To frack or not to frack? That is the question

After a year’s work between Texas and New York studying the science, politics, and ideology of natural gas development–my Master’s thesis is complete. The full text is available through the Bard Center for Environmental Policy and forthcoming for publication. In the meantime, here is the abstract:

To Frack or Not to Frack: The Ideological Roots of Support for and Resistance to Natural Gas Development


The modern vision of the Good Life—indistinguishable from the idea of progress—is energy intensive. We go to extreme lengths to harness energy resources, conducting vast technological socio-environmental experiments to satiate the human demand for energy. But energy development is risk-laden, and people approach the risks of progress differently, which manifests as political contention.

Bookending the continuum of risk-related ideology, the precautionary and proactionary principles have become pillars of philosophic and political debate. Natural gas development—hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, or “fracking”—is particularly risky and, in turn, the politics of fracking have become correspondingly controversial. On one hand, precautionaries about natural gas development spurn fracking as guaranteed disaster, while on the other, proactionaries hail natural gas development as an ideal energy opportunity.

But why are people precautionary and proactionary about natural gas development? To Frack or Not to Frack explores this question using an international survey instrument and statistical causal analysis. Evidence indicates that precautionary and proactionary regulatory preferences about natural gas development are a function of relevant knowledge, values, and beliefs.

Precautionaries about natural gas development tend to be knowledgeable of the risk-related scientific literature on fracking and to especially value environmental stewardship and public health and safety. Proactionaries, on the other hand, tend to principally value economic growth, believe that technology is generally trustworthy, and believe that either plenty of scientific research has already been
done on natural gas development orthat more science is still needed.

When determining specific permitting and operating requirements for natural gas development, policymakers should directly engage the relevant knowledge, values, and beliefs that drive the precautionary and proactionary regulatory preferences of their constituents via regular, open participatory policymaking procedures and statistical analysis of risk-related preference data gathered through public polling. Natural gas development policy should reflect the moral nuances of its constituency. Natural gas development policy should also reflect that developers are morally responsible for researching and internalizing the risks of harm related to development, including literal physical or environmental harm and exposure to risk of harm.

Congress’ assault on knowledge

Last month, half of Congress decided that political science isn’t worth NSF funding unless it advances economic development or national security. Imagine, politicians making it more difficult to study politics. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) and the 72 other senators who voted for the bill seem to have forgotten that knowledge is the foundation of the economy and the root of our security. But the congressional assault on knowledge does not stop at political science. Science itself is now the target.

Under the guise of impartial austerity, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) has drafted a bill—ironically named the “High Quality Research Act” (HQRA)—to replace the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) peer review process with an arbitrary value-latent euphemistic circumlocution of funding criteria. Instead of peer reviewing the broader impacts and intellectual merit of scientific research to decide what projects deserve funding, Smith would rather cut the NSF budget and micromanage.

Jeffrey Mervis of Scientific Insider reports:

(FTA): “Specifically, the HQRA draft would require the NSF director to post on NSF’s website, prior to any award, a declaration that certifies the research is:

1) ‘…in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;

2) … the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and

3) …not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.’

NSF’s current guidelines ask reviewers to consider the ‘intellectual merit’ of a proposed research project as well as its ‘broader impacts’ on the scientific community and society.”

Regarding HQRA’s first criterion: Is there a nefarious ploy playing out within the scientific community to stagnate national health, prosperity, welfare, or security? Progress in science is a bulwark for national security, so shouldn’t we increase NSF’s budget and make funding more, rather than less, available? Innovation takes freedom. So unless Smith (et al.) can clearly identify other-regarding harm that stems from NSF research, national policymakers should not further limit, i.e. regulate, innovators freedom to innovate. If anything, HQRA would stifle innovative liberty.

To the second criterion: Not all science can or should be “groundbreaking.” Scientific advance is piecemeal. Some research is groundwork for groundbreaking discovery. Think of outwardly banal research like infrastructure: the state must invest in roads before sports cars can cruise. Roads might not be flashy, but they are necessary—and their construction is actually profound when studied in any depth. The seemingly insignificant of today is the foundation for tomorrow’s profundity.

To the third criterion: Duplication is essential to the very nature of science. “Groundbreaking” results should be duplicable. Scientific redundancy hedges against fraud. If results are neither duplicable nor duplicated, how can we tell what research is trustworthy? Precluding scientific duplication de jure strikes me as creating a quack haven. Unless HQRA sponsors intend to protect quackery, stipulating non-duplication is nonsense. More cynically, HQRA’s non-duplication clause would shrink publicly funded competition for “science” advanced by wealthy private political interest groups—re: Oreskes, Conway, & Fox’s concerns about climate change deniers and frackademia.

HQRA smacks of big government—and given its Republican sponsors, libertarian hypocrisy. Congress should not decide what science is worth doing. Natural demand generated within the scientific community should guide research priorities—the invisible hand of the scientific marketplace, in a sense. If Congress shouldn’t “pick winners and losers” in business, why should it in science? Scientists, not Congress, should be the authority on what science is worth doing.

HQRA constitutes an arbitrary imposition of its sponsors’ beliefs pertaining to the value of science—the value of knowledge—in society and policymaking. If HQRA sponsors want to debate the value or proper role of science in society and policymaking, then we should explicitly talk about those values and beliefs. We should discuss the principles underlying the policy. Smith (et al.) should not pretend their motivation is financial. To frame HQRA as a fiscal issue insults public intelligence.

We’re talking about an annual NSF budget of less than 7 billion dollars, people ($6.9B appropriated in FY2013—cut down from the full $7B in FY2012). The US spends $7 billion on defense every three days. Not that defense spending isn’t money well spent, but let’s keep things in perspective when discussing national financial expenditure—and might I reiterate the importance of scientific progress to national defense. NSF’s budget is not the source of US financial woes. In fact, scientific research is among the safest of investments.

Science policy should build roads and get out of the way—unless there are obvious risks of harm related to experimentation, which by rule of the harm principle, can and should be regulated. Scientific innovators do their best work when free to experiment, free to fail without accost, and free to prune the mysteries of the mundane. Of course, freedom means funding. But we, the people, provide that funding via taxes—NSF funded scientists included. We deserve sound public investment with high rates of return. Science satisfies both.

Congress is constitutionally empowered to appropriate the national budget, but to do so on the basis of arbitrary values and beliefs disguised as objective financial necessity is morally questionable at best. Congress is not a group of generous feudal benefactors with absolute prerogative over we peasantry as it seems to have forgotten. Our representatives must be held accountable and to a higher standard of moral sense, which this recent assault on science—on knowledge—offends.

Science is iconic of American idealism: exploration, new frontiers, adventure, accomplishment, mystery, unexpected wealth, innovation, freedom and progress. Unless Congress is in the business of curtailing freedom and progress, the Coburn and Smith policies are a mistake. For all our sakes, Coburn’s anti-political science amendment should be rejected in the House and Smith’s anti-science policy should never see the congressional floor. But only time will tell. Progress in science may be a fact, but progress in ethics is often phantasmal.


To Frack or Not to Frack

The survey component of To Frack or Not to Frack is now closed–many thanks to all who participated. Results will be publicly available here and through Bard CEP. Stay tuned…

To Frack or Not to Frack

A survey of beliefs about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas

Dear energy consumers,

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” for natural gas plays an important role in the debate about our energy future. As an energy consumer, you may have beliefs about, or beliefs that relate to, the use of hydraulic fracturing technology. Given the prominence of natural gas in today’s energy discourse, I am using my Master’s thesis at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy to study the political and ideological dimensions of hydraulic fracturing. My goal is to develop a more thorough understanding of the relationships between socioeconomics, political alignments, philosophical beliefs, and support or lack thereof for the use of hydraulic fracturing technology – but my research depends on your participation. Here and below you will find a link that directs you to a survey with questions related to the current debate about hydraulic fracturing and natural gas:

To Frack or Not to Frack

To help me with my research, I ask that you complete the survey and then share this message and link with your friends, family, colleagues, coworkers, and other contacts so that they might do the same. If you have any questions please email them to and I will answer you promptly. Thank you for your participation.


Jordan M. Kincaid

Geo-ancestral politics

Steve Pinker recently published this NY Times piece on the geo-ancestral cultural roots of contemporary political divisions – my advisor at BCEP was kind enough to bring it to my attention. The underlying point of Pinker’s paper is common sense: understanding our nation’s geo-ancestry can help us understand the political divides of today. We are all vestiges of cultures past. But our cultural heritage stems not just from people, but also from place or topos (hence, “geo”-ancestry). Depending on where your ancestors came from, there’s a certain likelihood that your political allegiances will take one form or another because that place so influenced your ancestral culture and way of life that its remnants have trickled through history all the way to you.

I really recommend reading this piece for yourself because the next few thoughts won’t do his reasoning or research justice (nor will it fully capture all of his ideas), but the upshot is this: Pinker contends that if your colonial ancestors were from England, they were probably farmers, and moved to the Northern/Northeastern US, which translates today into a form of left-wing progressive liberalism. On the other hand, if your ancestors were Scots-Irish, they were probably herders, and moved to the Southern colonies/states, which translates today to right-wing (religious) conservativism.

Of course, many (if not most) Americans hail historically from places other than England, Scotland, or Ireland – this, I presume, is part of why Pinker’s next generalization is useful: forget particular countries; if the place and culture shared by your distant family was herding-based, chances are your ancestors’ relationship with the state partly resembled anarchy. If your family’s heritable culture was farming-based, it’s likely that your ancestors lived somewhere that the government’s role was more prominent. The former (herding and anarchical cultural heritage) corresponds with conservative and libertarian beliefs. The latter tends to correspond to left-wing progressive liberalism. So, the relevant political question then becomes: were your distant relatives herders or farmers?

And then, post-colonialism, Pacific-bound trailblazers were re-exposed to the anarchy of Westward expansion, reinforcing conservative and libertarian views in the mountain and southwest desert states. So this adds yet another dynamic to the system.

At the root of it all, however, Pinker and political philosophers theorize, is a contest between views about human nature – that is, whether you think human nature is fixed, flawed, and must be controlled as if by a strict parent through tried-and-true cultural and religious practices, or if you think human nature is malleable through wisdom and reason, and that public institutions can guide the progress of society like a nurturing care-taker. Pinker refers to these points of view, respectively, as the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision of human nature. The Tragic Vision, he suggests, grows out of the anarchical experience, whereas the Utopian Vision stems from living in closer relation to the state. Both of these, again, he says are largely determined by one’s geo-ancestry.

So this line of thought is an interesting one! But how accurate is it? How does it hold up “on the ground?” How about a case study?

In fact, I think I personally make for an odd case for Pinker’s theory — my Scottish ancestors (herders) moved to West Virginia (a northern state) in the early-to-mid 1800s. My relatives moved to Louisiana in the early 20th century, and then my grandfather moved the family to Texas in the 70s (both southern honor culture, with Texas culture being especially anarchical). So how does my geo-ancestry line up with my politics and ideals today?

I think something in between the Utopian Vision of humanity and the Tragic Vision of human nature is probably closest to the truth: human nature is malleable by reason and cultivated skill to an extent, so certain tendencies like violence, while innate and a constant struggle, are largely suppressible or ready to be channeled in constructive ways like martial arts.

I would say children are closer to being Rousseau’s noble savages than Hobbes’ nasty brutes (re: Montessori education). I believe that free markets usually make for freer people than command economies – the state is not omniscient, or really even close enough to make reliable guesses with economic policy. I believe faith has the potential to make individual people nicer and more compassionate, but I certainly don’t think religion has proven to be a work-around for shortcomings like violence and intolerance writ-large. I believe in the purity and sanctity of the body (both human and Earth), and I believe that providing care and avoiding harm are both important.

If you believe the character of the state should be parental (and I’m hesitant to admit that it should), we probably need it to fill both parental roles: one strict, the other nurturing. I think protecting the environment is among the most fundamental, non-arbitrary interests we can fulfill. I believe that a powerful military is necessary and desirable. And I believe that individual freedom in culture and sexuality is paramount for a healthy society.

So, maybe Pinker’s “herder-shepherd : right-left” analogy is more flexible than a strict dipole – beliefs from one set aren’t necessarily inconsistent or incompatible with beliefs from the other. I for one seem to fall on both sides of the distinction in terms of topos and present beliefs. In either case, it’s an interesting topological framework through which to conceptualize today’s politics – here’s to contemplating the politico-ideological impacts of geo-ancestral heritage! What story does your geo-ancestry tell?


JM Kincaid

The roots of oppression

Oppression, so we agree, is a social injustice, which, by nature of its being unjust (whatever “unjust” means in today’s cultural, philosophical, and historical sociopolitical context) is something we ought strive to eliminate. At the very least, the elimination of oppression as a manifestation of injustice gives us an ever-evolving project with which to occupy ourselves. From Plato to Rawls, I think we’re well due to admit that defining injustice, much less eliminating it, is a delightfully Sisyphean task. Yet we must imagine Sisyphus happy, remember, and be content in engaging the problem of injustice, despite its likely intractability, because pondering the philosophical dimensions of our existence is simply something that we human animals cannot help but do. Philosophy is, or is part of, our nature. To affirm or deny the truth of this is itself a philosophical endeavor, and so quite literally, paradoxically, we cannot help ourselves from being philosophical. Moreover, any prolonged attempt to deny or step out of the cycle verges on infinite regress, insanity, and the despair of futility. So, preferring affirmation to denial, I choose to roll the boulder up the mountain rather than lose my mind to it.

With that preface, I’ll briefly engage the problem of oppression as a form of injustice. First, then, I must explain what exactly I mean when I say “oppression.” More accurately, because oppression inherently involves an oppressor and an oppressed, what I mean when I say “I must explain exactly what I mean when I say ‘oppression'” is that I must explain what fundamentally drives the oppressor to oppress. That is, the paradigmatic origins of oppression as it stems from the oppressor.

In the oppressor I see (among other less seemingly pertinent qualities) intolerance, closed mindedness, judgment, and arrogance. Intolerance of diversity and difference. Closed minded to alternative ways of living and thinking. Judgment about value, purpose, meaning, importance, the good and the bad, wrongness and rightness, propriety, hierarchy, and intrinsicity. Arrogance about the ultimate significance and objectivity of his or her own judgments. Therefore, one might take it upon his or her self to expose and vanquish intolerance, closed mindedness, judgment, and arrogance.

Montessori education and training in the history of philosophy, are, I believe, at least partial remedies for intolerance and closed mindedness. Montessori schooling encourages the flourishing of diversity in talents, interests, and values in children. It creates an environment that enables young minds to take on the world as Socrates without the threat of hemlock (suppression being one sort of oppression with which I am concerned). Montessori education, contrasted to dogmatic, standardizing, and normalizing pedagogy, allows children to naturally arrive at and explore the salient questions of life as unique individuals, encouraging and appreciative of diversity. Tolerance is implicit in Montessori education, making permanent, instead of stifling, the natural open mindedness of children so that it extends into adulthood.

Training in the history of philosophy is important to cultivating tolerance and open mindedness in people for a similar yet distinct reason. If undertaken transparently, the history of philosophy exposes the philosopher to ideas, values, and worldviews different from, and perhaps inconsistent with, his or her own. In exploring the history, complexity, and evolution of human thought, one becomes witness to the paradigmatic diversity and multiplicity that being human naturally involves. So much so that one must inevitably admit that intolerance of and closed mindedness about diversity are fundamentally in conflict with the possibility of amiable participation in human social life, and indeed, ecologically speaking, incompatible with the preconditions for natural selection and evolution.

In confronting judgment about value, purpose, meaning, the good, and the rest, I’ve found the distinction between arbitrariness and non-arbitrariness to be helpful. Non-arbitrary judgments are those that pertain to the objective biological conditions of being human, namely, involving the fulfillment of our non-arbitrary needs. Exhaustively, our non-arbitrary needs include foraging for food and drink, seeking out mates, searching for shelter, and sleeping. Thus, judgments about anything beyond this short list, which certainly means the myriad of normative, existential, and teleological judgments for which one might be oppressed, are arbitrary. That is, made on the basis of one’s own personal inclination, however capricious it may be.[1]

The line of argument is then that the normative, existential, and teleological judgment that an oppressor believes justify his or her oppression are entirely arbitrary. The arbitrariness of oppressive judgment undermines the self-proclaimed legitimacy of the oppressor, for such a proclamation reveals his or her motive for oppressing to be a function primarily of an unwarranted arrogance about the importance, significance, or objectivity of his or her judgment. Arrogance, then, must be overcome.

Arrogance about the importance, significance, and objectivity of one’s own judgment reflects one’s more fundamental conviction about his or her place in nature and the universe. This includes notions of hierarchy, dualism, centricism, propriety, cosmic significance and importance, purpose, divinity, intrinsicity, and progress. For undermining such arrogance, deconstructive postmodernism is quite apt. Yet deconstruction comes up short when faced with concrete political questions, for in deconstructing the metaphysical ground works of all universalistic judgments and distinctions, deconstruction renders itself unable to put forth any positivistic claims of its own. In effect, deconstruction can reveal the contingent cultural and historical contexts upon which the oppressor derives his sense of objective legitimacy in oppressing, but deconstruction, by nature of its being a negativistic methodology, cannot suggest an alternative, inherently value-latent interpretation of justice or injustice of its own to fill the void it leaves behind without contradicting its philosophical presuppositions. Deconstruction can show why arrogance about one’s judgment is ultimately unfounded, revealing the cultural and historical contingency of such judgment’s origin, but in doing so prevents itself from recommending a virtue of its own. This is the challenge of overcoming arrogance on any scale, individual, national, or international, in a sociopolitical environment that so often demands strict relativistic pluralism and pluralistic relativism. How might we defeat “arrogance” without ourselves becoming arrogant about our own worldview about overcoming arrogance?

Confidence and humility are compatible in my opinion, but any judgment, construction, or distinction I could offer would be, to a significant degree, a product of my own cultural and historical environment, which therefore axiomatically precludes me from developing any universalist or absolute moralism without contradicting myself. Indeed, the modern progressive liberal paradigm that determines oppression to be a categorical, absolute injustice is historically and culturally situated — a position with which I most certainly agree. But oppression was considered both just and necessary in ancient Spartan society, and up until the 1960s in the United States, de jure discrimination and other vestiges of slavery were understood as the natural order of things. These social conditions are easily detestable from where we sit today, but in their own times such inequities were seen as normal, not objectionable. So where does one begin, left flailing in utter contingency, to find solid, non-arbitrary ground from which to contest oppressive arrogance? When does insisting on the virtue of diversity and demanding universal toleration itself become oppressive and dogmatic?

[1] For more on the arbitrary v. non-arbitrary distinction, see The problems of society – Part one: The normative question.

JM Kincaid

When in RoME…

As expected, the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress (RoME) in Boulder, CO, which I had the pleasure of attending, inspired some welcome moral pondering. In particular, the keynote address on Thursday of the congress, “What rights may be defended by means of war?” given by Dr. Jeff McMahan of Rutgers University, struck a chord.

McMahan’s talk was one about the permissibility of responding to lesser aggression with force or violence, and what conditions justify such retaliation. His talk was not environmentally related, but naturally, that’s the direction that my own thinking took his conclusions. In the interest of suspense, I won’t go into exactly what I’m thinking about because it will soon become an actual paper, so I’ll preface it with a question:

If the United Kingdom can permissibly defend its territory in the Falkland Islands from Argentine lesser aggression, could the Maldives defensibly wage war (making some generous assumptions about the Maldivian capacity to wage war) against the US, China, India, or other culpable European nations, in response to territorial losses from anthropogenic climate change related sea-level rise?

At this point, I absolutely do not suggest an affirmative or negative response to this particular question (and may never land on a suggestion within that dipole), but what this question fundamentally gets at (whether it’s at all or ever permissible for a state to wage war for environmental purposes) is certainly worth considering and may be increasingly pertinent in the future of geopolitics and moral philosophy.


JM Kincaid

The continuousity of evolution and naturalization

It is likely impossible to quantify the evolution of human language, for the evolutionary process is a continuous one, rather than discrete. In this respect, “linguistic speciation” shares an inherent continuousity with biological evolution. Neither a “species” or a “language” is a fixed entity, but an adaptive moment amidst constant change. Along these same lines, I wonder, how long does it take for an “invasive” species or an immigrant to become “native” following its arrival? Naturalization is likewise a continuous process. My point here is that these threshold distinctions, “language,” “species,” “native,” are made arbitrarily, likely for the purpose of maintaining and reinforcing the power relations of the distinguisher.

JM Kincaid

Fracked ideologies

Fresh off the press at Science Progress, my first publication during my time at UNT!

Social epistemologist Steve Fuller asserts that the use of technology in society will shift the ideological lines of our politics. Dr. Adam Briggle and I apply this assertion to the debate surround hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. Is Left v. Right becoming Precautionary v. Proactionary?

JM Kincaid

We need a knowledgeable nudge

Here Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations argues that the SCOTUS ruling on the Affordable Care Act bodes well for the constitutionality of environmental policies that use taxes to influence our behavior. Of particular interest to me here is the idea that policies, like taxes, can nudge us to act ethically. Pigouvian taxes, for instance, aim to internalize the negative externalities of economic activity. A pollution tax, e.g., influences behavior by giving emitters a choice: “pay or don’t emit.” If regulators set the tax at the right level, where it’s cheaper for businesses to reduce their emissions rather than pay the tax, then we get economically efficient pollution reductions.

But setting a tax at the “right” level can be difficult. Policymakers must be sure not to over or under shoot the mark. If the tax is too low then there’s no incentive for polluters to reduce their emissions. If it’s too high then we end up using our already limited resources in an inefficient way. Neither is desirable. Why, then, don’t they just get it right?

The challenge policymakers face is informational. Making good pollution reduction policy takes “on the ground” knowledge, but this information is frequently wrong, unavailable, or non-existent. Estimations of the societal costs from pollution are often uncertain and the corporate costs of polluting tend to fall under the scope of “proprietary knowledge.” The result is that policymakers don’t know what the real damages to society from pollution are, nor do they know how much pollution abatement would cost businesses. So how can policymakers hit a target that they can’t see?

Some argue that the invisible hand should guide the shot using a market-based cap and trade system to reduce pollution. But, again, this assumes that policymakers know more than they often do. Cap and trade policies only work if policymakers know the marginal costs of pollution abatement for businesses and the marginal benefits of abatement for society. The former, however, is proprietary knowledge and the latter varies in estimation. Without that knowledge they risk setting an inefficient target, so we run into the same informational problem that we do with a tax policy.

Policymakers are in a tough spot here – they face a moral imperative to do something, but every option is risky (even and especially non-action). Hybrid policies that combine free market principles with taxation, like the one McKibbin and Wilcoxen suggest, help to hedge the risks of uncertainty by drawing from the virtues of both kinds of pollution abatement systems. But ultimately there is no substitute for knowing.

Moreover, policies like a pollution tax or a cap and trade system are fundamentally utilitarian. Perhaps a pragmatic tendency, policymakers like to look at the costs and benefits (today’s “utles”) of pollution abatement so to maximize efficiency in our use of resources. But it’s not clear that what is counted is everything that counts. Often cost-benefit analyses will altogether exclude any measure of nature’s intrinsic value rather than risk using an over or under estimation.

Even valuations of ecosystem services are inherently instrumental in their thinking. Despite sometimes including recreational enjoyment or aesthetics in ecosystem services accounting, each aspect is merely quantified and then considered only in terms of its utility. Regulatory decision-making processes tend to omit the entire dimension of intrinsicity in moral reasoning, and so, again, we encounter another informational deficiency that policymakers must confront.

In turn, there are several moral questions at work. How far should policymakers nudge our behavior when they themselves don’t have the information needed to understand the reality on the ground? What role should intrinsic value play in policymaking? How should we weigh the risks of acting without knowing against the risks of doing nothing? And how much information should businesses be allowed to withhold from policymakers in the name of proprietary knowledge?

Without complete information (or as complete as possible) to guide the policymaking process, moral nudges such as pollution taxes are like regulatory swings in the dark – we may miss the target entirely, and we may do more damage than good. But that’s not to say we should resign ourselves to inaction. On the contrary, doing nothing might prove more harmful than landing off the mark. We must simply keep in mind that we live in a world of imperfect information and knowledge, and that these are the conditions we must make decisions within. In the meantime we can take solace in Levi’s assessment that a carbon tax, should we go that route, will have constitutional precedent.

JM Kincaid

See this post also on the CSID blog.

New progress

The “classical” idea of progress is that human beings should pursue the continuous linear improvement of the human condition through advances in science, technology, and social organization. Progress, as such, is an arbitrary normative teleological judgment – we judge that the purpose of human life is to progress and that its pursuit amounts to a moral imperative.  The social and political prioritization of this pursuit, I have argued in the problems of society – part two, has culminated in “the paradox of progress,” which manifests today as our ecological crisis. The paradox is made in the fact that, through ecological disruption, human progress undermines its enabling conditions.  One could also think of this as a negative feedback cycle.

Negative feedback cycles are generally desirable in complex systems because they are self-regulating. James Lovelock and Andrew Watson’s Daisyworld provides a beautiful example of negative feedback and its homeostatic propensity. In terms of human progress, however, negative feedback ultimately means a regression in our standard of living, which, I assume, most people do not find desirable. But because the paradox of progress is beginning to become obvious in the forms of global climate change, ocean acidification, extreme weather events, hypoxic zones of oceanic proportions, unprecedented biodiversity loss, and global sea-level rise, all of which constitute serious degradations to the natural conditions upon which our economies, our standards of living, and the very habitability of the planet depend, we must quell any absolute aversion to changes in what we believe “progress” to mean.

In response to the ecological crisis of the paradox of progress, the classical version of the idea of progress is undergoing an evolution of sorts. As we approach the cusp of the paradox, norms about progress are adapting. The new take on progress is but a slight change from the classical version. “New progress” is the idea that humans should pursue the sustainable improvement of the human condition through advances in science, technology, and social organization.

The difference is between the pursuit of continuous linear improvement and sustainable improvement. The latter is a far less rapacious pursuit, and because the idea of sustainability is fundamentally concerned with enabling the continued fulfillment of our objective biological needs, a non-arbitrary purpose, new progress, while still normative and teleological, is not an arbitrary judgment, unlike classical progress.

Today we witness the development of a new idea of progress. Since the United Nation’s issuance of the Brundtland Report in 1987, human institutions the world-over have begun to adopt ideals of new over classical progress. Social norms about progress are starting to become intertwined with norms about sustainability; sustainability is, after all, a very natural evolution when faced with the prospect of regress or, in the most radical scenarios, collapse. The capacity of the sustainability movement to overcome the paradox of progress remains to be fully proven, yet an undeniable sense of optimism blooms from projects like those of the United Nations Environmental Programme,, the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme, and the Clinton Foundation.

Integral to the success of the sustainability movement will be a shift in global paradigm from anthropocentricism to ecocentricism, for the human-centered worldview is at the heart of our ecological crisis. We can no longer take for granted the capacity of Earth systems to abate our overwhelming pollution as if that were their purpose, nor can we continue believing human beings to be the most important and most significant aspect of the natural world. We must cultivate a sense of love, humility, and connectedness with the Earth and Sun, for they are, in many ways, life itself, and it is in both our rational self-interest and the collective ecological interest that we appreciate and protect the life-enabling natural conditions that together we enjoy and depend upon.

To do this, each of us must learn to be content, to find happiness in the very fact of our existence – a sentiment I’ve seen expressed by Lao-tze, Chuang-tze, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Shunryu Suzuki. We should try to satisfy our deepest existential longings through simplicity, companionship, love, music, sex, creation, and reflecting on the utter connectivity of everything from microbes to the universe and the constantly astounding reality that we happen to be the kind of animals that can consciously ponder our own existence. Of course, there is some room for material luxury in this picture, and there is an undeniably compelling case to be made for the nobility of human power and accomplishment. Even if I thought it were possible, I would not encourage doing away with the pursuit of progress altogether. To temper action with wisdom and proceed with the ecosphere in mind is good enough.

JM Kincaid