Fracking and environmental (in)justice in a Texas City

It’s been a long time coming, but it’s finally here. After more than a year of peer-review, my co-authors, Matthew Fry and Adam Briggle at the University of North Texas, and I have gotten our economic and environmental justice study of shale gas development in Denton, Texas published in Ecological Economics. 

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My infinite gratitude to Matt and Adam for their tireless effort on this project, and everyone who made it possible along the way. You can access the full text for free here until August 22nd. Please feel free to share far and wide. It’s important that we spread our findings with the greater civic body, especially in light of Denton’s strategic repeal of its fracking ban in the fight against HB40.

Justice is largely a matter of distributive equity and procedural fairness. It is also about recognizing the plurality of values and stakeholders that make up our civic world. When it comes to shale gas development, it’s all too often that the freedom of communities to self-determine is undermined by twisted and unjust procedures dictated by corporate and centralized political interests with financial stake in silencing those affected by anthropogenic hazards. The consequent social inequity and ecological decline, some of which we outline in our study here, is staggering. Information-sharing and civic awareness is central to the free and open discourse fundamental to moral public decision-making. It’s up to us to empower ourselves and our communities with knowledge, subject to the scrutiny of credible others (i.e. peer-review), to rectify injustice where it lurks.

Debunk the delusion, ecologize the economy! Let’s get it together humans.

Creatures of habit

It’s been a while! Seven months. But spontaneous hiatus can be good. Gives time to explore the wilderness, refocus on what’s important. Here are some shots!


Monarch Mtn


Great Sand Dunes





photo (51)

Flatirons Vista


Huron Peak–14,009 ft.



Even though the blog and I were on a breakthe sun god has been steadfast. The same sun, everyday, overhead everyone. Unifying us throughout history, across continents and species. But the reason we exist is not our reason for being. The sun does not unify us in meaning or purpose. Meaning and purpose are left for us to work out for ourselves. The world is not a mystic unity. Nor is “humanity.” We are an innumerable diversity; a spectacular tangle of world views and social orders that stretch back 7000 years to the origins of civilization in Sumerian Mesopotamia.

Human history is a cyclical narrative of social growth and decline, ecological feedback, and political upheaval. Modernity is hardly different from ancient Sumer or medieval Europe in that narrative—except in scale, intensity, and speed. We haven’t changed that much. Society has been ravaged with conflict, inequity and ecological degradation since Sumerians started farming around 5000 BC and population took off–eventually acquiescing Malthusian feedbacks.

ancient sumer

Ancient Mesopotamia–courtesy of the Ancient History Encyclopedia

Even then socioecological and political stability was hard to come by in the fertile crescent. Sumerian societies were extremely hierarchical and resource wars between city-states were constant. Eventually the Sumerians fell to the Akkadian Empire, the Akkadians then to the Assyrians, and so began the cycle of regime and revolution. Same story through Bronze Age and Hellenistic Greece; the rise and fall of the Roman Empire; the European Dark Ages and rise of the Islam in the Arabian peninsula, North Africa, and South and Eastern Mediterranean; the Renaissance and Enlightenment; the Industrial Revolution; globalization, and now the centralized military-industrial complex of worldwide neoliberalism. Seven millennia later, civilization is still stuck in the same cycles of social turmoil and ecological feedback as Sumer. The cycle of regime and revolution rolls on like a pumpjack. Social inequity and ecological degradation abound.

Except now we do it global.

Income, gender and racial inequity; climate change; ocean acidification and warmingmass extinctions and biodiversity loss; slavery and human trafficking; agroindustrial monocropping & exploitation of developing countries; NPK fertilizer run-off, eutrophication, and the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico; the privatization of water; unprecedented deforestation; sea level rise; the Great Pacific Garbage Patchthe ozone hole over the Southern Hemisphere; the systematic placement of dangerous manufacturing plants in the developing world; CAFO non-point source animal-waste pollution; extended extreme drought in the southwestern US; distributive and participatory environmental injustices related to energy development in the US, Ecuador, Papau New Guinea, China, and elsewhere; indigenous displacement and inequities; and international geopolitical military conflict in Ukraine and the Levant, now merging via Russia a la Syria.

Courtesy of:

Ecuadorian Amazon after ChevronTexaco development—courtesy of Chevron In Ecuador

Global capitalism and the centralization of power and wealth in international neoliberal regimes, large States, and multi-national corporations are remarkable. We enjoy technology and material resource wealth in industrialized countries unlike anything the world’s ever seen–but at cost of exacerbating historic social inequities, military conflict, and ecological degradation the enormity of which can’t be overemphasized. This is the so-referred “socioecological crisis.”

Unsustainable and inequitable material resource consumption is central to the socioecological crisis.

Global material resource consumption has increased eight-fold in the past century, skyrocketing after World War II. We surpassed the Earth’s biocapacity (the amount of material resources we can sustainably consume) in the mid-70s, and now, consuming more than 60 billion tons/year, it would take more than 1.6 Earths to sustain our habit. It’s no surprise that large central powers clash over control of the world’s resources.

Biocapacity surpassed_graphic

Material resource consumption exceeds world biocapacity around 1976–courtesy of The Footprint Network

But we are a great diversity. People aren’t uniformly responsible for unsustainable overconsumption. And really, while we are each responsible for what we consume, inequitable unsustainable overconsumption is a systemic problem–it’s the doing of large central States, multinational corporations, and international regimes all with neoliberal economic motivations. Global capitalism has created material resource inequity unlike any in history.

Consuming more than ever in advanced industrial societies, billions around the world in subsistence economies still struggle to meet their existential needs.

A great few consume too much. Or rather, too many consume too much while too many consume too little. The ecological crisis is fundamentally a social crisis—a crisis of consumption. Really, overconsumption. But not straightforwardly so. It’s an inequitable overconsumption. A stark minority of wealthy people consume far more than is reasonable—than is fair—while far too many are left in want. Most ecological problems are symptomatic of inequitable social organization, irresponsible central governments, multi-national corporate resource privatization, the systemic oppression of coerced overconsumption in advanced industrial societies, and the procedural disenfranchisement of the poorest in the world often most vulnerable to ecological decline—we must, in turn, equitize in order to ecologize society.

Modernization. Industrialization. Centralization. Globalization. Development. Consumption. This has been Western civilization’s mantra since the Enlightenment, our recipe for wellbeing, for the Good Life—the heralds of modernity: that we are destined to overcome the poverties of the human condition through cumulative advances in science, technology, and the liberalization of central government and the global market; that we will be more free and endlessly better off for our complicity in an socioeconomic model of limitless consumption. Through industrial development and the expansion of “free” trade (as governed by a handful of impenetrable central authorities), neoliberals promise the world a secular deliverance from scarcity and oppression. Free markets make for rich, free people. Or so the story goes.

Instead of spectacular emancipation, global capitalism has exacerbated historical oppressions. Race, gender, and income inequities persist worldwide and ecological degradation perennially associated with human habitation has rapidly intensified since the Industrial Revolution. Three centuries after the great social and political liberalization of the Enlightenment, international neoliberal elites have institutionalized a scaled-up version of medieval European feudalism. The Earth’s resources, the land, the Earth itself, have been parceled and purchased—now “owned”—by a handful of powerful States, international governing regimes, and multi-national corporations—exploitation and commoditization their agenda. For most of us—we serfs—we own little and decide even less. But still too many consume too much while too many consume too little.

Courtesy of UN MDG 2013 Report

Courtesy of UN MDG 2013 Report

Paradoxically, despite enabling unprecedented and unsustainable material resource consumption in advanced industrial societies, people of subsistence economies the world over still struggle to meet their non-contingent needs—all amidst accelerating ecological decline. And usually it’s women and the especially impoverished in subsistence economies who shoulder social inequities and ecological degradation.

But that’s not to say advanced industrial societies are internally equitable themselves. Racial, gender, and income inequities persist throughout “modern” countries as well. Too often women are disenfranchised by social and cultural norms laden with sexism. Too often the poor and racial minorities in the developed world bear the ecological risks and harms of industrial land-use without inclusion in the decision to industrialize, informed consent or fair compensation. Local decisions are made instead from far away by iron triangles of feudal lords: corporate executives, purchased career politicians, and a revolving door of pretentious technocrats in opaque bureaucracies—the inevitable dehumanizing machinations of hyper-centralized government and the privatization of the planet.

Perpetual growth, production, consumption, profit, and power are the agenda of the already powerful, not the vast majority of people. Most of us just want to live fulfilling, meaningful lives—to feel a sense of place, purpose, and existential validation—but have been deluded into mistaking material consumption for human wellbeing by those with an interest in selling it to us.

Consumption is not wellbeing. Existential consumption is obviously essential to basic wellbeing, but marginal returns on material consumption quickly diminish and eventually the consumptive cycle becomes futile and vicious. In many cases—especially in advanced industrial societies—we would live better for living with less. Or rather, we could consume less and still manage to be better off. Wellbeing is only a matter of consumption to a point. Once existential needs are met, living well really means resilient and enriching interpersonal and socioecological relationships: living in a community of social and ecological complementarity, free self-expression, fair distribution of resources and burdens, and equitable direct democratic involvement in political and economic decision-making.

But this diverges radically from everything we’ve been told by our neoclassical and neoliberal politico-economic overlords—they who would have we peasants remain complicit in an unsustainable global system of social organization that has left more than a billion people in destitution, disenfranchised all but the super-wealthy and well-positioned elite, and caused the worst ecological decline since the start of the Holocene.

It’s the same old story really. 7000 years after the birth of civilization we’re still spinning in the same circles as the Sumerians. Constant geopolitical conflict, cycles of regime instability, distributive and participatory social inequities, struggle with natural feedbacks to ecological exploitation—not much changes. Like Sisyphus we are bound to forever push our boulder up the mountain. We are creatures of habit.

But that’s not to say we should resign to nihilism. We must imagine Sisyphus happy and take responsibility for our boulder!

Predictable as the human cycle may be from 40,000 feet, we have local and interpersonal opportunities to find meaning and purpose in socioecological relationships on the ground—in connecting with the people and land around us. We might find that we live better and more sustainably for doing so.

And as long as we’re here, so too will be the sun. Ecosystems change, regimes rise and fall, but the sun is always overhead. Uniting us. Unifying us. Throughout history and across continents and species. We are a vast diversity of world views and societies, but the sun we have in common.

Sunset over the Continental Divide seen from Green Mtn

Sunset over the Continental Divide seen from Green Mtn

Does distance matter?

There is some contention in ethics over the moral relevance of distance—I touched on this to an extent in the ethics of rising sea level (II). In essence, the question “does distance matter?” amounts to asking whether we have greater responsibility to those who are nearer to us than to those who are far away—if we have any such responsibility to those far away at all. In context of catastrophic sea level rise, one might ask: am I obliged to my neighbor who will be affected by rising sea level more so than to someone living in, say, Bangladesh who will likewise be affected?

Some would say, yes—we have some such responsibility to help our neighbors deal with sea level rise, and no such responsibility to help someone in a similar predicament in Bangladesh. Others would contend that we have equal responsibility to both. A third option might be that we have responsibilities to both, but more to one than the other—i.e. we do indeed have responsibilities to sea level rise related climate refugees from Bangladesh, but we have more responsibility to our neighbors. Another might say we have responsibilities to neither, but should assist only if it serves our own interests. The list could go on, but that’s not the point here. The point is to show that it’s not necessarily clear how distance plays into responsibility. It’s not so clear if distance matters.

So let’s construct a thought experiment to clarify things.

Suppose you live in the US and you’re running late for some sort of important engagement—a dinner, perhaps—that requires you wear a shirt. But you had been at the beach (you had accidentally fallen asleep in the Sun) and are utterly shirtless. You have no option except to purchase a shirt, and fast—somewhere on your way to the important dinner you’re running late for. Along your way you come across exactly one place that sells shirts—the only shirt store, in fact. You enter the store and find, to your dismay, that your shirt options here are rather limited. There are exactly two options, no more no less, of exactly the same quality, kind, price, etc. But you notice a key difference, all other things being equal. One was made in an Indonesian sweatshop and the other in a Mexican maquiladora, both of the same deplorable conditions. Your moral sense starts to ache. Whichever you choose, you realize, is an implicit endorsement of the reprehensible labor practices that produced it. You don’t approve of or want to endorse either, but you seem to have no choice about it—suppose you must choose. So you wonder—does distance matter?

If distance matters, then as a person living in the US you have more responsibility to not endorse the closer repugnance. If distance matters, you should buy the Indonesian-made shirt, swallowing the sad endorsement of the unethical practice that’s farther away. But this seems wrong.

If distance doesn’t matter, on the other hand, then you have equal responsibility not to endorse either, and you have come to an impossible choice. The only ethical option, as you see it, is to purchase neither, remain shirtless, and forgo your engagement at whatever sacrifice that entails—because distance doesn’t matter. Neither is morally acceptable.

The thought experiment may seem odd—I’m open to other formulations or suggestions—but perhaps it helps clarify intuition. I think, at least in this case, intuition tells us that endorsing either disturbing labor practice is unethical—that distance doesn’t matter—and that we have equal responsibility to treat people on the other side of the Earth with the same moral considerability as we do those nearby. Of course, an obvious objection stems from the premise “ought implies can.” Distance doesn’t matter only if we are just as capable of treating those nearby and those far away as moral patients. If we literally can’t help those far away—e.g. a drowning person on the other side of the planet—then we aren’t morally responsible for doing so. Ought implies can. We can only be obliged to do that which is possible for us. But insofar as we can help distant people, we should.

The implications of this intuition for how we ought to address global problems like climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, sea level rise, world hunger and dehydration, sociopolitical oppression, ocean acidification, rampant poverty and disease, slavery and human trafficking, etc., are vast. If distance doesn’t matter then we all share a global responsibility to solve these problems, or, in cases that involve global commons, to engage and address them in and on equitable and proportional grounds of complicity and capacity.

Depending on the context of the moral question, distance may or may not matter, more or less. Regarding global climate change, perhaps distance doesn’t matter. But regarding exposure to the risks and harms of natural gas development, where proximity is an obvious important factor, perhaps distance does. To say that distance always does or always doesn’t matter is an over-simplification, so it’s important we rehash this question in various contexts. The more often we ask the question, the more often we may find it appropriate or obligatory to expand our spheres of moral consideration. And such expansion, it seems to me, is of supreme importance if we are to live well in our global community.

Shutdown the meltdown

Who cares about Antarctica? Between failed marine reserves, rogue icebergs, the ratcheting down of federal science funding, and research stalled by the US government shutdown in October, the Antarctic meltdown is something of a hard case. On one hand, the international delegation of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources (CCALMR) has been rumbling about the creation of a massive ocean sanctuary—what would be the largest in the world—which seems like progress. At the very least, the various reserve proposals by the US, New Zealand, Australia, France and others in the EU indicate rising awareness and political salience about “the last intact ocean ecosystem on Earth.” I suppose there’s the chance that underlying motives for its creation could be geopolitical or economic—a move to thwart anti-sovereignty claims or the fishery interests of other nations and bulwark their own competitiveness, but something tells me there’s genuine concern about the ecological pressures and risks to biodiversity at the heart of the marine reserve ideas.

Cape Denison--photo courtesy of Pauline Askin/Reuters

Cape Denison–photo courtesy of Pauline Askin/Reuters

On the other hand, the CCALMR has also failed to create the sanctuary three times in the past year because the commission requires unanimity in decision-making. In particular, Russia, Ukraine, (and now China) have repeatedly blocked the proposals to protect their own fishing interests in the Southern Ocean, presented under the guise of concern for legal technicality. Disappointing, to be sure. But it shows that Antarctica is more than just a blip on the political radar, even if the proposed reserve hasn’t managed to pass.

Speaking of radar—we may recall that NASA discovered an 18 mile crack in the Pine Island Glacier in 2011. Upon its discovery, scientists speculated that eventually the crack might cause a glacier to break off. In July of this year, the prediction came true. Images from the TerraSAR-X satellite of the German Space Agency reported that, indeed, a city-sized iceberg had separated from the Pine Island Glacier. At the time, however, it was basically being kept in place by other sea ice.

Pine Island Crack--Image courtesy of NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

Pine Island Crack–Image courtesy of NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

But not anymore.

Similar in size to Manhattan, the separated iceberg has made its way out of its icy entrapments and is floating out to sea. Sounds benign enough, but it’s actually a problem—on top of the disposition shared by many that the slow degradation of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is itself lamentable. The problem at hand, however, is an instrumental one. The iceberg is headed for the space between Antarctica and Cape Horn on the southern-most tip of Chile, which is an especially trafficked international shipping lane.

Pine Island Rift--image courtesy of NASA

CLICK ME FOR ANIMATION! Pine Island Rift–GIF courtesy of the German Aerospace Center

The iceberg could stick around for more than a year before it dissipates, and if it does move through Drake’s Passage and end up in the shipping lane it could cause some serious obstructions to trade and transportation—or at least pose complications. It’s unclear what exactly could be done about the new glaciers other than circumvention, so perhaps the situation is better framed as a condition rather than a problem—but at least it’s a temporary one at that. Nevertheless, now that Antarctica and Antarctic issues are verging into the realm of economics and international trade its relative political importance may elevate. To that effect, a team of UK researchers recently received and emergency grant to track and study the iceberg’s movement.

Drake's Passage--image courtesy of

Drake’s Passage–image courtesy of

Which brings me to another point—NSF funding, the government shutdown, and Antarctic research, which are especially relevant here at CU-Boulder since we have a legacy and prospect of research in Antarctica.

I talked about the state of federal funding for academic research at some length in Congress’ assault on knowledge. In essence, folks like James Inhofe and Lamar Smith are doing their best to restructure and minimize the federal budget for research and allocation priorities. Unless research strictly pertains to national security or will yield demonstrable economic benefit, apparently, by their account, it’s not worth funding. As far as Antarctic research goes, the economic benefits aren’t necessarily obvious, nor does it straightforwardly improve national security—which of course erroneously assumes that better understanding complex ecosystems and ubiquitous issues like the history of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations through ice cores and other paleontological records through programs like the WISSARD drilling project don’t strengthen national security, make us better off through new knowledge, or help us figure out what sorts of adaption measures will be necessary as the climate changes. Hogwash. Be that as it may, by new funding standards, it seems likely that funding for Antarctic research may become harder to come by.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

What’s more, the partial government shutdown in October didn’t help. Of course the federal shutdown didn’t help anything, but—aside from national parks and furloughed federal workers—of particular relevance here, the budgetary holds ups stifled funding for the US Antarctic Program and its three field stations, to which a team of CU researchers had been planning to travel in late October (the beginning of summer in Antarctica). Perhaps not surprisingly, the research timetable is quite sensitive and so because of the shutdown and lingering budgetary priority questions, much of the Antarctic research planned for this year has been deferred. In a “Dear Colleague” letter, the NSF informed hopeful researchers from CU Boulder, UC Santa Cruz, UT Austin, and other institutions alike poised and expecting to head south, that, as they feared, they’d have to wait to embark on their icy adventures. As the NYT put it, the ripples of the government shutdown made it all the way to the end of the Earth. Well done, obstinate, uncompromising, and unreasonable members of Congress who shall here remain nameless—well done. In any case, we should all keep an eye on this. And we should all care about Antarctica.

On top of the world

Antarctica is stunning, to say the least. Though the aesthetics and importance of the Earth’s southern-most continent are easily and often overlooked. I think this is unfair. It’s certainly biased against Antarcticans. But this oversight isn’t necessarily because people think the glaciers, mountains, Archipelagos, lakes, snowy deserts, penguins, whales, and seals aren’t especially beautiful or important. Presumably people think, or at least would think, quite the opposite—charismatic mega-fauna, icy caverns and all.

Mt. Herschel, Antarctica—photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Mt. Herschel, Antarctica—photo courtesy of Wikipedia

However, my concern here is more spatial and cartographical. Or, rather, it stems from lingering frustrations related to the assumptions that underlie our spatial and cartographical representations of the Antarctic, and how those assumptions affect our understandings of what Antarctica is and its importance relative to the rest of the world. Indeed, the typical distorted, flattened, elongated pictures of Antarctica we get from North-Atlantic-centric mapsRobinson and Mercator projections alike—are, at best, disappointing and preclude thorough appreciation for the size, shape, place, value, importance, and beauty of the Antarctic continent.

Map courtesy of NOAA’s National Geographic Data Center

Map courtesy of NOAA’s National Geographic Data Center

I mean—really—who are we kidding? Antarctica does not look like that. Obviously, some degree of distortion is inevitable when portraying spherical shapes on a flat surface—but this is exactly my point. Antarctica is rarely seen for what it “actually” looks like, nor in continuity, because of our typical Euro-centric-map-influenced perception of the world. Granted, world maps look like world maps, not like the world. To that effect, globes are more accurate representations of the planet. But even then, Antarctica is usually at the bottom, mercilessly impaled and obscured by the trinket’s axis of rotation.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Among the last of the pristine, unindustrialized, non-instrumentalized regions of the planet, the vast, isolated, solitary nature of the Antarctic wilderness is an awe-inspiring holdout of human non-interference, distinctly absent of permanent human habitation, perched unsuspectingly on top of the world. Wait. On top? Indeed. The idea that north is “up” goes largely unquestioned because our spatial orientation and perspective of planetary positionality has been dictated and subsequently assumed by northern-centric portrayals of the Earth created by sea-faring European explorers, navigators, and cartographers that saw Europe as both on top of and at the center of the world. The result is a historical legacy of Euro-Atlantic-centric maps perpetuated still today.

But this presumed directionality and centricism is ultimately fiction. It would be just as correct to portray the South Pole as upward facing. For that matter, the same holds true of the East, West, and everything in between. After all, the Earth is just a sphere(-ish) object floating in space. There is no up or down in the void.

Hobo-Dyer Equal Area Projection Map—courtesy of

Hobo-Dyer Equal Area Projection Map—courtesy of

For better or for worse, we tend to associate size and relative spatial position—i.e. above and below—with importance. Now, relative spatial orientation—that is, where X  is located in comparison to Y—is certainly relevant, especially with regard to the Antarctic, to establishing our perceptions of importance. Often we assume that being “above” equates to being “better” and that being “below” equates to being “worse.” Poppycock. While socially prevalent, these associations are fallacious; they are more a pernicious matter of habit than of justified belief. Writing from Brisbane, Australia at the moment, the idea of being “down under” seems particularly salient, but in no way should being down under be presumed as or used as a pejorative term. Most would probably contend that Antarctica is “below” North America, and that it’s at the “bottom” of the Earth. But Antarctica is neither above nor below any other continent, Australia and North America alike. We just happen, by instrumental and anthropocentric convention, to portray it that way. In turn, we do Antarctica itself and its inhabitants a serious disservice and minimize the perceived importance of the southern-most continent.

With regard to size and perceptions of importance, we also tend to think that “bigger is better” and that we ought to prefer the large. Growing up in Texas, these were simply tenants of the Good Life. But, again, these are specious premises at best. Gargantuan, obnoxious, unwieldy automobiles in a congested urban landscapes, for example, are far from preferable. Imagine trying to park an H2 in Manhattan. To the same point, if the Sun were any larger than it is, life on Earth probably wouldn’t have developed as it has and all of our human shenanigans would have been physiochemically and energetically precluded. Bigger is not necessarily better.

Indeed, Schmacher’s “Small is Beautiful” profundity has been hailed as revolutionary by localists, anarchists, environmentalists, and environmental economists since being published in the 70s. But sadly, others have noted, the idea is slowly being forgotten in context of global industrialization and an ever-growing human population.

It also seems important to point out that while the United States measures in at 3.794 million square miles and Europe at 3.931 million square miles, the Antarctic continent spans a whopping 5.405 million square miles—a difference in size we probably wouldn’t expect given the misleading flat and stretched portrayal of Antarctica we’re used to. Perhaps Europeans are less guilty of associating size with importance, but Americans tend to especially value the big over the small—so maybe noting Antarctica’s comparative largeness could help motivate a shift in the equivocation of size, value, and importance. If size matters, Antarctica matters more than the US and Europe. The Peter’s Map—an area-accurate projection—speaks to this point.

Peter’s Map—Courtesy of

Peter’s Map—Courtesy of

Typical Euro-Atlantic-centric projections disproportionately represent the size of the northern hemisphere and portray the continents of the southern hemisphere as much smaller than the comparative reality. The Greenland Problem is a good poster-child for this disproportionality.

In Mercator projections, Greenland looks to be of similar size to Africa. But in reality, Africa is 11.67 million square miles whereas Greenland is only .8363 million square miles; the former is almost 14-times larger than the latter. Granted, the Mercator projection was created for navigation, not necessarily for proportional accuracy, but if maps are supposed to depict reality in shaping our worldviews, then we’ve been living in a Mercator fantasy.

Mercator projection; the Greenland Problem—courtesy of

Mercator projection; the Greenland Problem—courtesy of

Regarding the Greenland Problem, the Peter’s Map is certainly an improvement. But it comes with shape distortions of its own, so it’s far from ideal. Moreover, while the Peter’s Map is a more accurate proportional representation of size than the Mercator projection, it still does nothing with regard to the fair treatment of Antarctica. Peter’s Antarctica is still relegated to the bottom of the map, split along its radius, and flattened out.

Ultimately, no map will ever be perfect, nor will every map serve every purpose. Rather than trying to find “the best” map, we might prefer to be cartographic pluralistic relativists and insist that various projections be displayed together, side by side, in every case so that no single worldview is ostensibly portrayed as “better” than any other, and in turn, prevent the disproportionate assignment of value and importance that accompanies visual representation and evaluation of the Earth. Alongside the Mercator, Peter’s, Hobo-Dyer, “south-as-up,” and Robinson projections, so too belongs an Antarctic-centric perspective. If Antarctica is going to get a fair shake in politics, ethics, and the allocation of resources, then we ought also consider and incorporate a worldview where Antarctica is the center of attention. Besides, Antarctic-centricism makes for a beautiful map. And we all know what they say about a picture’s worth in words.

Antarctic-centric map--courtesy of username “Karilyn” of

Antarctic-centric map–courtesy of username “Karilyn” of

Antarctic loss and damage

November 11th marked the beginning of the annual United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—this year held in Warsaw. Six major components generally comprise the UNFCCC agenda, but two main pillars get the most attention: mitigation and adaptation. The focus on mitigation means nations—developed and developing (naturally there is some contention between rich and poor nations here)—reducing their greenhouse gas emissions to curb the intensity of climate change. As part of the Cancun Agreements, countries agreed to target a reduction in GHG emissions sufficient to keep global temperature increases within 2°C. An ambitious goal, perhaps overly so, to say the least. Adaptation, on the other hand, speaks to the idea that some degree of climate change is inevitable at this point and that nations need to make plans to deal with long-term impacts like sea level rise on behalf of vulnerable people and areas.

UNFCCC meeting at Warsaw--photo courtesy of the UNFCCC

UNFCCC meeting at Warsaw–photo courtesy of the UNFCCC

Subsumed by the adaptation pillar, the Warsaw Conference has largely centered on the notion of “loss and damage.” In essence, loss and damage related to climate change means losses of life, territory, economic prosperity, climatic stability and predictability, biodiversity etc., and damages related to weather events like Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and onset of sea level rise. Some analysts have suggested that loss and damage deserves to be considered a third pillar all its own next to mitigation and adaptation.

In pragmatic terms, discussion of loss and damage ultimately becomes a discussion of culpability, liability, responsibility, and compensation. Sticky territory to be sure. Money politics surrounding loss and damage is contentious at best. No one wants to pay more than their fair share, but few agree on how to determine what shares are “fair.” In large part, the divergence is one between the relative importance of cumulative v. annual GHG emissions, and which should receive more emphasis in establishing financial obligations—basically the same question that stopped the US from signing the Kyoto Protocol. In either case the debate revolves around two major players—the United States (the largest cumulative GHG emitter by far) and China (now the largest annual GHG emitter). Obviously other countries (Europe and the other BRIC nations) have their hands in this issue as well, but the US and China are the big two.

So loss and damage—clearly a salient issue. Climate change means unprecedented losses and damages. When it comes to nations, determining relative interests are somewhat intuitive. Everyone has, albeit varying, national interests in addressing climate change for domestic reasons, and no one wants to pay more than their fair share—no one likes the idea of other countries freeloading on their mitigation efforts. But, clearly, climate change isn’t just a domestic issue. Climate change entails a slew of international losses and damages involving global commons—the oceans and Antarctica, for example—which don’t have straightforward national borders to delineate interest groups and stakeholders. Indeed, Antarctica has plenty to lose and damage to incur, but lacks the domestic interest element, strictly speaking. The Antarctic meltdown has, for the most part, only been discussed indirectly in terms of sea level rise.

Antarctic territory map--photo courtesy of

Antarctic territory map–photo courtesy of

But Antarctica has more going on than just melting glaciers, break-away icebergs, and contributions to sea level rise. I’m thinking, for instance, about changes in biodiversity we can expect to see as ecological conditions shift on and around the continent and Southern Ocean. Between rising atmospheric temperatures, ocean acidification, and a warming Southern Ocean, the ~16,000 species known to inhabit Antarctic itself or the waters surrounding it have some notable challenges ahead—but no national  interest, strictly speaking, to represent them at the UNFCCC. In particular, let’s consider some charismatic mega-fauna like the endangered Southern Elephant Seal and the variety of endangered whales that live on and near Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Sealing and whaling (especially whaling) have been—and still are, sadly—problems for these populations, and climate change coupled with habitat loss and changes in ocean temperatures and acidity will only increase their stressors. If the West Antarctic Ice Sheet melts, then Southern Elephant Seals lose breeding grounds, and whales and seals alike will need to adapt to changing oceanic conditions. So what’s to be done on their behalf? While Antarctic interests are represented at the UNFCCC by non-governmental organization (NGO) observers, Antarctica doesn’t exactly have its own seat at the table.

Southern Elephant Seal--photo courtesy of and Peter Bassett

Southern Elephant Seal–photo courtesy of and Peter Bassett

Luckily, Antarctica will benefit from mitigation efforts regardless of whether it’s afforded explicit attention or not—but ethically speaking, because improvements to Antarctica’s lot are, in a mitigative sense, coincidental or happenstantial, this may be unsatisfying. And few—perhaps with the exception of some researchers and activists—worry about Antarctic adaptation. So, again, what’s to be done to hedge against Antarctic loss and damage?

To this point, aside from UNFCCC action, there was a recent attempt by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR)—another fantastic acronym for an appropriately instrumentalist name—to create the world’s largest ocean sanctuary around Antarctica, totaling somewhere between 1.6 and 1.9 million square kilometers.

Penguins in the Ross Sea--photo courtesy of The Guardian and John Weller

Penguins in the Ross Sea–photo courtesy of The Guardian and John Weller

Unfortunately, Russian and Ukranian representatives questioned the authority of the CCAMLR to declare such a sanctuary, and, in turn, blocked its establishment, undermining what political good will may have existed in this context. Disappointing, to be sure, but in a sense this objection is just a business-as-usual exercise of power given the structure of the Antarctic Treaty System, which—we can only assume is to avoid a sort of Aristotelian tyranny of the majority—demands that international decisions pertaining to Antarctica be made unanimously. So we probably won’t see the creation of an Antarctic Marine Reserve any time soon. While the sanctuary may not have been proposed with specific regard to climate change, it would have been progress regarding Antarctic loss and damage nonetheless. But so much for that.

Humpback whale breach--photo courtesy of The Japan Times

Humpback whale breach–photo courtesy of The Japan Times

Sadly, the failed marine reserve also means a failed way to halt whaling in the Southern Ocean. Historically, whaling near Antarctica has been atrocious. In the 20th century, the Soviet Union (among others) was responsible for the disappearance of more than 180,000 whales. 180 thousand. But as of ~27 years ago commercial whaling was declared illegal by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking that the ban put a stop to all whaling. Yes—even in this day and age—there are still whalers out there. What’s even more surprising is that it’s technically  legal. Japan was granted a moratorium from the prohibition in order to do scientific research that involves whaling. Whaling for science! Makes sense, right? Earth First! and Greenpeace eco-activists aren’t the only ones who find this repugnant. Toward protecting against Antarctic biodiversity loss, in 2010 Australia took Japan to court at the Hague—the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Netherlands—in order to challenge the validity of Japan’s “scientific research,” which, by Japan’s argument, requires killing whales. Japan has taken more than 10,000 whales from the Southern Ocean since 1988.

Japanese whaling ship--photo courtesy of The Japan Times

Japanese whaling ship–photo courtesy of The Japan Times

The Hague should pass down its judgment within the next few months, so at that point we’ll see what justice holds for whaling. Perhaps on the pessimistic side of legal analysis, by Dr. Rowan Hooper’s reading, the Australian case may be emotionally compelling, but Japan may have a stronger legal argument to uphold their exception from the IWC’s prohibition.

Suffice to say, between climate change, habitat loss, warming water, ocean acidification, and whaling—there are plenty reasons to be concerned about Antarctic loss and damage. The question, then, is what should and what will be done about it moving forward. Let’s get it together humans.

The ethics of rising sea level (II)

Rising sea level: Future generations and distant populations

Despite the gravity of the catastrophic sea level rise scenario, we cannot treat it as if it’s here and now when deciding how to act today. In reality, sea level rise involves two kinds of murky ethical distance: temporal and spatial. Sea level rise scenarios pertain to future generations and future generations of distant populations. As if the moral standing of future generations weren’t contentious enough, the “future generations of distant populations” element of the sea level rise makes things even more complicated and difficult to reconcile with the intuition that someone should do something.

Map courtesy of

The United States with 60m of sea level rise–Map courtesy of

Let’s restrict what follows to considering two possible moral agents: on one hand, individual US citizens, and on the other, US civic bodies—-i.e. cities, states, and the nation itself.

What responsibilities, if any, do individual US citizens have with regard to sea level rise? Are individuals obliged to address sea level rise for future generations’ sake? It seems intuitive that we do indeed have certain individual responsibilities to posterity. The idea of acting in the interest of our children and grandchildren is commonplace. Even Locke seems to endorse the sustainable use of the environment for sake of others and future generations, providing that however we use the environment there should be “enough and as good left in common for others.”

On the other hand, our behavior tells a different story about how we regard the future. In economic terms, humans tend to discount the future—meaning we value the future less than we value the present. This is why we accept conditions like interest rates on loans or fail to adequately save for retirement. Given that we tend to discount even our own futures, the idea of individuals actively affording future generations a non-positive discount rate may verge on absurdity.

Nevertheless, just because we do discount the future doesn’t necessarily mean that we should. In fact, it may be the case that we should not discount the future because it leads to highly counterintuitive conclusions as some have argued. For instance, given a sufficient time differential, positive intergenerational discounting of any amount leads us to conclude that benefits to one life today are worth costs to millions of future lives. By intergenerational discounting logic, the benefit of joyriding your ’67 Corvette down Miami Beach today may be worth putting Miami underwater in the future. Such a counterintuitive conclusion seems clearly wrong and may indicate that the very notion of intergenerational discounting is repugnant to the intuitive responsibility to consider posterity when deciding how to act.

If, assuming individuals do indeed have certain duties to future generations, then do individual duties to future generations also extend to future generations of distant populations—e.g. future Bangladeshis—or stop at future Americans?

And what responsibilities, if any, do US civic bodies have to future American generations? Intuitively, again, US civic bodies seems to have certain responsibilities to do right by and protect the interests of their own future generations; an intuition codified at the national level by the 2005 amendment to the Coastal Zone Management Act, which recognizes the threat of and need to address rising sea level. After all, the very continued existence of US civic life depends upon a flourishing future population and resilient infrastructure. US civic bodies have, if nothing else, a rational interest in acting to hedge against sea level rise risks to their future generations. Assuming, then, that civic duties to future people exist, do they also extend to the future generations of distant people? Does America today have any responsibility to tomorrow’s Bangladesh? Does Texas? Or New York City?

Bangladesh with 60m of sea level rise--map courtesy of

Bangladesh with 60m of sea level rise–map courtesy of

These questions stir several competing moral intuitions. For example, we might intuit that future people have moral standing and should be taken into consideration when making decisions in the here and now. In turn, we might then be obliged to alter our individual or collective emissions behavior today in order to address climate change and slow rising seas tomorrow. On the other hand, future generations don’t yet exist, and so it may make little sense to afford them much significance in our decision-making or to attribute them certain preferences, if any, being that we have little way of telling what they might be.

And what role does distance play? We might have the intuition that distance matters for moral standing; we might suppose that our responsibilities to each other wane as distance between us increases. We may then only have responsibilities to people proximate to ourselves, or in the case of future generations, people who will be proximate to us. If distance does matter, then our individual and civic duty to address sea level rise may then just be for the sake of future Americans living in coastal areas.

If, alternatively, we have the moral intuition that distance doesn’t matter when establishing moral standing, then we would want to afford equal consideration to proximate future generations and distant future generations. If that’s the case, we should keep space in our moral calculus for future Americans as well as for future Bangladeshis.

But establishing individual duty toward future generations and distant populations is more difficult than intuition might let on. Individual duty to future individuals runs into issues with the non-identity problem, as well as causal (and perhaps rational) impotence objections. Individual duty to distant individuals is likewise vulnerable to causal impotence, as well as certain epistemic and pragmatic limitations.

Consequentialist challenges to individual duty

The non-identity problem

The non-identity problem refers to the extreme contingency of people. That is, depending on what we do in the here and now, the set of humans that exists in the future will be different. Contingent upon our choices today, the group of individuals living in the future will be one or another. Provided their existence is understood as a good, future generations affected by sea level rise can’t be said to be worse off than they otherwise would have been because if we had behaved differently, then an entirely different set of people would have been born; that is, they would never exist in the first place.

So, to that effect, suppose individuals decide to do nothing about sea level rise. Because of our actions today, sea level rises dramatically by the end of the century and populations all over the world are displaced. But at least they exist, says the non-identity problem. If we had chosen to behave differently and kept sea level rise more at bay, different individuals would have been born and the people in the catastrophic scenario would never exist to begin with—arguably the worst of bad consequences from their perspective. From the catastrophic-sea-level-rise-generation’s point of view, our non-action on climate change and sea level rise is actually in their best interest because that potential reality is the only one in which they exist. By this logic, individuals shouldn’t do anything about sea level rise for future generations’ sake because the existence of the people for whose sake we’d be acting depends precisely on our non-action today.

Causal and rational impotence

Moreover, individual duty to mitigate sea level rise runs into trouble with causal impotence, and perhaps rational impotence as well. The gist of causal impotence is this: even if you as an individual were to do everything in your power to reduce your contribution to sea level rise, your impact would be so small that, for practical reasons, it would have no recognizable effect. Changing one’s individual behavior may not be capable of causing any significant improvements in the situation—and we can only be held responsible for what can be done. If, as individuals, we can’t mitigate sea level rise, we aren’t morally obliged to do so.

What’s more, the cost of changing one’s behavior in the here and now may be so high that what little effect one could have simply isn’t worth pursuing. If costs to the individual for negligible future gains toward addressing sea level rise are exorbitant, the rational agent may then, justifiably, decide not to change her or his present behavior.

Individual duty to distant populations runs into similar problems with causal impotence. Essentially, we may be more able to affect people who are closer to us than those who are distant. Individually, we may be more capable of providing aid or respect to folks nearby than those on the other side of the Earth. Presuming we can cause noteworthy positive effects for distant people, however, an objector might still respond that we accrue greater benefits for proximate people than for those far away, given an equal amount of cost or effort. Considering nearby populations over and above distant ones may just be a matter of pragmatics or practical reason. To a related epistemic point, it’s also more difficult to know one’s impact on distant people than on proximate people. Unless we can know—i.e. observe or measure—the effects of our decisions on distant populations, it’s tough to say that such effects exist or matter.

As such, individuals may not be obliged to address the melting West Antarctic Ice Sheet or catastrophic sea level rise for the sake of future or distant people. We may have no duty to change our individual behavior with future or distant individuals in mind at all. But this conclusion conflicts with the intuition that we should do something about sea level rise.

In turn, civic duty may provide a way out.

A consequentialist case for civic duty to address sea level rise

Civic bodies such as cities, states, nations and institutions are more resilient to the non-identity problem, distance-related concerns, and to causal and rational impotence objections. The various US civic bodies may indeed have certain duties to future generations and distant populations that oblige us to address Antarctic melting and sea level rise. It seems a less controversial say that US civic bodies have certain duties to future Americans regarding inevitable rises in sea level and flooded cities. In as much as future Americans comprise the very civic bodies to which those obligations would hold, it follows that, even if only as a function of rational self-interest, US cities, states and the federal government should act to protect the integrity of population, infrastructure, and territory.

Future generations

With explicit regard to the non-identity problem, it may be true that there are no particular individuals to whom we are obliged because of the extreme contingency of people, but civic bodies are less contingent, if at all. That is, they’re more persistent and consistent. Barring social collapse, upheaval, or revolution, in coming centuries the United States will still be the United States and Bangladesh will still be Bangladesh. As civic bodies have certain responsibilities to one another as agents of the global community, even if only by convention, each is obliged, now and in the future alike, not to harm or be complicit in bringing harm to another. Presuming civic identity is uninterrupted, there is no non-identity problem for civic bodies.

Nor is causal impotence a problem for civic bodies with regard to future generations. Collective civil life is, in fact, the very mode of cooperation and coordination that transports us from being causally impotent to being causally significant. Changing civic behavior to address melting land ice and sea level rise may indeed put a dent in, or at least stall, looming catastrophe. There are, however, reasons to think that even civic agents may be unwilling or unable to regard future generations with a non-positive discount rate if the short-term benefits of defection are greater than the benefits of cooperation. Future-oriented public policy probably needs to be win-win if we aim to overcome natural human short-sightedness.

In addition, civic bodies may be more willing to assume lower or non-positive discount rates because, for contiguous civic agents, the question pertains to intragenerational discounting rather than intergenerational discounting. Unless the US civic life dissolves, US civic bodies are dealing with their own future in addressing sea level rise. There is good reason to doubt that civic bodies are more likely than individuals to assume lower discount rates or non-positive discounting even for their own futures (e.g. the US national debt & deficit, broke states, & bankrupt cities), but intragenerational discount rates are typically weaker than intergenerational discounting.

Cartoon by Elden Fletcher, owned by the University of Southern Mississippi

Cartoon by Elden Fletcher, owned by the University of Southern Mississippi

Moreover, some economic theorists argue that any amount of positive intergenerational discounting is unjustified in most policy cases. That is, public policy should value the future at least as much as the present. Others have argued that it is altogether “ethically indefensible” for governments to discount the future at all, or that society should at least discount the present and future equally. Taken together, there seems to be a strong case for civic duty with regard to future generations and addressing catastrophic sea level rise.

Distance matters less for civic bodies

The question of distance in establishing moral standing may be an altogether empty question for civic bodies, particularly the US state. The international community is, after all, so entangled, interconnected, and co-dependent that the idea of “distance” as an ethical limiting factor may be incoherent. Through the influence of global markets and international politics on domestic affairs, states are, to a certain degree, ubiquitously omnipresent within one another.

The US, in particular, has roots spread so far throughout the world that to argue that spatial distance abridges its moral duty makes little sense. The US dollar is the world’s reserve currency, the US has military bases in 63 countries and embassies all over the world, companies born in the US have gone on to become globally influential multinational corporations, and US contributions to climate change and the global ecological crisis—catastrophic sea level rise included—are undeniable. The US is everywhere, and thus, so too is the extent of its moral responsibility.

It stands to reason that while individuals may have difficulty establishing responsibilities toward distant and future individuals, there is a stronger case to be made for the duty of civic bodies to each other, now and with regard to the future. If any moral agent is responsible for dealing with catastrophic sea level rise, by consequentialist logic, it will be a matter of civic duty.

Assuming civic bodies take it upon themselves to address sea level rise (and that may be assuming too much) the question then is: mitigation or adaptation?

Mitigation or adaptation: an ethical contention

Interestingly enough, even if the US, for example, were to act to mitigate sea level rise only for its own sake, the benefits would be distributed globally in as much as sea level is a function of global systems. Bangladesh would still benefit from US mitigation even if the US acted with only its own interest in mind. There’s something to be said for acting for the right reasons, but in this case, motivation may be less of a priority if the result of mitigation is the same regardless of moral reasoning.

Moral reasoning is an issue, however, if the US’s reaction to sea level rise is adaptation rather than mitigation. If the US opts to adapt to rising sea level rather than attempt to mitigate it, then short of providing foreign aid or taking refugees, Bangladesh, its people, and their de facto host countries will shoulder the full burden of a problem they were not complicit in creating. This seems like a problem.

There is a key difference, ethically speaking, between adaptation and mitigation. Mitigation is forward-looking insofar as it aims to prevent or reduce the intensity of future undesirable conditions, whereas adaptation means dealing with present conditions. One cannot adapt, strictly speaking, to conditions that have not manifested yet. In other words, forward-looking adaptation may be more appropriately understood as mitigation. Moreover, while mitigation questions related to sea level rise pertain to future generations and distant populations, adaptation to sea level rise once the problem is upon us will only be a question of distant populations.

This distinction might help simplify the moral dilemma, or it might not. Once sea level rise is immediately at hand, individuals may not have the non-identity problem blocking an obligation to help distant populations adapt, but they must still answer to causal and rational impotence objections regarding distance. Civic bodies may be more likely candidates for said duty, but this presumes that either distance doesn’t matter, or, as I have argued above, that for civic bodies—the US in particular—distance is something of an empty question.

Go back to Part I