Sunday, January 18, 2009

American Suburbs

Newsweek just published an interesting article on U.S. suburbs and I think it is a source of many discussions.

One such discussion revolves around the idea of regionalism, which is promoted on page 2.

Essentially, academics have been calling for regionalism for some time (i.e. looking at an area not as a city but as a region, such as planning around not just Philadelphia, but its suburban areas too). The reasons for regionalism are many - government consolidation, decrease taxes, business attraction, poverty reduction, and the like.

In particular, the article points to suburbs declining in economic status, while cities still find it difficult to attract innovative industries. Can planning on a regional scale solve this? Maybe, but local governments rarely find it possible to work cooperatively, especially in home rule states like PA and NY.

Maybe the economic crisis will spur different areas to move in this direction. For example, New Jersey politicians have started to talk about government consolidation as a means to reduce state debt and provide better services.

Do you think "regionalized" policy making would be better than a more micro scale approach?

The article points out correctly that people tend to move to the suburbs to "get away" from the city, be it from crime, noise, etc. Unfortunately, the act of forming active communities seems to take place less in the suburbs - often times to the point where neighbors don't know each other - something I have come across personally and in the academic literature. Such characteristics of suburbs seem to be a defining conundrum for policy makers even slightly interested in regionalism.

As the U.S. economy reorganizes itself and policy makers begin to want to reform education, the prison system, and economic development (among others), can regionalism make matters easier? Will cultural dynamics ultimately impede such efforts? Can cities and suburbs be viewed as one?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

I present here animage representing the extent of logging in Oregon. It started off as an image from Google Earth; it represents a section of land in southwestern Oregon about 10km north-to-south and 8km east-to-west, centered on (roughly) 43º 28' N, 123º 53' W. I then spent time closely examining the terrain, and color-coding it to represent the age of the most recent logging on the land. The dark green areas represent older forest, not touched by logging in the last 50 years. The light green represents areas that were logged, in my estimate, 30 to 50 years ago. Next come the yellow areas, which I guess to have been logged 20 to 30 years ago. The light orange areas represent sections that have been logged 10 to 20 years ago. Darker orange is for sections logged 5 to 10 years ago. Red is for areas that have been logged within the last five years. Gray areas represent roads, creekbeds, areas around structures, or areas that I could not categorize. 

I suspect that I have been overly generous in assigning dark green areas; some deeply shaded slopes are hard to assess. They should not be assumed to be virgin forest; there is very, very little virgin forest left in southwestern Oregon. These are probably dry areas of very slow growth, whose larger trees were taken more than 50 years ago and have not been logged since then because they are both rugged and slow to regenerate. Brown would probably have been a better color to use.

Although remote from population centers and having few roads through it, this area is not quite a typical section of southwestern Oregon; it has a greater density of red than the average terrain in that area. However, most of southwestern Oregon, if mapped in this fashion, would be similar except for having less red. But it gives you an idea of just how pristine the forests of Oregon truly are.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Religion and environment: What gives?

Many religions and many religious organizations and communities value some kind of community service, whether that be supporting soup-kitchens, alms-giving, building homes, supporting disadvantaged families, &c. The existence of organizations like the Evangelical Climate Initiative and Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light demonstrates that believers in various faiths are beginning to recognize the connection between the natural environment and community service in a religious context. The growing list of books that focus on (or at least address) religious underpinnings of environmental action, such as Earth-Wise, God in the Wilderness, Care for Creation, This is My Father's World, A Greener Faith, and Last Child in the Woods, suggests that an increasing number of people are exploring these connections.
At the same time, the Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics still declares that environmentalism is idolatry. Less than a year ago, evangelical leader Rich Cizik was censured for advocating that his religious community make battling climate change a priority. And, in my personal experience, I've encountered dozens of people who become furious at the suggestion that there is a religious mandate for improving environmental quality.
I call upon the reader to serve as a research assistant: Why does so much anger and opposition remain on this issue? Why do religious communities avoid adding environmental action to their portfolio of community service? Would your religious community be open to studying this issue? Why / why not?

Image Source: US National Gallery of Art

Monday, January 5, 2009

Environmental Ethics?

I take a dim view of the notion of animal rights, not because I have any disdain for animals (we have 3 dogs, 7 cats, 2 ducks, and 3 burros) but rather because I have disdain for the notion of rights. A right is a moral axiom, a fundamental declaration that is itself not derivable from more fundamental considerations. In that sense, it's arbitrary; if you wish to declare that birds have a God-given right to have their nests free from disturbance, there's no argument that can be offered for or against it; it's just a declaration.

Nevertheless, I do not take an anthropocentric view of ethics; I do not consider the world as my domain that I may dispose of as I wish. I do consider that I may kill any animal that belongs to me, or even that I truly have possession of any animal. I am its caretaker, not its owner; it is my charge, not my chattel. 

So how can I reconcile these two apparently contradictory positions? The answer I have been groping towards for some time lies in two similar but still distinct considerations. The first is kin altruism. We all concede that there is a sound moral basis for treating kin with consideration, because they share genes with us. If I suffer some small loss that provides a substantial gain for somebody who shares some of my genes, then genetically, if the ratios are right, I am still genetically benefited by that action. This principle can then be extended to all life forms, and it even takes into account genetic distance. Wantonly killing a chimpanzee, everybody agrees, is worse than wantonly kill a sheep, and wantonly killing a sheep is worse than wantonly killing a fish. Our notions of genetic distance seem to neatly coincide with our notions of our responsibilities to other creatures. 

But there's a flaw in this line of thinking: do we consider relative genetic similarity or relative genetic difference? A chimpanzee shares something like 98% of my genes; does that mean that I owe him 98% of the same level of moral weight that I give a fellow human being? That seems wrong. I mean, does a chimp have a right to a fair trial? That seems silly. We don't even think of a chimp as having moral thinking. Besides, how do you cross-examine a chimp? 

So it doesn't seem right to base the consideration on genetic similarity. Instead, we should probably think in terms of genetic difference, which would be based on the recency of our latest common ancestors. Thus, my brother, with whom I share two immediate common ancestors, deserves a lot more consideration than a cousin who shares common ancestors two or three generations away from me. And with some other random human being my most recent common ancestors may be a thousand generations away. The chimp, then, appears to be much more distant than a random human being, because our common ancestors are probably a million generations away. 

That criterion seems at least rational, but there is another criterion, based on empathy. This is not so logical, but it is undeniable. The best example here is the baby harp seal. We look into the big soulful eyes of that mammal and feel lots of empathy, only because it shares some visual parameters with human babies. Yes, it's silly -- but can we deny our feelings? (By the way, I have a nice plush doll of a baby harp seal, for which I carved a little wooden club as a kind of accessory. It's good for my more nihilistic moods.) Still, the arbitrariness of this basis of evaluation leaves me unsatisfied. I just can't accept that koalas and harp seals are more deserving of our consideration than rats or opossums. Moreover, this device fails completely when applied to flora or invertebrates. How cute is a sycamore tree? The question is unanswerable. At least the genetic distance device can be extended to all living creatures. 

Conclusions? I have none. These are thoughts for your contemplation.