Tuesday, September 27, 2011

In defense of utilitarianism


Every so often, an article pops up on the left or right of the spectrum that claims to debunk Utilitarianism. I've seen it from left-wing people who claim that any cost-benefit analysis is bunk because the underlying philosophy is reprehensible, or from right-wingers who claim that a utilitarian world would feature, almost literally, the strong eating the weak, or a justification of the Nietzchean √úbermensch, or both. The most recent examples for me were two articles in The Economist (only one of which is free to read) that highlighted how supposed "utilitarians" psychologically resembled psychopaths.

Critiques like this tend to send me into a nerd rage. They attack a weak, philosophically indefensible form of Utilitarianism, while ignoring the stronger and more prevalent form that underlies the moral justification of all laws.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Misunderstanding Peak Oil

 Daniel Yergin's book claims to "debunk" the theory of peak oil, and has thousands of misled people gleefully waving it in front of green energy advocates as vindication of their skepticism. The misunderstandings extend even to the Technology Review book review there. I would have expected something that bucked the trend of stupid from an MIT publication, but apparently it'll have to serve as the latest example of people that don't actually get what peak oil means.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Why Biodegradable Products Won't Go Mainstream (mostly)

These days, an interesting trend in product offerings is on the rise. Many products, particularly those traditionally tied to the petrochemical industry, are now offering "green" alternatives. One such green trend is the increased offering of biodegradable products, which can be decomposed with varying levels of bacterial treatment into biomass and carbon dioxide, thus returning the materials to the carbon cycle. On paper, it's great - at the end of a product's lifecycle, it will return to the earth.

But reality has some bad news for biodegradable products. The truth is that biodegradability is neither as good as it sounds nor is it a sufficient condition for marketing green products. I'll try to explain why.


Monday, September 19, 2011

More on Keystone XL

I've posted before about the Keystone XL pipeline, but I wanted to emphasize one thing that hasn't been getting any coverage. While America dithers, the Chinese are heavily backing a project (Enbridge's $6.6 billion Northern Gateway) which will ship cracked bitumen to the west coast of Canada - as I mentioned before - where it will be shipped to East Asia.

Again, nothing wrong with selling oil to China, but it again goes to show that radical environmentalists who frame Keystone XL as a battle between "dirty" oil and carbon emissions vs clean energy and less oil dependence are presenting a false choice. Let me say this clearly: stopping Keystone XL will not stop the carbon emissions from bitumen extraction and cracking. It will simply send the oil to China instead of improving American energy security.

This. Debate. Is. Stupid.

I don't want to be against most of the environmental movement here. I really don't. I support their goals - most of them, anyway - and want to see a low-carbon, clean energy economy within my lifetime, even if that goal is ambitious. I want to cut our carbon emissions. I want to reduce dependence on oil in general, and foreign oil especially. And the way to do that is to encourage higher oil prices in America, and the most efficient way to do so is with a carbon tax. And that's that. Burning political capital on this will hurt the movement for years to come.

Furthermore, I'd have a lot of trouble believing that armchair environmentalists have really thought things through, particularly when what they are literally doing is an oblique method of supply disruption that will... uh... well, essentially change the flows of American money from Canada to enriching those lovely regimes in Venezuela, Gabon, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia. Who would you rather buy from? South Park lifestyle enthusiasts aside, I think I know the answer.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Indium Blues

The NYT has published an article about China's nationalization of its rare earth mining industry. In the typical tradition of he-said, she-said science and policy journalism, it quotes Chinese officials as attempting to improve environmental compliance. However, it is also precipitating consolidation of the industry into state control.

The article explains that invocation of environmental rules might be part of a wider strategy to restrict rare earths sales without falling foul of trade regulations. I think this picture is right. In order to figure out why this is true, we have to look at the two international trade regulations that I think China is breaking most flagrantly, and the legal dodges they are trying to employ.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Day of Defeat

Everyone remembers their own story about September 11. How couldn't we? For a boy just in his teenage years, not quite reaching the point where world events were at least as important as video games, it was a jarring and sudden wake-up call.

I was in Singapore. It was shortly after 8 p.m. I was upstairs, on the internet as was my wont. I'd just moved overseas, and school had started only a few weeks prior. My dad called me downstairs. Like the rest of the Americans overseas, young and old, my family and I were glued to the television for the rest of our night - what would be for most Americans a long, agonizing day.

You'll often hear that 9/11 changed the character of Americans, fundamentally. I'm told that in the first few days in the country, solidarity was the word of the day, but that the ugly elements of a changed national mood reared their head soon enough.

Looking back, anything America as a whole experienced, I think the overseas community reacted even faster.

Of course there was the solidarity. You didn't have to watch the candlelight vigils on the television when there were four happening in my school alone. What was for me the morning after September 11, I remember everyone in school silent, ignoring the class bells, watching President Bush deliver his address following the attack. It had produced psychological blows that could turn 8th graders somber and brooding.

But in retrospect what I remember most was the fear. At first, the famously tolerant overseas community seemed to be a beacon for the wider national solidarity in Singapore. But then, what seems like a short time afterwards, dark-skinned men with jaunty hats, huge sickle-shaped knives and automatic weaponry showed up outside of my school. I remember the stares that came from the kids on my bus. Then we heard: there'd been a Jemaah Islamiyah plot to bomb the US embassy, The American Club, our school, an MRT station. The reaction to the security was one of relief. It was also a microcosm of what had happened to America: the sudden realization that we were vulnerable. Instead of it taking months in America, for us it was only a few days.

Our buses, which previously had had a huge Singapore American School logo on them, suddenly had them crudely painted over. We were encouraged by our parents to avoid going out with our friends in our school uniforms. People in Little America stood on their porches, keeping vigil over their neighborhood.

I remember when people started cancelling all of their trips to Muslim countries, most from mistaken paranoia. All it brought on was suffering, and in many cases, resentment. It was this fear that doomed Bali to ten years of recession, Eat Pray Love notwithstanding. The first time I visited, in 2003, the tour guide assured us he was Hindu, without any prompting. Why, I thought, should that matter?

For those who lived in cosmopolitan Singapore, with its large Muslim minority, the general attitude continued to be tolerance - at least of Singapore's citizens. But in a lot of other ways, Americans withdrew. My mother wasn't sure if it was safe for me to go to a main shopping street alone. We all banded together in this little bubble of social groups around the American club, a golf resort in Bintan, the American School, and locals went into the background.

Perhaps what was most jarring was the attitude of the newcomers to our little group. After American popularity took a turn for the worse in 2003, the reaction of any newcomer was to circle the wagons. These were kids who thought of Muslims with fear, who assumed anyone foreign might be threatening, and sailed into the life of privilege afforded to most expatriates with a sense of entitlement rivalled only by their desire to be haughtily judgmental. One day I saw a kid trying to tease a building worker, who was a Muslim, with food. It was Ramadan. He was two years older than I. Another time, I had to shout at four stupid kids who thought that our bus driver was a Nazi because he had a red swastika on his bus. They couldn't understand that it was a Buddhist, Hindu and Daoist symbol, but most importantly refused to acknowledge the difference between any of those and a terrorist.

September 11 was a defining moment for my entire generation. I've taken recently, however, to calling it the day of defeat. We lost. Al-Qaeda won. From my vantage point in Singapore, through most of the years of the Bush presidency, I saw how insular and violent America became, the inchoate anger of the rest of the world as they beheld us lashing out at real or imagined demons. I watched how slowly, America enacted laws that made it seem closer to Singapore, still only a slightly relaxed police state, than I was comfortable with.  And most of all, I felt like I was one of the only ones mature enough - even among the adults - to stop and say, "what are we becoming?" I didn't like what I saw. It is especially telling that for three years while I was in high school, I told people that I wasn't an American. A silly sentiment perhaps, but the truth was I found it difficult to identify with the country I had come from.

Osama bin Laden was a twisted sonofabitch, and wanted Muslims to unify against an aggressive America that could be branded a great Satan. He imagined us as petty, insular, drunk on our own power, vicious, uncaring, and utterly intolerant of Muslims, or anyone else for that matter.


Osama bin Laden imagined a caricature of America, and he made it, in many ways, truth.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Solar Industry Dynamics and Solyndra

The solar cell company Solyndra failed last week, taking with it a $535 million DOE loan guarantee and triggering a press blitz in which every single anti-government pundit attacked solar energy as something that "doesn't work" and putting up Solyndra as everything that's wrong with government intervention. There's a much more subtle picture going on here, however, and the media storm glosses over many of the aspects that made Solyndra's failure inevitable well before the current slump in the solar industry hit.