Thursday, March 31, 2011

What Does Philosophy Have to do with the Power Grid?

A common thought in our culture is that philosophy is just people's opinions, and that one person's opinion is as good as any other's. It doesn't really matter what you believe, as long as you're sincere about it. After all, philosophy isn't relevant to the really important things in life, right? Here's one stark example of why this view is mistaken:

I just finished watching a History Channel documentary called "The Crumbling of America." The documentary highlights numerous problems with our country's infrastructure, including dams, aqueducts, the power grid, and bridges. Among other things, they predict that there is a 66% chance that in the next 30 years, a large earthquake will bring down the levees of the Sacramento River delta.  A catastrophe of this sort would reduce California's water supply by upwards of 50%.  So, there is a 66% chance that in the next 30 years California will suddenly and catastrophically lose 50% of its water supply, along with the devastation that such a massive flood would bring.

Now, I wouldn't make the claim in all cases, but in the case of (at least) the power grid and other utility-owned infrastructure, I think that the sorry state of things can be traced in part to the philosophical view that businesses are primarily responsible to their shareholders (i.e., those who own stock in the company), not their stakeholders (i.e., those who have some interest in seeing the company succeed, such as their customers, their suppliers, their employees, and so forth). Major infrastructure projects take millions, if not billions or in some cases (e.g., the Sacramento levees), trillions of dollars to carry out. A utility company looking to maximize its profits is going to want to avoid paying for such projects. Further, if a major disaster took out much of the country's infrastructure, either the government (i.e., you and I) or the company's insurance agency would likely be footing much of the bill for the reconstruction project. So, there is a perverse incentive for companies to avoid building new infrastructure or updating old infrastructure if they don't absolutely have to. As long as the current infrastructure is good enough, they'll keep it. If a major disaster happens that takes out the infrastructure, someone else will help pay for it. Either way, it's a win-win for them and a lose-lose for the rest of us.

Who says ideas don't matter?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Earthship Green Building Seminar

Earthship Green Building Seminar

2011 Seminar Schedule
April 29-May 1
July 29-31
Sept 30-Oct 2

#2 Earthship Way, Taos, NM
To reserve your seminar spot, or call 575-751-0462

Monday, March 28, 2011

Earthship Homes

I would love to have a house like this someday. I think they're amazing.


My pepper and basil seedlings are just starting to come up in their heated seed starter trays. They look so small and fragile under the pale glow of the shop lights. I've been growing pretty much everything from seed for the past couple years now and I've had a fair amount of success with doing so, but at this stage it still seems like there's no way they're going to get big enough to survive outdoors.

Life is fragile. Life is a gift.

Asian Carp Problem = Fish Emulsion Fertilizer Opportunity

For years, Asian Carp have inexorably migrated up the Illinois River from the South. Now, they are on the doorstep of Lake Michigan. NPR ran a story on it here, and CBS has a video about it on YouTube here.
If they reach Lake Michigan, the results will likely be disastrous for the region. Various plans for stopping the carp have been tried, from electric barriers to mass poisoning of the river.

Personally, I'd like to see more companies fish Asian Carp out of the river to produce fish emulsion fertilizer.  It is already being done by one company. Why not make this an all-out effort to get rid of the carp and enrich our gardens in the process?

Similarly, in 2010 Pat Quinn announced that the carp would be shipped to China, where they are considered a delicacy.  I hope more people get on this and start exporting more of the fish to China. We could use a better balance of trade between the two nations.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Grow-Outs for Summer, 2011

This year I'm hoping to grow out the following for a spring/summer harvest:

   Love Lies Bleeding

   Bush / Fino Verde Basil
   Genovese Basil
   Lemon Basil
   Sweet Basil
   Thai Basil

Beans (Bush Type)
   Blue Lake
   Brittle Wax
   Royal Purple

Bok Choy

   Dutch Late
   Early Jersey Wakefield

   Danvers Half-Long
   Purple Dragon
   Scarlet Nantes

Chickpea (unk. variety)


Cucumber (Straight Eight)

Dill (Monmouth)

   Black Beauty
   Striped Toga


   Hollyhock (various colors)
   Nasturtium (Empress of India)
   Sunflower (unk. variety)

Garlic (unk. variety)

   Dwarf Blue
   Red Russian / Ragged Jack

   German Brown
   Oak Leaf

   Canteloupe (unk. variety)
   Crimson Sweet Watermelon
   Moon and Stars Watermelon

   Chocolate Mint

Okra (Clemson Spineless)


Parsley (Italian Flat-Leaf)

Parsnip (Hollow Crown)

Peppers (Hot)

   Black Hungarian
   Chinese Hot (not sure of the actual variety; got this one from a Chinese restaurant)
   New Mexico
   Red Cayenne

Peppers (Sweet / Bell)
   California Wonder
   Sweet Banana

   Yukon Gold

   Bloomsdale Long-Standing
   Melody Hybrid

Squash (Summer)
   Yellow Crookneck
   Yellow Straightneck

Squash (Winter)
   Blue Hubbard

Sunchoke / Jerusalem Artichoke


   Bloody Butcher
   Brandywine (Pink)
   Cherokee Purple
   Purple Calabash
   Sun Gold
   White Currant

How about the rest of you gardeners out there?  What are / will you be growing this year?

Should We 'Queer' Ecology?

Orion Magazine recently published an article entitled, "How to Queer Ecology: One Goose at a Time."  Normally I don't post comments on their site, but this time I thought the author's suggestions merited a response. I posted the following under the handle "TrueProgressive":

I applaud Alex Johnson’s desire for a conversation about the complex situations in human and non-human life. His piece is worthy of careful consideration and I hope that by giving his essay the careful consideration it deserves, I can in some way further that conversation.
Johnson’s overarching suggestion in the article is that we ought to engage in a project that he calls ‘queering ecology’ or ‘queering nature’.  Based on his description, queering nature involves rejecting the claim that any specific sort of behavior (especially heterosexual behavior) is normative and, likewise, that any sorts of behavior (especially homosexual behavior) are normatively deviant. Further, queering nature involves celebrating the complexity and irony present in, at least, human and non-human social relationships. 
Johnson’s case for denying that any particular behavior is normative stems from his suggestion that we should, as he puts it, “let go of ecological mandates.” He contends that this letting go of mandates is justified because there are always exceptions to the generalizations that people use to support such mandates. Further, he seems to hold that discovering what happens in the world around us cannot tell us anything about what we rationally or morally ought to do. By contrast, instead of generalizing about people and viewing some behavior as normative and other behavior as deviant, we should celebrate the irony and complexity of nature in all its forms.
Consider Johnson’s suggestion that we ought to let go of ecological mandates.  The first question we ought to ask about this suggestion is, what, exactly, is an ecological mandate? Johnson approaches the question obliquely by critically analyzing David Quammen’s essay, “The Miracle of the Geese.” Unfortunately for us, neither Johnson nor Quammen provide a precise definition of the term. Based on what Johnson and Quammen say in their respective essays, an ecological mandate seems to be a principle in nature that, if violated, will have bad consequences for members of that species, if not for the species as a whole.  Johnson portrays the alleged sexual ecological mandate for geese and humans as follows:

“If you are a male, then you must find a female. You must partner with that female, provide for that female, fertilize that female, and love that female for the rest of your life. If you are a female, well, you’ll know what to do.” Ostensibly, non-sexual ecological mandates would include, “don’t consume poisonous things” and, “evade pursuing predators.”
With a working definition of “ecological mandate” in place, the second question we ought to ask is what, precisely, letting go of ecological mandates involves. I can think of at least two things Johnson might be asking us to do here.  First, Johnson might be asking us to refrain from believing that any ecological mandates exist. Second, Johnson might be asking us to behave in ways that are contrary to any alleged ecological mandates.  For present purposes, I will assume that Johnson is asking us to reject belief in ecological mandates.
Why should we think that ecological mandates don’t exist?  Johnson claims that the problem with believing in ecological mandates is that the case for their existence relies on false or misleading generalizations. For example, whereas Quammen urges heterosexual monogamy based on his observations of heterosexual, monogamous geese, Johnson cites evidence indicating that some twelve percent of Canada geese establish homosexual pairs. Likewise:
Red squirrels are seasonally bisexual, mounting same-sex partners and other-sex partners with equal fervor. Male boto dolphins penetrate each other’s genital slits as well as blow holes. Primates exhibit all sorts of queer behavior between males and males and females and females.
In short, Johnson contends that even though most Canada geese are heterosexual, many are not. Mutatis mutandis for humans and other animals. Thus, it is unreasonable to argue for human heteronormativity based on an overly simplistic generalization about the sexual habits of geese (or humans, for that matter).
Although Johnson may have the statistical facts straight, his case for the rejection of belief in ecological mandates is unconvincing. The mere presence of organisms whose behavior deviates from a particular pattern does not by itself provide good reason to think that ecological mandates, sexual or otherwise, do not exist. Even if twelve percent of geese exhibit homosexual behavior, it still seems true that if enough members of a particular goose species did not exhibit something akin to monogamous, heterosexual behavior, that species would eventually die out as a result. Likewise, it doesn’t take much imagination to think of what would become of a species if its members decided en masse to start consuming poisonous things or to stop evading hungry predators. In short, contrary to what Johnson would have us believe, it seems reasonable to think that at least some ecological mandates do exist. Organisms that fail to follow these mandates fail to pass on their genes to the next generation. If enough organisms fail to follow these mandates, the species dies out.
Another important question at hand is not whether ecological mandates exist, but whether moral mandates exist and whether observing nature can help us figure out what these mandates are, if there are any. Here, Johnson is correct to criticize Quammen’s argument. Just because members of a particular non-human species exhibit certain behavior, it does not follow that humans ought morally to do likewise. It is well known, for example, that if a male lion successfully challenges another male lion that has already sired offspring, then the victorious challenger will kill the vanquished lion’s cubs and mate with the lioness. Surely, it is unreasonable to think that humans should follow the lead of lions in this case. Forcibly attacking a man, killing his children and having sex with his wife would be morally unconscionable, to say the least.
Still, it does not follow from this that all efforts to, as it were, ‘read morality off of nature’ are doomed to failure. It does not seem unreasonable, for example, to think that an action is morally wrong if and because it is in some way environmentally unsustainable. More specifically, it seems that one can sensibly argue that the typical American lifestyle of consumption and waste is fundamentally immoral because if enough people lived that way (and, unfortunately, enough people do seem to be living this way), it would have disastrous consequences not just for the planet, but for humanity as well. What this seems to show is that any lifestyle which, if followed by enough people, would bring about the end of humanity within a century or two is a bad lifestyle. Minimally, a lifestyle of this sort is not something we ought to encourage.
But by this same standard, the homosexual lifestyle is also a bad one. If everyone lived a homosexual lifestyle, humanity would end within a century or so because no new humans would be born to keep the population going. That seems like a pretty disastrous consequence. Since the homosexual lifestyle is unsustainable in this way, it is not something we ought to encourage. One might object that we could use combination of artificial insemination and adoption to keep our species going, and therefore a homosexual lifestyle is sustainable and therefore okay. But by the same token, one could argue that since we can clean up pollution in one area while we pollute other areas, a consumptive and wasteful lifestyle is sustainable and therefore okay. I leave it to the reader to determine whether this would constitute a plausible defense of the sustainability of the typical American lifestyle; mutatis mutandis for a homosexual one. For better or worse, since my main concern is Johnson’s contention that we ought to queer nature, the above considerations on the issue of homosexuality will have to do for now.
Although I suspect that not many readers will be moved by what I have said about homosexual lifestyles, they should seriously consider whether queering nature is consonant with pro-gay values. I contend that it is not. As noted above, queering nature involves celebrating the ironies found in the world. As Johnson puts it, we ought to “give a round of applause to the delicious complexity” found in nature. For his part, Johnson provides the following irony:

“We have come to believe, over our Western cultural history, that heterosexual monogamy is the norm, the natural. People who call gays unnatural presume that Nature is pure, perfect, and predictable. Nature intended for a man and a woman to love each other, they say. Gays act against Nature. And yet: we rip open the Earth. We dominate the landscape, compromising the integrity of the living world. We act as though civilization were something better, higher, more valuable than the natural world.”
If we take Johnson’s suggestion seriously, we ought to celebrate this irony. We ought to give a round of applause to the fact that some of the same people who call gay behavior unnatural also ruin ecosystems. But what, exactly, is worthy of celebrating here?  At best, the people he has in mind have simply failed to see that their values are inconsistent. At worst, the people he has in mind are hypocrites.  Johnson doesn’t say what it is about intellectual inconsistency or outright hypocrisy that is worthy of our applause, but neither of these things seem worthy of celebration by anyone who cares about other people or the facts.
The problem with Johnson’s suggestion becomes more apparent if we use a starker example. The complexity of human social interactions sometimes includes “gay bashing”—the physical or emotional abuse of a man or a woman because he or she is thought to be gay or lesbian. If we follow Johnson’s suggestion, we ought to celebrate the fact that our world is complex enough to include gay bashing. I fail to find anything worthy of celebration in this situation, and I should think that Johnson doesn’t either.
Perhaps one could remedy Johnson’s suggestion by urging that it’s the complexity of the situation itself that we ought to celebrate, not the gay bashing. I think there are several problems even with this suggestion. Among other things, it seems that if gay bashing and other acts like rape or genocide did not occur, our world would be less socially complex than it is, but it would also be a better world. Isn’t this the point of opposing such awful deeds? In other words, sometimes a simpler situation is more worthy of celebration than a more complex one. If so, then the mere complexity of a situation cannot itself be something worthy of admiration or celebration. Rather, whether a complex or ironic situation ought to be celebrated depends at least in part on whether the components that make the situation complex or ironic are themselves worthy of celebration. 
Like it or not, some ecological mandates exist. Further, there is nothing inherently worthy of celebration in complexity or irony itself.  Sometimes a simpler or less ironic situation is the one we should seek to create and applaud. In short, queering nature is a bad idea. Things in nature are bad enough as it is these days. Let’s instead work on improving nature.

Welcome to The Philosofarmer's Almanac!

I am a philosophy professor by trade, but if I had my way I'd also be living on and running a small, organic, CSA farm in New England.  For now, my 300 square foot garden will have to do. In the meantime, I've decided to post some of my thoughts on philosophical and environmental issues, as well as other topics as they come up. Don't be surprised if you see my garden journal on here as well.