Sunday, November 22, 2009


Back on the subject of seemingly irreconcilable beliefs derived from instinct and logic, and on the best way to promote an ethic of respect for the environment.

I recently reread A Sand County Almanac (arguably a top 3 most beautiful book I'm aware of*) and it reminded me that my economic rhetoric in favor of environmentalism is only a tool I hope to manipulate the rest of humankind with in order that my beloved wilderness is preserved for my own enjoyment.

The thing is, I don't think the rhetoric is disingenuously manipulative. I believe every word of it. Sustainable practices pay off after an initial investment. Externalities need to be internalized. The benefit in recreation and peace of mind and natural history appreciation to humankind that comes from restricting use in certain natural areas is often greater than any more-easily-quantifiable profit from industrial activities that might be undertaken there. And even if you don't believe all that, the potential unknown impact of our actions is so high and are actions so irreversible that extreme conservationist caution is still worthwhile from a human-expected-utility perspective.

But really, I don't care about all that. It's true, but it's not why I favor conservation. I favor conservation because I love wildness. Mostly I love being in the wilderness, feeling connected to all 4.5 billion years of natural earth history, and feeling wholly human by returning to basics as much as is possible in today's world. But even if I were rarely allowed to participate in wilderness personally, I know that it is valuable. There is no logic in the world to destroy my unconditional love of nature and the belief that we as humans should protect its integrity.

Unfortunately this powerful instinct is not shared by even a majority of the population anymore, and there are many other valid and powerful reasons to respect the environment. Thus rhetoric is exclusively dominated by those cost-benefit analyses mentioned above.

Of course when motivations differ the outcomes are never quite the same. The mainstream environmentalist debate currently centers on climate change that may doom our existence. It doesn't really care about minimizing our interference in nature so as to ensure the survival of naturally occurring biodiversity and pristine wild lands untouched even by access roads and visitors centers. If we could destroy all of what nature really is and still ensure species survival, that would be fine, they indirectly say. To some extent the catch-all "we don't know what we're getting into so be careful" argument takes care of whatever else you want it to, but is limitedly convincing, and in any case all of this still misses the point.

Motivations ultimately drive the outcome even if you can manipulate them in the interim. The only way we will protect our natural heritage along with ensuring our own survival on the planet is by instilling a true ethic of conservation in the culture at large. This is what Aldo Leopold was advocating half a century ago and instead of making progress in that direction, we have scared some of the population into similar effort for very different reasons. While that may help slow global warming in the short run, it only damages the cause in the long run when we figure out how to destroy even more without destroying ourselves. The economic motivations that promote environmentalism in this century will point in a completely different direction in the next.

And so I am at a loss. I know that nature should be respected, and the best deductive train of logic I have to back that up is one that will ultimately provide license for destruction, even if I believe in its validity right now. Human behavior is hard enough to change with bulletproof logic; instincts and values are downright impossible.

*Along with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Gödel Escher Bach

Thursday, November 12, 2009

self-evident truths

Some of the questions that bother me most arise when self-evident truths conflict with logical deductions. These truths are such core values and beliefs that I can't imagine invalidating them, but on the other hand, I revere logic to the point of fetishism.

But logic when applied to the real world is a whole lot more slippery than gut knowledge. The universe is extremely complex and any time we restrict ourselves to a small set of axioms to work from, we will miss real truths or prove nonsense. Disagreement among educated interlocutors is not usually semantics, it is a result of incompatible foundations. (But often the converse is true: disagreements often aren't actual disagreements once two parties agree on a word-representation for their priors.)

Of course, in science, we pin ourselves to actual observations to sort through the infinitude of possible deductive paths. But many interesting questions are not easy to test empirically. The universe, in its mindboggling complexity, makes a poor wind-tunnel, and wind-tunnels are hard to construct to address every subtlety of interest. Hence the human race has spent the last few millennia debating the same basic philosophical questions ad nauseam with hardly any conclusive headway.

The average person is very suspicious of those who invent convoluted arguments to support views held so deeply that debate is futile. And scientists are very suspicious of those who hold beliefs so deeply they can't digest any contrary evidence. But, it is vastly easier to invent spurious logic in favor of whatever you want than to stubbornly insist on self-delusion in the face of evidence that is truly convincing (and those who do are never key players in the conversation anyway.) I think the wisdom of crowds holds here. Those who abdicate their intuition in deference to deduction are easily misguided, while those who let their gut instincts, observations, and logic interplay in a complicated and messy way to guide them towards truth, often find it.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Berlin Wall

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This was a remarkable (peaceful!) triumph of freedom over oppressive government (and specifically free markets over communism; communism requires oppression) and one that has particular meaning to me, having been born in West Germany while that qualifier was still needed and lived in Berlin a decade after reunification.

I'd rather quote my dad than comment further, since he's an actual expert on the subject, as a professor of Germanic Linguistics at Oklahoma State University:

As a scholar, Te Velde was a frequent visitor to East and West Germany. While the wall was up, the differences between the two countries were considerable. “At first, the wall was built with cinder blocks and mortar. Then it was concrete blocks. There was a no man’s land with dogs and mine fields between the countries,” Te Velde said.

Russia controlled East Berlin, and West Berlin was the British, French and American zone after World War II. “East Berliners wouldn’t talk to tourists,” Te Velde said. “You felt the presence very much of the firm grip of the government.” Its higher profile citizens were the frequent target of surveillance by the East German Ministry for State Security or Stasi, he said. A good filmed representation of life under surveillance in East Germany can be seen in “The Lives of Others,” he said.

“West Berliners were a special breed. It was a place of escape for youth to be exempt from military service,” Te Velde said. It offered a western-style shopping zone, nightlife, bars and clubs, he said, adding, “West Berlin was always a great theater city.”

With the first signs across Europe that the Berlin Wall might fall, Te Velde said, “I was flabbergasted ... Within a week it was obvious the wall was coming down. There would be no jail, no reprisals.”

To Te Velde, the wall represents the unchecked strength of a government with a powerful military. After World War II, Germany was on its knees and couldn’t resist the Soviet takeover. That weakness manifested a dangerous power balance, said Te Velde. If there is collusion of political and military power ... and there is no response from the people to stand against solidification,” he said, there is a situation rife for military divide. “There are some tendencies in this country that we could develop into the same as then but the conditions are not the same. We are not helpless and on our knees. There is power of the people. The only danger is if people don’t recognize their power to stand up to restrictions of power or the military.”