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Privatizing Clean Air? Put it in a can!

30 January 2013 Leave a comment

Canned Air

China’s pollution problem is getting worse, but there is a silver (or at least aluminum) lining to the problem. Eccentric multi-millionaire Chen Guangbiao is selling  cans of clean air in a variety of scents such as Pristine Tibet, Post-Industrial Taiwan and Revolutionary Yan’an (though one seems a little more appealing than the others). Pollution levels have reached “off the charts” levels with 99% of urban Chinese breathing air the would be considered unsafe by European standards. Particulate matter is particularly high, exceeding  20 times the World Health Organization’s safe level.

Common resources such as air, water, and communal pastures have long posed a problem for environmental protection. The theory of the Tragedy of the Commons suggests that given a shared resource, it’s in each individual’s interest to deplete the resource as quickly as possible to maximize personal utility over others. The most common proposed solutions to such problems is primarily enclosure and privatization, or secondly regulation. China’s pollution problem falls into the Tragedy of the Commons category. China’s addicted to growth, and fears that regulation may deter growth makes it an daunting (though increasingly necessary) task. Privatizing air is an exceedingly difficult thing to do with such an ephemeral resource. Mr. Guangbiao has not solved the Tragedy of the Commons problem, but he has privatized a substitutable good. The same way hay is grown elsewhere and brought in to substitute for pasture, Mr. Guangbiao has captured air elsewhere and brought it to the market. This does nothing to rectify the degradation of the commons. This interesting approach has been referred to as “yuppie capitalism“, though profits are reportedly going either to the military or to environmental organizations.

China smog

Though this effort is too small, unfeasible, and unlikely to make any impact more than a novel news note, it does represent an increasing market for relief from our self-created environment.  This is a strange manifestation of environmental degradation.

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Why We Sport

22 October 2012 Leave a comment

In a cliché storyline, the sports world has been “rocked” by a doping scandal. Because of overwhelming circumstantial evidence and numerous first-hand teammate accounts, Lance Armstrong was retroactively stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. The ruling, administered by the International Cycling Union (UCI) seven years after his last title, was handed down after Armstrong refused to continue appealing the findings of a report issued by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).

Lance Armstrong represents a classic hero who overcame cancer and went on to become the greatest cyclist in history. He single handedly made cycling a noteworthy sport. He represented a champion, hoisted to victory only because of a complex team of support riders. Head of a popular foundation, he made a great storyline and represented a role-model far beyond racing. His storied career ends with the president of the UCI saying “he deserves to be forgotten” by the sport.

To be clear, I am in no way condoning doping or cheating in any realm of life, be it sport or otherwise. However, before we condemn Lance Armstrong to the depths of sporting purgatory, it is necessary to understand what exactly we mean by sport. The objective of sport is to attain maximum human performance within a set of constraining rules. In effect, it creates an alternate world where new constraints force competitors to maximize their abilities based on limits of that world. It has an objective and stated regulations. It is to the advantage of each competitor to exercise every advantage at their disposal in order to reach maximum performance within those rules. Cycling, as with any sport, explicitly states its rules so that competitors may train to maximize their ability. This includes certain tests to make sure they are conforming to the rules; these tests in effect constitute the rules.

Lance won 7 consecutive Tour de France titles all while passing these UCI mandated drug tests. He maximized his performance within the stated rules. Now, if the UCI chose to overlook some circumspect test results, that is a problem. But doing everything in his power to maximize his ability while abiding by the rules (apparently or actually— I argue the distinction is moot), that is sport. Retroactively prosecuting an athlete is akin to changing the rules, or moving the goal posts.

There have been many moral arguments made about how “cheating is bad”, and “Lance is no longer a role-model for our kids”. Sport takes place in an alternative world, one where we sanction punches to the face and have to state that attacks “below the belt” are disallowed. Morals are not implicit in sport! We admire athletes for one reason: physical ability. We don’t ask them to solve engineering problems or draft peace accords, so why is that we chastise them for moral misgivings? Why do we expect athletes, who we routinely stereotype as scholarly inept, to serve as our moral beacons?

Babe Ruth could hit and pitch, all while smoking, drinking, and womanizing. Tiger Woods was winning ½ the tournaments he entered, even if he didn’t maintain the most wholesome personal life. It’s most likely that Lance took performance enhancing drugs to maximize his physical ability to compete. If he failed to meet the objectively stated rules, then yes, punish him appropriately. But if we are punishing him based on subjective criteria that we are superimposing on the most explicitly objective of human activities, then we are we are failing to understand why we sport.

Categories: Musings Tags: ,

We don’t make heroes anymore

14 October 2012 Leave a comment

Today I watched a man rise to the edge of space, and then with a brief salute, hurl himself back to the Earth. He went higher than anyone in a balloon ever has, and he fell. He fell faster than any human in history, breaking records that have stood for over 60 years. Born in the 80s, I never had an Apollo moment. I’ve never experienced genuine awe. I’ve never had a hero. That all changed today. Felix Baumgartner spent 2 hours climbing to the edge of space and 5 minutes coming back. When that capsule door opened, and that stark line between the Earth and space became visible, Felix stood up, walked to the door, and jumped. He selflessly threw himself into a perilous freefall, exposing himself to the harshest environment we’ve ever journeyed. He went to edge of human existence and pushed it further. That is what a hero does. That’s what Armstrong, Aldren, and Collins did. Today, I found my first hero.

Is democracy capable of solving climate change?

13 April 2012 1 comment

In order to answer question of whether or not democracy is capable of solving the climate change issue, there are many components that must be unpacked and addressed.  First must be a discussion of what is meant by solving climate change.  There are numerous options that span the spectrum from complete mitigation, to resilience, to full adaptation, all of which depend upon both the temporal and spatial scales at which solutions are being sought.  Second, the goals of solving climate change vary widely depending upon the group for whom a solution is being sought.  Individuals, communities, nations, corporations, and industries all have preferential outcomes that may come at the direct expense of other groups.  The diverging interests of groups must be openly and evenly discussed if any meaningful solution is to be developed.  The third component is identifying the role (or roles) of government, specifically democracies but more generally government itself, in dealing with the complex nexus of socio-ecological impacts of business decisions.  From the interrogation of these sub-questions, a more comprehensive exploration of democracies capacity for dealing with climate change will emerge.

There are many approaches to solving climate change.  In order to better understand the desired outcomes, it is important to understand the causes and implications of climate change.  Climate change is the result of CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere which causes an increase in the greenhouse effect, resulting in a general warming of the Earth over much shorter time scales than can naturally be accounted for.  While that is the general result, both the largest emitters and the largest impacts are highly concentrated in disparate areas.  This creates a highly uneven pattern of those who are responsible for climate change (i.e. benefit from causing it) are not necessarily those who will incur the most damages from it (i.e. pay for it). This is because CO2 is considered an economic externality, meaning the actual price is not fully represented in the market price.  The 2008 Stern Review on the economics of climate change referred to CO2 as the largest externality of all time. This disarticulation of the costs and benefits of CO2 emissions severely complicates the matter of solving climate change.  It is a global problem that requires everyone to solve, but bears markedly different responsibilities.  How those responsibilities are decided upon is beyond the scope of this essay, suffice it to say, it is a complex problem, in both a temporal and spatial sense.

If we recognize CO2 as the primary driver of climate change, then the obvious way to stop climate change is to stop, or mitigate, CO2 emissions.  Efforts for this have been underway for over two decades now, starting with the recognition of climate change as a problem in the 1980s.  The first actions began in 1992 with the Rio Earth Summit.  In 1997 the Kyoto protocol was signed by the majority of the world and great optimism was abound for meaningful C02 regulation.  The European Union went further by implementing a carbon exchange system to limit its emissions.  While the US has been a primary leader in CO2 emissions, only recently being passed by China, it failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and more recently failed to pass a Carbon Cap and Trade bill, proving its lack of leadership in environmental stewardship.  Mitigation, while undoubtedly an important component for long term climate change management, is unlikely to make a meaningful impact in the near future and much research and debate has progressed to more reaction-based measures, namely adaptation.

In addressing “how to solve climate change”, it is important to understand that there are many differing goals or desired outcomes from managing climate change. The standard dialog for discussing climate change is framed as a debate between Business and Government; a debate between the interests of the Economy and the Environment.  There is a severe disconnect between the interests of business and government.  Business obligations are to maximize shareholders profits.  The government obligations are to maximize the welfare of the population.  It is in business’ interest to take advantage of externalities as it maximizes profits, however this is an example of where the market fails to incorporate the total price of a good, and it becomes the government’s responsibility to create regulations that force the externality to be internalized into the market.  This framing can also be represented as short-term (business) and longer-term (government) interests.

Democracy is government of the people, by the people, for the people.  This is equates to majority rule, meaning that the popular opinion is the guiding principle for making rules. However, it occasionally becomes the responsibility of the government to make decisions that serve the long term interests of the country, which may possibly be at odds with the current popular opinion.  This becomes particularly acute when future generations will bear the consequences of current actions, as is the case for climate change.  In order to objectively consider climate change, we must detach ourselves from current interests and weigh the long-term benefits against short-term costs.

It is precisely the responsibility of government to act in the long-term interest of the people.  However, democracy of the people, by the people, for the people, is setup for the good of the people.  Interpretation of “people” becomes vital at this point; “people” may be viewed as the individual or the collective (including future generations).  If “people” is viewed as the individual, then democracy is inherently not setup to deal with long-term questions that span beyond a lifetime.  To make long term changes requires convincing the population that a decision is indeed in their interest, and to do that requires exceptional leadership.  It is leadership that is required to solve the issue of climate change; leadership which is not required nor excluded by democracy.

Categories: Climate, Musings Tags: ,

The Hunger Games: A Review

25 March 2012 1 comment

The inexplicable cultural phenomenon that is The Hunger Games is shattering box office records during this, its opening weekend. Viewing The Hunger games provides an entertaining evening to be sure, but it makes me wonder, what (or who) determines a blockbuster movie, and why are people so eager to view a movie about government mandated, youth-on-youth violence?

To start, let’s say it takes 10 hours to read a book. A movie is ¼ that long, so any movie must be lacking when compared to it’s novel counterpart. As a result, much of what’s explicit in a book has to be made implicit in a movie, and in large, screenplay adapters have become quite keen on doing just so.  However in a movie with as complex setting as The Hunger Games, they really gloss over many of the under-pinnings that would lead me to believe this dystopian society is actually functional.  In an attempt to developed this highly complex setting, they also fail to build adequate characters and relationships. We’re forced to believe all these people are in love and taking life-or-death risks based on longful glances.  Before the masses jump to say, “they explain that in the book”, I’m not evaluating this from the book perspective. I’m evaluating this as a cultural phenomenon that I had to stand in line for an hour to see. I’m evaluating this from the view point that the majority of viewers have never read the book, and for being something that will define the year of cinema and our culture, it warrants a thorough interrogation.

The movie opens in a North America rebranded into a totalitarian state with massive inequality.  This new state brilliantly titled “Pan-Am” boasts an extravagant, technology-rich capitol surrounded by desolate, impoverished districts.  At the onset, this dystopian society is not too far removed from others of its genre, complete with a white helmeted police force. However, in an unusual twist, the “dystopian society” is used only as a setting for the movie, not as the pivotal plot focus.  Sure, they kids wouldn’t be subjected to random selection and state officiated/mediated violence, but the role of the dystopian society ends there. Whereas most films of this genre use this as a framework for criticizing the use of force and rights abuses against its own people and often explore the complex interactions between state and citizens, Hunger Games leaves it as prop used to position characters. It mildly returns to the oppression of citizens near the end by showing a minor uprising in the agricultural district, but this was forged in emotional response to two of its children being murdered, not in direct response to the process or government itself.   A movie, or society, that maintains the characteristics of a deeply unequal, violent regime and never explores the deep ramifications of oppression and violence among its own, becomes largely complacent.  In this way, the movie demonstrates a theme of passive citizenry in the face of force, which sets a dangerous, Soma-fied precedent of non-action; dangerous especially when aimed at an impressionable youth audience.

The Hunger Games has a minor moment of irony and reflectivity in that it presents a society overly concerned with entertainment.  The probably-a-major-character-in-the-book-but-limited-to-5-lines-and-20-glances-in-the-movie love interest from the main character’s home district suggests “the games would end if people just stopped watching”.  This provides a fleeting spark of critical engagement that is harshly trumped by the glamour and pageantry necessary to entice sponsors (in the movie and reality alike).   The society presented in this movie is consumed by prettiness, presentation, and entertainment, much as our current society is fascinated by celebrity.  This raises a point of disjunction for the movie-go-er.  A society consumed with desire would want to see bigger, more exciting, more violent Hunger Games.  Why would they want 12 year olds to compete?  Bloody battles to the death are not absent from human history, but historically they were brawny, trained competitors that would put on a show, not merely be sacrificed in the first 5 minutes of battle.  The society as described would want Gladiators, not pre-adolescents.

After watching this film, I started to wonder why is it that the biggest movie of the year, based on teen-lit? What does that say when millions of people prefer to see a movie about teen violence, then have a conversation about teen violence?  It’s an interesting juxtaposition that this mega-movie is celebrated in the midst of national outrage over the shooting of an unarmed youth, Travon Martin.

The movie doesn’t leave me with much to say about anything. It’s not to say this was a bad movie. I quite enjoyed the action, and the costumes, and the presentation. I enjoyed the movie for what it was, but not for what it promised to be.  Aside from the weak and thin characters, and the under-developed relationships, I’m quite sure they copied a scene out of Jurassic Park. I’m quite sure they borrowed a few scenes out of the Truman Show as well.  I must say that I believe teen-aimed books do a wonderful service in getting young people to read. And yes, I’m aware that I am being highly critical of teenage-literature, but I believe with great power comes great responsibility, and if you design a movie to wield such incredible economic power, then you have a great responsibility to create something of depth and of value that stimulates as well as entertains. Movies must be more than just entertainment because they are a fundamental part of our culture. Entertainment should be more, and The Hunger Games very easily could have been. With the largest audience of the year, there is a responsibility to engender thought, any thought at all.

Categories: Musings