my Intro to Ethics class yesterday we watched a video about Carrotmob.org. The idea is that people want to do good, and one source of average people's power is the money they spend. So the company behind Carrotmob does the footwork of organizing ways to help people create good effects by deciding where to spend their money. In the video we watched, one food market agreed to put 22% of their Carrotmob-acquired profits toward increasing their energy efficiency.

I asked for students' critical responses to the video. One was that people might be traveling so far to participate, that it effectively wipes out the environmental good that's created. Another is that it can be inconvenient to participate, taking considerable extra time. And if it does take so much time, one wonders what else could be done with that time instead, such as some kind of service or personal action (don't we all have ways we could make our own lives energy efficient, if that's what we're into?) rather than standing in a checkout line. That is, does it create change in the right proportion to the perception of creating change?

In general, this sort of effort raises some difficult questions. Should there be skepticism about a for-profit company set up to facilitate environmental and social activism? Or is this a case where the people behind Carrotmob should be applauded for finding a way to set up a company that makes profits (well, presumably they will profit if the model works) by encouraging people and businesses to make a better world?

A different video that I've shown in class before--one which is more radical and more thought-provoking about economic and social arrangements--is "The Story of Stuff." Implicitly, this video criticizes the Carrotmob approach by questioning the culture of consumption and showing that it is a historical, intentionally created social arrangement. This gives a political valence to DIYers, MAKErs, and hackers, such as Mark Frauenfelder and Carla Sinclair, who visited RIT last month.

Monday, April 27, 2009

RIT Conference on the Ethics of Sustainability

Friday, May 1st, Carlson Auditorium

8:45-9 Opening Remarks

9-10 Braden Allenby (Lincoln Professor of Engineering & Ethics, Arizona State University)

10-11 Bryan Norton (Distinguished Professor in Public Policy at Georgia Tech)

11-12 David Orr (Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics,
Oberlin College)

1-2 Paul Thompson (W. K. Kellog Chair in Agricultural, Food, & Community Ethics,
Michigan State University)

2-3 William Shutkin (Director, Initiative for Sustainable Development and Chair in
Sustainable Development, University of Colorado at Boulder)

3-4 Panel of Commentators, Moderator: Robert Ulin, Dean, Liberal Arts
Randall Curren (University of Rochester), Sarah Pralle (Syracuse University), and
Erin Taylor (Cornell University)

4-5:30 Panel of Presenters, Moderator, Jeremy Haefner, Provost
Braden Allenby, Bryan Norton, David Orr, Paul Thompson, & William Shutkin

These presentations are free and open to all.
Directors: Ryne Raffaelle, Wade Robison, Evan Selinger
For details go to http://www.rit.edu/cla/ethics/Sustainability.html

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Which Is It? GMO or Organic?

The organic community has soundly rejected the use of genetically modified crops, and current organic standards do not permit genetically modified crops to be marketed as organic, even if they are grown without harmful pesticides or artificial fertilizers.

The reasons include the fact that genetic modification can come with unknown risks to the environment and that genetic modification alters plants in ways that many people feel are more extreme or unnatural than alterations that are brought about through selective breeding. I would put this in terms of "purity," a concept like "natural" or "disgusting" which seems to relate entirely to the eye of the beholder.

In addition, genetically modified crops are tied to patents and commercialization which threatens the economic well-being and independence of subsistence farmers.

However, genetic modification also opens up opportunities which can contribute to long-term sustainable agriculture, according to the authors of Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. For instance, if a variety of rice were genetically modified to make it flood tolerant, then instead of using herbicides that might have negative health consequences, farmers could flood fields to kill weeds. There might also be the possibility of genetically modifying crops so that they are tolerant of marginal growing conditions, permitting them to be grown without the use of high levels of artificial fertilizers.

My inclination is to be open-minded and even enthusiastic about the possibilities of genetic engineering, and I would argue that skepticism about the technology should be based in empirical arguments. If it provides a solution that solves a real problem, then I don't think the argument from purity is strong enough to give us reason to put on the brakes. Likewise, from a biological standpoint, genetic engineering seems to be different in kind but not degree from conventional breeding (even when genes from vastly different species are intermingled). Therefore, it extends problems that we already have without introducing new problems.

However, the gravity of those problems should not be underestimated, and neither should their nature as social and legal, rather than technical, problems. The problem is not how to physically grow enough nutrients for poor populations, but how to introduce stability and universal access into their food system. This is a problem that genetic engineering of crops will probably exacerbate rather than solve, as long as our patent system discourages creativity and as long as markets control the options of poor farmers.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Locavores are Everywhere

The LOCAVORE movement has become so popular that there is even an iPhone app to support locavores in their search for farmer's markets and in-season produce.

The reasons that people support growing and buying food locally include a desire to build strong communities, accountability, support for small and sustainable farming, reduction of dependence on fossil fuels for transportation, and aesthetic enjoyment. Some people feel that it is a way of putting down roots (so to speak) and finding what is special about the unique place where they live. It is a way of reclaiming regional flavors in a mass-market mass-media world.

It fits in well with my own life-style: my parents were some sort of urban homesteaders, with a significant-sized vegetable garden in the alley of our small-town backyard. We canned tomatoes, made dill pickles, put away plums and pears. Now, I belong to a CSA and complain about coming up with creative ways to fit a half dozen red peppers into every week's meals for months on end.


But let's take a look at this again....
Is locavory elitist?
And are we pinning too much on a symbolic back-to-the-land movement?

The transportation of food accounts for 11% of food-related greenhouse-gas emissions. So, while all that transportation does add up, it's not the fastest route to cutting greenhouse gases.

What's faster? Cutting out meat, especially red meat. 18% of all greenhouse gases are produced by livestock, and 30% of the earth's land surface is devoted to raising livestock or the grain and grass they eat. If you replaced beef with beans one day a week, it would reduce your carbon footprint more than becoming a locavore.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Suburban Malaise

I've been teaching Bill McKibben's Deep Economy in my ethics class all year and have been collecting videos to go along with our discussions. My students love McKibben's chapter on eating local foods. To most of them, it's completely novel to think about where their food comes from. And they love to eat. So of course it's exciting that they can eat a meal and at the same time have it be an intellectual exercise.

But they get very defensive when it comes to talking about suburbs and the community (or lack of it) that is typical of American neighborhoods. For those that have grown up in suburbs (which is most of them), they know no other world. In fact, I not uncommonly hear that Rochester is a dangerous city and that their parents have counseled them never to go downtown and certainly never to go downtown alone. (I should mention that other than the public housing that is downtown, there is also the highly respectable Eastman School of Music, a lively bar scene, and a 5-screen independent cinema which specializes in foreign films.) What I would like to do is take them on a field trip.

Barring that, I'll take the confrontational approach and show this video of James Howard Kunstler pontificating on why suburbs are "not worth caring about" and on big box stores, that "when we have enough of them, we're going to have a nation that's not worth defending." Nothing like a radical to put a moderate position into perspective. Is the language too strong? I think anything is fair game these days.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Sexy Science

Isabella Rossellini lends her alluring beauty to the purpose of science education in these two green pornos, in which she examines the mating behavior of insects, spiders, whales, and barnacles. I love the straight-talking, anthropomorphizing, gender-bending sexiness of it all: 
If I were a male bee...I would have many brothers, and we would do nothing, just waiting to have sex. 
The question is: can I come up with a reason--and the courage--to show any of these in class?