Monday, December 27, 2010

A Reasonably Good Facsimile of a Future with Less Carbon

Bill McKibben suggested in Deep Economy that America could cut its carbon emissions in half, not by going back to primitive village life and donning hair shirts, but by becoming more like Europe, which has half the carbon emissions of the US (and per capita, Canada, for that matter).

An article by George Marshall in New Internationalist Magazine makes the case that Britains could cut their carbon emissions by 80% by living the way they did back in 1972. He seasons personal anecdotes of his life as a boy with statistics that offer proof that we had a pretty decent life back in 1972. We lacked nothing but excess consumption and we had more time together as families and communities, which Robert D. Putnam says in Bowling Alone is the one thing that will really make us happy.

"What will life be like if wealthy countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent or more? George Marshall finds a trip down memory lane can teach us plenty about a low-carbon future.

Imagine reducing emissions by 80 per cent. It seems huge and daunting without a technological revolution. But imagine achieving that target just by turning the clock back to the time when emissions were still at that level. For example, how far back would you have to go to reduce by 80 per cent the amount that British people fly?

1972. Yes, 1972. It really isn’t so long ago – and if it does seem a long time, consider that to halve flights you only have to go back to 1993.

When we try to envision a low-carbon society we often forget that one is still alive in our collective memories. Nearly half the current population of Britain was alive in 1972 and it was hardly the dark ages. People lived, laughed, and loved just as much as now.

The early 1970s marked the first time in Britain when people’s basic needs were largely met. Yes, there were still pockets of absolute poverty, but by and large, people were housed, fed, clothed, and in work. They had weekends off, annual holidays and spare cash for entertainment and leisure. It was not a time of great plenty – but of ample sufficiency.

For every sector, the figures tell the same story – had we chosen to keep that standard of living and applied our ingenuity to making it better, fairer and more efficient, we would not now be facing catastrophic climate change. I feel a deep sadness that we did not make that choice, but some hope in the knowledge that a potentially sustainable society has occurred within my lifetime.

With this in mind I have been re-examining my own memories of 1972, supplemented by the statistical evidence.1 I want to know how it felt to live with lower consumption and lower expectations. What lessons can we learn, and can we move forward in a way that is intelligently informed by our own recent past?"

Monday, December 20, 2010

Math, Systems Theory and Cities: West in NY Times

It's worth going over again, this time in text, the mathematical theories of physicist Geoffrey West regarding cities and social metabolism. The NY Times article does a remarkably good job of laying out the theories and findings in a few pages. One thing that the article discusses that was not mentioned in the videos is how much West's theory supports the findings of social urbanist Jane Jacobs:

"It’s when West switches the conversation from infrastructure to people that he brings up the work of Jane Jacobs, the urban activist and author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Jacobs was a fierce advocate for the preservation of small-scale neighborhoods, like Greenwich Village and the North End in Boston. The value of such urban areas, she said, is that they facilitate the free flow of information between city dwellers. To illustrate her point, Jacobs described her local stretch of Hudson Street in the Village. She compared the crowded sidewalk to a spontaneous “ballet,” filled with people from different walks of life. School kids on the stoops, gossiping homemakers, “business lunchers” on their way back to the office. While urban planners had long derided such neighborhoods for their inefficiencies — that’s why Robert Moses, the “master builder” of New York, wanted to build an eight-lane elevated highway through SoHo and the Village — Jacobs insisted that these casual exchanges were essential. She saw the city not as a mass of buildings but rather as a vessel of empty spaces, in which people interacted with other people. The city wasn’t a skyline — it was a dance."

I've begun a study of Manuel Castells book "The City and the Grassroots." Along with Jane Jacobs, David Harvey, Richard Florida, and now Geoffrey West, I consider Manuel Castells, the Barcelonian sociologist, to be one of the greatest urban sociologists. Indeed, he is considered THE foremost urban sociologist in the field today.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Much Ado About Not Much in Anthropology

First, two disclaimers. I have no inside knowledge about the the matters about to be discussed. Like most other commentators, I only know what has publicly circulated. Second, despite what I'm about to say, I have a lot of respect for Nicholas Wade as a science journalist.

A few days ago the New York Times published an article by Nicholas Wade "Anthropology a Science? Statement Deepens a Rift" describing an internal debate within anthropology.

Anthropologists have been thrown into turmoil about the nature and future of their profession after a decision by the American Anthropological Association at its recent annual meeting to strip the word “science” from a statement of its long-range plan. The decision has reopened a long-simmering tension between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines — including archaeologists, physical anthropologists and some cultural anthropologists — and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights.

During the last 10 years the two factions have been through a phase of bitter tribal warfare after the more politically active group attacked work on the Yanomamo people of Venezuela and Brazil by Napoleon Chagnon, a science-oriented anthropologist, and James Neel, a medical geneticist who died in 2000. With the wounds of this conflict still fresh, many science-based anthropologists were dismayed to learn last month that the long-range plan of the association would no longer be to advance anthropology as a science but rather to focus on “public understanding.”

Until now, the association’s long-range plan was “to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects.” The executive board revised this last month to say, “The purposes of the association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects.” This is followed by a list of anthropological subdisciplines that includes political research.

The word “science” has been excised from two other places in the revised statement.

Note the construction of the paragraphs, which constitute the lead portion of the article: Wade sandwiches the discussion of a well publicized decade old controversy between two paragraphs devoted to the article's main point (the change of wording in the association's long-range plan). By referring to the earlier debate Wade documents the existence of significant divisions among anthropologists. By surrounding his description of the past incident with material about the current event, Wade links them together in the reader's mind. It is the juxtaposition of the two events that provide evidence of the supposed ongoing "tribal warfare" within Anthropology.

Individuals familiar with studies of how journalists construct their stories (see, for example, Tuchman's Making News: A Study in the Social Construction of Reality or Ericson's Visualizing Deviance: A Study of News Organization) will recognize some of the strategies Wade is deploying. First, there is the obvious emphasis on social division present in the "tribal warfare" reference. As captured in the well known journalistic homily, "If it bleeds, it leads" crime, deviance, violence, tension, etc. all attract readers. Or, stated another way, a story framed in terms of conflict and drama is more likely to make it past the editors desk than the same information framed in a less attention-grabbing format. Second, by providing context journalists help their readers understand the information being presented. Without that context, the event might be dismissed is trivial and irrelevant. Wade's reference to the earlier controversy is designed to provide that context. It lets the reader understand the current event not as an isolated event but, rather, as an outgrowth of a long-standing rift within the discipline.

Viewed in this light, we can pose a simple question: Has Wade described an actual feud within anthropology or has Wade, through the use of journalistic tropes, constructed a narrative that fundamentally misrepresents the situation? My vote is with the second alternative.

(Parenthetical note: I'm treating Wade as representative of a variety of reports, not as the sole origin of the problem. Indeed, other sources (see the articles in Inside Higher Education and The Chronicle of Higher Education) reported the dispute earlier. I've focused on the Wade article for three reasons. First, a focus on the specific construction of an article is necessary to highlight the points I'm trying to make. Second, as a long standing and highly regarded science journalist for the NYTimes, I hold Wade to a higher standard. Third, Wade's characterization of the dispute is less nuanced than the Inside Higher Ed piece and more stereotypical and cartoonish than the Chronicle article.)

Individuals interested in a blow by blow account of how the controversy emerged and spread should read Anthropology, Science, and the AAA Long-Range Plan: What Really Happened and the series of related posts at Neuroanthropology. What you discover are the following:

1) There was no attempt to exorcise 'science' from the association's conception of anthropology. (Click here for a marked up version showing the original and more recent versions of the controversial text.) While the word 'science' was deleted from the long-range plan, the same meeting approved a document 'What is Anthropology' including the following text:
Anthropology is the study of humans, past and present. To understand the full sweep and complexity of cultures across all of human history, anthropology draws and builds upon knowledge from the social and biological sciences as well as the humanities and physical sciences. A central concern of anthropologists is the application of knowledge to the solution of human problems.

The language here is quite inclusive -- covering natural science, social science and the humanities. Moreover, the committee's claim that the wording changes were really a matter of mundane housekeeping appears supported by the shift of another passage -- that dealing with the "application of knowledge to the solution of human problems" -- from the long-term plan to the 'What is Anthropology' document. Thus, in contrast to Wade's account of an internal putsch aimed at re-defining the discipline, the motives for the word change appear to have been boring and bureaucratic -- the updating of documents -- with no sinister intent.

2) The controversy spread mainly through articles, like Wade's, written by outsiders. It did not emerge organically from inside the discipline. The discussion became an intense focus in the blogging community only after articles about the feud appeared in the Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and other similar locations. The notable exception to this generalization is Peter Peregrine's email on behalf of the Society for Anthropological Sciences. However, the SAS appear to have based their understanding of what transpired at the AAA executive meetings entirely on the text of the long-range plan without knowledge of the 'What is Anthropology' document. In addition, there is the possibility that Peregrine was attempting to arouse a sense of outrage in order to boost membership in the SAS. If nothing else, he clearly saw the controversy as an opportunity for encouraging membership renewals.

3) There exist real divisions within anthropology -- and indeed within all social science. But they are neither as tidy nor as stable as Wade's warring tribes allusion suggests. For example, if you survey the range of online reaction to the controversy, virtually none of the comments invoke the Chagnon debate that Wade uses to frame the dispute. Rather than attempt to unpack the real divisions, Wade constructs an overly simplistic division between 'science' and everything else without ever defining science. Indeed, the whole controversy has played itself out that way. People are for or against the change in wording -- but few actually define what they mean by science. They are, in many ways, ships passing in the night.

In short, the current controversy tells us more about the state of contemporary science journalism than it tells us about anthropology. But, the title of the post is 'much ado about not much' and not the proper Shakespearean 'much ado about nothing' for a reason. The fact that these articles created such a stir is a sign of something -- I just don't think it is a sign of what Wade claims. In the same way that a psychologist will say that an affair is the result of marital breakdown rather than the cause, Wade's ability to stir up controversy is a manifestation of real divisions even if they are more complex and unacknowledged than he is aware.

Attempting to explain those divisions would make this (already long) post much, much longer. Suffice it to say that I think there are at least three major things going on:

1) A post-Kuhnian understanding of how scientific knowledge changes. I take this to mean both a) an appreciation that the production of scientific knowledge is rooted in social context (for example, that observation is theory-laden) and b) that scientific knowledge evolves from rather than evolves toward (i.e., that it moves away from theories with empirical problems rather than toward 'truth')

2) The legacy of the Science Wars of the 1990s between natural scientists and social constructionists over whether natural science is or is not just another belief system.

3) The organized chaos of modern methodological practice so brilliantly explicated by Andrew Abbott in Chaos of Disciplines. Challenging the accepted belief that knowledge is in a perpetual state of progress, Abbott contends that disciplines instead cycle around an inevitable pattern of core principles. New schools of thought, then, are less a reaction to an established order than they are a reinvention of fundamental concepts. This leads Abbott to characterize the social space of methodological practice as analogous to a city street grid. Thus, not only can researchers opt for recognizably different methodological practices (e.g., locate themselves at the intersection of different streets) but they can mistakenly think they are engaged in the same research practice (e.g., find themselves at the same intersection but only realize after much discussion that they arrived there by taking different paths and that those paths affect the meaning they ascribe to a particular research practice).

Anyone seriously attempting to understand the social dynamics within anthropology would need to start with a clear definition of science (is it a method? a body of knowledge? a form of reasoning? or what?) in light of the above considerations.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Generosity: Real and Imagined

Following up on the holiday theme, lets look at some data related to cultural generosity as manifest in international aid. Using data from a recent World Public Opinion survey, the Washington Post's Ezra Kleen crafted the following graphic:

There is a lot going on here. On the one hand, American's perceive themselves as a generous people and, I think, that sensibility is reflected in the magnitude of the "should spend" allocation. On the other hand, there is a perception that the government is actually spending roughly double what they "should spend." This is remarkably consistent with a
Gallup poll documenting the belief that Uncle Sam wastes 50 cents on the dollar. This sentiment explains the effectiveness of the simplistic political rhetoric claiming it is possible to balance the budget by getting rid of waste, fraud and abuse. Finally, there is the implicit point that Klein constructed the graph to illustrate -- that American's would be willing to give more to foreign aid if they actually understood how little was currently being spent. I doubt that is true. Indeed, if the question were phrased differently I suspect you would get very different results. For example, asking Americans to estimate the amount of money actually spent on foreign aid rather than the proportion of the budget, would, I suspect, yield a number substantially lower than the actual dollars involved.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Sociology for the holidays

In the spirit of the season, a brief respite from our traditional offerings. Christmas lights are an accepted and middle class phenomenon in North America. In Britain, not so much. They are seen as distinctly working-class and there are numerous sites devoted to mocking both the displays and the 'chavs' who spend money they don't have on them.

And, where there is a social division, there is likely to be a sociologist. Enter Tim Edensor and Steve Millington, two British sociologists, who have written 'Illuminations, Class Identities and the Contested Landscapes of Christmas' (Sociology 2009; 43; 103-121; DOI: 10.1177/0038038508099100). The abstract provides a nice summary of the article -- minus the interesting details.
In the last two decades, illuminating the outside of a house with multi-coloured lights has become a popular British Christmas practice, typically adopted within working-class neighbourhoods and thus producing a particular geography of illumination.This article explores how such displays have become a site for class conflict mobilized around contesting ideas about space, time, community, aesthetics and festivity, highlighting how the symbolic economy of class conflict moves across popular culture. We focus upon two contrasting class-making practices evoking conflicting cultural values. First, we examine the themes prevalent in negative media representations of Christmas lights, notably the expression of disgust which foregrounds the working-class stereotype, the `chav'. Second, we analyse the motivations of displayers, exploring how the illuminations are imbued with idealistic notions about conviviality and generosity.

Mark Greif, author of “What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Investigation” had an essay in the NYT Review of Books draws on Bourdieu to examine similar themes. Here are some of the key passages:
“Distinction,” published in 1979, was an undisputed masterwork. In it, Bourdieu set out to show the social logic of taste: how admiration for art, appreciation of music, even taste in food, came about for different groups, and how “superior” taste was not the result of an enchanted superiority in scattered individuals.
Over several years in the 1960s, Bourdieu and his researchers surveyed 1,200 people of all classes and mined government data on aspects of French domestic life. .... The statistical results were striking. The things you prefer — tastes that you like to think of as personal, unique, justified only by sensibility — correspond tightly to defining measures of social class: your profession, your highest degree and your father’s profession.

The power of Bourdieu’s statistics was to show how rigid and arbitrary the local conformities were. .... Taste is not stable and peaceful, but a means of strategy and competition. Those superior in wealth use it to pretend they are superior in spirit. Groups closer in social class who yet draw their status from different sources use taste and its attainments to disdain one another and get a leg up. These conflicts for social dominance through culture are exactly what drive the dynamics within communities whose members are regarded as hipsters.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Climate Change, Who cares?

Globescan, an international public opinion research company best known for their Greendex project aimed at measuring sustainable consumption , just released the results of a global poll documenting interesting trends in concern about climate change. The following excerpts place those findings in a larger context.

The 26-country poll asked more than 13,000 people to rate the seriousness of a range of environmental problems including climate change. Results revealed that the proportion of those who rated climate change as a "very serious" problem fell from 61 per cent last year to 53 per cent this year, after many years of increasing concern.

Other findings from the poll show that the proportion of people across tracking countries who believe that "the dangers of climate change are exaggerated," has increased from 42 per cent in 2008 to 48 per cent this year.

North-South divide

Chris Coulter, the senior vice-president of GlobeScan, says the world is witnessing a North-South divide over climate change, with levels of concern remaining stable or growing in emerging economies and declining in Europe and North America.

"The combined effects of economic recession, the confusing results from last year's Copenhagen climate conference, and the controversy surrounding climate science seem to have shaken the belief of people in industrialised countries that climate change is an urgent problem that needs to be addressed," he says.


A more worrying shift, according to Hohnen, has been the recent assumption of the mainstream financial press that climate change is now unstoppable.

"Last week's Economist magazine led with the cover 'How to live with climate change'. After years of saying climate change was nothing to worry about, even conservative analysts now see that major changes have been put in train."

As this viewpoint becomes more widespread, it could have a dramatic impact on climate policy, Hohnen says.

"Rather than trying to stop or slow climate change, more efforts may now be put into adaptation. This means more sea dykes, weather-proofed buildings and intensive agriculture. To finance this, capital will be pulled back to reinforce local infrastructure and self defence measures. If this happens we will see profound implications for international trade and finance."


If governments do not come to an agreement in Cancun there is a danger that individual countries will go into what Paul Hohnen calls 'bunker mode', where rich countries increasingly invest in their own protection and reduce prospects for a global agreement.

"If a global deal isn't reached soon, where all countries do their share, voters in rich countries in the North are not going to agree to their tax money being used for climate change prevention in the South. While that may not be scientifically or ethically sound policy, it's not hard to imagine it becoming a popular political line. The irony will be that this will probably be first heard from former climate sceptics."

The two other big pieces of context? China is outpacing the US in climate mitigation efforts. In the past year, while US efforts to manage carbon were dying in Congress, China’s incentives for clean-energy development have been so abundant that the Obama administration threatened to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization branding the aid a violation of global trade rules.

Second, the US has set the negotiating bar at the current Cancun talks very high. This can be taken two ways, as recognition of the severity of the problem or as a crass political move designed to insure the current talks are labeled a failure. According to Todd Stern, the chief American climate change negotiator,
the United States was seeking a “balanced set of decisions” that makes measurable progress on the six issues now before the conference: emissions reductions, technology transfers, adaptation, verification, financing and forest preservation. The issues formed the core of the Copenhagen Accord negotiated last year, and an agreement that does not make comparable progress on all of them is not acceptable.

Given the fragile state of the negotiations, the declining public support in the western democracies and the tortured backstory associated with the development of current negotiating texts in each of the six areas, getting agreement on all six seems unlikely (to put it mildly). Whatever the reasoning, the practical outcome of such a position will probably lead to a perceived negotiating failure and reinforce the bunker mentality in which rich, relatively unaffected nations, invest large sums in mitigation efforts and the poor, more directly and immediately affected nations of the global south, are left on their own.

Whatever you think of the WTO, it is tangible proof that a binding global regime is possible. At some point in time, given the global nature of emerging environmental problems, countries will recognize the need for a similar global regime to deal with environmental matters. But, for the medium term, it seems like every country is going to be left on its own.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Freudenburg on the Gulf Oil Spill and more

Noted environmental sociologist William Freudenburg is, unfortunately, in ill health. This hasn't affected his productivity, however, as he completed his most recent book about the Deep Water Horizon drilling accident, Blowout in the Gulf, in a mere 60 days. Despite the rapidity with which the book was written, it doesn't suffer in depth as the work is informed by Freudenburg and Gramling's combined 60 years of research on the oil industry and energy issues. As Charles Perrow noted in his review of the book:
Freudenburg and Gramling put the spill into the perspective of energy dependence, take us gracefully through technical details blurred by the popular press, grasp the local and national politics (offering some political detergents of their own along the way), and give the spill what will likely be its most masterful handling. The authors' years of work on oil drilling and the carbon economy get a dramatic payoff in this very timely book.

Freudenburg presented a lecture based on the book, Learning Lessons from Disaster? The BP Oil Spill and the Future of Energy in America on November 15 and the webpage has a link to a video of the lecture. Unfortunately, the 'rtsp' based link didn't work for me, but the folks at Santa Barabara were nice enough to provide this alternative http based link that did. The talk has four significant sections: 1)a brief discussion of the recently released findings from the Presidential Commission looking into the accident, 2) some basic background on oil, its formation, and the drilling process, 3) a discussion of risk and risk management and, in particular, an analysis of the extent to which BP's behaviours differ from those of other industry players, and ends with 4) a detailed history of US energy policy aimed at illuminating the question of why the US is in the position of drilling for oil in water more than a mile deep. While the effects of his health are evident (Freudenburg delivers the lecture sitting down), he remains the energetic and engaging speaker he always has been. There are reasons his undergraduate lectures frequently end with applause, and those reasons are clearly exemplified in this talk.

Finally, Freudenburg was honoured at Freudenfest 2010: a day long collaborative discussion and celebration of his contributions to sociology, environmental studies, and society held November 6, 2010, at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

The Freudenfest webpage includes a program of the events, powerpoint slides from the following presentations, and a gallery of images taken at the event.

*The Said and Unsaid: Disproportionality and How it is Supported through Discourse, Debra Davidson, Dept. of Rural Economy, University of Alberta

*Working with Bill, Robert Gramling

*Social Change in Natural Resource-Based Rural Communities: The Evolution of Sociological Research and Knowledge As Influenced by the Contributions of William E. Freudenburg, Richard S. Krannich, Dept. of Sociology, Social Work and Anthropology, Utah State University

*Transcending Human Exemptionalism: Freudenburg's Sociology in Which Nature Matters, Raymond Murphy, University of Ottawa, Canada, and Riley Dunlap, Oklahoma State University, USA

*Resource Dependency and Diversity: From Findings to Metaphors (and Back Again?), Richard C. Stedman, Dept. of Natural Resources, Cornell University

*Political Science: The Intricacies of Activism Among Coastal Restoration Scientists, Lee Clarke, Rutgers University

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Environmental syncronicity

Those with a predisposition toward Jungian psychology will find meaning in the synchronous juxtaposition of these two events:

1) Over at the Oil Drum they are declaring victory in the fight for recognition of peak oil and rolling out plans for a kinder and smaller internet presence.
For the past 5 years, The Oil Drum has been a home base for many high level discussions about the details and implications surrounding an early peak in global crude oil production as well as topics on society and energy in general. The entire site was started, and continued, by volunteers, in what might be described as a loose anarchy glued by social capital and a desire to puzzle solve the complexities surrounding energy depletion. Over time, on these pages, our contributing staff and especially the many readers who joined the discussions, have pushed the envelope in publicly analyzing what was/is one of the central issues of our time - the opportunities and constraints facing society during the upcoming energy transition.

In many ways our initial mission is over. The fact that oil depletion is real and urgent is no longer a 3+ standard deviation viewpoint (see recent IEA World Energy Outlook).

2) Meanwhile, Worldchanging has announced they are archiving the website and going out of existence by the end of the year.
We have some news.

Seven years ago, Alex Steffen and Jamais Cascio started Worldchanging with the intention of providing access to the tools, models and ideas for building a better future. They wanted to push the concept that solutions-based thinking could transform the debates about sustainability and social innovation. With a scrawny little blog, a brilliant crew of fellow travelers and a lot of moxie, an initial group of us set out to change how people think about (and prepare for) the future.
But all things change, and so it happens with Worldchanging. The organization is taking steps to close its doors and dissolve as a 501c3 nonprofit organization by the end of 2010. It is our goal to see the archive of work here maintained, though the form of that archive is still uncertain.

Why is this happening? Worldchanging readers were generous over the years and an important part of our ongoing operations, but we were never able to secure major foundation support, so Worldchanging relied most heavily on income generated from Alex Steffen’s speaking engagements (Alex gave more than 400 talks over the past five years) and the Worldchanging book. The strenuous travel schedule it takes to deliver that many talks, though, was unsustainable, both personally for Alex and in terms of the impact it had on Worldchanging’s ability to develop new work. It was clear we needed a new model if we were going to stay in operation.

Early this year a new board was brought on to reshape the organization and pursue a more traditional nonprofit development model (based more on grants, gifts and major fundraising drives), with many new board members recruited in just the last few months to help us re-imagine operations and launch these new plans. Unfortunately, despite everyone’s best efforts (and a successful October event), funding ran out before such a transformation could happen. Given the financial realities we faced, the board and staff have agreed that it is time to bring Worldchanging to a close as gracefully as possible.
They will be missed.