A Philosopher's Blog

Local Control

Posted in Business, Environment, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 1, 2015

While casting Democrats as wanting to impose the power of big government, the Republicans profess to favor small government and local control. However, as J.S. Mill noted, people rarely operate on the basis of consistently applied principles regarding what the state should or should not do. As such, it is hardly surprising that Republicans are for local control, except when the locals are not doing what they want. Then they are often quite willing to use the power of the state against local government. One recent and clear example of this is the passage of laws in states such as Oklahoma and Texas that effectively forbid local governments from passing laws aimed at restricting fracking.

Even in oil industry friendly states such as Oklahoma, there have been attempts by local governments to impose restrictions on fracking. As might be imagined, having a fracking operation right next door tends to be disruptive—the lights, noise, heavy truck traffic and contamination are all concerns. In Oklahoma there is also the added concern of earthquakes that have been causally linked to disposal wells. Since places that did not have earthquakes before the wells were dug generally do not have earthquake resistant structures, these new quakes can pose threats to property and public safety.

In general, local governments have stepped in because the local people believed that the state government was not doing enough to protect the well-being of the local citizens. In general, state legislatures tend to be very friendly with the oil and gas industry—in part because they tend to make up a significant proportion of the economy of many states. While lobbying state legislatures is not cheap, it is obviously more cost effective to have the state legislatures pass laws forbidding local governments from acting contrary to the interests of the oil and gas industry. Otherwise, the industry would need to influence (or purchase) all the local governments and this would costly and time consuming.

Since I favor individual autonomy, it is hardly surprising that I also favor local autonomy. As such, I regard these laws to be wrong. However, considering arguments for and against them is certainly worthwhile.

One obvious set of arguments to deploy against these laws are all the general arguments that Republicans advance in favor of local control when the locals are doing what Republicans want them to do. After all, if these arguments adequately show that local control is good and desirable, then these arguments should apply to this situation as well. But, as noted above, the “principle” most follow is that people should do what they want and not do what they do not want them to do. Consistency is thus rather rare—and almost unseen when it comes to politics.

One argument in favor of having the state impose on the local governments is based on the fact that having a patchwork of laws is problematic. The flip side of this is, obviously, that having a consistent set of laws across the state (and presumably the entire country) is generally a good thing.

In the case of the regulation of the oil and gas industry, the argument rests on the claim that having all these different local laws would be confusing and costly—it is better to have laws for the industry that cover the entire state (and, to follow the logic, the entire country…or world). Interestingly, when the EPA advanced a similar argument for regulating water, the Republicans rushed to attack. Once again, this is hardly a shock: the patchwork argument is not applied consistently, just when a party wants to prevent local control.

Applied consistently, the patchwork argument certainly has its appeal. After all, it is true that having laws vary with each locality can be rather confusing and can have some negative consequences. For example, if the color of traffic lights was set by localities and some decided to go with different colors, then there would be problems. As another example, if some local governments refused to recognize same sex-marriage when it is legal in the state, this could lead to various legal problems (such as inheritance issues or hospital visitation rights). As such, there seem to be good reasons to have a unified set of laws rather than a patchwork.

That said, it can be argued that the difficulties of the patchwork can be outweighed by other factors. In general terms, one can always apply a utilitarian argument. If it can be shown that allowing local autonomy on a matter creates more good than the harm created by having a patchwork of laws, then that would be an argument in favor of local autonomy in this matter. In the case of local control of the gas and oil industry, this would be a matter of weighing the harms and the benefits to all those involved (and not just the oil and gas industry shareholders). I am inclined to think that allowing local control would create more good than harm, but I could be wrong about this. Perhaps the benefits to the state as a whole outweigh the damage done locally—that is, the few must sacrifice for the many (albeit against their will). But perhaps the many are suffering for the few stockholders, which would seem to be wrong.

Another moral argument worth considering is the matter of property rights. In the case of fracking, the oil and gas companies do own the mineral rights. As such, they do have legitimate property rights to the resources located under the property in question. However, the people who own the property above the minerals also have rights. These presumably include a right to safety from environmental contamination, a right to not have their property values degraded, a right to a certain quality of life in regards to noise and light, and so on for other rights. The moral challenge is, obviously enough, balancing these rights against each other. Working this out is, in the practical sense, a matter of politics.

Since local governments tend to be more responsive to locals than the state government, it could be argued that they would be biased against the oil and gas industry and hence this matter should be settled by the state to avoid an unfair resolution. However, it can be argued that state governments are often influenced (or owned) by the oil and gas industry. This would seem to point towards the need for federal regulation of the matter (assuming that the federal government is more objective)—which is something that Republicans tend to oppose, despite it being the logical conclusion of their argument against local control. Interesting, arguments advanced to claim that the federal government should not impose on the local control of the states would seem to apply to the local government. That is, if the federal government should not be imposing on the states, then the states should not be imposing on the local governments.


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Debating the Keystone XL Pipeline

Posted in Business, Environment, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 23, 2015

The Keystone XL Pipeline has become a powerful symbol in American politics. Those that oppose it can take it as a symbol of all that is wrong: environmental dangers, global warming, big corporations, and other such evils. Those who support it can take it as a symbol of all that is good: jobs, profits, big corporations and other such goods. While I am no expert when it comes to pipelines, I thought it would be worthwhile to present a concise discussion of the matter.

The main substantial objections against the pipeline are environmental. One concern is that pipelines do suffer from leaks and these leaks can inflict considerable damage to the environment (including the water sources that are used by people). The material that will be transported by the Keystone XL pipeline is supposed to be rather damaging to the environment and rather problematic in terms of its cleanup.

Those who support the pipeline counter these objections by claiming that the pipelines are relatively safe—but this generally does not reassure people who have seen the impact of previous leaks. Another approach used by supporters is to point out that if the material is not transported by pipeline, companies will transport it by truck and by train. These methods, some claim, are more dangerous than the pipelines. Recent explosions of trains carrying such material do tend to serve as evidence for this claim. There is also the claim that using trucks and trains as a means of transport will create more CO2 output and hence the pipeline is a better choice in regards to the environment.

Some of those who oppose the pipeline contend that the higher cost of using trucks and trains will deter companies from using them (especially with oil prices so low). So, if the pipeline is not constructed, there would not be the predicted increase in CO2 levels from the use of these means of transportation. The obvious counter to this is that companies are already using trucks and trains to transport this material, so they already seem to be willing to pay the higher cost. It can also be pointed out that there are already a lot of pipelines so that one more would not make that much difference.

In addition to the leaks, there is also the concern about the environmental impact of acquiring the material to be transported by the pipeline and the impact of using the fossil fuels created from this material. Those opposed to the pipeline point out how it will contribute to global warming and pollution.

Those who support the pipeline tend to deny climate change or accept climate change but deny that humans cause it, or accept that humans cause it but contend that there is nothing that we can do that would be effective (mainly because China and other countries will just keep polluting). Another approach is to argue that the economic benefits outweigh any alleged harms.

Proponents of the pipeline claim that it will create a massive number of jobs. Opponents point out that while there will be some job creation when it is built (construction workers will be needed), the number of long term jobs will be very low. The opponents seem to be right—leaving out cleanup jobs, it does not take a lot of people to maintain a modern pipeline. Also, it is not like businesses will open up along the pipeline once it is constructed—it is not like the oil needs hotels or food. It is, of course, true that the pipeline can be a moneymaker for the companies—but it does seem unlikely that this pipeline will have a significant impact on the economy. After all, it would just be one more pipeline among many.

As might be guessed, some of the debate is over the matters of fact discussed above, such the environmental impact of building or not building the pipeline. Because many of the parties presenting the (alleged) facts have a stake in the matter, this makes getting objective information a bit of a problem. After all, those who have a financial or ideological interest in the pipeline will tend to present numbers that support the pipeline—that it creates many jobs and will not have much negative impact. Those who oppose it will tend to do the opposite—their numbers will tend to tell against the pipeline. This is not to claim that people are lying, but to simply point out the obvious influences of biases.

Even if the factual disputes could be settled, the matter is rather more than a factual disagreement—it is also a dispute over values. Environmental issues are generally political in the United States, with the right usually taking stances for business and against the environment and the left taking pro-environment and anti-business stances. The Keystone XL pipeline is no exception and has, in fact, become a symbol of general issues in regards to the environment and business.

As noted above, those who support the pipeline (with some interesting exceptions) generally reject or downplay the environmental concerns in favor of their ideological leaning. Those that oppose it generally reject or downplay the economic concerns in favor of their ideological leaning.

While I am pro-environment, I do not have a strong rational opposition to the pipeline. The main reasons are that there are already many pipelines, that the absence of the pipeline would not lower fossil fuel consumption, and that companies would most likely expand the use of trains and trucks (which would create more pollution and potentially create greater risks). However, if I were convinced that not having the pipeline would be better than having it, I would certainly change my position.

There is, of course, also the matter of symbolism—that one should fight or support something based on its symbolic value. It could be contended that the pipeline is just such an important symbol and that being pro-environment obligates a person to fight it, regardless of the facts. Likewise, someone who is pro-business would be obligated to support it, regardless to the facts.

While I do appreciate the value of symbols, the idea of supporting or opposing something regardless of the facts strikes me as both irrational and immoral.


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The Cost of Litter

Posted in Environment, Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on April 18, 2014
English: Littering in Stockholm

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After running the Palace Saloon 5K, I participated in a cleanup of a nearby park. This event, organized by my running friend Nancy, involved spending about an hour and a half picking up trash in the Florida sun.  We runners created a pile of overstuffed trash bags full of a wide range of discarded debris.

On my regular runs, I routinely pick up litter. This ranges from the expected (discarded cans) to the unusual (a blender dropped off in the woods). These adventures in litter caused me to think about the various issues related to litter and most especially the cost of litter.

One obvious cost of litter is the aesthetic damage it inflicts. Litter is ugly and makes an area look, well, trashy. While this cost might be partially paid by those who litter, it is also inflicted on those who visit the area and do not litter. One of the many reasons I pick up litter is that I prefer not to run through trashy places.

Another obvious cost of litter is the environmental damage it inflicts. Some of this is quite evident, such as oil or paint leaking from discarded cans. Other damage is less evident, such as the erosion and flooding that can be caused by litter that clogs up storm drains.  There is also the harm done to animals directly, such as sea life killed when their stomachs fill with plastic debris. As with the aesthetic damage, the cost of the litter is largely paid by those who did not litter—such as the turtles and sea-birds harmed by discarded items.

A somewhat less obvious cost is that paid by people who pick up the litter discarded by others. For example, I take a few minutes out of almost every run to pick up and dispose of trash discarded by others. There are also walkers in my neighborhood area who pick up trash during their entire walk—I will see them carrying full bags of cans, bottles and other debris that have been thrown onto the streets, sidewalks and lawns.  And no, they are not gathering up the debris to cash it in for recycling money.

What I and others are doing is paying the cost of the littering of others with our time and effort. This is doubly annoying because the effort we need to expend to pick up the debris and dispose of it properly is generally more than the effort the discarder would have needed to expend to simply dispose of it herself. This is because such debris is often scattered about, in pieces or tossed into the woods—thus making it a chore to pick up and carry. Also, carrying trash while running is certainly more inconvenient than simply transporting it in a vehicle—and much of the trash beside the road is hurled from vehicles.

Some states, such as my home state of Maine, do shift some of the cost of litter to the litterer. To be specific, these states have a deposit on bottles and cans. When someone litters a can or bottle, he is throwing away the deposit—thus incurring a small cost for his littering. When someone picks up the bottle or can, she can redeem it for the deposit—thus offsetting the cost of her effort. While this approach does not cover all forms of litter, it does have a significant impact on the litter problem by providing people with an incentive to not litter or to pick up the litter thrown away by others.

This model of imposing a cost on littering and providing a reward for cleaning up litter seems to be an ethical system. In terms of fairness, it seems right that the person littering should pay a price for the damage that she does and the cost that she inflicts on others. It also seems right that people who make the effort to clean up the messes caused by others should receive compensation for their efforts. The obvious challenge is making the model work on a broader scale beyond just bottles and cans. Unfortunately, there are many more people who are lazy, uncaring or imbued with a feeling of entitlement than there are who have a sense of responsibility and duty. As such, I know I will be cleaning up after others for the rest of my life.



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Posted in Business, Environment, Ethics, Law by Michael LaBossiere on March 21, 2014
Large open water fish, like this Northern blue...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The March 2014 issue of National Geographic featured Kenneth Brower’s article on Bluefin tuna. While the article has the usual National Geographic balance, it certainly led me to consider the issues raised by the handling of the tuna harvest.

Like many species, the Bluefin is in decline. This is, obviously enough, due to human activity—primarily overfishing. While the dangerous decline of the tuna population is well-established, the powers-that-be are handling it in the usual way and are following the usual template that leads to resource depletion and perhaps extinction.

Like most industries, the tuna industry has a regulatory organization, the International Commission for the Conservation of Tuna (ICCAT). Given the name, one might suspect that it aims at conserving tuna. However, critics jokingly claim that ICCAT stands for “International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna.” While this might not be completely accurate, ICCAT does seem to act in ways that ignore scientific data and in favor of keeping the catch limits high.

For example, in tracking catch volume ICCAT divides the North Atlantic into western and eastern zones. The problem is that the management data is not accurate—the fish are treated as two distinct stocks that do not mix, but they actually do so. As such, fish caught in the western zone could very well be from the eastern zone and vice versa. As another example, the ICCAT models also fail to consider illegally caught fish—although this is apparently significant.

Like many regulatory entities, the ICCAT often elects to simply ignore its own scientific panel. In the case of ICCAT, catch limits are set considerably higher than the recommended levels for sustainability and it seems to ignore the fact that the actual catch levels are at least double the limits it sets. Scientists have recommended that the catch limits be reduced and that fishing be suspended during most of the spawning time for the fish. These recommendations have been ignored so far.

While some might claim that these recommendations are the result of the alleged liberal agenda to destroy the fishing industry and from a hatred of all that is good and holy in capitalism, the recommendations are actually aimed at achieving sustainable fishing. That is, the recommendation is aimed at preserving the industry rather than destroying it.

It might be contended that the fishing companies would not engage in behavior that would destroy their industry. However, this is clearly not true. One reason is that there is a “strip mining” mentality in regards to handling resources. The basic idea is to get as much short-term profit as fast as possible and to not be concerned too much about the long term consequences. This approach is also fueled by the usual human tendency to discount the future and to focus on the short term at the expense of the long term. For example, people often buy things they want (but do not need) on credit and end up suffering financially later. The same sort of mentality also applies to handling resources such as tuna. Or, as some might prefer, living creatures like tuna.

This also ties into the “move on” attitude which is the view that once something has been stripped of its value, the thing to do is simply move on to another area in which to gain fast and maximum profit. That these attitudes are prevalent is clearly shown by the way that other resources are often managed, such as fossil fuels and forests.

As such, it is certainly reasonable to believe that fishing companies and their regulators would engage in the seemingly irrational activity of destroying their own industry by overfishing. After all, this has been done before. At one time Monterey Bay had a thriving sardine industry and then in the 1950s this industry crashed in part due to overfishing. What has been already occurred can surely occur again, only this time with a different species. While the big financial fish can easily move on to new profits, there is always a terrible price paid by the little fish—that is, all the people who depended on the resources for their livelihood and now find them exhausted.

It might be contended that it is possible to keep moving on—that is, to shift to a new species once one species is eliminated. This is, of course, possible—but there is clearly a finite limit to how often this can be done since there are a finite number of species. It is also worth pointing out that human activity tends to hit many species at once, which will also reduce the ability to switch species.

It might also be contended that a solution will be found that does not require engaging in sustainable fishing—people like to point to past forecasts of doom that did not come true because of some innovation or invention. While human ingenuity is impressive, to simply assume that we will be able to solve every such problem would be mere wishful thinking.  Naturally, if there is a clear and plausible plan for solving the problem, that would be another matter.

In addition to ignoring scientific data, there is also the standard tactic of “massaging” science.  A common method is to make an appeal to uncertainty. The idea is that uncertainty in the data warrants simply sticking with business as usual.  In the case of tuna, the claim is that there is uncertainty about the stock assessments in terms of numbers and the impact of human activity. This uncertainty is then exploited to warrant expanding or at least maintaining quotas. The reasoning seems to be this: since the exact numbers and effects is are not known with certainty, the new limits suggested by scientists are not warranted—so stick with the old ones or set them higher. This same approach is taken with the environment in general, as has been the case with climate change. A general pattern is also to deny that humans are having the alleged effect and attributing it to other causes—and claiming that thus there is nothing we can do (other than staying the course).

In an interesting parallel with fossil fuels, biologists who are funded by the tuna industry have claimed that there might be as-of-yet undiscovered tuna spawning grounds so the fishing can continue at the current rate (or increase).  While this is possible, there is no actual evidence for this claim. However, this sort of wishful thinking (to be generous) allows business to go on fueled by false hope unsupported by facts.

Given the growing world population, effective management of resources is critical not only for the profits of the few, but the survival of the many. As such, action should be taken to ensure a sustainable harvest of tuna. However, it is most likely that business as usual will continue and the tuna population will crash as other fish populations have crashed before them.



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Another Litter Rant

Posted in Environment, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 28, 2013
English: Garbage in Romania

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a runner, I cover a lot of ground on foot. While this allows me to be part of the world in a way that driving through it in a car does not, it also means that I get to see all the trash that people just throw to the ground.

While some folks are content to complain about the trash, I’ve generally followed what a friend of mine said years ago: “talk into this hand and do something with that hand: which gets something done?” So, my response to litter is to pick it up. Then write a self-righteous blog about it latter. The blogging is mostly therapeutic-I feel a bit better after a good rant.

One thing that annoys me about litter is how needless it is. After all, if a person can carry an item to a place, then can surely carry it out again-or at least carry it to a trash can. But, this is apparently a bit too hard for some folks-on a typical run in the park by my house, I end up carry a few armfuls of debris from the trails to the trash cans and recycle can.

When I run on the roads, I also see a lot of trash-many people seem to think nothing of throwing out bottles, cans, food containers and other trash. Presumably it is too much for them to just bring the trash with them to their next destination. I can understand it when people toss out really awful things-like bags of vomit. However, throwing beer cans or Styrofoam trays into the road seems to be either laziness or contempt.

Ranting on, one thing that also annoys me is when people litter in the park by throwing their trash out into the woods. While they are presumably trying to hide their crime, they just make it harder to get their trash-especially in places that have thick and thorny vegetation. So, I’d like to ask folks who simply cannot avoid littering to just leave their trash by the side of the trail-that way it is easy for me or the park workers to get their trash. If one must be an ass and litter, at least don’t be a bigger ass and make it hard to pick it up.

Fortunately, I am not alone in my litter picking. There are two women in my neighborhood area who walk everyday and carry bags to clean up the messes left by others. They are good citizens and get the idea that public spaces are not dumps. Naturally, expecting everyone to pitch in and clean up is probably expecting too much. But expecting people not to litter is expecting the very least they can do-which is surely not too much.

Rant terminates. For now.

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Posted in Business, Environment, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on September 18, 2013
Information on pump regarding ethanol fuel ble...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While various predictions about when we will run out of fossil fuels have proven to be erroneous, it is obvious that the reserves are finite. As such, if human civilization continues to use these fuels long enough, we will exhaust them. Assuming that we will continue to need an energy source that is comparable to fossil fuels, then we will need to find a suitable replacement as a matter of practicality.

Some people are also concerned with the moral aspects of fossil fuels, specifically regarding the various harms associated with them. These typically include environmental harms which range from the pollution generated by lawn mowers to the impact of huge oil spills.

One proposed solution to both the practical problem (getting more fuel) and the moral problem is biofuel. Put rather simplistically, biofuels are created from biological sources (hence the name). These sources are typically plants (such as the corn used for ethanol) but other sources (such as animal waste) can be used.

Like many people, I sort of vaguely favor biofuel development—after all, we will probably need a renewable fuel source and “biofuel” sounds vaguely environmentally friendly. However, it is well worth considering the matter critically.

While I am not an expert on biofuel, one does not need to be an expert to grasp one of the basic requirements for a successful biofuel, namely a viable energy cost. In general, the creation of a usable biofuel is analogous to converting oil to gasoline in that the process involves changing the starting material into a usable form. To use a specific example, we obviously cannot burn corn (even creamed corn) in our vehicles. To be used as fuel, it has to be processed and distilled into ethanol. This process takes energy and so does growing the corn crop in the first place. Intuitively, to be a viable source of energy the creation of the biofuel needs to cost us less energy than the biofuel provides. In the case of corn, we get some of the energy for “free” from the sun. However, corn is now typically processed into ethanol using fossil fuels and this process is not very efficient. Adding to the matter is the fact that ethanol (and other biofuels) provide less energy than fossil fuels. This efficiency problem is a significant hurdle for the development of biofuels.

As might be suspected, people have proposed using other renewable sources of energy to provide the energy needed to create biofuels. For example, solar power could be used to provide the heat needed to distill a biofuel.

Provided that the renewable sources are adequately efficient in terms of their own energy costs, this could be a viable option. However, one rather obvious concern is that it might make more sense to just use the alternative energy source directly rather than adding in the extra step of creating biofuel. For example, instead of using solar power to turn corn into ethanol to fuel cars, use the solar power to charge the batteries of electric cars. That said, for applications that require actual fuel (such as running the millions of existing internal combustion engines), then the alternative energy would not be a viable option.

Another basic requirement is simply the matter of cost in terms of dollars (or whatever). After all, even if the energy cost of a biofuel makes it viable (that is, the process is efficient enough) it could be the case that the overall cost is too high. Calculating this cost is not a simple matter of considering the direct cost of the fuel, but also the indirect costs. For example, some biofuels are based on food crops, such as corn. Using food crops in this manner will tend to drive up the cost of the foods based on the crop, thus adding to the cost of the fuel. This specific cost can be offset or even eliminated by using non-food crops grown in areas that are not used to grow food crops or by using the “waste” from food crops. However, these options would also have costs as well.

As another example, replacing older vehicles with those that can burn certain biofuels could be costly. This could be offset by gradually replacement as older vehicles are phased out normally due to age and damage.

In regards to cost, it is worth noting that energy sources have traditionally had high start-up costs. In many cases, such as with fossil fuels, this cost was shifted to the taxpayers in the form of subsidies for the energy companies (a practice that still continues). While this fact does not diminish the cost of developing biofuels, it does show that the high startup cost is not unusual. Of course, there is the concern that the subsidies of biofuels will continue past the startup time, just as the needless subsidies for the fossil fuel industry continues to this day.

As a final point, biofuel will need buy in from those with political influence, especially fossil fuel corporations. While it might be tempting to think that the fossil fuel corporations would want to prevent the development of biofuels, they can have excellent reasons to want to get into the business themselves. After all, there is an existing network for fossil fuels that could be partially converted to biofuels and the fossil fuel companies know that their main product will eventually run out, so they will need something else to sell (and get subsidies for). In fact, I suspect that biofuels will only become really viable when the fossil fuel companies start selling them.


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The Failure of Ethanol

Posted in Environment, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 16, 2013
English: A combine harvesting corn. Deutsch: J...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While alternative energy has been hyped for quite some time, one of the more recently hyped alternatives is biofuel. The idea is appealing enough: instead of drilling for hydrocarbon fuels, we will make our own from biological sources. One of the best known biofuels is, of course, corn-based ethanol. While on my way home from work, I bought gasoline that was 10% ethanol—not because I wanted to, but because that was the only option. Most likely you have also bought gasoline blended with ethanol.

The fact that ethanol is now blended with normal gasoline might suggest that corn-based ethanol has been a success. However, this is not the case. Rather, corn-based ethanol has been a failure.

The first matter of concern is in regards to how efficiently an alternative fuel can be created in regards to the cost. This cost, obviously enough, includes the cost of the energy used to create the fuel. In the case of corn-based ethanol, the process of growing corn and then converting it to a usable fuel is rather costly. In 2010 the ethanol industry received $5.68 billion in subsidies and it is only this that allowed ethanol to have the illusion of being commercially viable. While energy industries do typically require subsidies (fossil fuels were and are heavily subsidized), ethanol seems to be a rather poor choice in terms of what is received for the cost.

Ironically, the distillation part of the process of making ethanol typically involves using fossil fuels and this process results in a fuel that has only about two thirds of the energy of conventional gasoline. In fact, ethanol production is so inefficient that experts have estimated it would take farmland equal to three times the size of the continental United States to grow enough corn to replace the fuels used in transportation in the United States. This is, obvious, not an option.

The second matter of concern is the fact that a food crop, corn, is being converted into a fairly inefficient fuel. This has the effect of increasing the prices of foods that make use of corn (ranging from corn on the cob to corn fed beef). As such, the public is getting hit twice by the cost of ethanol: first in subsidizing it and second in paying more for food. The obvious reply to this is that corn is still relatively cheap—thanks, in part, to subsidies. In any case, it would seem to make more sense to use a non-food crop based alternative fuel, preferably one that could be grown where food crops would grow poorly.

The third matter is that when added to gasoline, ethanol reduces the gas mileage of vehicles (it provides less energy than gasoline) and also damages many small motors (such as outboard motors for boats).

As might be imagined, the folks benefiting from the billions in subsidies probably see ethanol as a success. However, it is a clear failure for the rest of us.


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Living Far from the Bleeding Edge

Posted in Business, Environment, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on April 3, 2013
IBM Portable Personal Computer :: Retrocomputi...

(Photo credit: br1dotcom)

I rather like technology and, as I have noted in other posts, I have sometimes shown poor judgment in my attempts to enhance my computers. Back in the day, squeezing out extra performance, drive space and so on was actually rather important-computers were so slow and storage so small that every increase really mattered. After all, if the hard drive is 20 MB, then saving 1 MB by compressing stuff was a big deal. These days when hard drives are 1TB or larger and processors scream with speed, such efforts are less essential-though some folks still like to get out on the bleeding edge. For example, DIY overclocking is still popular and still melting the occasional processor.

Thanks to being a professor, I’ve generally not been on the bleeding edge of technology. This is not from lack of desire, but a combination of reason and limited finances. Because of my budget, I cannot afford to spend the thousands it would take to be on the bleeding edge. Being rational, I do not endeavor to do this. Instead, I live way back on the plateau, watching the blood spray up into the sky.

As might be suspected, I tend to take a philosophical approach to this matter (or perhaps I am just rationalizing). While I have bought a few new computers, I generally have either built my PCs or acquired somewhat obsolete tech. Building a PC matches my view that a person should have the skill to repair anything he owns and depends on as well as a basic comprehension of how it works. This allows me to handle my own problems without having to impose on others. As might be guessed, I believe that people have a moral obligation to have a basic level of competence with their key technology. After all, they otherwise become burdens on others and waste time that could be better spent.

Using somewhat obsolete tech also matches my values. First, I’m from New England and hence have those famous frugal tendencies. I do not like to waste money and staying away from the bleeding edge helps a great deal. One reason is, obviously, that older tech is much cheaper than newer tech (in general) although the difference in performance need not be that great. To use the obvious example, the high end modern processors can cost well over $1,000. While they are very fast, they tend to be far more than the vast majority of folks would need. Since I have been working with computers for a while, I remember when people spoke of the blazing speed of the 486 chip relative to the 286, then spoke the same way about the Pentium. The same was true for the Mac: the 68000 was slow compared to the blazing 68040 and then there was the G3 and then the G4 chips. While this power can be useful for things like video editing and gaming, I obviously do not write any faster on my i7 920 than I did on my 68000 Mac Classic.

In practical terms, except for folks who need the speed (like folks rendering video, doing graphics work and hardcore gaming) a PC that is five or even ten years old would probably do the trick. It is, of course, possible to get last year’s models at a modest discount and even older ones for far less. Of course, old machines might have problems-which is why it is important to have the right skills if you decide to go with the older tech.

I also scavenge and rebuild fairly often-when I help people with their new machine, they will often give (or dump) their old or dead tech to me or sell it for a modest price. I’ve gotten laptops, desktops, iPods and such that way. In some cases I had to create a Frankenputer, but the price was right.

Second, I hate to waste stuff. Old tech that is not in use tends to end up in the landfill. By keeping old tech in use, I am able to keep some stuff out of the landfill. I also give away what I do not use-there is always a student who needs a laptop or a parent who needs a PC for the kids. This enables people to have a usable computer without having to spend what little money they might have. This Monday, I gave away my 2004 iBook G4. While I got in back when Office 2004 was brand new, after a restore of the OS it was actually quite snappy, what with its 1 GHz processor, 30GB hard drive and 768 MB of RAM. While Office 2004 is way out of date, it still works quite well-in fact, for most of what folks do, office 2004 is more than enough.

Of course, I do hope that some folks keep buying on the bleeding edge-the blood eventually trickles down to me and folks like me. Hmm, I guess that trickle down thing sort of works.

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The Ethics of Genetic Extermination

Posted in Environment, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 24, 2012
Ochlerotatus notoscriptus, Tasmania, Australia

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While we consider ourselves to be the dominant species on the planet, we do face dangers from other species. While some of these species are large animals such as lions, tigers and bears our greatest foes tend to be tiny. These include insects, bacteria and viruses.

While we have struggled, with some success, to eliminate various tiny threats advances in technology and science have given us some new options. One of these is genetically modifying species so they cannot reproduce, thus resulting in their extermination. As might be suspected, insects such as disease carrying mosquitoes are a prime target. One approach to wiping out mosquitoes is to genetically modify mosquito eggs so that the adults carry “extermination” genes. The adult males are released into the wild and reproduce with native females in the target area. The offspring then bear the modified gene which causes the female mosquitos to be unable to fly (they lack flight muscles). The males can operate normally and they continue to “infect” the local population until (in theory) it is exterminated. As might be imagined, this approach raises various ethical concerns.

One obvious point of concern is the matter of intentionally exterminating a species. On the face of it, such an action seems to be morally dubious. However, it does seem easy enough to counter this on utilitarian grounds. After all, if an organism (such as a mosquito) is harmful to humans and does not have an important role to play in the ecosystem, then its extermination would seem to be morally justified on the grounds that doing so would create more good than harm. Naturally, if a harmful species were also beneficial in other ways, then the matter would be rather more complicated and such extermination could be wrong on the grounds that it would do more harm than good.

The utilitarian approach can be countered by appealing to an alternative approach to ethics. For example, it could be argued that such extermination is simply wrong regardless of the beneficial consequences to humans. It can, however, be pointed out that species go extinct naturally and, as such, perhaps a case could be made that such exterminations are not inherently wrong. The obvious counter would be to point out that there is a significant moral difference between a species dying of natural causes and being destroyed. The distinction between killing and letting die comes to mind here.

I am inclined to accept that the extermination of a harmful species can be acceptable, provided that the benefits do, in fact, outweigh the damage done by exterminating the species. Getting rid of, for example, the HIV virus would seem to be morally acceptable. In the case of mosquitoes, the main concern would be the role of the mosquito in the ecosystem and the impact that its extermination would have. If, for example, the disease carrying mosquito was an invasive species and its elimination would not impact the ecosystem in a negative way, then it would seem to be acceptable to exterminate it. Naturally, if the extermination is local and the species remains elsewhere, then the ethics of the situation become far less problematic. After all, I have no moral objection to the extermination of the roaches, termites, fleas and other bugs that attempt to reside in my house—there are plenty that remain in the wild and they would pose a threat to the well-being of myself and my husky. Naturally, I would only accept the extermination of a species on very serious grounds, such as a clear danger presented to my species. Even then, it would be preferable to see if the extermination could be avoided.

A second point of concern involves the methodology. While humans have attempted to wipe out species by killing them the old fashioned ways (like poisons), the use of genetic modification could be morally significant.

There is, of course, the usual concern with “playing God” or tampering with nature. However, as is always pointed out, we routinely accept such tampering as morally acceptable in other areas. For example, by using artificial light, vaccines, surgery and such we are “playing God” and tampering with nature. As such, the idea that “playing God” is inherently wrong seems rather dubious. Rather, what is needed is to show that specific acts of “playing God” or tampering are wrong.

There is also the reasonable concern about unintended consequences, something that is not unknown in the attempts to exterminate species. For example, DDT had a host of undesirable effects. I do not, of course, think that modifying mosquitoes will create some sort of 1950s style mega-mosquitoes that will rampage across the land. However, there are reasonable grounds to be concerned that genetic modification might have unexpected and unpleasant results and this possibility should be seriously considered.

A final point I will address is a practical one, namely that even if a species is exterminated by genetic modification another species might simply take its place. In the case of mosquitoes it seems likely that if one type of mosquito is wiped out, then another one will simply move into the niche vacated and the problem, such as a mosquito transmitted illness will return. The concern is, of course, that resources would have been expended and a species exterminated for nothing. Naturally, if there are good grounds to believe that the extermination would be effective and ethically acceptable, then this would be another matter.

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Weather Defense Initiative

Posted in Environment, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 3, 2012
Temperature difference in Europe from the aver...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Humans have always faced off against the impersonal power of the weather, sometimes winning and sometimes not. In many ways, humans are at war with the weather of our world and the damage inflicted by weather can be comparable to that which we inflict on each other. But, while some might attribute an intelligent design behind the ravages of the weather, it seems most reasonable to hold that the climate does not wage intentional war against us. Rather, the world simply does as it does and sometimes this kills us and destroys our cities. However, destructive weather, as it has historically done, does raise questions about the alleged benevolence of our alleged creator.

Sticking with the war metaphor, there are clearly times in which the conflict is more damaging than others. In recent years, the damage has stepped up considerably. The September 2012 edition of National Geographic featured “Extreme Weather” by Peter Miller discussed, as might be imagined, the recent extreme weather that has impacted the world. The article was, obviously, written before Sandy hit the United States. However, Sandy was, in some ways, just another example of extreme weather.

While there are some who are skeptical about climate change, it is possible to discuss the matter by ignoring the alleged causes of the extreme weather and focusing on the damage done by weather incidents.

Weather disasters have been rather costly financially in the United States and the damage done has increased significantly. From 1980-1995 there were 46 disasters causing $1 billion or more damage. In 1996-2011 there were 87 disasters causing that amount of damage. Insurance companies reported insured losses of $36 billion in 2011, which is 50% greater than the average for the past decade.

Part of this can be attributed to the fact that Americans increasingly live in areas that are subject to destructive weather, such as the coastal regions of the United States. Part of this can also be attributed to the greater value of the structures being built, especially in risky areas. After all, the destruction of a beach mansion costs more than the sweeping away of a beach cabin. However, even taking into account such factors (and the obvious factor of inflation) the damage being done has increased.

There is also the cost human life.  The 2003 heat wave in Europe killed about 35,000. In 1970 Tropical storms killed 500,000 in Bangladesh. There are, of course, many other sad examples of humans being killed in large numbers by weather events.

While the exact costs in deaths, suffering, property loss and economic damage can be debated, it is clear that weather events cost us dearly. If the damage inflicted by the weather was done by a human attacker, there would be screams for war, defense and retaliation. Look, for example, how the United States responded to 9/11.

Naturally, retaliation against the weather would be absurd—there is no intelligent agent to seek vengeance against (except, perhaps, God) or deter. However, it does make sense to establish a developed defense against the damage of weather.

People are, of course, establishing defenses against weather events. For example, France took steps, such as building air conditioned shelters, and cut the heat deaths in 2006 by two thirds. While storms still tear through Bangladesh, the construction of shelters and warning systems has reduced the death toll from hundreds of thousands to thousands. These are still heavy losses for humanity, but an improvement over the old system.

While these defenses have shown some effectiveness, our response has been largely reactive (we tend to slap together a response to the last disaster rather than preparing for the next one properly) and piecemeal.

So what I propose is a worldwide weather defense initiative (WDI—yes, this is blatantly stolen from SDI) to address the damagers presented by our planet. Many steps, such as large scale tsunami warning systems, are in place. However, most of our cities are woefully underprepared and our defenses are very limited. Meanwhile, we waste and squander resources making war on each other. I contend that at least some of these resources would be better spent (morally and practically) on defense against the weather rather than against each other. Such spending would, of course, allow for the profits and political dealings that defense spending now involves. However, at least the results would probably be more positive in terms of lives saved. I am not, of course, proposing that military defense be neglected—after all, I know us and I know that we are obviously not to be trusted unless guns are pointing at us. Even then we should probably not be trusted.

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