Monday, October 31, 2011

Quick Take: The Original Perfect Storm

I'm sitting on my front porch, handing out candy to neighborhood kids and reading Stephen M. Gardiner's new book, A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Can you guess why?

I'll have more to say about the book soon, but reading it on Halloween night, and coming across references to Sebastian Junger's book and the sinking of the Andrea Gail, it occurred to me that this is the 20th anniversary of the original perfect storm, the Halloween Nor'easter of 1991.

I was living on Long Island at the time but, lubber that I am, and preoccupied as I was by graduate student life, I remember it only as an especially nasty few days of rain and wind.

It was only years later, when I read Junger's book, that I began to grasp the immensity of what had gone on all around me.

There's a lesson in that.

It was some years still later that I began to grasp that I had, in effect, been present at the birth of a robust meme.

To the Archive!

I'm planning an irregular series of posts drawing from the 20-year archive of my own writings, not all of which have been published. The series will present extended excerpts from old papers and presentations, with commentary to provide context and connection.

I have a number of reasons for doing this:

Friday, October 28, 2011

Kunstler on Tragedy

While I'm gathering resources for a critical assessment of a tragic outlook, it occurs to me to acknowledge one of the main inspirations – if that's the appropriate term here – for this project: James Howard Kunstler's Home From Nowhere, particularly the first chapter.

This is the sequel to The Geography of Nowhere, his funny, scathing, and sometimes infuriating critique of the suburbanization of the United States.

For Kunstler, tragedy has a dual aspect: life is essentially tragic and, in our efforts to avoid tragedy we have fallen into a logic that is itself tragic. As he puts it:

Thursday, October 27, 2011

No Solution

I'm beginning to gather some resources for an inquiry into the tragic outlook.

Take the question as I posed it in a recent post:
How do we solve the problem of making our built environment good, just, and sustainable?
One part of the tragic outlook is taking seriously the possibility that the answer to this question is: We don't.

I currently have three sources in mind to inform this aspect of the tragic outlook.

First, Garrett Hardin's classic treatment of the logic of tragedy is tied directly to the intractability of certain important problems. Hardin opens his 1968 paper, "The Tragedy of the Commons", by stipulating a class of "no technical solutions problems."
 A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality (Hardin 1968, p. 1243).

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Quick Take: Thinking of Tragedy

This is my first venture in posting from my phone. I'll be brief.

Following up on the idea that the problem of sustainability may have no solution, and even that it may not be possible to cope, a number of threads in my recent research are converging on what may be a medium- or long-term project in articulating and assessing the merits of a tragic outlook. James Kunstler, for one, has advocated such a view regarding the near-term prospects for sustaining human civilization.

I plan to write more substantial posts outlining the initial ideas of the project but, for now, as I commute home (by transit: otherwise I wouldn't be typing this into my phone), I offer this photo as a glimpse of what I've been thinking.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Fix

Here is another set of my notes from the conference on Advancing Publicly Engaged Philosophy.

How do we solve the problem of making our built environment good, just, and sustainable?

We might hope for a technological fix, which assumes that the problem is fundamentally due to a shortcoming in current technology.   The technological systems we have are inefficient or lacking in scope, capacity, and power.  All we need, then, is to develop better, more powerful, more efficient technological systems, and everything will be fine. 

We might hope for an economic fix, which assumes that the problem is fundamentally due to shortcomings in current markets and incentive structures. The markets we have are inefficient in distributing goods and services, or there are specific failures of the market in addressing some consequences of economic activity, or there are perverse incentives built in to current policies that lead to inefficient outcomes. All we need, then, is to develop better, more efficient markets with properly structured incentives, and everything will be fine.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

What Philosophers Do

I write this as I travel home from Washington, D.C., where I participated in a conference titled Advancing Publicly Engaged Philosophy, organized by the Public Philosophy Network

I have a number of posts in mind, drawing from sessions and conversations at the conference, but I'll start with a few of my notes from the conference related to my last post, on the question of whether philosophers can be experts and, if so, in what our expertise consists. 

Starting with the opening plenary session, hosted by the Center for AmericanProgress, I listed a variety of ways in which the role of a publicly engaged philosopher might be characterized: