Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Where is your food grown?

I just came across this cool map. It shows where organic farms, vegetable farms, dairies, and orchards are located across the U.S. 

It's not surprising that on the "total farms" map, western New York doesn't look particularly agricultural, but on the individual maps we're in one of the richest locations for locally grown and organic foods. Who knows? You probably won't live here forever, so enjoy it while you can!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Argument Outline 3

Due Wednesday, May 13

Consider these activities of animal rights activists:

1. There have been several firebombings of the homes of research scientists in California in recent years. Although no one has claimed responsibility, the police believe that they are the work of animal-rights extremists. There have also been many cases of personal threats, harassment, and vandalism of researchers’ private property. For instance, last February six masked intruders tried to force their way into the home of a UC-Santa Cruz researcher during a birthday party for her young daughter. One of the researchers targeted by a firebomb is a neurobiologist who uses mice in studies of how the mouse’s visual system develops (see handout).

2. The anti-whaling organization Sea Shepard attempts to damage the property of whaling ships which operate in a legal grey zone or illegally. The organization has said, “"Yes we have sunk whaling ships, rammed whalers and drift netters, boarded poaching vessels and destroyed equipment used for illegal exploitation of the oceans.”

3. In 2004 animal activists illegally broke into a private egg production facility owned and run by Wegmans in Wolcott, NY. The facility housed 750,000 laying hens in battery cages and, other than being a very large farm, was similar to other egg farms across the country. The activists filmed the conditions, including dead and sick chickens in unsanitary conditions, and made the film widely available. The animal activists were sued by Wegmans, and Wegmans eventually sold the egg farm (though still uses it as a source of eggs).

4. A number of animal rights activists have created alternatives to animal dissections in schools and colleges. These include models, videos, and interactive computer simulations.

Pick one of these activities of animal rights activists and evaluate whether it can be ethically supported. If it cannot be supported, explain why. If it should be supported, evaluate whether doing so is an obligation or merely a consideration (that is, a nice thing to do but not a moral duty). Depending on the case you pick and your argument supporting it, you might need to distinguish whether your position is in the realm of personal responsibility (individual action) or public policy (collective action). Support your view with one of these ethical frameworks: Kantian deontology, utilitarianism, virtue ethics, or the justice framework.

Keep your position and your support as focused and specific as possible. Also, be realistic about what is at stake and what various parties actually do. For example, although some academic researchers who experiment using animal models are contributing directly to curing human disease, many animal researchers have other scientific goals. Also, some animal dissections are used to train future surgeons, while most are performed by students in middle and secondary schools.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Examining Environmental Problems through Film

While I'm thinking of it, let me share a list of documentary films on various environmental themes. Ethics is amenable to learning through the film medium because learning to think philosophically is not just about amassing knowledge but about identifying and thinking through problems and observing how others frame ethical problems.

Here are some of my recommendations for films that are related to the issues raised in Deep Economy and other problems in environmental sustainability. Many of these have trailers available on the web. I’d love to hear your further suggestions!

About our energy economy:
Who Killed the Electric Car?

About climate change:
An Inconvenient Truth

About wildlife:
Being Caribou

About local economies:
WalMart: The High Cost of Low Price

About food:
The Future of Food
Super Size Me
King Corn

About industrialization and natural environments:
Manufactured Landscapes
Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi

Film on Food for Extra Credit

I found one final extra credit opportunity.

It's off-campus, and it's not free, but I encourage you to go see this film at the High Falls Film Festival about industrially-produced food. Plus, attending the film festival is a way of participating in Rochester's rich cultural life, centered on imaging and film.

Friday, May 15, 2009 6:30 PM
Little Theatre - Little 5

Documentary, US, 2008, 93 minutes
Director/Producer: Robert Kenner
Producer: Elise Pearlstein
Featuring: Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser

The processing of the food we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous ten thousand. That’s a direct quote from FOOD INC., and if it doesn’t make you stop and think, the rest of this revealing and disturbing documentary will. Filmmaker Robert Kenner exposes how the food industry, controlled by a handful of corporations, and with the consent of regulatory agencies, often puts profits ahead of consumer health, the livelihood of the American farmer, the safety of workers, and our own environment. We have bigger-breasted chickens, insecticide-resistant soybean seeds, and tomatoes that won't go bad, but we also have new strains of e coli, widespread childhood obesity, and an epidemic level of diabetes. Featuring interviews with experts like Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and entrepreneurs like Stonyfield Farm's Gary Hirshberg, FOOD, INC. is the real “naked lunch,” the truth about what we do three times a day, told with elegance and verve.

Update: The schedule for the High Falls Film Festival also lists a movie called RIP: A Remix Manifesto showing at RIT on Friday, May 15 at 7:15. But I've been unable to find out more information about it. I would count attendance at this film for extra credit, provided that in your write-up you connect it to some of the themes in the course or in the book Deep Economy, such as support for local creative endeavors.

Monday, May 4, 2009

John Rawls and Deep Economy

John Rawls was concerned with what we call distributive justice and the question of what we should do about inequalities in society. Should goods be distributed equally to everyone? Should we permit vast differences in social and economic status? How are justice and socioeconomic opportunity tied to each other?

This is relevant to Bill McKibben's book Deep Economy in two ways.

1. First, we can use the justice framework to make the case that our social system (that is, our system of social policy, ethics, and economic exchange) is conventional. We have a certain social/political/economic system and it produces certain results. But we don’t have to have that system. It might be the most just system, or it might undermine justice. If it does not produce the maximum degree of justice, then we should try to change it so that it is more just. In particular, we should always be working to try to improve the status of those that have the least, and we should always try to give people equality of opportunity.

This observation supports McKibben in his attempt to rethink economics, and in particular in his attempt to replace some market trends with a deeper concern for community. He argues very much like someone in the justice framework would: he argues that deeper and more robust communities will make people happier and will be more economically stable. This last point is important, because in the justice framework, people are risk-averse.

2. A second way that Rawls’s justice framework can be linked to the book is McKibben’s recognition that for people who are living at a subsistence level, access to global markets makes more sense than pursuing deeper, local economies. That’s because McKibben, like Rawls, knows that the concerns of people who have the least social status and economic goods will be different than those who have plenty.

If you're interested in more of my thoughts about what Deep Economy gets right (and wrong), you can read what I've written here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Citizens and Consumers

In class yesterday we watched a video about Carrotmob.org. The idea behind it is that people want to do good, and one source of average people's power is the money they spend. So the company behind Carrotmob does the footwork of organizing ways to help people create good effects by deciding where to spend their money. In the video we watched, one food market agreed to put 22% of their Carrotmob-acquired profits toward increasing their energy efficiency.

I asked for your critical response to the video, and there were several good insights. One was that people might be traveling so far to participate, that it effectively wipes out the environmental good that's created. Another is that it can be inconvenient to participate, taking some extra time. And if it does take extra time, one wonders what else could be done with that time instead, such as some kind of service or personal action (don't we all have ways we could make our own lives energy efficient, if that's what we're into?) rather than standing in a checkout line. That is, does it create change in the right proportion to the perception of creating change?

In general, this sort of effort raises some difficult questions. Should there be skepticism about a for-profit company set up to facilitate environmental and social activism? Or is this a case where the people behind Carrotmob should be applauded for finding a way to set up a company that makes profits (well, presumably they will profit if the model works) by encouraging people and businesses to make a better world?

A different video that I've shown in class before--one which is perhaps more radical and more thought-provoking about economic and social arrangements--is "The Story of Stuff." Implicitly, this video criticizes the Carrotmob approach by questioning the culture of consumption and showing that it is a historical, intentionally created social arrangement. This gives a political valence to DIYers, MAKErs, and hackers, such as Mark Frauenfelder and Carla Sinclair, who visited RIT last month.

Experiential Learning Project: Assessment

This is a reminder that the Ethical Experience Project is due on Monday. It is worth 20% of the final course grade.

In grading the project, I’ll be looking for several things:

1. the quality of your activity. Did you have an original idea? How much time and effort did the activity require? How challenging was it to you, or how far out of your comfort zone? Does it open up ideas or opportunities for future ethical actions?

2. the quality of your written description of the activity. Is your story interesting to read? Do you provide enough background information so that I understand the context of your activity? Do I get a clear picture of what you did, why you did it, and how it affected your thoughts and actions? Was the activity what you expected, or did it present unexpected challenges or surprises? Does your narrative give a vivid picture while excluding unnecessary or irrelevant detail?

3. the depth of your reflections. Have you made the relevance to the course topic (ethical frameworks and/or Deep Economy) apparent? Do you make use of the experience to examine a difficult question? Did you learn something or expand your horizons, and have you reflected critically on what you learned? Can you relate something about your experience to one of our ethical frameworks or to one of the ethical problems that we’ve discussed? Do you use it to highlight some particular conception of “the good life” or of “right action”? What impact did your activity have on other people, now or in the future? Were your attitudes transformed as a result of the experience, and if not, what were the obstacles to transformation? Is there something you wish you had done differently, or do you have advice to pass on to me and future students about this activity?

Monday, April 27, 2009


"All for One, and One for All": we discussed the benefits of tight communities--and the disadvantages, such as a loss of privacy, of options, and (sometimes) freedoms.

We can see McKibben's argument as being implicitly utilitarian: that local economies produce more satisfaction and less harm for more people than our current economy. How would someone argue with him on this point? Probably, it would have to be done on the basis of showing that his calculation of the benefits and disadvantages left something out.

One such disadvantage (which we did not discuss) is the possibility that tighter communities are related to higher levels of conflict between different communities--nationalism, racism, and the policing of ingroup/outgroup loyalties.

It's also plausible to see McKibben as relying on an argument from virtue ethics. You might read his argument not as a strict calculation of utility or preferences, but rather as an argument that says that certain qualities make for more virtuous communities and certain communities lend themselves to the flourishing of a certain kind of good character. He thinks our material and economic culture value things, people, and services that are "fast, cheap, and easy." Instead, he thinks we should build cities and economies which are deliberate, valuable, and lasting. This would promote virtues which are currently neglected, such as loyalty, responsibility, creativity, etc.

A question to consider is whether the only way to achieve the postive results that McKibben attributes is to cultivate cohesive communities that are local in geographical terms. Does technology permit us to participate in communities that are tight and supportive but distributed in space? Although McKibben is concerned with the transport of goods and the environmental toll of transportation, our economy is increasingly based in services, and knowledge and communication are no longer bound by space.

Along these lines, last fall I heard a report on NPR that, for a variety of reasons, local banks are much less affected by the banking crisis than the large conglomerates are. You can listen to the story here.

Also, a former student passed along this interesting timed map of WalMart's spread.

RIT Sustainability Conference

For more extra credit opportunities, there is a conference on philosophy and sustainability this Friday. Most of the presentations will consist of interviews with environmental philosophers or other academics who have taken a stand on the ethics of handling environmental problems. The conference runs all day, and attendance at any one of the presentations (plus a summary and critique) can be used for extra credit.

Friday, May 1st, Carlson Auditorium

8:45-9 Opening Remarks

9-10 Braden Allenby (Lincoln Professor of Engineering & Ethics, Arizona State University)

10-11 Bryan Norton (Distinguished Professor in Public Policy at Georgia Tech)

11-12 David Orr (Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics,
Oberlin College)

1-2 Paul Thompson (W. K. Kellog Chair in Agricultural, Food, & Community Ethics,
Michigan State University)

2-3 William Shutkin (Director, Initiative for Sustainable Development and Chair in
Sustainable Development, University of Colorado at Boulder)

3-4 Panel of Commentators, Moderator: Robert Ulin, Dean, Liberal Arts
Randall Curren (University of Rochester), Sarah Pralle (Syracuse University), and
Erin Taylor (Cornell University)

4-5:30 Panel of Presenters, Moderator, Jeremy Haefner, Provost
Braden Allenby, Bryan Norton, David Orr, Paul Thompson, & William Shutkin

These presentations are free and open to all.
Directors: Ryne Raffaelle, Wade Robison, Evan Selinger
For details go to http://www.rit.edu/cla/ethics/Sustainability.html

Monday, April 20, 2009

More extra credit opportunities

These are from SEAL (Student Environmental Action League), a campus organization.
This is Earth week, and Earth Day is Wednesday.
Either of the lectures could be used for extra credit in this course (see the syllabus).

Thursday 4/23:
Speaker - SEAL has brought in Jim Tappon from the Climate Project to speak in the library's Idea Factory from 6pm to about 7pm.
"Who Killed the Electric Car?" Showing - SEAL is co-sponsoring a showing of the film as part of CAB's Thursday Night Cinema Series. The movie starts at 10pm in the SAU Cafeteria.

Friday 4/24:
University of Rochester Speaker - Stephen Schneider from Stanford University will be talking at U of R on climate change and sustainability, starting at 3pm in Hutchison Hall Lander Auditorium. If you are interested in attending, please let us know (sealwww@rit.edu), and also if you would be willing to drive. We are currently planning on meeting by the Sentinel at 2:15pm and leaving shortly after that to attend the event.