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Beyond Goodwill and Language: Why Ecopoetics Should Embrace Policy Wonks

21 Mar

(This post is part of conversation with poet and friend Moriah Purdy. The first post can be read over at Here Now, Myriads.)

Moriah has already provided some good working definitions of ecopoetics already, so I don’t have much to add on that front. My primary interest in ecopoetics is how it intersects with policy and political activism. I welcome responses from anyone, though I’m eager to hear the thoughts of my co-blogging conversationalist.

The oft posed questions surrounding poetry and practice run something like, “Does poetry do anything? Can ecopoetics help change environmental policy for the better?” These are often rhetorical questions or placeholders for future debates that don’t materialize.  I want to try to begin addressing them, and so I’ll offer what I see as the major limitation of ecopoetics (however defined): It doesn’t help us think about the environmental problems currently facing us.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if we’re focusing on ecopoetics as a poems themselves; poetry doesn’t pretended to offer the kinds arguments and evidence that essays or policy papers do, so it would be unfair to criticize ecopoets for not doing something they’ve never pretended to do. But much of the discussion surrounding ecopoetics seems to offer up questions without attempts to work through problems or offer potential solutions. An excerpt from Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice highlights my concern:

Consider another subject, which is beginning, at long last, to receive the attention it deserves, that is, the neglect and deterioration of the natural environment. It is, as is increasingly clear, a hugely serious problem and one that is closely linked with the negative effects of human behaviour, but the problem does not arise from any desire of people today to hurt those yet to be born, or even to be deliberately callous about the future generations’ interests. And yet, through lack of reasoned engagement and action, we do still fail to take adequate care of the environment around us and the sustainability of the requirements of good life. To prevent catastrophes caused by human negligence or callous obduracy, we need critical scrutiny, not just goodwill towards others.

Critical scrutiny is the key here, even though I think many ecopoets would argue that they are offering a kind of “critical scrutiny”—for example, by examining the ways we use language to talk about the environment. But I think that (much) of the critical scrutiny offered by ecopoetics is severely limited and often fails to address some of the most pressing concerns. This Tamiko Beyer post about the BP oil spill at the Kenyon Review blog is one such example¹:

I understand that to mean that the act of thinking through an ecopetics forces us to ask questions about the role and function of art/writing/etc. as we approach a critical ecological/environmental breaking point. The problems – as in the oil spill – are so huge and seemingly impossible to tackle – what use, then, poetry?

It’s a question that’s been asked before in many different contexts, but for me, it makes intuitive sense that an ecopoetics is a reasonable, appropriate, even vital response to ecological disaster. As one panelist pointed out (Iijima? Durand?) all poetry in some respect is ecopoetic: our language and language production cannot help but be influenced by and indicate the ecology that we exist in.

Given that, I want to think that we can start to reconsider our relationship with our ecology/environment by putting pressure on the language that is a manifestation of that relationship.

Though the problem is seemingly impossible to tackle, we already have a host of critical tools we can use to think about the problem: What are the environmental costs? What sort of regulation is missing? How have government regulators failed (or overreached)? What sort of legal remedies are effective/available? What kind of political action could communities muster to prevent future disasters?. It’s not that language is unimportant, it’s that the numerous disciplines that ecopoetics claims to include have spent some time thinking about these issues and these disciplines would be a great edition to the vocabulary of ecopoetics.  See, for example, Ryan Advent discussing the tension between environmentalists and the economic models which politicians and policy makers rely on to craft climate change legislation (or, as is the case with the US Congress, not make policy).

My feeling is that many ecopoets would nod along with some of these criticisms, admitting that, of course short term policy is indeed important, but that ecopoetics is playing a long game that is interested in changing the ways we think about the environment, breaking us out of status quo thinking and critical approaches (like economic models) which are too limited (or even damaging). I’m skeptical that many of these ecopoetic alternatives consider the full scope of the problem (global climate change is history’s greatest collective action problem–which problematic language game stands in the way of turning China, the US, and India into green nations?).  Which is why I’m interested to hear how others think ecopoetics can (or even shouldn’t) take into account some of the policy concerns of environmentalists and public debate.

fn.1: I don’t mean to suggest that Beyer is wholly unaware of other approaches to the oil spill besides language analysis; she says in the post that she hopes to revisit ecopoetic concerns in another post which, unfortunately, she didn’t write (only so many things you can address as a guest blogger). Perhaps she has since addressed similar concerns elsewhere.

Best Two Sentences I Read Today

5 Mar

From Ways to End the World:

Chaos theory was actually discovered when the crude computer models of weather created a couple decades ago mysteriously failed to perfectly predict the weather. People were sitting around saying, “But, dude, my PC Junior has like two megs of ram and a dot matrix printer! How in the fuck can it possibly not know exactly what temperature it’s going to be in each individual region of the US for the next five months?”

Kyoto Sucks, But Malaria is Worse

10 Oct

By Alicia Feuillet

I don’t take issue with 99% of what Bjorn  Lomborg of the Copenhagen Consensus says about the economic realities of fighting global warming using the Kyoto Protocol (i.e. it sucks).  Although I am usually averse to anything that looks remotely like Bentham’s hedonic calculus when dealing with people lives, he does make several well made points.  However, for such an “innovative” thinking, I was disappointed by his thoughts on how to combat the 3 % up tick in new malaria infections (15 million people in just the first year) over the next century:

On the other hand, we could spend $3 billion annually — 2 percent of the protocol’s cost — on mosquito nets and medication and cut malaria incidence almost in half within a decade. Malaria death rates are rising in sub-Saharan Africa, but this has nothing to do with climate change and everything to do with poverty: Poor and corrupt governments find it hard to implement and fund the spraying and the provision of mosquito nets that would help eradicate the disease. Yet for every dollar we spend saving one person through policies like the Kyoto Protocol, we could save 36,000 through direct intervention.

Malaria is an incredibly devastating disease.  40% of the world’s population (2.5 billion people) lives in malaria endemic areas, it significantly lowers the quality of life (snarky economists read productivity), 1 million die each year including 1 child every 30 seconds.  Although vector control through the use of heavy insecticides is highly effective, it will not eradicate malaria. 

The problem that Bjorn conveniently ignores is that the overwhelming majority of malaria infections are concentrated in areas which are unable to pay for vector treatments, let alone R&D development of malaria treatments/vaccines.  Meaning, there is little to no incentive for major pharmaceutical companies to invest R&D dollars into “marginal diseases” when they can just tweak their Lipitor patent and make billions of dollars each year.  Government labs and places like the WHO do work on drug/vaccine development, but 95% of new drug treatments come from private pharmaceutical companies.  Unfortunately, any amount of pressure place on private firms will lead to marginal efforts and discovery, but if companies are “made aware” of the economic incentives for developing drugs then we just might be able to eradicate the burden of malaria altogether.  Yes, those vicious corporate executives at Merck will make lots of money from drug sales, but as a humanitarian I will certainly take advantage of their greed if it means that 500 million people every year can be spared from malaria.  Ah, the power of the free market.

How Philosophers and Internationalists Can Save the World

11 Sep

Tyler Cowen takes issue with one of Bjørn Lomborg’s central arguments in Cool It; specifically, Lomborg’s assertion that economists advocate only moderate policy changes to address global warming. One of Cowen’s more interesting caveats is that economists “do not even know enough moral philosophy to understand the issues involved (and the philosophers don’t understand enough economics), so there is no coherent consensus one way or the other.”

I’m not sure how much economic instruction it would take to bring a moral philosopher up to speed (or an economist training in philosophy) but I’m going to say that it’s a harder than it seems. There are lots of good representatives of specific moral communities (e.g. third-world populations) specific interests (e.g. wildlife, oceans) affected by global warming, and markets (e.g. economists), but none of them are properly linked. I think we’re looking at serious information constraints. Which is why I think some of the second (third or fourth best, really) options like raising CAFE standards aren’t a priori off the table, even though they are market distortions; there isn’t a very effective market (yet) for climate based economic policy.

Cowen also points out another glitch in developing a solution:

The strongest argument against significant action is not from cost-benefit analysis in the narrow sense, but simply that we are not very good at producing international public goods. Especially when it comes to extended, intertemporal collective action problems directed against small probability events, with unclear periodic feedback, and dealing with the Chinese and the Indians, who feel they have the right to pollute as much as we did, and also with the not-nearly-as-cooperative-as-they-might-sound Europeans (how’s that sentence for a mouthful?).

So not only is managing international institutions and regulations something of a crapshoot, but coordinating an international public good, which begins nowhere and can’t be excluded from use by any other country, is even more problematic.

If economic policy could benefit more from understanding moral philosophy and the vagaries of international regulation, I know my solution: how soon can we put Tyler Cowen, John Holbo, and Dan Drezner together in a room?

Why Global Warming Deniers Matter

15 Aug

It’s hard to say what’s driving this Robert Samuelson piece criticizing the recent Newsweek cover story about global warming deniers . I think it’s an overdeveloped adherence to pragmatism combined with a misplaced sense of fairness. His complaint?

It’s an object lesson of how viewing the world as “good guys vs. bad guys” can lead to a vast oversimplification of a messy story. Global warming has clearly occurred; the hard question is what to do about it.

Samuleson goes on to argue that global warming deniers haven’t had much influence on public opinion, and besides, the reality is that we can’t do much about global warming in the short term. Ignoring the fact that his initial point is a bit of a non sequitor (Newsweek’s story that deniers have a powerful influence is misleading because…we only have the technology to curb emissions?), the real influence of the deniers is at the margins. In order to demonstrate the limited influence of deniers, Sameulson cites Gallup figures that say 63% of Americans worried “a great deal” or “a fair amount” about global warming in 1989 and 65% in 2007. He also notes: Continue reading