Archive for March, 2008

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

March 31, 2008

Just a few days ago, we passed the anniversary of a seminal tragedy. On March 25 1911, a fire tore through the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in New York City. 146 people, mostly young girls, died in fifteen minutes time. Many died in the flames and smoke, unable to exit the building due to very narrow stairs with inward opening doors—some of which were habitually locked during work hours by the owners to prevent theft or absenteeism. Others died as the ill-conceived fire escape buckled under the weight of those trying to scramble down to safety. Still others, often already smoldering and with no other prospects for escape, leapt from the ninth story in hopes of a miraculous survival.

The tragedy was not unpredictable. A sweatshop for manufacturing the “shirtwaist” top so fashionable among women at the time, Triangle was packed with flammable material. Fires were not uncommon in the factories of the day. But neither was it inevitable. Many of the basic fire protection innovations upon which we rely today—firewalls, fireproof doors, even automatic sprinklers—had been available since the 1880s. Enclosed fireproof stairs were developed at the turn of the century. Fire drills were recognized as very successful in preventing panic and catastrophe in the event of a fire. But neither the Triangle Shirtwaist company nor the Asch building in which it was located availed themselves of any of these protections, and some of their standard practices made the situation worse (the aforementioned locked doors).

Why was the Triangle Shirtwaist Company so disinterested in investing in fire protection? Industrial Engineer H.F.J. Porter was an expert in fire safety, and had observed the conditions at the sweatshop. He had recommended some basic changes, but reported being brusquely rebuffed.

“Let em burn up. They’re a lot of cattle, anyway.”

While the Triangle Shirtwaist fire was the most dramatic urban workplace catastrophe prior to 9/11, it was hardly an isolated incident. Workplace injury and death was rather common in factories of all sorts. With desperate workers plentiful, they simply couldn’t be bothered to concern themselves with such trifles as basic sanitation or safety.

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire was a catalyst in the history of the U.S. It galvanized the labor movement and gave greater force impetus to women’s suffrage and feminism. Workplace conditions in the U.S. are by and large much better today, but not because corporations and owners have become more enlightened and benign, or because the magical market forces have guided industry to become more safety conscious. Plenty of modern manufacturing businesses have proven themselves more than willing to put the well being of their workers in peril when they can do so (consider loathsome sweatshops of Marianas, enthusiastically protected by Tom Delay when he lead the House Republicans). Domestic labor conditions have improved primarily because of the growth of the vigor of unions in their ability to defend the interests of workers, and because of the willingness of government, motivated by their citizens, to establish standards and regulations for the safety of workers.

It is not uncommon to hear conservatives and libertarians denounce legislated safety standards, government regulatory bodies such as OSHA, and organized labor as interfering with the mechanisms of the market. Yet I’ve heard none of these critics give any sort of satisfactory answer as to how the safety and well-being of employees would be better protected under Chicago school-style free markets. Their best defense is typically that the death and suffering of workers under sweatshop labor is an inevitable, if perhaps sad, cost of economic development. As long as someone is becoming wealthy off the blood shed by workers, and therefore some wealth will eventually trickle down to the surviving labor force, the involuntary sacrifice of the dead and maimed is worthwhile.

I refuse to accept that a society and its economic system cannot prosper without human sacrifice to bloodthirsty gods of the market. All children of God have an intrinsic worth, and their well being deserves protection regardless of any given market conditions. To the extent that the market does not value that worth, it should very much continue to be restricted.

Then Again…

March 29, 2008

…when I am reminded of McCain’s foreign policy, and the general attitude of the vast majority of the Republicans in that regard, the prospects of voting for McCain dim considerably. While I’m not certain either of the Democratic candidates are as willing to stand for an ethical foreign policy as I’d like, and Clinton seems very willing to take a belligerent stance when it suits her purposes, neither seem to relish the imperator role like their presumptive opponent.

Jeff Huber, retired Navy Commander, is a rather witty commentator on the military and politics in his blog Pen and Sword. He had some rather scathing thoughts on McCain’s recent faux-pas in Iraq.

It must be a kick in the head to base your claim to the presidency on your savvy in foreign affairs only to have it get out that Joe Lieberman knows more about them than you do. I bet it’s a lot like how I feel when my dog corrects my grammar in front of people.

One would like to think that Senator John McCain misspoke when he said in Jordan during his tour of the Middle East that the Iranians have been “taking Al Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back.” He is, after all, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and the GOP’s designated crown prince, so you’d think he’d be aware that the official rant is that Iran is training Shiite Iraqi militants, not the Sunni al Qaeda guys. But no, McCain made the Iran-al Qaeda accusation four times in just over three weeks, and it wasn’t until Lieberman cooed something in his ear that he said, “I’m sorry. The Iranians are training extremists, not Al Qaeda.”

The question is, of course, whether McCain is really that dumb and/or senile or if he’s just being a diligent echo chamberlain of the neoconservative agenda. It may be that he lives in a bubble even more opaque than the one Mr. Bush occupies. Then again, he may be a Cheney class Machiavellian. As historian and journalist Gareth Porter noted on March 22, “Sen. John McCain’s confusion in recent allegations of Iranian training of al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq is the result of a drumbeat of official propaganda about close Iran-al-Qaeda ties that the George W. Bush administration and neoconservatives have promoted ever since early 2002.”

Whatever the case, McCain is a key component of the disinformation campaign designed to revive the world order we thought we’d put out of its misery at the end of the 20th century (Pen and Sword, “McQaeda” ).

He also tackles Cheney’s duplicity regarding Al Qaeda and the administration’s simian chest-beating over Iran in the same post. Biting, but very shrewd.

Some Positive Words from John McCain

March 29, 2008

I’m on record as having previously been a fan of McCain. Over the past six or so years I’ve been extremely disappointed and disillusioned by his seeming veer to the right, and I’m vehemently opposed to his hawkish foreign policy tendencies. But when McCain continues to say things like this, I can’t entirely rule him out.

The senator briefly addressed the troubled economy, saying that struggling Americans, not corporations, should receive a hand from the government.

“There are people who are sitting around the kitchen table, families today, that are saying, are we gonna have to take an extra job? Are we gonna have to dig into our savings? Are we gonna have to take extraordinary measures in order to remain in our home? And I want to emphasize that those are the people that should be the object of our attention and our care,” the senator from Arizona said. “Not the lender who lent money under circumstances which were very onerous, or to people that did not really qualify (KCPW report, 03/28/08).”

Maybe it’s just empty words, like president Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” But given McCain’s history of fighting corporate welfare and lobbying, the fact that his domestic agenda has typically been more populist than the typical Republican, there is a part of me which still holds out hope.

Utah’s Food Security – Getting to a Sustainable Utah Food System (lecture/discussion)

March 28, 2008

From Post Carbon Salt Lake:

  • Friday, April 4, 2008, 7:00-9:00 pm
  • First Unitarian Church, 569 S 1300 E, SLC

How far does food travel before it reaches your plate? What chemicals are added, what fossil fuels are burned to deliver your food to you each and every day? Was it always this way? Is this sustainable in light of global warming and peak oil? What are our alternatives in Utah (local farms, community supported agriculture, community gardens, food co-ops)? Join us as we explore food security and the sustainability of the Salt Lake Valley and Utah food systems. Guest speakers and panelists will include Jen Colby, Coordinator, Office of Sustainability, University of Utah; Lance Christie, a founding member of the Natural Resources Defense Council, President of the Association for the Tree of Life, and author of The Renewable Deal: A Political Policy Program to Obtain a Sustainable, Ecologically Restorative, Just and Comfortable Future; and a panel of representatives from Great Salt Lake Resource Conservation & Development (Community Supported Agriculture Project), S.E.E.D. (Sustainable Environments and Ecological Design), Slow Food Utah, Utah Food Bank, Utahns Against Hunger, and Wasatch Community Gardens.

This presentation is part of the Environmental Issues (First Friday) Lecture/Discussion Series co-sponsored by Post Carbon Salt Lake and the Environmental Ministry of the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City.

A Few Thoughts on the Resignation of Eliot Spitzer

March 27, 2008

I hadn’t intended to make any comments on the self-destruction of Eliot Spitzer. I’ve tended to avoid discussing the sexual behavior of politicians, for a variety of reasons: the most prominent being that the personal vices of individuals doesn’t really relate to ideological issues. Heaven knows we’ve seen people in every camp fall prey to temptation. But I’ve had many people ask me about my opinion, in person or over email, so I thought I might as well share some belated thoughts.

We live in a carnal world. We human beings are frail creatures, easily given to sin. Sexual sin is very prevalent in our world, much more so than I was lead to believe growing up in a supposedly upstanding religious community. Even “good” people often succumb to the lures of the flesh. I have been very saddened to learn this. I see the heartache this causes in families, the lives it can wreak. I pray humanity can learn to vanquish this part of our world. But as of this moment, it is an immense trap for many of us.

I believe in forgiveness and compassion. No scarlet letters, please. History has shown that people who might succumb to temptation can be effective and even socially transformative leaders. Personal sins should be considered just that: personal. Adultery is between sinner, spouse, and God. We should leave it there, and not make it a political issue.

Spitzer’s case, however, isn’t merely about extramarital sex. It is about participating in prostitution, sexual trafficing. And as I understand it, we’re talking about a felony offense for the means by which he attempted to cover his tracks. Nothing proven yet, but Spitzer’s immediate but vague confession certainly seems to justify the charges. The citizens of New York should not tolerate such activity from the chief executive officer of their state. While I question the motives of the NY Republican drive to impeach, it was indeed absolutely imperative that Spitzer be removed from office. I’m glad pressure mounted for his resignation.

Same goes for Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, by the way. The apparent affair might be forgiven. The manner in which he has apparently abused his power to obstruct justice and protect his hide is a betrayal of the public and should not be tolerated.

I was disappointed to learn that Spitzer has been harboring such crimes. From what I had followed of his career, he had seemed a strong advocate for the public. He had worked hard to hold Wall Street to decent ethical standards and to be more accountable for the harm its excesses caused. But no amount of good deeds can excuse crimes such as those in which he apparently indulged. If we allow politicians this sort of license because of their party affiliation, we cede any claim to moral legitimacy.

Parties, Public Political Participation, and the Utah Party Caucuses March 25

March 25, 2008

Tonight are the Utah party caucuses. Are you going to participate?

My own participation has not always been a sure thing. In American History class in junior high (was it 7th or 8th grade?), we were required to read George Washington’s farewell address. At the time I was much less skilled at deciphering the florid prose of that era, and did not glean as much as I have in subsequent years. But even then, I gleaned one thing from the address. Washington was no fan of political parties or other forms of factionalism.

This struck a chord with me. I didn’t have anything invested in politics at the time; my parents weren’t really politically active or conscious. They were, like so many western Mormons, pretty much reflexively Republican. I had no reason at the time to question their affiliation, casual though it was. But the inter-party squabbling seemed a stupid way to conduct the business of a nation, and the one-dimensional way of characterizing a politician based on their party (Reagan was glorified, while anyone named Kennedy was scorned) seemed juvenile.

My further investigations into history did nothing to improve my perception of parties. Parties almost invariably become more concerned with obtaining and holding domination than anything else. From multitude of factions in ancient Athens, to the Optimates and Populares in the Roman Republic, to the Blues and Greens in the Byzantine Empire, to the Blacks and Whites of Machiavelli’s Florence, to the clans of the Scottish Highlands (in truth much closer to political parties than to genetic families) to the Whigs and the Tories, to Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s/Madison’s Republicans, to our modern Republicans and Democrats, all gleefully drag themselves through the mud to try to maintain power. Rather than attempt to use discourse, persuasion, and rationality to cultivate the will of the people, they go through all sorts of skullduggery to circumvent the public will. Whatever guiding principles they may claim to champion typically become lost in their quest for power. Consider, for example, the Republican expansion of government despite their purported small government agenda, or the Democratic willingness to abandon their populist principles and court corporate America, or the way either has taken up the militarist banner when it suits them. U.S. political history for the last century and a half is simply the story of public outrage over one party, turning the power over to the other until it becomes complacent and corrupt enough for the public to become outraged again. I would prefer a political system without parties, in which we could truly evaluate candidates and programs based on unadulterated ideology and integrity rather than party affiliation, “electability,” or whether the candidate is sufficiently ingratiated with the party bosses. I’m certain there would still be corruption without parties, but it would be more difficult to institutionalize it.

Unfortunately, I’ve come to the sad conclusion that humanity seems predisposed to parties. We seem desperate to belong, to be able to identify with a particular entity. We are swayed by the ease of established networks of organization within party structures—and the funds into which those networks can tap. Eliminate civilization entirely and still parties will spring forth like weeds (Isn’t The Lord of the Flies just the story of the spontaneous genesis of parties among a group of isolated boys?).

If we’re going to have parties, I’d prefer a lot of them. A binary party system is both polarizing and restrictive. It is too easy for one particular entity to gain domination. It is also too easy for the parties to conspire together for their own interests. We in Utah can complain about the gerrymandering of the Republican majority, but there are plenty of states with a partisan balance where the Democrats and Republicans have sat in the same smoke-filled room to divy up the districts. With multiple parties, there is less chance that alternative voices are stifled or entirely ignored. It is more difficult for any one party to become dominant and to be able to ignore the others. Coalition building would be required. I think our politics would be greatly enhanced by many strong parties, both liberal (Green, Social Democrat, Liberal Christian, Social Christian, what have you) and those not necessarily associated with modern liberalism (Libertarian, Constitutional Party, maybe an explicitly Conservative Christian, etc).

But the reality is that right here, right now, we have a two-party political environment. Hopefully one day we can see many thriving parties—but here in Utah, we probably need to start with a second strong party! This being the case, the primary way for ordinary citizens like you and I to become politically relevant is to participate in our local parties. When the public does not participate in any great number, the parties become accountable not to the public, but to very narrow interests. We can best make our voices heard, shape agendas, keep the machinery in line, and contribute to grassroots change by becoming involved in our caucuses.

Democracy is an incredibly powerful force, but a rather fragile one as well. It takes sustained effort by We the People to make it vibrant and healthy. Call your local party office, locate your caucus meeting, and become involved.

Don’t Forget the Iraqi People

March 22, 2008

I’m far from the only blogger who commemorated the Iraq War’s pentannual mark with an evaluation. In response to my own, one commentor linked to the assessment of Bob Lonsberry, a right-wing journalist and radio personality who also happens to be lds. This commentor advertised Lonsberry’s essay, “Iraq is Costly and Successful,” as “honest” and “refreshing.”

Lonsberry has no reservations about the war. Oh, he is critical of the cost of the conflict, and the way the war was handled during the first few years. But for him, there is no doubt about the value of the war. “It was brilliant and successful.”

The essay is littered with the typical militarist cliches and language. “Weakness invites attack, strength assures peace.” “It is only in the last year—in the era of the surge—that we have begun to fight…In a war, you either fight all out, or you lose.” It wistfully mentions taking on the government of China, ruefully suggests that we should have taken control of Iraq’s oil resources, and hearkens back to the games of Realpolitik our nation played with Iraq and Iran (Lonsberry doesn’t miss out on the opportunity to send chills down his reader’s spine by hearkening back to Bush’s dreaded “Axis of Evil”). The essay virtually reeks of testosterone. That view of the world may be very exciting in paperback thrillers and Hollywood blockbusters, but is a rather dangerous way to try to maintain either peace or a democratic society.

Lonsberry’s central argument is based on the now trite conservative platitude: “We are fighting the terrorists over there so that we don’t have to fight them over here.”

The second success—the larger success—is of great significance to us. We changed the venue of the war with militant Islam. We captured the initiative in the war on terror.

They wanted to fight our civilians in our country. We wanted them to fight our military in their country. Instead of slashing unarmed stewardesses and killing helpless business people in America, we duped them into attacking armed soldiers and Marines in Iraq…

…We turned the stampede of militant Islam. We got these morons to engage us far from our homeland, under conditions favorable to us, in a situation where we could bring our military might to bear. The key to insurgency or terrorism is battlefield initiative—they get to pick the where and the when of the fight. By invading Iraq, and drawing the attention of the swarm of terrorist wasps, we asserted the initiative and picked the where.

It is true that we have yet to suffer any attacks on our soil since 9/11. We could argue that this is because of improved border and port security or intelligence operations in the aftermath of 9/11. You could argue that the invasion of Afghanistan disrupted the communications and organization of the most prominent terrorist network. Or you might argue that this is simply because the terrorists are biding their time, waiting for the next big opportunity to make a splash. It is ludicrous to argue is that there have been no terrorist attacks in our land because we’ve made Iraq the designated battleground.

Remember, we’re talking about terrorists. They don’t engage you where you prefer; they don’t even engage whom you prefer. If they did, we’d call them soldiers.

The successful London terrorist attack and the foiled transatlantic aircraft plot both show that terrorists can and will select their targets without any consideration for which venue we’ve chosen. The National Intelligence Estimates for 2006 and 2007, documents drawn up by experts on the subject, both suggest that we are at greater risk of terrorist attack because of the War in Iraq. Lonsberry’s premise is fundamentally flawed.

But sadly, this is not the greatest problem with Lonsberry’s perspective. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that he is right, and the decision to fight in Iraq has contained hostilities to the Mesopotamian region, like some vast sheet of flypaper. In his reasoning, I notice that he entirely disregarded one enormously crucial factor.

The people of Iraq.

Seven hundred thousand dead. 4.5 million displaced. Communities in shambles. Chaos reigning in many regions. No end in sight. The people in whose land we fight apparently don’t even enter into the equation for Mr. Lonsberry. The closest he comes to addressing the issue is his tepid support for the elimination of Hussein. He does not seem to consider whether the subsequent government will be able to survive or better meet the needs of the Iraqis as relevant to the conversation. The people of Iraq are seemingly superfluous.

How barbaric.

Perhaps a few trillion dollars and a few thousand lives is the going rate in defense of our homes, our families, and our liberties. But it would be reprehensible to claim that we are justified in thrusting the cost on the backs of a foreign people, of making their homes the battleground for our freedoms! We cannot be so ignominious as to consider it acceptable that the Iraqis serve as proxy casualties.

This war in Iraq, with all its attendant destruction and misery, can be considered worthwhile and a success only if as a result of it the people of Iraq are assured greater liberty and security. If such success is not achieved, no amount of U.S. benefit can justify the catastrophe; their suffering shall be answerable upon our heads, and we deserve all the animosity which our arrogance has engendered. As it is not our own society being ravaged, our own benefit must be of secondary import.

I’m deeply ashamed that so many of my faith have supported the sort of arrogance which presents U.S. interests as far more important than that of other people, and which suggests that those interests trump basic morality. Perhaps more people need to spend some time in reflection upon what it means to follow a Deity who is the father of all mankind, and who implores us to consider the needs of others at least as much as our own.

Iraq: Five Years and Counting

March 19, 2008

Five years ago, I was involved in an online Christian forum which frequently veered off topic and onto politics. The invasion of Iraq was a primary subject of conversation for much of 2003. Most of these people proudly counted themselves among the Religious Right, and staunchly defended the conquest. Even when no WMDs were found and the primary justification for the war proved to be a sham, these people were unwavering.

“It doesn’t matter,” they insisted. “Hussein was a menace, a tyrant. His people suffered at his hand, and they are better off liberated.”

I cautioned them to temper their exuberance. I agreed that Hussein was a thug, a brute, and a butcher (one who obtained the tools for his butchery courtesy of the Reagan administration…). But merely because Hussein had been deposed and then apprehended did not mean that Iraq had been “liberated.” Even putting aside the criminality of the war itself, the invasion could only be considered worthwhile if Iraq turned out better in Hussein’s absence. The invasion could not be judged from the point of Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” banner and speech. Lets see where we are at five, ten, twenty years down the line.

So here we are, five years from that fateful day. Things have hardly gone as the administration presumed. They insisting that we would be greeted with flowers and chocolates, able to pull out in a couple years and a few billion dollars, leaving the seeds of an enlightened democracy to blossom in the the Fertile Crescent and spread throughout the Middle East.

What is the state of Iraq?

  • Iraq does indeed have a fragile, newborn Democratic government. If the U.S. doesn’t interfere and require Iraq to institutionalize their client status, as they did with Cuba after the Spanish-American war, and if the government doesn’t implode in sectarian/ethnic bickering, this might possibly develop into a legitimate and functional government.
  • Instead of several billion, the war has cost at least half a trillion dollars. In looking at the hidden costs of the war, Joseph Stiglitz suggests that the real cost is three trillion. Until our troops are entirely withdrawn, that figure continues to burgeon. There is no indication that either our current administration nor the Republican presidential nominee has any inclination to reduce our troop commitment.
  • Almost four-thousand U.S. troops have sacrificed their lives for the war. Actually, they’ve died. Many more than that have sacrificed their lives, now suffering emotional illness which may dog them for a lifetime, shattered marriages, and other tragedies. Again there is no reason to think these numbers won’t continue to climb.
  • Over 700,000 Iraqi citizens have died as a result of the invasion. Well over four million have become refugees, displaced because of the chaos and violence. The basic infrastructure is still not restored to pre-war condition.
  • The national intelligence estimates for 2006 and 2007 suggest that the conquest of Iraq has resulted in the growth of terrorist organizations and increased their threat to our national security.
  • In the aftermath of the occupation, Al Qaeda has now established a presence in Iraq—one nonexistent before.

Maybe things will improve in the future. Maybe the violence is nearing its end. Maybe at ten or twenty years, we will see the beginnings of a prosperous Iraq, a model for a new, modern Middle East and ethnic/religious cooperation.

Or maybe things will take a turn for the worse. Maybe the region will explode in bloodshed, or this delicate coalition will snap and pave the way for some new bloodstained junta to take the reigns. Maybe the U.S. will be forced to maintain a presence, to establish a protectorate in Iraq to prevent rivers of blood—and perhaps to protect U.S. national interests. McCain isn’t opposed to a thousand years…

Who can know? All I can say is that here, at the five year anniversary of the War on Iraq, the results look questionable, and hardly worth the price.

Moral Responsibility on Global Climate Change: Take Two

March 14, 2008

In my last post, I used the example of one particularly widespread argument against the Kyoto Protocols as an example of the sort of inappropriate moral relativism which is often used in politics. I made the case that you cannot ethically use the argument that “if they don’t do x, we shouldn’t do x” on this—or any other—issue. And yet, in the comments, one poster completely ignored my argument and rehashed the very position I had been criticizing.

According to the International Energy Agency, as much as 85 percent of the projected increase in CO2 emissions over the next 20 years will be produced in exempt countries like China. As long as China is exempt from Kyoto (or the like), what evidence shows that the rest of us – even in unanimous die-hard commitment- can put a dent in the climate change problem?

Not to put to fine a point on it, this is simply a morally bankrupt argument. Would we argue that because our efforts will not make a dent in the level of global infidelity in society, we should not bother being faithful to our spouses? Others will continue to steal whether or not I do—so why shouldn’t I get mine? My lack of participation hasn’t made any splash in the drunk driving rate, so why shouldn’t I go ahead and get liquored up behind the wheel?

We should expect ourselves to do the moral, the just thing, regardless of what others do, regardless of whether we think it will make a difference. We are called to fight the good fight because it is right.

And will it make a difference? Maybe not. But maybe—just maybe—when the most wealthy and economic power is willing to repent for its monumental contribution to the problem in question (carbon emissions and global climate change) by committing to and achieving massive change, that leadership may inspire other nations to follow our example. I am an idealist, and I do believe in miracles. I could be naive. But I can absolutely guarantee that no dent will be made if nobody is willing to make the committment.

This commentor brings up another issue of morality important to address in all realms of politics and social action.

We have a moral obligation to be good stewards of this earth. I do not feel morally obligated to support international treaties that would slow wage growth, widen the rich-poor gap by eliminating the middle class, or raise taxes. Government action is will coerced. Coerced morality is not morality at all.

People of the libertarian persuasion often bring up the immorality of government coercion in rejecting government action on a given topic. Because government’s authority ultimately comes from the point of a gun, any claims to morality are merely pretense. The only real morality is individual in action.

I agree that freedom is a crucial concern, as I noted in my post “Social Justice III: The Libertarian Criticism of Social Justice”. However, this claim does not trump all other concerns. No libertarian I know of would claim that murder should be legal. I’ve heard of none who would claim that freedom of speech permits people to use that speech to deliberately put others in harms way (the classic “yelling fire in a crowded theater” scenario). No libertarian politician has suggested theft should be decriminalized. No, even libertarians recognize what John Stewart Mill referred to as the harm principle.

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others (On Liberty)

Government has the authority, granted it by the consent of the people, to restrict the freedom of the people when the exercise of that freedom would result in harm to others. Say what you want about the government’s monopoly on violence; given the widely recognized harm principle, it is fundamentally immoral for the government not to use its power to prevent direct harm to others in the name of freedom.

There is a great deal of evidence that the byproducts of our consumption (the production of the goods we use, the powering and use of those goods, the disposal of those goods, the energy to transport those goods or ourselves, et al) is causing great harm to others. This happens on a local scale (along the Wasatch Front, there are a number of days each winter and summer when we are advised not to breath the air). And I believe that there is pretty comprehensive evidence that this is also happening on a global scale.

As I said in my original post, there are other arguments which can be made the Kyoto Protocols. You may believe that human activity does not impact climate, that our consumption activities cause no direct harm in that regard. If the volume of scientific data and opinion which has come forth in the past couple decades hasn’t convinced you, I’m certainly not about to try here. You may believe that there are other methods are more likely to effect positive change than international agreements or federal legislation. I may disagree with those arguments, but they are morally legitimate positions. The “they’re not, so I won’t” and government coercion arguments are not. When people use those arguments, they undercut any sort of rational discourse and any moral authority they might have.

Moral Responsibility on Global Climate Change

March 12, 2008

Want a non-military related example of the principles I referred to in my recent post, “Moral Responsibility is not Anti-Americanism”?

Think the Kyoto Protocols.

Back in December, the very first act of the government of newly elected Australian Prime Minister Rudd was to ratify the Kyoto Protocols. This leaves the U.S. as the sole remaining developed nation which has not committed to the agreement. The Democrats, who are so willing to campaign on environmental issues and sustainability, have been tepid at best in their efforts to promote the treaty. Republicans have sneered, scoffed, and actively opposed any cooperation in the agreement.

There are a few different reasons which people give for resisting Kyoto. Some simply refuse to believe in human-influenced global climate change (though their numbers dwindle over time). Or they might accept some problems, but insist that those ills can best be cured by a laying off of hands, so that the omnipotent and omnipresent panacea of The Market can work its mighty miracles. They reject the Kyoto requirements because they might potentially have negative consequences on the U.S. economy (a strange protest, as global climate change is much more likely to wreak worldwide economic havoc if left unchecked). Those can all be argued at another time. But the most common, and yet least sensible, reason I’ve heard is that Kyoto is “biased” against the U.S, setting a higher bar for us and others among the developed nations than it does for “developing” nations—including such populous and polluting nations as India and China. The Senate in 1998 unanimously (that is all senators, Republican and Democrat ) passed Resolution 98, which asserted that the U.S. would not become a signatory unless emissions requirements were standardized for all nations. The Bush administration, to the extent that they have even acknowledged the human impact on atmospheric carbon levels and climate change, has used this as the excuse for dismissing Kyoto.

“It isn’t fair! ” is the essence of this argument. “Why do we have to and not them?

Very mature.

Certainly, we should be concerned with the incredible levels of pollution created by the rapidly industrializing juggernauts. I would strongly encourage China and India and the rest to be responsible for their emissions levels and to seek a more sustainable path to development. But we need to consider the moral principles I discussed as we examine at the situation. We need to take a good look at ourselves as we address the issue of global climate change rather than point fingers elsewhere.

We have been the primary cause of carbon emissions for more than half a century. It was either created by us, or created by other nations as they exported resources or goods to feed our voracious consumption, or created by other nations seeking to emulate the very attractive U.S. consumer lifestyle. It is only just that we should take responsibility for it.

Developed nations have a great deal which we can sacrifice in order to cut emissions. Our standard of living is better than the vast majority in developing nations by several orders of magnitude. We, “those who have,” can certainly change our culture for the good of the planet. Developing nations, which are still grappling with rampant poverty, malnutrition, and a dearth of resources necessary for a secure life for its population, have much less to sacrifice.

If our nation is to be the world leader we like to think it is, we need to be willing to lead. The Savior showed that leadership is less about ordering others around than about blazing the trail, sacrificing, and serving others.

Our nation should sign Kyoto or some other similar international agreement. Our commitment should not be based on whether others have the same level of commitment, or whether other nations have disingenuously signed without strong intent to fulfill their goals. We should have the integrity not only make a concerted effort to hit the targets, but exceed them. We should use our vast resources, ingenuity, and will to provide the model of how a nation can embrace sustainable development, and secure a health lifestyles and communities for its citizens. Once we have done so, we will have the moral authority to exhort other nations to join us on that path. We will have the experience not only to show the developing nations what they can accomplish, but help them to avoid the pratfalls we’ve found and the errors we’ve made in the past.

That is leadership.

The reticence of our elected officials has put us behind the game. But I’ve no doubt that we can galvanize our politicians if we impress upon them our concern for good stewardship of our planet and a mature sense of moral responsibility.


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