Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The ethics of a bodycheck and a planet

For those not familiar with the late Stephen Jay Gould, saying he was one of the greatest natural scientists of the last century is an understatement. His contributions to research were only eclipsed by his ability to write about the wonders of ecology and evolution in a way that was accessible to all. It was not at all out of place for Gould to start an essay with a story about his beloved New York Yankees and somehow relate it to the importance of a fossil fish making paleontology as interesting as baseball in the process. It was no doubt Gould’s inspiration that turned a simple hockey game into something much bigger for me.

Two weeks ago, in a matchup of old rivals, the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, hockey fans witnessed a gruesome body check. Leaf defenceman Mike Van Ryn was pasted face first into the boards by gritty Canadiens forward Tom Kostopoulos giving him a concussion along with a broken hand and broken teeth. The wake of the hit started a huge online discussion about the incident. While some of these online debaters were clearly biased by the colour of the players’ jerseys, others seemed to see it as an issue of what was more important: the intent to injure or the resulting injury. Little did they know it, but this second group was stepping on the toes of some pretty important philosophers.

Philosophers and ethicists have long been divided into two groups. One group, called consequentialists, hold that the morality of an action should be judged on the outcome. For example, if someone accidentally spills coffee on a carpet, that would be judged as bad even if the spiller didn’t intend it. On the other hand, the couragists claim that an action should be judged based on the intention of the act. In this case the coffee spiller wouldn’t be judged as bad because they didn’t mean to spill their coffee. These two points of view don’t conflict when someone intends to do something good and the outcome is good or vice-versa but things get sticky when the outcome of an action is the opposite of the intention.
Without knowing it, hockey fans debating the severity of Kostopoulos’ punishment were debating this famous philosophical issue. “If Van Ryn escapes injury, probably no suspension is forthcoming, the consequences resulting from a careless act do matter,” says one fan clearly siding with the consequentialists. Damien Cox, a Toronto Star sports reporter, makes a clear case for the couragists: “No intent to injure. Just a good play gone bad. So no, Kostopoulos doesn't deserve a suspension.” In the end, the reasoning behind the three game suspension handed down by the league ended up having a distinctly consequentialist sound to it: "While it is my determination that Kostopoulos did not deliver a check to an unsuspecting opponent, his actions caused injuries."
This theme of intentions versus consequences creeps up in many places other than hockey. In a murder trial, intention can be the difference between manslaughter (4 years in prison) or first degree murder (life in prison). On the other hand, no-fault car insurance ignores the intentions of the drivers pays out according to the consequences of an accident.

What about when it comes to environmental damages? I don’t think that there is anyone who would intentionally cause environmental damage, they would avoid it if possible, but the damage is done nonetheless. Does that mean we are couragists in this respect? We drive our cars knowing the consequences are carbon dioxide emissions and climate change but we think it’s alright because it’s not our intention to release it; our intention is simply to get from point A to point B. Is this the important difference then between the average Canadian and David Suzuki who is deeply concerned with the consequences of our actions?
Even intention can be difficult to define when two things are happening at once, as is the case when we drive somewhere while simultaneously emitting carbon dioxide. Is it possible that though we only intend to get somewhere, we are also intending to emit carbon dioxide?
There’s an interesting experiment that demonstrates how sticky this issue can get. The experiment involves showing people two scenes. In the first scene the vice president of a company explains to the president he has a new plan for the company that will maximize profits but will harm the environment. The president replies that he understands the environmental will be harmed but doesn’t care; he tells the vice president to proceed. The people watching the scene are then asked whether the president is harming the environment intentionally. On one hand, his intention is only to maximize profits but he is conscious that this also involves harming the environment. Does that mean he is intentionally harming the environment?
The second scene is identical to the first except the word harm is replaced with help. The people are then asked whether the president helps the environment intentionally. Interestingly enough, when harm is done to the environment, 82% said that president harmed the environment intentionally but when the environment is helped only 23% say the president harmed the environment intentionally. People thought that the president intended to do a bad thing but not a good one despite the fact that the circumstances are the same.
Maybe the moral is as simple as the Kostopoulos hit. I don’t believe he intentionally injured Van Ryn just as we don’t intend to damage the environment through our actions. However, Kostopoulos was somewhat reckless and was rightly punished for the results of his actions. We are also reckless to a certain degree with our natural environment but, unlike Kostopoulos, still have time to try and abandon these reckless ways…before someone gets hurt.

As seen in the November 19 edition of the Brome County News

Friday, November 21, 2008

Internet research: boon or bane?

On November 4 while the world was celebrating the ascent of a Barack Obama, the literary giant responsible for ER and Jurassic Park died quietly after a private battle with cancer. Better known for his controversial portrayal of science-gone-bad, Michael Crichton did not reserve his criticism for geneticists and technologists alone. In 1993, in a speech to the U.S. National Press Club, criticized the conventional media for not doing a good job because they had a monopoly on information. In the same breath he would laud the advent of the internet which he thought would destroy this monopoly. It’s been 15 years since he predicted the future of the media and the internet; was he right?

Are we currently living in an age of information liberation? It certainly seems so. I can sit comfortably at home in the Townships, in my pyjamas if I like, and watch Angelina Jolie talk about her experiences talking with refugees in Chad or Al Gore talk about his new ideas on climate change.

The internet has given us the option of sidestepping the conventional media and getting at the experts directly. It has removed all the filters put on newspapers, magazines and television news. Interested in endangered species? You can go to Youtube type in the name E.O. Wilson and instantly one of the most famous ecologists in the world is in your living room. Interested in energy? Thomas Friedman can come over any time of day or night and tell you why energy innovation will be more important than information innovation.

Of course, let’s not kid ourselves; we’re still not getting pure information. We’re getting information that went in the ears of E.O. Wilson, was processed by his brain and came out his mouth. We’ve just skipped the step of the media that usually lies between E.O. Wilson’s words and us. It’s kind of like taking out a link in the childhood game of broken telephone. The message can get a little clearer. Let me mention a couple of these sites that are bringing the experts to the masses.

One of the most popular of these sites is Originally a conference about technology, entertainment and design, TED has branched out so far that they now state their mission in two words: spreading ideas. The site includes over 200 different presentations from a range of speakers including Bill Clinton, Bono, Richard Dawkins, and Jared Diamond. My personal favourite is neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s description of a stroke she suffered. Her expertise with the human brain allowed her identify different parts of her brain that were shutting down as her stroke progressed leaving with an entirely new outlook on life.

Another great site is which pits two experts of differing opinions, on subjects ranging from foreign policy to hip hop, against each other for one hour. It started with two journalists who began putting their discussions online but they soon realized that if they got two guests, they could take the day off! While one hour is never long enough to resolve anything, it certainly separates the wheat from the chaff and this site has become so popular that extracts from these discussions are regularly published in the New York Times.

While Crichton yearned for the filters that newspapers put on information to be removed and may have been right about some of its benefits, he didn’t see one important complication. Doing research on the internet is about as easy as trying to drink water out of a fire hose; there’s just too much information and it’s difficult to make sense of it and often when trying to drink out of this torrent of information all that happens is we get soaking wet.

What Crichton overlooked is that newspapers, magazines and televisions news don’t just present information as is, they prioritize news and omit less important news stories. They take complex ideas and boil them down to their essentials making them easier to read. They take this torrent of information and divert some parts and reorganize other parts to make it easier to digest.

The use of this reorganization is obvious when you realize that there is nothing quick about an internet search. Different websites have different, often contradictory, points of view that are not always well written or well presented. Some sites get bogged down in technical details while others barely skim the surface of complex issues. What we are doing when we do research on the internet is we are being our own journalist. We sort through the information and arrange it in a way that makes sense to us. Sometimes, for topics we’re really interested in, it’s worth it for us to do this but for other topics, where we only have a passing interest, it’s easier to let the journalists do the journalism.

As far as I see, we are currently enjoying the best of both worlds – or rather, all worlds. All different forms of media give us different access to different information. Newspapers and television news give us the basics of what’s happening. Magazines give us more in depth coverage of more specific issues and the internet gives us that fire hose of knowledge which, used in the right way, can quench our thirst for knowledge. The Michael Crichton of 1993 would be happy. Happier anyway.

Seen in the November 12, 2008 issue of the Brome County News

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Three myths surrounding environmentalism

I have nearly always considered myself an environmentalist. It started with my grade five teacher at Knowlton Academy and has allowed me to follow a path that has brought me through two degrees and two stints working for non-governmental organizations in Latin America. Yet, after all this time, I feel that I have become more and more uncomfortable calling myself an environmentalist. Not because I disagree with the idea of it, but because I disagree with a general portrayal of it.

Environmentalism has grown beyond Greenpeace and vegetarianism. Throughout my studies and adventures I have encountered so many different kinds of environmentalists – ranging from the meat-is-murder vegetarian to relatively conservative economists with dreams of a green economy – that I’m beginning to find it strange that people think of them as one united group in the first place.

I often find myself falling into the environmentalist stereotype when people discover that I have a degree in environmental sciences. Sometimes it’s with good intentions, such as a dinner host who is severely apologetic for not having prepared a vegetarian dish and sometimes it’s with bad intentions like a grumpy uncle who takes out his anger for the Kyoto Protocol on me. I admire and respect vegetarians and Kyoto supporters but happen to not subscribe to either. The spectrum of environmentalists runs anywhere from so-called ‘dark greens’ – those who believe achieving sustainability will require radical political change and personal sacrifice – to ‘bright greens’ who believe that many of the tools required to be sustainable already exist. Continuing to use one name to describe such diverse beliefs is as ridiculous as calling a Montreal Canadiens fan and Toronto Maple Leafs fan the same because they are both hockey fans. We all know what kind of trouble that would get you into.

Another myth about environmentalists has to do with the name itself and what it might imply. I’ll use feminism as an example. Feminism is a word which, taken literally, could be a system of belief claiming women are superior to men, much like racism is the belief that one race is superior to another. Most of us understand that feminism is simply advocacy of women’s rights in a world with strong male-dominated traditions with the final goal of gender equality, not female world domination. But the potential for confusion and a desire to avoid any association with the first definition has caused many international groups promoting women’s rights to avoid the word feminism and use other words such as gender mainstreaming.

Environmentalism could be, and sometimes is, misconstrued as prioritizing the environment above all. While there are some extremist environmentalists who do believe the life of an ant is equivalent to that of a person, most environmentalists do not believe what they do and choose the lifestyle they do uniquely for the good of the environment. Most see the well-being of people at stake in environmental issues because of how it is intertwined with the well-being of the environment. This world is, pardon the pun, littered with examples where the quality of life of people has declined with the quality of their environment.

The worst example is the Aral Sea region in Central Asia where, starting in the 1940’s, the Soviet Union attempted to grow large amounts of cotton on arid land using water from the Aral Sea’s two main rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. So much water was diverted from the rivers that the sea shrank to 10% its former size, destroying the fishing industry and causing large-scale unemployment and health problems from the dust blowing off the dried sea bed. While this is, admittedly, an extreme example, it should serve as a reminder that the natural environment plays an important role in determining both the health of the economy and people of a region.

The last myth I’d like to address is that progress and environmentalism are contradictory. There are some environmentalists who claim that in order to fully address the impending ecological crisis we will have to revert back to simpler ways. This idea tends to get thrown around leaving a lot people thinking that returning to the past is the only way to avoid environmental catastrophe. This is contrary to the trends seen today. Modernity and progress are being defined by efficiency and thrift rather than by waste and excess. I see this in celebrities who drive hybrid or electric cars (e.g. Leonardo Dicaprio and George Clooney) just as much as I see it at the local grocery store when someone is embarrassed that they forgot their reusable grocery bags. Being wasteful used to be a sign of affluence because it demonstrated that someone had money to burn, but as the world gets warmer and species go extinct, it is quickly becoming viewed as irresponsible and socially unacceptable.

I’d like to emphasize this point because skepticism is often high when it comes to reason trumping fashion but human history bears it out. It used to be the height of fashion for women to be overweight because it was a sign of affluence – not everyone could afford to overeat. Pale, untanned skin was also used to judge social status because it signified someone who didn’t have to be out in the sun working in the fields all day. A suntan was seen as a sign of poverty! Gradually that mentality faded as people realized that getting sun and avoiding overeating were healthier alternatives. With the advent of ultra-thin models and tanning salons, the pendulum has no doubt swung too much in the opposite direction but the point remains that if someone told you today that being overweight and pale were ways to demonstrate how modern you were, you would no doubt question that person’s sanity. It is becoming clear that, in a similar way, the wastefulness and prestige associated with gas-guzzling SUVs or with perfectly manicured, herbicide induced lawns is falling out of favour with the general public. In a decade or so we will look back on today the way we now look back on the fluorescent colours of the 1980’s saying, “what were we thinking?” Of course, the real question is: how quickly will these trends catch on?

While I don’t think that sects as separate as those seen in different Protestant churches will ever grow out of environmentalism, I hope that the diversity of views represented by the word environmentalism will begin to be understood. This diversity will reveal that environmentalism isn’t only about the environment; it’s about human health and economy too.

As appeared in the October 29, 2008 issue of the Brome County New

The ecology of the global financial crisis

When is the last time you went an entire day without hearing the words ‘global financial crisis’? Our existence was continuing happily along, most of us blissfully unaware of the existence of sub-prime mortgages and of a liquidity crisis, until mid-September when it became a near-impossibility to turn on either the television or the radio without being reminded, in not so casual terms, that these are tumultuous times. The complexity of the issues forced the media to enroll its readership in a crash course in economic blundering making unwilling experts of us all and in short period of time, trillions of dollars were mobilized, banks were nationalized and stock markets rose and fell like a clich├ęd roller coaster leaving its riders feeling nauseated and wanting their money back – or at least to just get off the darned thing.

What could any of this have to do with the environment? More than you would think.

Like it or not, these cycles are the nature of the ecology we live in. Ecology? Surely I meant economy? Well, yes and no. Essentially, both words come from similar Greek roots. While ecology is literally “the science of the house or dwelling” economy is simply “the management of the house or dwelling”. Ecology studies how our surroundings work and economics tells us how to manage them making the human economy essentially a very specialized human ecosystem. While the economy differs from natural ecosystems in many obvious and important ways, this global financial crisis is an example that our human ecosystem is subject to some of the same cycles of perturbation that exist in nature.

Think of an old growth forest. It is beautiful, diverse and productive. Productive forests produce a lot of biomass, dead branches and leaves that cover the forest floor waiting to decompose and be reabsorbed into the tree. When conditions become really dry, all it takes is a small spark and thousands of hectares of forest can be lost. When this happens the cycle must restart from the beginning again but the new forest won’t be identical to the old one. It will depend on many things that were decided in the previous cycle like the seed bank in the ground and on chance events like trees surviving the fire or seeds arriving via animal or wind dispersal. All this to say that the new forest will be similar to the old one, but not exactly the same.

In case some of you are tempted to take the metaphor too far, I’m not implying the economy is going to burn to the ground but it there are fires here and there. Certain business ideas and approaches will survive these economic fires and will be part of the new cycle and some old ones will not. The new economic cycle will be similar to the old one but it won’t be identical.

Whereas a forest that burns down can’t choose to be replaced by a forest that is less likely to burn down, we do have the ability to change direction when a system breaks down. This is the nice thing about having big brains, and this is a great understatement, it makes us humans better at foresight than any other species on the planet. This why the U.S. will no doubt choose to institute what Canadians already have, a well regulated credit industry along with other changes to avoid the catastrophe they currently face.

But even that is rather short-sighted. The beginning of a new economic cycle is the ideal place to start thinking about future potential crises and I’m not talking only financial. For example, the World Wildlife Federation has just issued its “Living Planet Report” in which it explains that because we currently use 30% more resources than the Earth’s capacity to regenerate itself, we must change course soon in order to avoid an ecological credit crunch. While I don’t put that much credence into the statistics from these kinds of organizations, the idea is not a bad one.

The seeds have been sown to make this new economic cycle thriftier and less wasteful than the old one. A wide range of options is available to consumers wishing to simultaneously save money (which is always nice in a recession) and reduce their impact on the planet. If, when the economy goes into rebuilding mode, Canadians decide that they’d rather take a greener route, those industries will thrive and play a bigger part of the next economic cycle. Americans will certainly be in a good position to take this new trajectory with the nearly imminent election of Barak Obama for president, a man who seems ready to steer his country in a new direction.

For the time being the priority will be to stabilize financial markets and make sure that the bottom of this recession is not too low but when it comes time to start rebuilding the Canadian economy, it will time for Canadians to decide where the future of this country lies.

As appeared in the November 5, 2008 edition of the Brome County News