The Arizona Desert Lamp

Greenwashing at the UA

Posted in Campus, Politics by Evan Lisull on 23 April 2009

Green BeerThe absurdity of ‘Carbon Down Arizona’ and the green movement as a whole reveals itself in this hyped press release from UANews:

The goals of the solar project are to add 500 kilowatts of solar generating power to campus rooftops, heat the UA’s large swimming pools with solar energy, and generally advance the cause of renewable energy on campus.

. . .

The solar thermal technologies that will be installed for use at the Hillenbrand and Student Recreation Center pools are an example of the partnership’s sustainability and cost effectiveness. The Hillenbrand pool holds approximately 1.1 million gallons of water. The Student Recreation Center pool has 600,000 gallons. The Center’s expansion also will give the UA its first silver LEED-certified building.

What is God’s name is sustainable – in any sense of the word – about 1.7 million gallons of water being dedicated to swimming pools in the middle of the Sonoran desert? This makes Dubai look like Endor. Even Pontifex Gore’s blessing of the water would do little to mitigate its impact. The article is noticeably silent on the cost of the project. Meanwhile, University Blvd. was closed until 7 PM yesterday for the Earth Day ‘block party,’ and boy howdy were those some traffic jams on Park. In listing his accomplishments, President Bruce managed to slip in the establishing of the sustainability director and the expansion of the Rec Center.

It is interesting to note how environmentalism has done a complete 180 from one extreme to another. Once, the face of environmentalism was an animal-liberating extremist; now, it is the “Green Hummer” and Shelton’s “sustainability.” Neither of these two options work. The former approach comes at too high a cost, sacrificing the order of civilization for the chaos of Nature, and what’s more is suicidal at its core – after all, what better way to effectively reduce one’s carbon footprint? The latter, however, does little more than polish the brass on an overheating Titanic, its net impact dwarfed by the size of the problem. Of course, like the Titanic, the beauty of meaningless gestures are how chic they can be. Contra Kermit, it’s very easy to be green.

A third option presents itself: accepting your fate as a mortal, subject to forces so far beyond your control or comprehension that you resolve yourself to modest, unpretentious actions and hope for the best. This option hasn’t been very popular recently.

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9 Responses

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  1. mattstyer said, on 23 April 2009 at 10:38 am

    What exactly do you mean by modest and unpretentious actions?

  2. Evan Lisull said, on 23 April 2009 at 5:21 pm

    Recycling the morning paper; deciding not to purchase a pool; planting a tree; biking to work; generally things that don’t involve press conferences or programs with cringe-worth acronyms.

    I’ll go ahead and anticipate the critique that this is “not enough,” and wonder exactly what ‘enough’ is, as the standards seem to be changing from day to day. Even if we haven’t passed the point at which the greenhouse feedback loop takes effect, I wonder exactly how much state control will be necessary to actually implement something that will reverse it. Close, as you know, only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

  3. mattstyer said, on 23 April 2009 at 8:30 pm

    I agree with you wholly on the first half; a “sustainable pool” in the desert is nonsense. Not everything has to be austere – you can justify a pool here and there in the desert, just don’t try to call it sustainable.

    I do think more regulation is inevitably a part of the solution, but that’s not really why the “small, unpretentious actions” struck me as potentially problematic. Those are a huge part of any solution, but I think they have to be part of a broader “change in consciousness.” I don’t think significant enough change in behavior will occur if we frame our actions as /just/ a bunch of individual actions, by individual people, deciding by themselves to do something. There needs to be a very real, strongly shared public sense that we need to be more aware of our impact on the world. We’re stuck in, or just entering, some kind of limbo where we’re starting to think we can just kind of manage it – you know, reach market equilibrium, that nice tipping point where we’ll be OK and can keep chugging along pretty much as normal. Just a tweak to the system! I really doubt that will cut it. That’s the same mindset that got us to where we are. I think a managed ecosystem like that might be nightmarish, in fact.

    This thought doesn’t push me into some kind of extremist category where I yearn for some kind of primitivism or end to civilization. Civilization will (and should) go on and will be fine in the long run, but we might be in for unpleasant times and a steep learning curve as we figure out how to live responsibly in accord with other living things.

  4. Ben Kalafut said, on 24 April 2009 at 1:50 pm

    Adoption of reasonable environmental policy would turn this from a matter of posturing and moralizing to one of economizing. Without scarcity and price signals people can have little idea whether their actions go beyond mere symbolism.

    By “reasonable” I mean something that permanently reins in the major negative externalities and facilitates a sort of (for now, one-way) Coaseian bargaining between harmed parties and emitters–and a “no losers” way of ratcheting down emissions by government purchase of permits.

    Until such a regime is established, I’m afraid we’ll be stuck with “Green Chic”. It’s human nature, for (relatively) wealthy individuals to flaunt virtue. We haven’t come very far from the days military commanders and the senatorial class handed out denarii to the plebs during parades.

  5. Ben Kalafut said, on 24 April 2009 at 1:57 pm

    There needs to be a very real, strongly shared public sense that we need to be more aware of our impact on the world

    No there doesn’t, no more than the farmer needs to be aware that Ben Kalafut thinks the best baking apple is a quince.

    Awareness is all fine and good until the time comes to make practical decisions. Then price signals and associating a cost with harming others works, whereas awareness yields to convenience. I *know* the water table is falling but what good does it do for me to conserve if others can take as much as they want?–and how do I know that my self-sacrifice is efficient.

    Awareness alone doesn’t efficiently allocate the correction. There are gains to be made, close to win-win, in the shipping industry and in concrete making, but everyone thinks global warming is about autos and light bulbs.

  6. mattstyer said, on 24 April 2009 at 3:08 pm

    There’s a world of difference between something at trivial as apple juice, and how human beings understand themselves in the world. It’s something that has actually changed significantly through history (and across cultures). That is what I am getting at in “a change in consciousness” and a “strongly shared public sense.”

    Right now we understand ourselves as self-sufficient, whole, complete, rational individuals. We conceive ourselves as connected to others and our surroundings only (pretty much) at our own choosing. I think this understanding of ourselves, inaugurated by Descartes and popularized through Locke and other social contract theorists, is a pretty terrible one that doesn’t hold up epistemologically, and has awful consequences for human beings. One thing it does is drive forward a “he’s got his, I’ve got mine” or “screw the consequences for the rest, I’ve got mine” kind of attitude. Part of the way it does that is making a sense of strongly shared public values and ways of acting unavailable to us.

    Luckily, I think the Cartesian/Lockean understanding is dying out, and people are realizing again some deeper connectedness to each other. A renaissance of a strong public and common goals is never going to eliminate the problems of public goods and externalities, or allocation in general. The market is with us for the long haul. But you’d be hard pressed to convince me that the market or technical solutions in general are /all/ that is needed, even in some sense primarily.

    • Evan Lisull said, on 24 April 2009 at 3:50 pm

      “I think this understanding of ourselves, inaugurated by Descartes and popularized through Locke and other social contract theorists, is a pretty terrible one that doesn’t hold up epistemologically, and has awful consequences for human beings.”

      “Luckily, I think the Cartesian/Lockean understanding is dying out, and people are realizing again some deeper connectedness to each other.”

      Citation, please (although, preferably, in a post at CP – esp. this theory of a New World Epistomological Order). Also, it would be nice to connect this epistemological argument with poltical philosophy – I’ve been fortunate enough in my one life to realize “deeper connectedness” with others, through entirely voluntary associations. I would argue that this “terrible” idea of social contract is that by maximizing individual liberty, you allow for these connections to be formed – by maximizing human potential to act, you increase the likelihood of this higher recognition (and yes, this starts to dovetail with existentalism). Such deeper connections cannot be forced by state power; no law can make me give a whit about the US Department of Commerce.

      More forebodingly, what measures do you propose for a state to enact in light of those who remain entrenched in their defunct mindset of “individual civil liberties”? Is the Bill of Rights – dedicated entirely to individual rights – a bad document that has furthered this epistimological meltdown?

      • mattstyer said, on 24 April 2009 at 4:41 pm

        I’ve got no citation for a dying out of that paradigm. It’s simply my observation. But that’s the direction most of philosophy has been going for some time. Hegel, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Dewey, phenomenology. And it’s what most philosophers (and cultures) have believed, c.f., Aristotle’s notion of man as a “political animal.”

        I’m not at all against individual civil liberties, the importance of individuals in themselves, freedom, etc. These are wonderful things. The crowning achievements of our society in many ways. I didn’t intone anywhere that I am against these things. You’re reading too much into things that aren’t there.

        It’s not that the social contract is a terrible idea. It has fundamentally good aims, but it’s based on crazy premises. Who really takes the stuff about the state of nature seriously anymore? But that was huge for them. It set up the whole thing – it’s the background against which it all is supposed to make sense. But can we really be you know, fully rational, autonomous, free beings (as portrayed in the state of nature) outside of a society that values that kind of stuff? I think that’s pretty close to nonsense (so did Aristotle). As a society, I think there are very important social issues and whatnot that we have to collectively decide on, and decide to try and further them on or not. That’s perfectly compatible (necessary, I think) with individual freedoms, the dignity of individuals, and all that good stuff.

        I don’t see why anyone buys, given the current state of society, how giving more and more emphasis to the individual as the only thing that matters, makes people more inclined to realize things of importance beyond themselves. It makes people treat each other instrumentally. That’s fine sometimes, but treating the environment or society as just an instrument at our disposal (something I think wild capitalism and communism both do), is the whole problem.

  7. mattstyer said, on 24 April 2009 at 3:35 pm

    This is a really nice passage that has really influenced me, from Vaclav Havel, the first president of Czechoslovakia after 1989:

    “The West and East [Soviet-sphere], though different in so many ways, are going through a single, common crisis…Vaclay Belohradsky puts it very nicely when he writes about this late period as one of confliict between an impersonal, anonymous, irresponsible and uncontrollable juggernaut of power (the power of “megamachinery”), and the power of the elemental and original interests of man as a concrete individual…I’m persuaded that this conflict – and the increasingly hypertrophic impersonal power itself – is directly related to the spiritual condition of modern civilization…We are going through a great departure from God which has no parallel in history. As far as I know, we are living in the middle of the first atheistic civilization. This departure has its own complex intellectual and cultural causes: it is related to the development of science, technology and human knowledge, and to the whole modern upsurge of interest in the human intellect and the human spirit. I feel that this arrogant anthropocentrism of modern man, who is convinced he can know everything and bring everything under his control, is somewhere in the background of the present crisis. It seems to me that is the world is to change for the better it must start with a change in human consciousness, in the very humanness of modern man.”

    He goes on to suggest that man must “come to his senses” and discover within himself a deeper sense of responsibility for the world, something higher than himself – be it “for the order of nature or the universe” or something like this, “can we arrive at a state in which life on earth is no longer threatened by some form of ‘megasuicide’.”


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