Author Archives: lvgaldieri

The Last Ask — A Look Back At Obama’s Parting Request, One Year Ago Today

It came as no surprise that an outgoing president would make the obligatory noises about “the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next,” as President Obama did in his final speech, delivered in Chicago one year ago today. It was a theme used to quell fears and stifle protest, to give Trump “a chance to govern,” as both President Obama and Vice President Biden put it after the election, and it was offered as the reason former presidents and other politicians would overcome their appreciable dismay at the election’s outcome and attend the inauguration ceremony on the 20th.

Remember? You could not turn on a television, open a newspaper, or click on a mainstream news site in mid-January of 2017 without being told that on inauguration day we were going to witness power’s peaceful transfer. Very few people making these presentations went much further, at least publicly, to distinguish succession from transition, or talk in a serious way about power, how it is peacefully transferred, or to raise the questions of legitimacy and political authority that attend the transfer of power.

Those questions were, however, hanging in the air, like the dark clouds that would gather over the Mall on inauguration day, and over the past year, with the Mueller investigation and the current president’s daily demonstrations of unfitness for office, they have only grown more urgent and important. Considerations of power that were once the preserve of political theorists are now millions of people’s daily, top-of-mind concerns — as they should have been all along.

Obama’s Chicago speech did little to dispel the doubts and fears people had, and still have, about his successor; and it did not directly address the big question on nearly everyone’s mind that day, and every day since the 2016 election: what is to be done? After the abortive and misguided recount effort in November, the shameful but predictable acquiescence of the electoral college in December, and the first signs of trouble on the Russian front, the hope in early January was that the president would say or do something (what?) to change the course events had taken, or he would make some kind — any kind! — of intervention or call to action.

But this is precisely what Obama did not do. He talked about the forces threatening American democracy (income inequality, racial division, political polarization) which had brought us to this ugly juncture. He celebrated “the power of ordinary Americans” to bring about change, “to get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it,” and the “power” (the word echoes throughout the speech) “our participation, and the choices we make” give to the Constitution. All this talk about the power of the people might have amounted to a kind of preemptive bid, made before the upcoming official ceremony transferred executive power to the loser of the popular vote. But the president never made that bid explicit, and turned deliberately away from asking people to take action.

In fact, when Obama presented the peaceful transfer of power as a “hallmark of our democracy,” and the remark elicited boos and shouts of “No!” — cries of resistance, threats of upheaval — he quieted them (“no, no, no, no, no”). By the fifth refusal, the crowd had backed down. What else could he have done? What would have happened had he assented, publicly, to that No!? Or if he had simply stepped back from the podium and let the tide of emotion roll over the crowd?

Over the past year I have often thought about how much hung in the balance at that moment, and how with a gentle reprimand the president took the crowd right back into the flow of his speech. He stumbled just a little after all those impromptu “nos,” but recovered balance by using his index finger to guide him through the phrase on the prompter: “the peaceful transfer of power.” Regaining his composure, he kept the crowd in check – and they applauded him. (We cannot imagine his successor doing the same, or even trying; it is much easier to imagine him inciting a riot.) He said he was stepping down to rejoin us as a citizen, but he had not yet let go of the reins. By the end of the speech, when the president issued his final charge or made what he called his “final ask,” the audience was roaring:

My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop. In fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days.
But for now whether you are young or whether you are young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your president — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago.
I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.
I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written:
Yes, we can.

The delivery was a little flatter than it had been in previous years. But who could not have been impressed, at the very least, by the rhetorical consistency the president had managed to achieve over the course of two terms in office? History rarely allows anyone — let alone a president — this measure of consistency, and the election in November of 2016 had marked nothing less than a violent historical rupture. This final ask didn’t acknowledge the cataclysm. It returned, instead, to familiar themes, central to Obama’s own biography, and situated the eight years of Obama’s presidency on the arc, or what he called “the long sweep,” of history that bends toward justice. This last ask was also a tell — one last public demonstration of President Obama’s leadership style. It took the form of a soft directive.

One year on, however, it’s difficult to say where this parting request, and the end of Obama’s presidency, left us. Was this last ask anything more than a feel-good exhortation? The president asked us not to do something, but simply to believe in our ability to do something. That might have been as far as he could go, there on that public platform, with emotions still raw from the election; and of course there’s a decent argument to be made that taking ourselves seriously as historical actors, people with the “ability” to bring about change, might be essential to disposing us to do anything at all.

At the same time, “Yes, we can” does not necessarily mean we will, or we ought, or even that we are doing what we can. There is a good distance to travel from believing in oneself as a person capable of doing to the doing itself. Setting intentions, planning projects, coordinating with others, anticipating consequences — all that still only takes us to the edge of action, as the Community Organizer in Chief must know. The great risk of political action comes when we apply power, when we move from can to will. Asking people to believe they can act, but not asking them to do anything in particular, might keep them temporarily from incurring that risk and rushing into the breach, but it also makes action seem like a distant possibility, not an urgent necessity.

We should hardly have expected the president to call for resistance, even if he shared the sense that something — but what, exactly? — had to be done. What he promised instead was redemption. The two could not be less different. If redemption assures us that We Shall Overcome, Someday, resistance plants its feet firmly in the present and declares, We Shall Not Be Moved. Resistance is mounted out of necessity. Strikes, sit downs, shutdowns, blockades, riots, raids — these actions were not always or primarily animated by some great faith in just outcomes, though that faith may have arisen in the course of the fight or helped sustain the fighters. People have made many gains by refusing and resisting power’s encroachments, by saying No, You Cannot long before they were able to believe in Yes, We Can. In many cases, things just become so intolerable, the long train of abuses and usurpations, as the Declaration has it, become so unbearable, that ordinary people feel they must stand their ground and resist.

We are living in that kind of moment. The current political crisis demands more than faith. We have to get to work. We should do so with the understanding that resistance, as the very word suggests, will help us push back against the forces intent on destroying the American democratic order, but it is not the extent or end of our power. It is, rather, the limit of theirs. This distinction matters, even though we are still in the thick of the fray. It invites us to think about near- and long-term commitments, and the nature of our power.

Our power is not at all like the power of command that was transferred — I won’t say peacefully, given all the damage that has already been done  — from one office holder to the other last January. It’s another kind of power. It’s the power we confer upon each other, not through official ceremonies but through the rituals of everyday life; it’s power we hold together, not just as individual rights holders with claims and grievances, but in the first person plural, as a “we.”

We realize and renew our power when we gather or assemble publicly. We may not have the power to issue directives or orders, but as the president reminded us, we can make demands – of those who hold political power (by voting, marching, practicing civil disobedience, and so on) and, just as importantly, of each other. We can deliberate what to do, coordinate efforts, and hold each other mutually accountable. There’s power in all of that – some power, maybe not enough all by itself to get us to the other side of this crisis, but some; and we have not done nearly enough to develop it, test its limits or discover its possibilities. (Instead, we have built and continue to prop up organizations and institutions that require its surrender.) Ultimately, it’s the power we need to govern ourselves responsibly and vigilantly, after we have put an end to current abuses and usurpations.

What should we do? This wasn’t the question for the outgoing president to put to us, but one for us to put to ourselves, and in this form: in the first person plural, and with that modal verb should (or ought) to highlight obligations and responsibilities, or right action. There’s not one answer to this question, or an end to its deliberation; nor will there be one solution to the crisis, such as the Mueller investigation, a medical diagnosis, the emoluments clause, the 25th Amendment. None of those things alone will do it, because “it” goes (way) beyond removing an abusive and corrupt authoritarian and his cronies from power. “ It” is up to us, because ultimately it comes down to reclaiming and realizing self-governance.

Every refusal, however small, to yield to authoritarian attention-stealing, rule-breaking and administrative sabotage will help safeguard our authority to govern ourselves, just as every act of decency and respect, no matter how small, will count as a victory against the moral coarsening we have undergone over the past year. Obama himself made this last point a couple of weeks ago in an end-of-year, schmaltzy Twitter thread of “stories that remind us what’s best about America” and demonstrate that “each of us can make a difference, and all of us ought to try.” Yes, we ought.

MCRC v. EPA at the Sixth Circuit


“Well, if you took all these papers,” said EPA counsel Ellen J. Durkee, referring to the various proposals put forward for CR 595, “what you’d have is their proposal in June, their proposal in July, their proposal in October, their proposal in November, their proposal in, you know, different — twice in December…. really what’s needed is they have to say…what is the proposal that they consider their application at this point.” A good review of the various proposals for the Eagle Mine haul route can be found here.

In remarks before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday, Mark Miller of the Pacific Legal Foundation waved the flag of “cooperative federalism,” complained that the Environmental Protection Agency has “gone way beyond the powers that Congress gave them,” and even, at one point, raised the familiar spectre of an anti-mining conspiracy at the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers.

They did not want a permit here from before. In the pre-application process, there was a meeting, among the parties — not among Marquette County Road Commission, they were not invited — but the government said we are not going to approve this road project. This was a well-known proposed road project from a mine to a mill, and the EPA and the Corps wanted none of it. So that’s why it was futile factually.

Miller has elaborated on these arguments in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. As I have suggested in previous posts on Marquette County Road Commission v. EPA, grandstanding arguments like these are intended to raise the profile of this dispute and make it about much more than a haul road. They have been used, repeatedly, to connect the Road Commission’s case with a larger, coordinated effort — a right-wing, dark-money political project — to sideline federal regulators in Michigan and weaken enforcement of the Clean Water Act; stifle local environmental watchdogs; and arrogate the authority and power to direct economic development in the Upper Peninsula to a set of undisclosed actors.

But on Tuesday, those arguments didn’t count for much in Miller’s presentation before the Sixth Circuit panel. At the center of the dispute is still the question whether EPA’s objections to CR 595 constitute “final agency action,” as the Road Commission claims, or if they are an “interlocutory step” (in which case, the Road Commission can still take the EPA’s objections under advisement and go back to the Corps with a proposal).

Miller claimed right off the bat, in the very first sentence of his argument, that EPA’s objections were tantamount to a “veto.” I’ve written about this argument before. On Tuesday, the judges wanted to know what exactly Miller meant by that word. “You keep saying the EPA vetoed the application for the permit,” asked one of the judges just four minutes into the proceedings. “What do you mean by that?” Ten minutes later, another Judge indicated she was still not satisfied on this point:

JUDGE: What makes it — you keep using the word veto.
MILLER: Yes, your honor.
JUDGE: But it was really objections, right?
MILLER: Your honor I think that’s a distinction without a difference because effectively here the EPA has twice said, “no, DEQ, this permit you’re ready to issue is not good enough for us.” And the reasons the EPA was giving were not within its powers to give. Then the EPA knew it was taking advantage of the statute to say well now it’s going to bounce to the Corps.

That there is no “difference” between objections and vetoes is critical to Miller’s argument for futility, which claims it would be a “farce” for the Road Commission to go back to the Corps.

When it came to her turn, Ellen Durkee, arguing for the EPA and the Army Corps, pursued the point:

I’d like to speak to this issue of this continued use of the word “veto,” because I think that that is, seems to be the critical characterization for the plaintiff’s argument here. A veto means that you cannot get a permit. In [Section] 404 [of the Clean Water Act] itself, there’s a distinction between what happens in 404j with EPA objections and a true veto, and you know they — in this case, the EPA objection gives the state opportunity to take action. And then when the state, as it did here — there’s an impasse, because they didn’t take action within the statutory time, it simply shifts the permitting authority. That is not a veto. The Corps may look at this and say we think it’s satisfactory. EPA, you know, they may come up with the provisions that they need to satisfy that, the objections, in which case they could still get a permit. What [the Road Commission] simply did was stop the process and decide not to continue.

And the word “veto” was still begging questions at the end of the proceeding, when Judge Helene N. White went back to Miller.

JUDGE; Let me just ask you this question. Once the EPA made its objections, the DEQ still had three options, correct?
MILLER: Yes your honor.
JUDGE: And they were grant, deny, or do nothing.
MILLER: In this case the DEQ threw its hands up because they could never — if they granted the permit, the landowner would have nowhere to go because the EPA made it clear it was not going to sign off on it. So they deny it and then transfer– they threw their hands up because the reasons the EPA gave were improper under the statute.
MILLER: Yes, your honor.
JUDGE: Ok. Did they have three options? Grant, deny, or do nothing?
MILLER: Your honor, they had the options, but ultimately once the EPA gives arbitrary and capricious objections they really had no choice.
JUDGE: But they could have said, they could have denied the permit, right? They could have said we are honoring the objections and we deny the permit.
MILLER: Right and they didn’t, your honor, respectfully they didn’t.

You can listen to the whole proceeding here, or read my (imperfect) transcript of the proceeding.

Six Questions about Asking and Sophia AI


The company that makes Sophia, Hanson Robotics, has become adept at linking different, highly-specific algorithms like image recognition and speech transcription in a way that mimics what humans might be doing when we hear a question and formulate a response.

Sophia AI’s mimicry of “what humans might be doing when we hear a question and formulate a response” is mostly “theatrics,” Hanson Robotics CTO Ben Goertzel openly admits. That is probably why Sophia AI has so far found her most receptive audiences on TV talk shows and in corporate theater, where she won’t have to undergo too much scrutiny. But with the launch of singularityNET, which promises to put “Sophia’s entire mind…on the network,” Hanson says that “soon…the whole world will be able to talk to her.”

I would offer that talking “to” Sophia AI — or using Sophia’s chatbot function — is still a long way from conversation in any meaningful sense of the word, because it does not involve talking with a second person. This inconvenient truth about Sophia AI has not prevented the Saudi government from naming Sophia the first “robot citizen” of the Kingdom (and the grim irony of “a robot simulation of a woman [enjoying] freedoms that flesh-and-blood women in Saudi Arabia do not” was not lost on the Washington Post); nor has it prevented tabloids from screeching about Sophia stating she would like to have a family.

If personhood is setting the bar too high, I’m content to consider merely how Sophia AI handles asking. This would involve some of the considerations I’ve been exploring in my posts on The Asking Project: what we “might be doing” (as the writer in Quartz puts it) when we ask or hear a question; what’s involved, and what’s at stake, when we address others with a request or demand; and how these and other interrogative activities might be involved in our (moral) status as persons.

For starters, here are half a dozen questions about asking and Sophia AI that occurred to me after watching her video performances. I suspect there is a clear answer to the first, and the remaining five require some extended discussion.

1. What syntactic, grammatical or other cues (e.g., intonation) does Sophia AI use to recognize a question, and distinguish it from a declarative statement?

2. Can Sophia AI distinguish a request from a demand? A demand from an order? If so, how is this done? If not, what does this shortcoming indicate?

3. Will Sophia AI ever refuse to comply with a request? Leave a demand unmet? Defy an order? If not, how should these incapacities limit the role of Sophia or any AI?

4. Could a demand ever create in Sophia AI a sense of obligation? If so, what might this “sense” entail? Can we speak coherently of AI rights, or even place limits on AI’s role, without first developing this sense?

5. Will Sophia AI ever be capable of deliberating with others and reaching consensus or agreement?

6. What would be required for Sophia AI to deliberate internally? To be capable of asking herself?

About that shift in consciousness we so urgently need

Upon seeing these poll results, a friend commented that most people who voted for “shift in consciousness” probably think that others, and not they themselves, have yet to make the shift. If he is right, the “shift” vote comes from people who think of themselves as already having crossed over to the other side. But have they — have we? 

Just what “consciousness” in this case means, or what the “shift” might require of us, remains unclear; and one weakness of this poll (it has many, as Joanna Boehnert and others were right to point out) is that it does not specify what that shift might involve.

I’ve seen people toss the phrase around, and included it here hoping to get a better sense of what they mean by it. Are we talking about widespread public awareness of climate risk, or the knowledge that human activity has caused the climate to change, or the conviction that we can — and must — do something about it? Are we talking about hope? The defeat of climate despair? A new view of the world and our place in it? 

No matter how we may choose to define the shift, it would seem that we have to continue to root out denial, as John Rehm suggested. To be effective, any “shift in consciousness” would at the very least require that people take responsibility. 

That in itself presents a formidable task, especially here in the United States, where an entire political party is dedicated to climate change denial. But it’s also a problem all over the place, everywhere we turn, if we think about how many of our everyday actions involve denial or willful blindness, and how easily our acts can contribute to “a set of acts” that together will cause harm (to borrow Parfit’s phrase). This is why, as Orla De Díez remarked, we have to design to make it “easier for people to behave more sustainably.” We can’t wait for some great awakening.

Acts and Sets of Acts

This passage in Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons (1984) deserves calling out, not least because it sets the stage for the arguments against climate change despair I reviewed in a previous post.

In small communities, it is a plausible claim that we cannot have harmed others if there is no one with an obvious complaint, or ground for resenting what we have done.

Until this century, most of mankind lived in small communities. What each did could affect only a few others. But conditions have now changed. Each of us can now, in countless ways, affect countless other people. We can have real though small effects on thousands or millions of people. When these effects are widely dispersed, they may be either trivial, or imperceptible. It now makes a great difference whether we continue to believe that we cannot have greatly harmed or benefited others unless there are people with obvious grounds for resentment or gratitude. While we continue to believe this, even if we care about effects on others, we may fail to solve many serious Prisoner’s Dilemmas. For the sake of small benefits to ourselves, or our families, each of us may deny others much greater total benefits, or impose on others much greater total harms. We may think this permissible because the effects on the others will either be trivial or imperceptible. If this is what we think, what we do will often be much worse for all of us.

If we cared sufficiently about effects on others, and changed our moral view, we would solve such problems. It is not enough to ask, ‘Will my act harm other people?’ Even if the answer is No, my act may still be wrong, because of its effects. The effects that it will have when it is considered on its own may not be its only relevant effects. I should ask, ‘Will my act be one of a set of acts that will together harm other people?’ The answer may be Yes. And the harm to others may be great. If this is so, I may be acting very wrongly…. We must accept this view if our concern for others is to yield solutions to most of the many Prisoner’s Dilemmas that we face: most of the many cases where, if each of us rather than none of us does what will be better for himself — or for his family, or those he loves — this will be worse, and often much worse, for everyone.

Mozambique, Michigan, and the SEC Complaint Against Rio Tinto


Rusting boats at the port of Chinde, where Rio Tinto proposed to barge Riversdale coal via the Zambezi River.

Yesterday, the Securities and Exchange Commission brought a complaint in New York City against Rio Tinto, charging Tom Albanese, the former CEO of Rio Tinto, and Guy Elliott, his Chief Financial Officer, with fraud. According to the complaint, Albanese and Elliott actively misled the Rio Tinto board, audit committee, auditors, and the investing public about their acquisition of the Riversdale coal business in Mozambique in 2011.

The fraud that Albanese and Elliott are accused of perpetrating looks awfully familiar to those who have followed the development of Eagle Mine and the controversy over County Road 595. Having noticed the parallel between Mozambique and Michigan back in 2013, when Tom Albanese was forced to step down, I now have to wonder whether prosecutors will take the company’s representations around the Eagle Mine into account when building their case.

In Mozambique, they told investors, coal would be transported by barge to the Indian Ocean port of Chinde. Although their technical advisors “highlighted the ‘showstopping’ risks” associated with the barging proposals before the acquisition, Albanese and Elliott blundered recklessly ahead. Then eight months later, the Mozambique government denied Rio Tinto a permit to transport the coal by barge down the Zambezi River. Suddenly, the coal business they had acquired for $3.7 billion appeared to be worth a negative $680 million. According to the SEC’s complaint, Albanese and Elliott “concealed and glossed over” the fact that they had no viable haul route for the 30 million tons per year they projected in their business plans, and misled investors as they raised $5.5 billion in US debt offerings.

In that very same period, Rio Tinto was also promoting Eagle Mine to investors and promising economic renewal in the Upper Peninsula, though they had not yet secured a transportation route — a haul route — for Eagle’s sulfide ore. In Michigan, it appears, the company took the same cavalier attitude toward planning and risk that the SEC complaint says got them into trouble in Mozambique.

Way back in 2005, John Cherry, who was then a Kennecott Minerals project manager and is now President and CEO of the Polymet project in Minnesota, characterized Eagle as a “direct ship” operation, “meaning that the rock would not be processed on site, thereby avoiding the storage of highly toxic debris left over, called tailings.” Presumably this is what Michigan DEQ’s Robert McCann had in mind in 2007, when he told The Blade that Kennecott’s permit “would require them to keep the ores underground, put them in covered rail cars, and ship them to Ontario for processing”; the Marquette Monthly told roughly the same story that year, only now there were trucks in the picture: “ore would be transported by truck and rail to a processing site in Ontario.” This seems to have been nothing more than a cover story.

Everything changed in 2008, when Rio Tinto bought the Humboldt Mill. Those permit requirements the DEQ’s McCann touted back in 2005? They were quickly abandoned. Covered rail cars come into the picture only after the ore is crushed, ground into a slurry, floated and rendered into concentrate at Humboldt Mill. A glossy 2010 company publication promoting Eagle Mine includes not a single word about how Rio Tinto and Kennecott plan to travel the 30 kilometers from mine to mill: “Happily, processing of the nickel and copper can take place in Humboldt, around 30 kilometres [sic] away, at a previously abandoned iron ore plant.” By 2011, the company had “considered more than a half dozen transportation routes” from mine to mill, according to a Marquette Mining Journal article by John Pepin published in February of that year, but they still had no viable haul route.

A good prosecutor with a rigorous and thorough discovery process would probably be able to determine whether the evasions and misrepresentations perpetuated on the public over the Eagle Mine haul route also amounted to fraud, or were part of a larger pattern of deliberately misleading statements. It’s clear Rio Tinto never came clean — and perhaps never really had a firm plan — on mine to mill transport at Eagle before it sold the works to Lundin Mining in June of 2013 and decamped. As long as regulators in Michigan continued to be more accommodating than those in Mozambique, the company seems to have been content to let the people of Marquette County fight out the haul route issue among themselves.

A Note on Stone’s “Should Trees Have Standing?”

A report in the New York Times the other day about the Federal District Court case naming the Colorado River as plaintiff led me to Christopher D. Stone’s 1972 Southern California Law Review article, “Should Trees Have Standing?” Justice Douglas drew on Stone’s arguments to formulate his dissent in Sierra Club v. Morton, and since that time the essay has been widely influential, a classic that helped define a field.

For Stone, a river or a lake, a mountain or a forest, a species or the biosphere can have roughly the same status as other “legal incompetents.” A human guardian or, as we might say nowadays, a protector brings a complaint for a natural entity that has suffered some injury. The case is brought “at the behest of” the river or mountain, without having first to prove injury to the guardian or some third party (e.g., a fishing guide whose business has suffered as the result of stream pollution); and the natural entity itself would be the beneficiary of an award or remedy ordered by the court. So, for instance, a judgment against those who have polluted a stream might direct them to undo the damage done to its waters, mitigate erosion of its banks and depletion of its plant life, restock its fish, and so on. The stream would have a “right” to be made whole again.

Stone recognizes that his proposal “is bound to sound odd or frightening of laughable,” but that, he notes, has been true of any movement to confer rights on rightless “things”:

There will be resistance to giving the thing “rights” until it can be seen and valued for itself; yet it is hard to see it and value it for itself until we can bring ourselves to give it “rights” — which is almost inevitably going to sound inconceivable to a large group of people.

Stone’s thinking can seem way ahead of its time — and ours (even if the writing here is sometimes redolent of Southern California in the early 1970s). This is especially true toward the end of the piece, where Stone moves from making strictly jural arguments for the standing of rivers, trees, and other natural entities to broader observations about the “shift from the view that nature exists for men”:

…the time is already upon us when we may have to consider subordinating some human claims to those of the environment per se. Consider, for example, the disputes over protecting wilderness areas from development that would make them accessible to greater numbers of people. I myself feel disingenuous rationalizing the environmental protectionist’s position in terms of a utilitarian calculus, even one that takes future generations into account, and plays fast and loose with its definition of “good.” Those who favor development have the stronger argument — they at least hold the protectionist to a standstill — from the point of advancing the greatest good of the greatest number of people. And the same is true regarding arguments to preserve useless species of animals, as in [the case of sea urchins endangered by a nuclear power plant.] One can say that we never know what is going to prove useful at some future time. In order to protect ourselves, therefore, we ought to be conservative now in our treatment of nature. I agree. But when conservationists argue this way to the exclusion of other arguments, or find themselves speaking in terms of “recreational interests” so continuously as to play up to, and reinforce, homocentrist perspectives, there is something sad about the spectacle. One feels that the arguments lack even their proponent’s convictions. I expect they want to say something less egotistic and more emphatic but the prevailing and sanctioned modes of explanation in our society are not quite ready for it. In this vein, there must have been abolitonists who put their case in terms of getting more work out of the Blacks. Holdsworth says of the early English Jew that while he was “regarded as a species of res nullius … [H]e was valuable for his acquisitive capacity; and for that reason the crown took him under its protection.” (Even today, businessmen are put in the position of insisting that their decent but probably profitless acts will “help our company’s reputation and be good for profits.”)

For my part, I would prefer a frank avowal that even making adjustments for esthetic improvements, what I am proposing is going to cost “us,” i.e., reduce our standard of living as measured in terms of our present values.

We may still not be “ready for it,” as Stone puts it; and, he goes on to say, there might be a more “fundamental problem” with asking human beings to put their own immediate self-interest aside and act on ethical principle, or to limit our rights in order to respect the rights of others:

Insofar as the proposal is not just an elaborate legal fiction, but really comes down in the last analysis to a compromise of our interests for theirs, why should we adopt it? “What is in it for ‘us’?”

This is a question I am prepared to answer, but only after permitting myself some observations about how odd the question is. It asks for me to justify my position in the very anthropocentric hedonist terms that I am proposing we modify. One is inclined to respond by a counter: “couldn’t you (as a white) raise the same questions about compromising your preferred rights status with Blacks?”; or “couldn’t you (as a man) raise the same question about compromising your preferred rights status with women?” Such counters, unfortunately, seem no more responsive than the question itself. (They have a nagging ring of “yours too” about them.) What the exchange actually points up is a fundamental problem regarding the nature of philosophical argument. Recall that Socrates, whom we remember as an opponent of hedonistic thought, confutes Thrasymachus by arguing that immorality makes one miserably unhappy! Kant, whose moral philosophy was based upon the categorical imperative (“Woe to him who creeps through the serpent windings of Utilitarianism”) finds himself justifying, e.g., promise keeping and truth telling, on the most prudential-one might almost say, commercial-grounds. This “philosophic irony” (as Professor [S. Morris] Engel calls it) may owe to there being something unique about ethical argument. “Ethics cannot be put into words”, Wittgenstein puts it; such matters “make themselves manifest.” On the other hand, perhaps the truth is that in any argument which aims at persuading a human being to action (on ethical or any other bases), “logic” is only an instrument for illuminating positions, at best, and in the last analysis it is psycho-logical [sic] appeals to the listener’s self-interest that hold sway, however ”principled” the rhetoric may be.

That logic may have its limits and ethical argument its attendant ironies should not deter us. “The strongest case can be made from the perspective of human advantage,” Stone writes; and after reviewing that case, he goes on to suggest that protecting the environment will actually raise our standard of living, if not in terms of our present values, then (this point deserves emphasis) in terms of new and more durable values.

Stone is even prepared to argue that “a radical new conception of man’s relationship to the rest of nature would not only be a step towards solving the material planetary problems” (and the problems Stone identifies here, in 1972, are still very much with us and more urgent than ever before: melting polar ice caps, dying oceans, serious threats to water). “There are strong reasons for such a changed consciousness [Stone admits that he is uncomfortable with the term] from the point of making us far better humans.” Recognizing the rights of those whose standing once seemed “unthinkable,” to borrow Stone’s phrase, surely has.

Knotted Wrack

It was nearly high tide when I paddled out yesterday morning to the channel that lies just east of the cove. Harbor seals sometimes gather and sun on the big rocks that jut out of the water there. Golden brown beds of Knotted Wrack, or Ascophyllum nodosum, undulate and shimmy just beneath the surface. I glided straight into them, intending to skirt and circle the rocks, as I had done before, but instead — froomp! scrape! — my kayak ran aground on a big chunk of speckled granite just beneath the water’s surface (and partly hidden by the Knotted Wrack anchored to it). I was stuck, sitting atop a rock in the middle of the water, a good distance from shore. It felt a little absurd, or like something out of a cautionary tale.

After trying and failing to push off the rock with my paddle, I gained a better appreciation of my precarious situation. Apply too much force, and the kayak would tip; a roll would probably subject me to a beating against the rock. The wrong move and I would end up in the water, most likely cut and bruised, struggling to right the boat. The seaweed would make the rocks slippery.

No need to exaggerate the peril I was in: I was wearing a life vest, and though the water is cold here in Maine, it’s not so cold that if for some reason I failed to recover the boat I could not swim to shore, which I reckoned would take about twenty minutes. Losing my glasses (which, this time out, I had not fastened to my head with a cord) was among my concerns. I understood that I might have to struggle for a short while in the water. I didn’t want to struggle blind.

Keeping calm was essential, and it was also the most instructive part of the experience. Having formed a mental picture of my situation, I had to keep it clearly in view but I could not let it rattle me. The granite and the Knotted Wrack could be my undoing, or I could do something. Acting was less a matter of mastering than of working through my fear: not retreating into panic, but taking stock of risks and understanding what steps I could take to get my kayak unstuck.

When I ran aground, I had been running with the current, east and slightly north, into the channel. With a slow, deliberate reverse paddle, I managed to turn the boat on the rock, pivoting counter-clockwise, so that the bow now pointed west and faced the oncoming current. It was gentle, but enough to help create a little play between the kayak and the rock. Grasping the paddle as a tightrope walker holds his pole to balance, I thrust forward with my hips, as I sometimes do to inch my way into the water when I am launching the boat from shore. I was then able to paddle safely away.

I’ve written before about standing on quicksand. This Knotted Wrack adventure seems to pose another kind of dilemma: the problem wasn’t that I was sinking. I had run aground on an unexpected chunk of terra firma, and I had to struggle alone to get unstuck, right myself and push off. But as I’ve reflected on my experience, it has led to some of the same considerations as the quicksand problem. Take this relatively simple dilemma of getting the boat off the rock and scale it up: imagine a two-person canoe, or a ship with many hands on deck, or another perilous situation involving two, three, or even hundreds, thousands, billions of people. Then you start dealing with questions of cooperation and power.

The last people in the world who should be responding to a situation like this are those who cannot acknowledge its reality or remain calm in the face of it; and it occurs to me that those may amount to the same thing. Denial might be nothing more than a reactive token of fear, and widespread denial — like climate-change denial — might be a reactionary kind of moral panic, even though deniers are quick to call others alarmist.

Levinson on primitive economies of information

Ndap y Ke Rossel

Rossel Island shell currency.

An excerpt from Stephen C. Levinson, “Interrogative Intimations: On A Possible Social Economics of Interrogatives” in Questions. Formal, Functional and Interactional Perspectives. ed. Jan P. de Ruiter. Cambridge: 2012.

Levinson sketches a model of conversation in which interlocutors measure both the semantic and the social value of information. In this scheme, the semantic measure would be apportioned in units called Carnaps (after philosopher Rudolf Carnap), the social in Goffman units (after sociologist Erving Goffman). The Goffman measure involves ongoing estimations of position relative to others, social costs (which might explain the reluctance, say, to ask a question), authority, expertise, and so on. It underwrites a “micropolitics” of conversation.

Levinson offers an analogy with the shell money system of Rossel Island, in Papua, New Guinea.

An economic model of social information transfer is not going to look like a modern market economy. It might perhaps have some passing resemblance to the “primitive” economics of pre-industrial societies, with multiple measures for specific goods (bushels and grosses, cords and cubits), and multiple barter and exchange systems. Take the so-called shell money system of Rossel Island…, which consists of twenty-odd denominations of shells, with no exact equivalences of value and a delimited arena in which they can be used — it offers only the faintest semblance of a market economy (the shells are usable, e.g., for bride price, the purchase of pigs, houses and canoes, but not for food or manual labour). Shells are stores not only of economic but of social value, and top shells have names, like the Koh-i-noor diamond. Gaining possession of an individually named shell is like being temporary owner of a Picasso: it is an individual, not a mass of multiple undifferentiated tokens, and it reflects glory on its owner. Large injustices and delicts can be atoned for by the assuaging properties of such shells, even if only on loan for a fortnight. Shells go in one direction in exchange for goods, services and immaterial benefits (like forgiveness) in the other; but because there is constant flow in both directions, and shells are borrowed from all and sundry with intended eventual repayment, the market is about as murky as subprime derivatives. Such a system, with a multitude of special factors, frictions and exuberant irrationalities, offers us a better picture of the economics of everyday social life than textbook market economics.

It also moves us well beyond the transactional “ask-bid” model of conversation I described, and found wanting, in an earlier post.

A Translation from La Tregua

From the chapter called “The Dreamers” in Primo Levi’s La Tregua:

In the evenings — those long Polish evenings — the air of our quarters, already heavy with tobacco and human odors, became saturated with crazy dreams. This is the first fruit of exile and uprootedness: the unreal prevails over the real. Everyone dreamed, dreams of the past and of the future, of slavery and redemption, of improbable paradises, likewise of mythical and far-fetched enemies: cosmic enemies, perverse and subtle, ubiquitous, ambient, like the air. Everyone, with the exception perhaps of Cravero, and certainly of D’Agata.

D’Agata had no time to sleep, because he was in the grip of terror: bedbugs. Naturally, none of us were exactly fond of these troublesome companions, but we had all grown accustomed to them. They were not few or far between, but a little bug regimen, which had invaded all our bunks with the arrival of spring. By day, they nested in the crevices of the walls and in the wooden bedframes, and they would not set out on a raid until the comings and goings of the day had ceased. We were all resigned to surrender a little portion of our blood, even to do so willingly; it was less easy to get used to feeling them steal across your face and all over your body, underneath your clothing. Only those who had the good fortune to enjoy a heavy slumber, and who succeeded in losing consciousness before they awoke, could sleep in peace.

D’Agata, who was a little man, a Sicilian bricklayer, sober, reserved, and fastidious, had been reduced to sleeping during the day. He spent nights stretched out on his bed, watching all around, his eyes huge from the horror, the vigil, the spasms of attention. In his hand, he tightly grasped a gadget fashioned from a stick and a piece of wire mesh, and the wall next to him was covered with a lurid constellation of bloody stains.

At first these habits of his were the target of mockery: was his skin so much thinner than ours? But then pity took over, mixed with a trace of envy, because among us all, D’Agata was the only one whose enemies were concrete, present, tangible, and could be drawn into combat, struck, and squashed against the wall.

Nelle lunghissime sere polacche, l’aria della camerata, greve di tabacco e di odori umani, si saturava di sogni insensati. È questo il frutto piú immediato dell’esilio, dello sradicamento: il prevalere dell’irreale sul reale. Tutti sognavano sogni passati e futuri, di schiavitú e di redenzione, di paradisi inverosimili, di altrettanto mitici e inverosimili nemici: nemici cosmici, perversi e sottili, che tutto pervadono come l’aria. Tutti, ad eccezione forse di Cravero, e certamente di D’Agata.

D’Agata non aveva tempo di sognare, perché era ossessionato dal terrore delle cimici. Queste incomode compagne non piacevano a nessuno, naturalmente; ma tutti avevamo finito col farci l’abitudine. Non erano poche e sparse, ma un esercito compatto, che col sopraggiungere della primavera aveva invaso tutti i nostri giacigli: stavano annidate di giorno nelle fenditure dei muri e delle cuccette di legno, e partivano in scorreria non appena cessava il tramestio del giorno. A cedere loro una piccola porzione del nostro sangue, ci saremmo rassegnati di buon grado: era meno facile abituarsi a sentirle correre furtive sul viso e sul corpo, sotto gli abiti. Potevano dormire tranquilli solo quelli che avevano la fortuna di godere di un sonno pesante, e che riuscivano a cadere nell’incoscienza prima che quelle altre si risvegliassero.

D’Agata, che era un minuscolo, sobrio, riservato e pulitissimo muratore siciliano, si era ridotto a dormire di giorno, e passava le notti appollaiato sul letto, guardandosi intorno con occhi dilatati, dall’orrore, dalla veglia e dall’attenzione spasmodica. Teneva stretto in mano un aggeggio rudimentale, che si era costruito con un bastoncello e un pezzo di rete metallica, e il muro accanto a lui era coperto di una lurida costellazione di macchie sanguigne.

In principio queste sue abitudini erano state derise: aveva forse la pelle piú fina di noi altri? Ma poi la pietà aveva prevalso, commista con una traccia di invidia; perché, fra tutti noi, D’Agata era il solo il cui nemico fosse concreto, presente, tangibile, suscettibile di essere combattuto, percosso, schiacciato contro il muro.