Re: The Environment

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Dematerialization.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 5:33 PM
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This is Tyler's point about the division of labor: other people take care of the various parts of the infrastructure, and we don't need to worry about that.

Isn't he a libertarian?


Posted by: ben w-lfs-n | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 5:34 PM
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Hmmm, I could answer about twenty-two. I hand't expected to score that high.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 5:34 PM
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Other people doesn't have to mean the government.


Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 5:35 PM
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I'm not sure what the sunset info and some of the other questions have to do with watersheds. I probably could answer less than 15 for the place I used to live, but I'd obviously have to look things up to score the quiz correctly and I'm not going to do that.

I think I read in a story somewhere recently that a non-negligible amount of air pollution in southern California comes from China.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 5:42 PM
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Being fairly strict about it, I could maybe answer 10 or 11. I could give broadly correct answers lacking in specifics to quite a few more, but, being honest, no more than 10 or 11.

Some of the questions don't really apply, though.

Before your tribe lived here, what did the previous inhabitants eat and how did they sustain themselves?

I live in Britain, people who are broadly the same as me having been living where I live and eating largely what I eat now for thousands of years.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 5:46 PM
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However, if I had an astrolabe, I could use it to calculate the answers to question 15.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 5:48 PM
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1.) I'm sorry to profane this thread, but there was also a test of economic literacy among high-school students. Apparently, they didn't do very well. Some of the questions were fairly basic ones about deposits and loans, although I wondered whether the "correct" answers actually reflected modern reality, but others were about interest rates and the money supply.

2.) I'd have flunked that test when I was in highschool, but I don't think of economics as an essential part of a highschool education. That's what college is for.

There is a certain amount of alienation from the material world which comes with a certain amount of division of labor without which capitalism doesn't work. Didn't Marx say something about the alienation experienced by the factory worker which he thought was unknown by the skilled craftsman. The skilled craftsman was responsible for more things, and therefore had more control, but it was less efficient. Something was lost, for sure, but we've also gained.


Posted by: Bostoniangirl | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 5:48 PM
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I took an econ class in high school - not a particularly good course, if I remember right, but we did read a bunch of that Heilbroner book - but not in college. The other way around would have been better.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 5:58 PM
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if I had an astrolabe

The little known fourth verse to that Weavers song.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 5:59 PM
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I guess that a lot of people take government too, or something. I think that there was an AP Government class or something. This was dropped by my school. Th teacher, who had a PhD in history from Wisconsin, said that the material was so totally unlike anything taught in any college she knew (her BA was from Yale) that she didn't feel that it was a good use of anyone's time, and it shouldn't be treated as a college-level course.

slol--You can always become a prep school teacher with a PhD.


Posted by: Bostoniangirl | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 6:01 PM
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Yeah, you guessed my response pretty well. I'd like people to have some knowledge of the material/energy flows they participate in, enough to be able to roughly balance their enjoyment of something against its environmental costs.

But we've talked before about what people notice. I know these aren't the systems that everyone is attuned to. I wouldn't want awareness of them to be a prerequisite for participation in environmentalism. I am very happy for more abstracted good will on the environment. I wish more people noticed what their place does, though. It is easier to be callous about stuff when it isn't what you naturally pay lots of attention to.


Posted by: Megan | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 6:03 PM
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I know that if I drive about 150 miles east I will leave the watershed I'm in now and enter the Chesapeake Bay watershed, because there's a sign on the highway to that effect.

But there's no sign in the opposite direction, so I'm not sure what watershed I'm in now. My guess would be the Mississippi River. And if so, that means that probably like half or more of the USA is in the Mississippi watershed.


Posted by: Cryptic Ned | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 6:05 PM
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That's what college is for.

Actually, a lot of basic economics stuff would be very useful for the considerable number of people who don't end up going to college.


Posted by: M/tch M/lls | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 6:06 PM
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Astrolabia. Heh.


Posted by: ben w-lfs-n | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 6:08 PM
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The word "guess" should probably be "assumption" there. I don't know what other watershed I could possibly be in, living about 1 mile from the Ohio River. But I won't feel totally confident in my knowledge of even such basic watershed-related things because I have never heard the word "watershed" mentioned in a class, or possibly even heard it said out loud by anyone other than Dave Grohl.


Posted by: Cryptic Ned | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 6:09 PM
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I could answer about half of the questions; I'm not going to bother looking up the answers to the ones I wasn't sure about. Overall I think I'm on Megan's side.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 6:09 PM
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These questions are interesting. I could name possibly over a hundred flowers that grow around here, but only about five that I am absolutely sure weren't introduced. And I have no idea when any of them bloom, except for the ones I can remember seeing in the past week.

Oh wait, the croci are always the virst. But maybe they were introduced.


Posted by: Cryptic Ned | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 6:11 PM
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In what sense is "the earth" our true environment? Certainly "the earth" is a necessary foundation for our built environment, and we generally are not thoughtful enough about how we are undermining that foundation -- but we're never going to "truly" live in "the earth" in some kind of unmediated fashion.

To be human is to live in an "artificial" environment -- and one could also argue that animal behavior is analogous (anthills, nests, etc.). And even in the current situation, the answer obviously isn't to just shut civilization down, but to redirect the force of technology into restorative rather than destructive paths.


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 6:20 PM
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Kotsko makes a good point.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 6:23 PM
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Kotsko is a cornucopian transhumanist. Shun him.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 6:25 PM
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And quite a few of those questions are about built environment, anyway.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 6:26 PM
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Actually, a lot of basic economics stuff would be very useful for the considerable number of people who don't end up going to college.

M/tch, some of the questions seemed kind of advanced, and I don't think that they were covered in my introductory economics class in college. (I think that course was too basic, but I don't think that it's reasonable to expect a high school course to be significantly more advanced.)

What kind of stuff are you talking about?


Posted by: Bostoniangirl | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 6:30 PM
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Econ 101 does more harm than good.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 6:33 PM
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I did better than I expected on that quiz, (15-16 depending on how generous you are in scoring) but it's helped by having lived in one place for a while. People that move frequently are going to score worse.


Posted by: NickS | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 6:34 PM
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New Mexico requires high school students to take a semester each of econ and government. At my high school, the only econ offered was "consumer economics," which covered things like how to write a check. I and some of my friends took an online AP Macro course instead. Some of those friends did the same for the government requirement, but I took the regular government class and it was one of the best classes I ever took.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 6:35 PM
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i confess i don't see how this matterse at all.

The real reality is our emotions, and slightly beyond that, our experiences and mental reality-contrcutions.

How that is sustained doesn't matter at all; its the realm of specialists. Sometimes eveyrone gets involved because government concerns or problems that aren't getting solved.


Posted by: yoyo | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 6:56 PM
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27: What the hell do you mean, yoyo? Are you on drugs?


Posted by: Bostoniangirl | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 6:59 PM
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god, i wish.

but why is water production any more important than understanding recording technology or how a chef made your dinner?


Posted by: yoyo | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 7:04 PM
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Some people can't survive without water.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 7:05 PM
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Because without water you would die.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 7:05 PM
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i can't survive wihout mitochondria, and i don't see any point in knowing how those work unless i decide to be a biologist


Posted by: yoyo | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 7:10 PM
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Presumably you don't vote on mitochondrial preservation policies, and presumably no one is going to start a war over mitochondrial scarcity.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 7:17 PM
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I do think there's a bit of a survivalist premise, here. These are things it will be handy to know when civilization breaks down. Until then, not much.

The question then is maybe, not how much do you reject the division of labor, but how soon do you expect the Big One to destroy the division of labor?


Posted by: slolernr | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 7:17 PM
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Your mitochondria aren't in danger of suddenly not working if something goes wrong with an elaborate man-made system run by fallible human beings. Or if weather patterns shift drastically due to climate change.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 7:19 PM
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A longer answer would say things like you can elect people at different levels of government (not just water district officials, who anyway might be appointed in a lot of areas by people who are elected) who are involved in water policy and that policy affects who can live in what areas and according to what lifestyles, what crops can be grown, what fish can be caught, where and how some electricity can be generated, what kinds of recreation are possible, what quality of life can be supported.

It's not something you absolutely need to know, but it's not on a clearly lower level of a "things it would be good to know something about" scale than foreign policy or immigration or health care.

Not that I know much about some or a bunch of those things, but I don't discount the knowledge.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 7:21 PM
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Those questions weren't all about the arcana of water infrastructure, anyway. Surely it's a good idea to know which way is north.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 7:23 PM
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You see why there's an analogy ban, you suckers for analogy trolls?


Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 7:23 PM
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Some of the answers stand without reference to analogies. Anyway, what do you have against the core of cognition?


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 7:26 PM
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I meant to link directly to the lecture.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 7:31 PM
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I think yoyo's question is worth taking seriously. Why does this set of questions more interesting/evocative than any list of questions about some random topic of which most people have only a superificial understanding.

I'm not sure that it is directly related to environmentalism as ogged suggests in the post, nor does "division of labor" really capture it.

I think the quiz mostly serves to highlight questions about, "what do we notice?" and "at what level of abstraction do we live our lives?" We all experience storms, so why shouldn't we know what direction most storms come from? Who doesn't know which direction is North?

The thing that I thought, reading the quiz, was how happy I am to have aranged my life to be able to do most errands on foot or on bicycle. Having to get places on a bike very quickly teaches you to pay more attention to the weather.

It's a good example of the fact that we are conscious of the affects that life choices have on ourselves ("Ever since I started my commute, I've been getting less exercise") but pay less attention to the way the choices we make shape what we put ourselves in a position to notice.


Posted by: NickS | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 7:45 PM
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The blog was better before the analogy ban.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 7:48 PM
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post hoc ergo propter hoc!

I think that there's a lot of finance stuff that's also very relevant to how people live that they just don't understand, but that's not as glamorous as the environmental stuff.


Posted by: Jake | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 7:54 PM
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Living in an isolated rural area without a lot of outdoor lighting, I always knew the phase of the moon offhand. Not any more.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 7:57 PM
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Uh, uh, something else hoc.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 7:57 PM
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I'm having a hard time getting over the charmingly psuedoracist hippie language in the quiz. "Tribe", vomit. Still, I got more than I would have imagined, and would have gotten most of them if I was still living where I grew up.

Why does this set of questions more interesting/evocative than any list of questions about some random topic of which most people have only a superificial understanding.

Because of the possibility of a looming catastrophe borne of widespread ignorance of these types of issues. People who live in hurricane and harsh storm prone regions, for example, generally do know what direction storms come from.

I think that there's a lot of finance stuff that's also very relevant to how people live that they just don't understand, but that's not as glamorous as the environmental stuff.

And look at how many threads about subprime mortgages we've had, now that it's becoming an issue with a potential looming catastrophe borne of ignorance attached.

WTF, I thought this shit was obvious.


Posted by: Lunar Rockette | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 8:02 PM
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43: I'd say that knowing the finance stuff is more important than knowing the phases of the moon, etc. The latter gives you a nice romantic feeling of oneness with the universe -- the former, however, allows you to understand in detail exactly how you're getting irrevocably fucked over.

Actually, I guess neither one is very "useful," strictly speakig.


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 8:05 PM
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As "an exercise in watershed awareness," it does what it is meant to do, I think. I am now painfully aware of my utter lack of watershed awareness.

Similar exercises in "subatomic particle awareness" and "ancient Urdu texts awareness" would no doubt produce a similar sense of shame and befuddlement at my appalling level of ignorance. (Did I just violate the analogy ban?)

I'll confess to a bit of irritation at the eco-survivalist vibe, but I do think the quiz raises some interesting questions. Are there five edible plants to be found in my NYC neighbourhood? Do I belong to a "tribe" if I don't understand myself to possess a complex set of rights, duties and responsibilities in relation to any particular so-named entity?

I'm all for all of us becoming more aware of our footprint, and then acting and voting accordingly. But this quiz seems a bit specialized in its focus to do much in pursuit of that broader public education goal, is what I can't help thinking. As a tactical matter, say: if you want people to stop buying SUVs, it probably doesn't do much good, and may even do some harm, to remind them that they don't know a thing about which species flourished in their neighbourhood 500 years ago.


Posted by: Invisible Adjunct | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 8:08 PM
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if there is an apocolypse, hand-tohand combat skills and "survivorTV" skills will be a lot more important than knowing where storms come from


Posted by: yoyo | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 8:28 PM
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It's strange, I could pretty much ace the quiz if it were about where I grew up, but almost completely fail when it comes to my current position (I know sunset/full moon here, but not there, and haven't a clue about waste disposal or tides in either case).

This would be a useful exercise if stripped of the hippie bullshit. The value of knowledge of edible plants and lunar cycles does not approach the utility of knowing soil composition, growing seasons and watershed population density.


Posted by: foolishmortal | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 8:38 PM
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47: Well, the latter lets you understand how you will be/are getting fucked over as well. If you don't believe that I've got some land to sell you in beautiful Hetch Hetchy valley.

47.2:I suppose not.


Posted by: foolishmortal | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 8:42 PM
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People who are complete morons about the physical environment often think of political environmentalism as a frill. They are not few.

People in the American West should know that they're mining water, but they never do.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 8:45 PM
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44: was this before Manhattan was all built up?


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 8:46 PM
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One problem is that our built environment allows us to indulge in behavior that is bad for the watershed and which may invite catastrophe, as others have noted. What is much more serious is that the built environment with which we surround ourselves is in very poor taste-- more and more of the structures are temporary, designed for a momentary "ooh" as we drive by or decide whether to go in here to dispose of extra money. Las Vegas wasn't enough, humanity had to build Dubai too, as well as a ring of ever-gaudier strip malls around every city with power. To first order, we live in a film set, which naturally invites solipsism. In 60 years, Reagan's fuzzy confusion of fact and fiction will seem normal. The best hope for the environment, though not for our aggregated souls, is that more people will retreat into video games and weblogs.


Posted by: | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 8:52 PM
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54 was me


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 8:54 PM
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Yeah, the primary problem with Dubai's sustainability is aesthetics. Pull the other one, please.


Posted by: foolishmortal | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 8:55 PM
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Storms around here used to come from the Pacific or the Gulf of California via Arizona. However, since Bill Richardson started requiring that more services be put out to competitive bid, most are coming from China in containers.


Posted by: Michael H Schneider | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 8:56 PM
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48: Do you not understand yourself to have a complex set of rights, responsibilities, and duties in your community? Right to drive a car, responsibilty to do so safely, duty to take the trash out to the curb in bins rather than let it pile up in the yard, etc?


Posted by: Hamilton L | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 9:09 PM
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58: To be fair, the whole "tribe" part made me squeamish as well. There's a whole unexamined, greatly offensive political context that comes along with that kind of phrasing (and the "sacred" stuff, the "before you came here" crap, etc), that actually has nothing to do with the salient point of the quiz: ie, every environment, including local ones, is only so sustainable, and it's good to know what it can tolerate and where it might break down in the future if mishandled, and those have nothing to do with crazy fantasies of either the yoyo-style post-Apocalypse of "hand-to-hand combat skills" or dreamy hippie white-ass-motherfuckers-with-dreamcatchers neo-tribal utopia.


Posted by: Lunar Rockette | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 9:23 PM
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what exactly is so offensive about the word "tribe"? are you taking it to mean "divide up by race, find some weapons, and kill kill kill!?


Posted by: yoyo | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 9:29 PM
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And look at how many threads about subprime mortgages we've had, now that it's becoming an issue with a potential looming catastrophe borne of ignorance attached.

WTF, I thought this shit was obvious.

You'd think so. But out of sight, out of mind.

It's useful to know where your water comes from, but it's also useful to know where the money in your paycheck comes from. Might have prevented a lot of people who worked at Enron from losing a lot of money.

I mean, if it turns out that in fifty years we can't farm in Utah and New Mexico any more, that'll be an unfortunate turn of events, but at least it'll be seen coming a few years in advance and changes that can happen to accomodate it.

The potential for severe short-term screwage is much higher in finance; look at Albania where a pyramid scheme brought down the whole government and plunged the country into chaos a few years back.


Posted by: Jake | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 9:31 PM
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I'm not sure if I'd call it offensive as much as I'd call it Disneyfied. And they walked and talked with their brethen the otter and the eagle and painted with all the colors of the wind while communing. Nobly.

Which I guess is kind of offensive.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 9:32 PM
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I mean, if it turns out that in fifty years we can't farm in Utah and New Mexico any more, that'll be an unfortunate turn of events, but at least it'll be seen coming a few years in advance and changes that can happen to accomodate it.

Worster, Dust Bowl (about the US dust bowl) and Jones, Empire of Dust about farming problems in Alberta around the same time, make me wonder if this is true. But I suppose forecasting has gotten better since then.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 9:45 PM
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58 is correct.


Posted by: foolishmortal | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 9:51 PM
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dammit, 58 s/b 59. No offense, 58, you're correct, too, but without italics.


Posted by: foolishmortal | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 9:53 PM
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Technology plays the role for us that nature once played for earlier societies. Technological constraints are our limiting factor, as natural constraints were for them. One can reframe natural constraints as a new technological and economic challenge, and lose little. (This does not mean natural constraints do not exact a cost -- meeting technological challenges is costly).

Sometimes I think the psychic relationship between environmentalists and natural constraints is like that between fundamentalist Christians and the End Times. The natural constraints will eventually come to punish the sinners for their excessive consumption. Small groups of people in so-called "sustainable" communities will be Raptured.


Posted by: marcus | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 10:33 PM
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My answers.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 10:39 PM
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I'm surprised by the hostility in this thread. I admit I only skimmed the intro and focused on the questions, which don't seem so bad to me (though hardly of earthshaking importance).


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 10:40 PM
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I'm not hostile, I'm just a little drunk. Easy to mistake for hostility -- this explains bar fights!


Posted by: marcus | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 10:43 PM
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I liked the test largely because these happen to be subjects that interest me (which is partly why I like Megan's blog so much), and it was remarkable to see how much I didn't know about them.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 11:01 PM
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Well, it is important to note that dirty fucking hippies are wrong about everything. So y'all should be very happy not to be infected by hippieness. That's worked out great for everyone over the last few years.

Christ.

Anyway, Ned: you live in the Mississippi watershed. Interestingly, the Allegheny is bigger than the Monongahela, which means that the Ohio should be named the Allegheny. And the Ohio/Allegheny is bigger at Cairo, Ill. than the Mississippi. Which means that, yes, the Allegheny River flows past (occasionally into) New Orleans.

Watersheds are actually a much better basis for political boundaries than the rivers and lattitude lines we tend to use now. It is unbelievably common to have a situation where one municipality can permit a use with bad downstream effects (ike, say, entire towns that can't drink their tapwater, for years on end), while the downstream municipality has no say whatsoever. If all y'all think that's a good thing, then by all means, indulge in your post-industrial mockery of environmental awareness. I'm sure it'll work out great. Everything else has so far.

Sorry, I'm a bit drunk, and now must go to bed.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 11:16 PM
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PS - I love this more-yet-less PCer-than-thou vibe about the term "tribe." Remember a few months ago, when everyone was all "Oh, the term tribe is so racist," and then Ogged pointed out that he refers to himself as a member of a tribe?

Attention Liberal Americans: The entire world is not about your guilt over the Native American genocide.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 11:22 PM
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I was one of the people saying the term "tribe" was racist, but the last sentence of 72 is so true.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 11:24 PM
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72: Billy Jack's got your number, man.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 11:24 PM
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Teo's right, you hostile drunkards. The gist of the test was a reasonable assessment of local ecological knowledge, which is hardly arcana or bullshit. The full-moon thing, whatever, and the watershed questions were vague (there are watersheds within watersheds within watersheds -- which were they asking about?).

A jillion baseball fans learn statistics minutiae with apparently no effort, and what good does that do anyone? It seems like not too much to expect that people should care about how their water reaches their taps and where it goes from their drains, where their air pollution comes from and what lives around them. The consequences of people not caring are all around us.

This has been a message from the Pacific Northwest.


Posted by: Jesus McQueen | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 11:35 PM
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Right. It's not that this stuff is What Everyone Should Know To Be A Good Person, but it's no more useless that any number of things people develop extensive detailed knowledge of, and it's more directly applicable to people's lives than most.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 11:41 PM
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Duh, McQueen. Water comes from the tap, and electricity comes from the outlet. No one but looosers wants to know more than that.

Hippie loser.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 11:45 PM
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I find the "tribe"/"sacred" crap offensiveness as much for it's hippie anti-materialism than the potential racism.


Posted by: Lunar Rockette | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 11:52 PM
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So basically, it's not about more-PC-but-less-than-thou, it's about FUCKING SCIENCE, BITCHES, FUCK YOUR GAIA, CRAP IN THE WATER DOESN'T CARE ABOUT YOUR MOTHERFUCKING PEACEPIPE OR YOUR HEMP. REAL CRAP. FROM A BUTT. OKAY?


Posted by: Lunar Rockette | Link to this comment | 08-10-07 11:56 PM
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The Portland tribe is unfazed by hostility. We have free WiFi and medical-quality reefer in our peacepipes.


Posted by: Jesus McQueen | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 12:01 AM
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Rocks fall, everyone dies.


Posted by: Lunar Rockette | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 12:05 AM
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If one decides "tribe" really means "dominant industry", the question becomes a lot more useful.


Posted by: foolishmortal | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 12:24 AM
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78: No kidding. "My tribe doesn't find geological entities or areas sacred. Except for a very restrictive definition of 'tribe' and maybe Skaggs Springs Rd"


Posted by: Jake | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 12:26 AM
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82: See, that would be a formulation I approve of, because it poses an important question, instead of slyly insinuating a philosophical stance that really has fuckall to do with poop in my tapwater.


Posted by: Lunar Rockette | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 12:30 AM
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78,73: See 82:
"My tribe found the resources of The Valley of Silica Bounty stretched thin, so we journeyed many miles until we found the Great Path of 128, and so we prospered."


Posted by: foolishmortal | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 12:35 AM
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Technology plays the role for us that nature once played for earlier societies. Technological constraints are our limiting factor, as natural constraints were for them.

Fire, stone tools, nets, spears, etc. - these are all forms of technology. Maybe there were purely natural constraints before any of these things were invented. Too bad they didn't have writing or we'd know more about them.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 1:21 AM
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Technology plays the role for us that nature once played for earlier societies. Technological constraints are our limiting factor, as natural constraints were for them. One can reframe natural constraints as a new technological and economic challenge, and lose little. (This does not mean natural constraints do not exact a cost -- meeting technological challenges is costly).

WAEWFIPIEFJOPFJOEJFOIEFJFIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE.

MAGICAL UNICORNS, M I RITE GUISE?!?!?!?!??!? WHO FART COLD FUSION!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Ahem. Excuse me. I have to go have an aneurysm now.


Posted by: Lunar Rockette | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 1:40 AM
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haha i agree about the technology.


Posted by: yoyo | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 1:53 AM
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Show me a technology that is not limited by natural constraints, and I will show you a motherfucking unicorn.


Posted by: Lunar Rockette | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 2:01 AM
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I remember Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? having something to say about the environment and technology. I remember Blade Runner having something about unicorns.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 2:14 AM
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Wow, am I the only person here scoring in the 20-25 range (depending on vagueness of answers and irritating vagueness of questions)?

Look, all of this stuff matters. Resource distribution is one of the major functions of society, economics, politics and even the humanities. Where your resources come from, how you use them, what happens to them after you've used them -- these are important questions. As people point out above, wars get fought over this stuff (in fact, last time I checked, we were fighting a couple of wars about resources RIGHT NOW). Just because petroleum happens to be the big resource-of-contention at this historical moment doesn't mean that groundwater or non-native species won't have more of an impact on you later on down the line.

The kind of casual ignorance that the quiz seems designed to take to task has real world effects. If you think you're helping out drought-stricken farmers in outstate Minnesota by not flushing your toilet in Minneapolis, you're dangerously ignorant. Or if you think that driving an SUV with "Critical Habitat" plates 5 miles several times a week to buy organic produce at Whole Foods has a lesser environmental impact than my neighbors who walk to the corner store to buy their high-fructose corn syrup sustenance, then you've really got some thinking and research to do.

The consumerist issues are really just a metonym for the more salient policy issues of course. This huge scam that's being perpetrated against the groundwater security of my state by the ethanol lobby is a good case to consider in that regard. What makes it possible is just the kind of ignorance that the quiz highlights.

My tribe is anarchists anyway.


Posted by: minneapolitan | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 3:58 AM
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As foolishmortal said in 50, I could ace this quiz if it were about where I grew up. Even the extinct species and dominant land cover plant questions. (Thank you, 4th grade Missouri history.) It probably also helps having grown up around farmers.

For my two current residences, I was surprised to find that I score slightly better for Berlin than for Boston, despite not knowing much about German geography. But with Germany's eco-obsession and the general pressures of dense population, issues surrounding water, waste, recycling, and garbage are much more present.


Posted by: Blume | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 5:14 AM
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Daniel Ludwig's Jari project in Brazil is an example of what happens when you work in substantial ignorance of the physical environment. He lost a billion dollars trying to grow pulpwood in the Amazon.

Favorable Early Report

Post mortem

I haven't found a good report. The post mortum doesn't stress Ludwigs ignorance of agronomy and the environment, but it's a truism in geography that tropical rainforests are not good for agriculture for several reasons: leaching of minerals, insect pests, and the destruction of humus by bacteria in warm wet conditions.

The cornucopian perspective (Lomborg, Julian Simon) is that there are no physical constraints on the economy whatsoever. Simon won a bet with Ehrlich 20 years ago and for cornucopians, including many economists, most libertarians, and all transhumanists, that definitively decided the question forever.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 6:08 AM
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I could answer about 25 of the questions either quite specifically or at a solid level of generality. Gardening plus an interest in naturalism helps a lot. But that's sort of the point: I have a practical reason to know some of these things (the soil type, the edible plants, the invasive species). Then I have an interest in some of these things (birds, etc.) A few of these questions have a physical, embedded payoff in any environment (where's north? where do storms come from?)

But some of them either strike me as not being required for either practical or aesthetic literacy: the presupposition behind including them is a more "Marxist" view of what we need to be literate about our lives, that we need to know the human and technical systems that underpin our daily routines. Here I guess I'm sort of agreeing with Tyler? Not that it's bad to know this. It may even become pragmatically important if that infrastructure begins to pose basic problems for our health.

There's also a few questions that I think have a tinge of environmental romanticism about Native Americans/non-Westerners built into them, which I assume is coming from Peter Warshall. (9, 18) 9 is ok, 18 kind of bugs me because it assumes that human populations normally regard parts of their environment as sacred, which I think is as much a romantic image dreamed up by late 20th Century environmentalists as it is a historical reality.


Posted by: Timothy Burke | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 6:26 AM
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I missed this whole thread and am not going to read it now because I'm getting ready to finally go see the Joseph Cornell exhibition in Salem, but: Erazim Kohák's The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature is a pretty great book about (in part) our relationship to our environment. It's not without it's flaws--at some points when reading it, I think it should have had the sub-title The Story of My Painful Divorce instead--but still, good stuff. And it will teach you a bit about phenomenology without the pain of reading Heidegger, so there you go.


Posted by: JL | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 6:45 AM
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91: Wow, am I the only person here scoring in the 20-25 range

Nope.

And there's actually a "does this stuff matter" debate going on. Cripes.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:38 AM
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Hey, 87 et al. the point isn't that there aren't resource constraints in the world. The point is that in the U.S. at least there is no evidence we're anywhere near them. We waste a fantastic amount of resources, and we're still posh and rich and comfortable. If we did start to hit a true resource crunch, answers to some of those questions in the quiz would be among the least relevant for figuring out how to handle it.

The irony is that living what is usually put forth as eco-tribal lifestyle based on local agriculture, etc. is often more wasteful of resources than taking advantage of big distribution systems with economics of scale, etc. The food tastes better, though.


Posted by: marcus | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 8:04 AM
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I might make 20 or so if you're generous about the scoring -- where NYC gets its water from has been reasonably politically salient lately, and orientation is easy with the street grid. (But they should have asked about biannual Streethenge day -- the day a few weeks before and after the solstice when the sun sets right down the streets. Cloudy this year, though.) Likewise, we've got an easy invasive species that's been in the paper the last few years (Asian Longhorn Beetle), and I just got reminded because it means that non-professionals can't clear away the trees felled by this week's tornado.

I do think some of the questions import a 'hippie' agenda that's going to be offputting -- sacred features and so forth. But generally, it's a reasonable test, and being overly put off by harmless hippieness is a mistake.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 8:08 AM
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The irony is that living what is usually put forth as eco-tribal lifestyle based on local agriculture, etc. is often more wasteful of resources than taking advantage of big distribution systems with economics of scale, etc.

I've seen this argument made a couple of times lately, but never convincingly. To mean much, you'd need to be saying that eating locally and so forth was a counterproductive rule of thumb -- that it was more likely than not to do more harm than good -- and I haven't seen that backed up.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 8:10 AM
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We waste a fantastic amount of resources, and we're still posh and rich and comfortable.

And heavily in hock to neofascist China, and increasingly unable to maintain your infrastructure, but those are minor details.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 8:22 AM
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I do agree that we've got room to drop our 'standard of living' in terms of resource use by a whole lot without making life significantly more unpleasant, but I think we need some big shocks to make us move in that direction.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 8:25 AM
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The irony is that living what is usually put forth as eco-tribal lifestyle based on local agriculture, etc. is often more wasteful of resources than taking advantage of big distribution systems with economics of scale, etc. The food tastes better, though.

For very specific definitions of "wasteful of resources," I suppose. Actually, other than financial resources of consumers, I'm not even sure what they would be.

Typical consumer travels to nearby grocer and buys either industro-ag strawberries from the other side of the country, or smaller-scale industrial strawberries from 50 miles away, or organic strawberries from 50 miles away. There might be slight differences in berries/acre, but other than that, what difference is there in resource usage beyond amount of petroleum fertilizer, distance in petro-miles, and, potentially, water scarcity? The trip to the store is the same (I love the SUV-to-Whole Foods model; as if most Americans who don't eat organics ride their bikes to the store. Walkable cities and food origination are basically unrelated); a local farmer doesn't use much gas transporting his goods even if his routing doesn't achieve Wal-Mart levels of efficiency. I'd be curious to know if there are factors I'm somehow missing.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 8:29 AM
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re: 97/99

There are presumably things that work better with large central manufacturing plants and distribution -- things like CPU fabrication and certain types of heavy engineering spring to mind -- but I'd imagine that for most things local production is likely to be better. With modern manufacturing techniques it's pretty amazing what can be made in a relatively small factory/workshop.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 8:31 AM
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The trip to the store is the same (I love the SUV-to-Whole Foods model; as if most Americans who don't eat organics ride their bikes to the store. Walkable cities and food origination are basically unrelated);

Yeah, the versions of this I've seen give industrial agriculture credit for the incredibly efficient long-distance shipping (container ships, whatever) and forgetting that that doesn't get it to your kitchen. The last couple of dozen miles aren't all that different, I don't think, for industrial or local agriculture.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 8:36 AM
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I know Singer's argument for buying from far-away-developing places rather than locally, but I don't think it takes into account environmental factors. The argument I've heard for megafood invokes efficiency, but I can't quite remember it well enough to evaulate it.

I would have done better had the questions been about my hometown, but that isn't very comforting since it seems pretty common for young Americans to settle somewhere other than their hometown.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 8:38 AM
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One more thing on the land usage: It's a lot better for states like PA and NY if local produce finds a market than if they're out-competed by CA due to transport subsidies. The water is plentiful, the land is otherwise destined for fallow or sprawl, and the rural economies could certainly use the money from comparitively wealthy urbanites/suburbanites. I don't believe that a minor increase in production per acre outweighs these other considerations. The biggest issue is not making fresh produce prohibitively expensive for the poor, but of course city farmers' markets are cheaper, fresher, and much more convenient for city dwellers than interstate produce at MegaMart.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 8:39 AM
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105: I think there's something to be said in specific cases -- a West Coast person eating Asian rice that came over on a ship is probably doing better, energy of transportation-wise, than eating trucked Lousiana rice. But of course the Louisiana rice isn't local either.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 8:43 AM
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Of course, if we were to take localized production seriously, we'd have to stop building towns and houses in areas that are completely uninhabitable without importing everything including food and water.

That's less of an issue in Europe* than in. say, the central US.

* which is pretty damned ideal for human habitation apart from the tops of a few mountains and bits of northern Scandinavia.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 8:50 AM
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My experience with farmer's markets is that their produce is much more expensive than the produce at Megamart. It's of a much higher quality. But it's a lot more expensive.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 8:52 AM
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Our local markets are more expensive than the supermarket, but not massively so. Can't say the produce is strikingly better, though. Various from thing to thing.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 8:53 AM
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Also, I miss Western Pa. and the time of year when all the local corn is available and something like ten cents an ear.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 8:56 AM
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The thing is, local producers currently specialize in stuff that can be grown locally relatively easily, in the seasons in which it can be grown locally. If you truly tried to move local agriculture out of being a niche/specialty market and provide most calories that way, then you would be running into huge agricultural efficiency differences between regions -- it's cheaper to grow grain in Iowa than Massachusetts, etc.

The ultimate forms of local food production are hunter-gatherer methods and intensive gardening, both of which were used for thousands of years. We know from the historical evidence that those methods supported much lower human populations than our current system can.

There's a whole science of agricultural resource planning that measures the maximum possible yield of different kinds of plants in different ecosystems and weather, and builds simulations of possible calorie production based on that. You could theoretically model out how much potential global yields would drop if you always grew food within, say, 50 miles of the population and then compare that to oil savings from transport. My guess is you'd see a massive drop in the overall planetary capacity for food production. But I'll admit I haven't seen such a simulation.


Posted by: marcus | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 9:17 AM
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I'll speak up for the places formerly thought sacred. I may be a bit of a geek on the subject of history, but it seems to me that a decent appreciation of one's place could reasonably include this sort of thing. Not that if one lives on Weehawken heights, for example, this knowledge is more important than, say, the vice president shooting a guy over a grievous insult.

I'm sitting in the airport waiting to board. The guy across from me just told the guy next to him that Brad moved out on Angelina. I'm not much for judging people, but I'd rather my children were curious about the habits of the natives who lived in Bethesda.

I've been up several "sacred" mountains over the years, and each has been kind of cool.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 9:19 AM
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In my local neighbourhood, I know quite a bit about the places formerly considered sacred.

But my local neighbourhood [taken to include the surrounding 15 miles or so] includes:

http://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=174

[two out of the last three times I've been there, there's been people 'worshipping' on the site]

and

http://www.megalithic.co.uk/modules.php?op=modload&name=a312&file=index&do=showpic&pid=18884

[there are literally dozens more similar things locally]


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 9:35 AM
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re: 112

I'm willing to bet that for the majority of the human population, food largely is grown within 50 miles of the population. So I'd dispute your 'guess'.

Obviously the degree to which it's favourable will depend on the area. You could pretty easily do it where I live in Oxfordshire, for example. It'd be a damn sight harder in Trondheim.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 9:41 AM
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The point isn't that there aren't resource constraints in the world. The point is that in the U.S. at least there is no evidence we're anywhere near them.

That principle is not admitted by cornucopians. Many economists believe that resources are completely irrelevant. One guy at Crooked Timber told me (based on a conversation with two unnamed agronomists in a bar) that California could easily feed the whole world. I was just trying to convince him that fresh water and good topsoil are unsubstitutable and only very slowly renewable.

One issue is whether we wait until there's a crisis, or whether we think in the longer term than 5-10 years. In one debate it turned out that for the economy (ans economists), 20 years is long term, whereas for the environment (and environmentalists), 100 years is short term.

Economists are also very happy to pull comforting statements about environmental reality out of their butts, even though there are scientists who actually study these questions.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 9:43 AM
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The notion that California could feed 6 billion people is so beyond crazy it's comical.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 9:45 AM
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(I love the SUV-to-Whole Foods model; as if most Americans who don't eat organics ride their bikes to the store. Walkable cities and food origination are basically unrelated)

How are they unrelated? I see some pretty direct causal relationships there. If you build cities the way we do in the US, you're most likely going to have situations like the one I describe: rich people who have access to private transportation (and who wind up being in their cars constantly for a variety of trips) are going to be persuaded that you shop for one thing -- say luxury baked goods -- at one store, and another -- organic produce -- at a different one across town, and the fact that you're driving 20 or 30 miles ever week to hit all of these different spots is just "natural", because you have standards to maintain. Conversely, if you're broke most of the time, and don't have the scratch to kick down for organics or high-end convenience food, then it makes sense that you'll mostly go to the corner store, on foot or by bike (which is how about 75% of the trips I see at the convenience store down the block take place) or take the bus once a week to the big-box discount warehouse supermarket. The bitter irony is that many of the neighborhoods in which, during the last 30 years, poor people were concentrated and wound up finding themselves consuming much less energy for their food trips, are now being gentrified and the inhabitants forced into the inner-ring suburbs, where they might well be traveling as much for food as some of their outer-ring suburban compatriots.

But the focus of the quiz was more on water usage. Here again, the people whom class and educational background would seem to ideally prepare for better practice are the ones who wind up succumbing most to the social pressures to consume in unsustainable ways. Lawn maintenance, multiple bathroom houses, automatic dishwashers, excess clothes requiring more laundering due to frequent costume changes, new development that increases impervious surfaces and decreases forests and wetlands -- the class and economic position of end users is pretty critical to understanding the whole system.

Also, DS -- I just read over the prior comments to mine, and most people seem to be claiming 0-15 for their current living situtation. And I wasn't claiming that there was a lack of debate, simply coming in on the side of "this is important" and highlighting the general ignorance as part of my argument. So put that in you pipe and smoke it, Captain Sarcastic.


Posted by: minneapolitan | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 9:53 AM
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re: 116 and 117

I just had a go at running the numbers.

Turns out, that if you can use all of California's land for agriculture and if you can feed roughly 700 people per acre*, then it could be done. Ahem.

* as opposed to the approximately .05 persons per acre currently fed by US agricultural land...


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 10:14 AM
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Agree wholeheartedly with 118 on landscaping and development practices. For clothing and bathrooms, I would think that usage matters more than quantity. I was under the impression that automatic dishwashers (provided they're used only for a full load) consume about the same amount of water as efficient hand-washing, though of course manufacture, transport, and electricity also matter.

I got somewhere around 15-20 correct answers for my new Place of Residence, depending on how much leeway I allow myself. (Is 900 ft. a close enough estimate of Place's 920 ft. elevation? Presumably. Is 8:00 a good enough estimate of an 8:31 sunset tonight? Maybe. Etc.)


Posted by: Merganser | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 10:36 AM
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115: no, I disagree vehemently, my wild guess that I pulled out of my ass is far more plausible than yours! Welcome to the internets!

Seriously, though, over half the world's population is urban now...urban areas have traditionally had to pull in food from a pretty broad geographic range, no? Anyway, this would be a pretty in-depth research question to take it beyond the guessing stage.

116: Hi, Emerson. I'm in Cleveland now, slowly approaching the final destination. Thanks for your hospitality...after seeing your town, I think your community could pull together and survive by fishing once civilization collapses. I'm sure the winters would be tough, though.

I've run into the full-on Cornucopian types you're talking about, and yes they are annoying and yes econ encourages that sort of thing. But the occasional far left predictions of oncoming environmental doom are at least equally unsupported scientifically...there are large groups of researchers working on e.g. food security issues, and their results are far more nuanced than this industrial-civilization-will-collapse stuff that you sometimes hear. And if you believe in markets at all, we should see scarcity show up in price increases, which we really haven't seen on a large scale for resources like farmland, etc.


Posted by: | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 10:48 AM
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Yeah, but remember what I said about timescales. One of Ehrlich's problems was his use of a very short timescale.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 11:37 AM
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6: I live in Britain, people who are broadly the same as me having been living where I live and eating largely what I eat now for thousands of years.

And my tribe kept invading your tribe, in search of something better than lutefisk to eat. Your cuisine provided us with the occasional curry, something that is so far superior to anything we ever came up with that we have now incorporated it into our smörgåsbords.


Posted by: DominEditrix | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 11:56 AM
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Oddly, tho' I thought I knew much more about my habitat in New England than I do about CA, I did reasonably well on the quiz. Of course, it helps that southern CA is in a rather hideous drought situation, leaving one inclined to read up on many of the things reflected in the quiz. And it made answering 28 pretty easy ["What rain??"].


Posted by: DominEditrix | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 12:12 PM
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I'm willing to bet that for the majority of the human population, food largely is grown within 50 miles of the population. So I'd dispute your 'guess'.

Other than the fact that the the majority of human population lives a pretty miserable hand-to-mouth existence, do you really think so? Urbanization is has been picking up steam for a while now, and I'd be surprised if the big cities in India and China (and Mexico even) weren't getting food from more than 50 miles away.

I could get something like 16, falling down on the edible plants and species questions. Geology is much easier.

Making predictions on 100 year timescales is incredibly difficult; you get into the "New York can't grow any more because there's no way to get rid of all the horse shit" problem. I'm not convinced environmentalists do any better than economists here.


Posted by: Jake | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 12:16 PM
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The majority of the human population now lives in cities.


Posted by: Wrongshore | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 12:22 PM
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What did Domineditrix's tribe eat besides lutefisk and lingonberries?

No corn, not much wheat, no potatoes, no rice, no corn, no pasta, no peanuts, no tomatoes, no oranges, no lemons, no sugar, no melons.

Rye, barley. Turnips, beets, cabbages. Beef, pork, and fish (often salted or dried). Dairy. Chickens and eggs. Apples, berries, maybe plums, a little honey Carrots? Beans? Peas?

Not much in the way of sauces and spices. No restaurants. No delis. No gourmet specialties. No Thai, no Ethiopian, not even any Chinese. No refrigerators.

Damn!


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 12:22 PM
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Jake, that's bullshit. The events take place on a long timescale. That's the scale at which environmentalists have to think. Economists use that argument all the time: "Who knows about the far future? Let's not even think about it at all!"

There are real cases in history of irreversible environmental degradation resulting from human use: most of the Mediterranean, northern China, Central Asia. I'm sure that the economists of those days were playing the skepticism card then too.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 12:27 PM
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127: Turnips, bah, turnips were for the livestock. The lingonberries were good, tho'. And the hazelnuts. And the cherries. And the occasional puffin under glass. But mostly we had to go a-viking in order to get the tasty stuff, like Mars Bars and a really nice bottle of wine.


Posted by: DominEditrix | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 1:14 PM
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John, the idea that we could make deliberate, programmatic *policy* at those timescales strikes me as kind of nuts. First, we don't have any sociopolitical institutions capable of enacting political or economic decisions taking with deliberate intent to produce particular outcomes over hundreds or thousands of years. Second, at that time scale, unless you're Hari Seldon, unpredictable, unplanned or unanticipated events, even small ones, could fuck up pretty much any plan we might make in the present. You could say that we could adjust the plan, but if we're talking about taking incremental actions over centuries, you could be two centuries into some kind of plan only to find out that you didn't adequately understand the role of trapped methane in the oceans, or didn't model for what happens when two relatively nearby supernovas have a small but crucial effect on terrestrial weather. Or maybe you didn't understand the effect that one adjustment would have on another and you make certain problems worse while making others better: you don't get a do-over if you're acting over a period of centuries.

I completely accept that understanding human impacts on the global environment takes a historical scale of thousands of years. Acting can't happen at that same time scale.

Also, if you're going to insist that we think over the long scale, why stop at centuries? If you think in terms of millions of years, the Earth has done just fine with environmental conditions radically different than the present. Now mind you, human beings would have hated living in Jurassic environments. It would have been a bummer to cause my entire neighborhood to blow up in a wildfire every time I lit a match, for one. Even if human beings kick off a true great extinction and radically alter Earth's climate, the environment itself is adaptable. The problem is a problem from an anthrocentric viewpoint: *WE* won't like the world that we're in the process of making. Not one bit: we already don't like the animals and plants that are most successful at coping with the environmental conditions we're making, we won't like the consequences for the habitats we prefer, etc. More importantly, the consequences are most fearsome at relatively short timescales. We worry about the flooding of Bangladesh because we worry about the individual lives that will be lost or be devastated, at the timescale of individual humanity. If we're talking a four century long timescale, I'm sorry, but that isn't the same kind of problem. What happens to human populations over a millennium is a different matter than what happens to living, breathing individuals when environmental changes destroy their lives within the span of a single lifetime.


Posted by: Timothy Burke | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 1:17 PM
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118: So put that in you pipe and smoke it, Captain Sarcastic.

I'm enjoying the smooth, ironic* flavour.

(* The irony being that for once, I wasn't being sarcastic. I was just bemoaning the fact that there appears to be the need for such a debate.)


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 1:18 PM
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Puffins live in Scotland too, you know. Their cuisine is plenty good.


Posted by: Cryptic Ned | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 1:20 PM
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All I can say is fuck the environment. As soon as we're all put in glass jars as specimens by the aliens that are studying us, the better we'd all be.


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 1:22 PM
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John, the idea that we could make deliberate, programmatic *policy* at those timescales strikes me as kind of nuts.

It doesn't sound nearly as nuts if the 'programmatic *policy*' is along the lines of "Don't irretrievably fuck up the natural systems we depend on until we have a clear idea of how to either fix them or manage without them".


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 1:24 PM
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130: For the first time, I truly understand Ogged's analogy ban.

It shouldn't be too hard to fathom that planning across a few coexisting generations to increase your chances of doing well across, say, a millennium is hardly the equivalent of working at a geological timescale. Usually, something that's visible at a scale of a few hundred years can be glimpsed (at least in microcosm) at the scale of individual lives, as was the case with, say, the Mediterranean. For some reasoning enviromentalism tends to bring out all this "why should we plan more than a few years ahead when any day could bring a comet?" nuttery.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 1:38 PM
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You may be right that we can't think on any time scale longer than ten years or so, in which case we might as well ignore the environment because the important environmental events are on the long scale. The difficulties in thinking long-term are not in question, but the point is that if we don't there were be serious problems. I'm talking about what should be done, not what can be done, but deciding in advance that nothing can be done is malicious.

Economists always do it because their utopia depends on high economic growth indefinitely into the future, and because their training teaches them nothing or less than nothing about the environment.

An example of long term thinking: a few decades ago people extrapolated the actual birth rate a few centuries into the future, and in large parts of the world population population exploded exponentially. They asked themselves if they believed that those birth rates could be sustained, and decided that it couldn't (except with the help of extreme poverty and high mortality). So India and China moved from a pro-natality to an anti-natality policy, and the problem diminished significantly.

NOTE: This fact is often cited as a refutation of the alarmists, when actually it is a triumph of the alarmists. They succeeded in convincing China and India to take steps to reduce birth rates. The problem was reduced because farsighted steps were taken.

Whatever we do on CO2 won't bring results for several decades. This is true of population too -- in the most optimistic projections, population might stabilize in 50 years or so. (Incidentally, economists are willing to use this particular long-term projection, because it allows them to minimze the problem).



Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 1:39 PM
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"Why stop at centuries?"

Put the dunce cap on and stand in the corner until recess, Tim.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 1:41 PM
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The thing that pisses me off on this is that quite reasonable long-term plans are impossible to put into effect because well-off individuals want larger houses and cars right now.

This issue is always framed in terms of whatever negative effects environmentalism is thought to have, or really does have, on the third world poor, but there's not a single other political issue which is primarily driven by the needs of the third world poor. What drives anti-environmentalism is the felt needs of incredibly rich people living in luxury.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 1:45 PM
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I think there are a lot of things we can do at something close to the timescales that we live our individual lives at (50-100 years). But even "don't fuck up the environment" at a 400 year timescale strikes me as daunting. To put it in perspective, that would have required 18th Century governments to have understood the long-term consequences of improved sewer infrastructure in urban areas and a zillion other developments in similar terms. When I think about the long-scale, I don't see how anyone, even given modern ecological science, could guess with great accuracy about some of the ultimate effects of very small but crucial changes. That's the problem with complex systems in motion: you can be sure that small effects in the present can have huge effects in the long-term, but you really can't be certain about what those are going to be except at a very loose level.

This is what people are getting at when they raise the question of whether local farming undertaken specifically as *organic* farming actually has a net savings in terms of energy expenditure, etcetera. I see a lot of people sounding very certain about that: all I can say is that it strikes me as plausible that there is an improvement, and posssible that it isn't an improvement if undertaken at a comprehensive scale. When people *are* certain one way or the other, it's usually because they have a metaphysical certainty about the results, because it accords with their own flavor of ideological common sense. But to think as a matter of policy-making at a level of centuries, you'd have to really, finally KNOW right now before you threw the switch on some kind of aggressive implementation of incentives designed to promote locally-based food production and consumption.

We can handle some of the big, obvious things that are readily apparent to us at the timescale of our own lives. Don't dump dioxin in my backyard, sure. Clean up my air and water, yes. Don't stripmine the entirety of my landscape for coal. Don't dump zebra mussels into my local waterways. Understand the immediate consequences of particular infrastructural changes we make. etc.


Posted by: Timothy Burke | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 1:47 PM
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But why stop at centuries, honestly? Once you start saying that some problems have to have long-term solutions, where's the arbitrary cutoff beyond which we're no longer obligated to think about coping with the problems? At a time scale of millennia, for example, it's increasingly likely that all of the global effects that concern us at the moment will be trumped by a large asteroid or cometary strike on Earth. It's possible that we could take measures now to plan for action against such a problem. If I had limited resources, wouldn't it be more prudent to put my eggs in that basket?

How long is long enough, in your view? Many contemporary environmental problems at least have their roots in the post-1500 expansion of Europe and consequent transformations of the global economy. But maybe many of them are shorter in their most important causal roots--say, 150 years. Or maybe most of them go all the way back to sedentism and agriculture. I dunno. Once you start playing the long game, it strikes me as a matter of genuine debate about how long is long enough. The deep ecology folks would have us think about everything since farming as a big fat mistake, and have us plan for a sustainable return to hunting and gathering. Seen from one perspective, they're perfectly right. (From lots of others, they're pretty well nuts.)


Posted by: Timothy Burke | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 1:52 PM
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Well, I wasn't proposing ignoring short term effects, and I wasn't proposing a detailed 500-year plan. I was just saying that environmental events do take place on the long term. Some are predictable and some not, but we have to be willing to think on the long term, which the typical economist is unwilling to do. Concentration on immediately perceptible effects (immediate gratification vs. presently experienced environmental problems) combined with skepticism about long-term effects is part of what got us where we are now, because the consumption payoffs always arrive quicker than the environmental problems.

Anyway, we don't really know if Bangla Desh will be flooded, and if it is, it probably won't be for quite awhile, and anyway, stuff like that has happened before, and anyway, I don't live there, and neither does anyone I know. /irony


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 1:57 PM
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Huh. He actually did the "why plan when a comet could come along?" schtick. Unfuckingbelievable.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 2:00 PM
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Jesus, Tim, I'm mostly trying to get the horizon past the next ten years, and to get people to actually realize that the long time scale is where things happen. I'm talking to people, including nice liberals, who don't believe that anything is real if they don't experience it personally. I'd say a 100-year timescale within the awareness of a 500-year timescale beyond that would be OK.

Just an awareness that some kinds of changes are irreversible might help.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 2:01 PM
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There are clearly some things that we need to know as citizens, because we can't trust government or business to not fuck them up. Do we all agree that in so far as that is not true, then not knowing something about your natural environment is no worse than any other form of ignorance? For example, not knowing the current phase of the moon or which native plants are edible is no worse than not knowing how your car works, or that ressentiment is not a misspelling of resentment, or that the integral of 1/(1+t^2) is arctan t plus a constant?


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 2:13 PM
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I'm not advocating deep ecology based on the particular test. I probably wouldn't do terribly well on the test. I'm talking more generally about how to think in an environmental context.

People living an entirely urban lifestyle in a consumer context have no necessary connection to or awareness of the environment at all, which easily leads them to be willing to accept cornucopian thinking, tacitly or explicitly. And many economists egg them on.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 2:23 PM
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I'm not trying to argue with any of the points you've been making. I'm just trying to get a sense as to the underlying source of disagreement on the thread.


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 2:54 PM
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And there's actually a "does this stuff matter" debate going on. Cripes.

Huh. He actually did the "why plan when a comet could come along?" schtick. Unfuckingbelievable.

These are unfair, DS. There's not a debate about whether this stuff matters, but about whether lay people need to know these details. And Tim's point was just that we need to come to some agreement about the time frame of the effects we're trying to deal with, because if we extend it far enough, crazy stuff like planning for the comet becomes pretty reasonable.


Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 4:29 PM
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Burke, I think you're wrong about this, but you do get a point for the Hari Seldon reference. But to respond to you, I don't think the problem is so much that developers to take one example, can't extrapolate to the sorts of building materials that will be available or the energy that will be needed within the next 100 years. And any policy that tried to guess how many people there would be (and advocated buildings, rather than contraception) or how much horseshit there would be wrongheaded.

But that can't be the only way to look at it. We could think of it, hippily, as working with nature to get where we want instead of trying to ignore things like, say, wildfires and the necessity of wetlands to drainage in the Mississippi delta. That wouldn't require trying to think unto the seventh generation, but it would require a different way of thinking about progress.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 4:30 PM
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Tim hasn't said that we shouldn't do things with the environment in mind, he was responding specifically to Emerson's point that environmentalists have to on the scale of centuries (and that economists don't like to do that).


Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 4:33 PM
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The comet can come tomorrow as well as any other time. Comet-thinking applies to all future planning whatsoever. Extermination events do not happen often -- on the range of tens of millions of years.

There are quite a number of predictable long-term processes, and we need to think of more than 10-year effects.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 4:37 PM
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Yes, I noticed that, but he seemed to be suggesting that economists don't like to do that largely because they have no good way of predicting anything 400 years out. And I'm suggesting that needing-to-predict-400-years-out doesn't have to be the only way an economist can look at it, nor do we have to limit it to effects we can see in our lifetimes.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 4:37 PM
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The comet can come tomorrow as well as any other time.

This is a digression, but that's not true. Astronomers track lots of comets whose paths might intersect with the earth and have a pretty good idea of when we need to worry.


Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 4:42 PM
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nor do we have to limit it to effects we can see in our lifetimes

And this is the issue, as I understand it: What's the timeframe in which we can be reasonably confident that what we do will result in what we want?


Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 4:43 PM
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OK, not tomorrow. Extermination events are rare enough that their possibility is irrelevant to the kind of 1000-year planning Burke objects to.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 4:44 PM
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Actually, reading a bit more, my 152 is wrong. You backed down too soon, John! They haven't surveyed as comprehensively as I'd thought.


Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 4:47 PM
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Hay evvybody! I am heeeeere!


Posted by: The Comet | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 4:47 PM
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As DS said, the comet-extinction event is a cliche trotted out over and over again in discussions like this. It's really not a valid argument. Nor is "If 500 years, why not 20 million years?"

500 years is actually fairly short term, environmentally speaking. And our increased power over the environment, made possible by increased scientific knowledge, requires that we develop scientific knowledge about the effects of what we're doing, and pay attention to that science.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 4:48 PM
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147: Re: the former, I wasn't dismissing all of the debate on the thread as being "is this important?" stuff. Just things like "technological advancement is the real constraint."

Re: the comets, sorry, but if we're going to have a halfway-serious conversation about timeframes, "why shouldn't we plan for asteroids?" just doesn't cut it, partly for the reason Emerson gives in 150. (It's not true that scientists can track all the relevant comets and asteroids. An extiction-level event could just as easily come from a rock that's not visible until it's too late. It's a factor so far out of human control that trying to adduce it as a reason not to plan WRT controllable factors is ridiculous.)


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 4:50 PM
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Pwned, I see.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 4:51 PM
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Environmental protection will almost always involve immediate costs in the interest of long-term benefits, and more often than not the costs are concentrated on particular individuals and groups while the benefits are more widely distributed. If you're going to deal with the environment with any success, you have to deal with both of these problems.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 4:52 PM
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153: It's hard to argue this because I'm already in widgetland in terms of my understand on this, but let's say instead of worrying about timescales I asked whether what I was doing was sustainable given the current technology or whether I'd have to hope someone would have to invent something in the next generation to fix my fuckup. And err generally on the side of not needing to rely on a future invention.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 4:54 PM
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161 is awesome. Cala wins the thread.


Posted by: Lunar Rockette | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 5:42 PM
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Hey, man, I think we SHOULD plan for the comet coming along. I do not cite that as an evidence of "let's just fucking consume the earth and destroy it because a) Jesus or b) comet is coming soon".

I'm seriously asking how we plan for two or three centuries, because I'm seriously convinced that's the time scale at which serious environmental effects will be felt. Not ten years. I read a thing from one activist where she was complaining that the polar bears will go extinct if within five years we don't adopt a particular set of major global policies. I'm sorry, but that's a mismatch of time scales. If we're talking global environmental effects, the polar bear is already fucking toast, people. It's not about the polar bears anymore, or any other kind of charismatic megafauna. If it's about global effects taking place at very long time scales (100-300 years) HOW DO YOU PLAN FOR THAT? I'm honestly asking.

And I'm honestly asking thinking that if we're thinking at long time scales, why not think about other issues at long time scales? Why does everyone guffaw and say, "oh the fucking comet, you ridiculous fellow". If you can name me a way to actually plan at century-long scales, why NOT plan for a catastrophe that would make growing wheat in northern Alberta and having endemic malaria in central Pennsylvania look like no big problem?


Posted by: Timothy Burke | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 6:17 PM
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Someone else answer Burke or I'm going to pull out the widgets.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 6:25 PM
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I now don't know what you're trying to say. In 130 you said that trying to plan for long time scales was "fucking nuts."

As far as the comet goes, that kind of enormous disaster occurs unpredictably at lapses of millions of years, and I don't see how we could plan for it.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 6:26 PM
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I think it's nuts because I have seriously no idea how to do it. So if that's the scale at which we plan, I have no idea. All I can think about is the relatively small-beer stuff we can do that's about the next fifty or so. If you have some serious ideas about how to do it other than, "We gotta", I'm all ears.

Smaller impacts with significant global implications occurs at WAY less intervals than millions of years, btw.


Posted by: Timothy Burke | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 6:38 PM
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155: holy fuck--the asteroid could hit tomorrow?!?! I thought we were guaranteed decades or even centuries advance notice! That's fucking bullshit. I'm not going to be able to sleep tonight. What if the asteroid hits and I'm asleep? No final fuck, no final phone calls, no final ice cream cone??

We need more instruments searching the sky for asteroids! Fuck funding for the homeless.


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 6:45 PM
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Sure, because copious funding for the homeless will readily solve the problem of homelessness far faster than funding for asteroids solves that problem. Or, for that matter, funding for two century-long environmental remediation plans will fix the entire global environmental problem.

"Don't tilt at that fucking windmill, man! My windmill is much better!"


Posted by: Timothy Burke | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:16 PM
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I don't know what you're triyng to say, Burke, but I don't think I like it.


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:18 PM
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I'm experiencing some cognitive dissonance about the fact that Tim Burke isn't making any sense here.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:19 PM
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Maybe he's drunk.

Anyway, homelessness is not a "problem" that can be "solved".


Posted by: Cryptic Ned | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:20 PM
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I'm trying to figure out why everyone seems to think it makes good sense to plan at centuries-long intervals for environmental problems but why some kind of orbital defense against asteroids and comets is silly. Or why either of these needs to be counterposed against "simple" policy objectives like eliminating homelessness.


Posted by: Timothy Burke | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:26 PM
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And doesn't sound like his usual self. And is missing obvious jokes. It's either a troll or Swarthmore had its annual soiree.

(I fantasize, at times, about being able to stick sticky notes on the doors of colleagues who blog, the notes saying 'haha pwned.')

Tim, I agree that I have no idea how to plan for 500 years from now, but I do know that if I, for example, know that the Louisiana wetlands are vital to the area being able to withstand flooding (WIDGET WIDGET WIDGET), and I plan to drain them now, I can reasonably conclude that some smartypants in the near future is going to have to deal with that. I don't have to have a specific timescale to decide that maybe I need to rethink my plan. I can instead have a general idea of, say, refraining from plans that require a major technological advancement in order to be sustainable beyond a generation or so.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:26 PM
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I suppose I'm in a humorless mood tonight. Humor me.


Posted by: Timothy Burke | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:27 PM
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167: We need more instruments searching the sky for asteroids!

It would make for some awesome impending-doom parties, there's that.

168: funding for two century-long environmental remediation plans will fix the entire global environmental problem.

Look, can you really not have noticed that you're tilting at a strawman here? Look at 141 and 143 for starters.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:27 PM
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If the timescale is 15 years, DS, as per 141 and 143, then John doesn't need any of this "my environmental buds think in terms of centuries". Because then we're all in the same space: do what seems needful here and now, in terms of our own lives and circumstances. If it's centuries, then talk centuries.


Posted by: Timothy Burke | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:29 PM
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Let's just try to think one or two generations. I'd be a lot happier if the boomers had thought of maybe not fucking up the world for me at least once whilst they fucked it up.

More than one or two out, we're all going to have implanted iPods anyway and stargates to go through.

"Tilting at straw windmills" is my trademarked phrase! used to defend my prospectus! In that that wasn't what I was doing.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:32 PM
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I can instead have a general idea of, say, refraining from plans that require a major technological advancement in order to be sustainable beyond a generation or so.

Haven't read the whole thread, Cala, but I've read your last few comments and I think your argument unfortunately proves too much. By which I mean that if we took it seriously we'd have to halt damn near everything we're doing. Not just draining swamps but our entire modern society. The sad truth is we have to look forward with hope for future technologies or we're completely fucked.


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:32 PM
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Nah, just think about it a bit. Is this going to be a problem in 50 years? Then try to think about it now. widget widget widget.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:34 PM
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Eh, the truth of it is I'm getting my ass kicked at poker tonight. So I'm actually wishing for the asteroid to just hit right now and make a wash of it.


Posted by: Timothy Burke | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:34 PM
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This isn't Tim Burke. He typed a comment of one sentence, and omitted the remaining ninety-seven!


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:38 PM
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Two sentences.


Posted by: Timothy Burke | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:39 PM
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Potato, potahto.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:41 PM
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Jesus, Tim.

1. I was talking to Marcus, an economist, and pointing out that economists have a very short time scale. Marcus was basically saying "Let's wait until enough topsoil is destroyed to produce a visible change in land prices, and then think about doing something". Part of what I was saying about timescales was to the effect that sometimes by the time you notice something is happening, it's over and done with. I never talked about a 200 year plan.

2. Granted that there are unpredictable events, some processes have knowable long-term effects. We should deal with these known processes, rather than saying "What the hey, an asteroid could hit us!" We should also study to increase our long term knowledge of these effects.

3. If there's something going on now which will have bad effects if continued indefinitely, say for 2 centuries, we should think now about doing things differently.

4. The big mass-extermination events occurred 250 million years ago and 65 million years ago. The other events I was able to Google had local or transient effects. But anyway, #2.

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/11/1120_031120_massextinctions.html
250 m 65 m


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:43 PM
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Look, on the asteroid thing, local or transient effects could amount to a lot as far as human beings go. A single big volcanic eruption is enough to have a huge impact on our societies.


Posted by: Timothy Burke | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:46 PM
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I was under the impression that there are already some policies in place that were conceived with long term goals in mind.

1. Reduction of the use of CFCs to preserve the ozone layer. (Montreal protocols, etc.)

2. Tree farming in the Pacific Northwest. I remember passing through places in Washington as a kid and signs were up around groups of short trees informing everyone that they were scheduled for "harvest" in about 80 years. (This might be privately organized, but the USFS likely has something to do with it.)

3. Incentives to move people off of floodplains in response to repeated flood and rescue efforts in some places over the years. (I don't know how well this was implemented; I may have only heard about it being discussed.)

It may be that in 40 years those floodplains will be heavily populated, the trees will be cut down before reaching full growth, and CFCs will be back again, but those possibilities hardly seem like reasons not to put those policies in place or even think about them. It may also be that these plans prove counterproductive, in which case they should be revised, just like with any other policy.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:47 PM
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Fine, Tim. We plan for the things that can be planned for, not the ones that can't. By and large the regular events dominate the irregular events, with scattered exceptions.

From the point of view of major global ecological disasters, 500 years is a fairly short time scale.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:51 PM
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eb, these so-called "policies" sound like a lot of work. Can't we just let the free market take care of it?


Posted by: Cryptic Ned | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:52 PM
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The floodplains thing is a good example of where we *could* think in 100-200 year intervals but it's proving surpassingly difficult to do so. It's actually been really hard with the very modest incentives to get people to move off floodplains in the US so far.

The CFC thing is a good example, although on the other hand, the striking thing is that ozone depredation (and remediation) are surprisingly responsive phenomena at the scale of individual huma lives.

Tree planting is almost a point in favor of the economists (e.g., the market will work with long time scales when that's the base reality of the commodity in question). I agree with John though that this doesn't cover a whole bunch of other things that aren't easily marketized.


Posted by: Timothy Burke | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:54 PM
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I find myself wondering if any of the anti-Federalists were against the Constitution because, though it tried to use the idea of separation of powers to prevent the development of tyranny and despotism over a series of generations, it had nothing to say about comets or asteroids.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:54 PM
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Tree planting is almost a point in favor of the economists (e.g., the market will work with long time scales when that's the base reality of the commodity in question).

I'm actually not so interested in the economists vs. environmentalists argument. I've probably read too much environmental history or something.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:57 PM
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It's actually been really hard with the very modest incentives to get people to move off floodplains in the US so far.

As far as I understand the "modest incentives" are basically just federal subsidized flood insurance. Which, yeah, isn't doing a great job of getting people to move away.


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 7:59 PM
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In 191, "interested" s/b "invested"


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 8:14 PM
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I was talking to Marcus, an economist, and pointing out that economists have a very short time scale. Marcus was basically saying "Let's wait until enough topsoil is destroyed to produce a visible change in land prices, and then think about doing something".

I've been absent (121 was me, obviously)...in fact, I am returning home late drunk yet again, from the Unfogged Cleveland meetup. (Very) small but a great time -- Redfoxtailshrub is one of the most DYNAMIC AND ENERGETIC people I've ever met. But anyway, this is a good point.

It's not clear exactly what time scale you can use prices to infer over. Market participants are not completely short-sighted, and some form of stockpiling or investment could occur over periods longer than a decade. (There's been work done on this -- I'd recommend checking out the article "Nonrenewable Resource Scarcity" in the December 1998 Journal of Economic Literature if you're interested in the theory of price signaling of resource scarcity). But clearly the time scale is limited in some way.

But all decisionmaking is either over a limited time scale, or has to deal with massive uncertainties as time scales expand. Environmentalists who try to draw conclusions over a century are dealing with the uncertainties of technological and demographic change over that period. They are essentially projecting some continuation of current conditions and lining them up against known resource limits. The cornucopians are right that this could be highly misleading. In saying one should simply follow the environmentalists, one is implicitly assuming that the costs of limiting growth today are less than the risks of potential future resource exhaustion at some uncertain time. I don't find it so easy to make that tradeoff.

I sometimes think that people who find it easy to choose limiting growth are suspicious of growth for some other moral or spiritual type reason. If growth could be limited simply by cutting back on "excesses" and "waste", that would be one thing. But that's not how it works.


Posted by: marcus | Link to this comment | 08-11-07 11:03 PM
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One thing I get from this old argument is that it's important to figure out some way to handle this kind of question other than the economist's way, which is deciding at which point the future should be discounted to zero.

A second would be to realize that people living today have no personal interest in the future beyond about 90 years from now (assuming they have infant grandchildren), and for that reason the economic supply and demand model is weighted toward long-term indifference to the environment, or looting the environment. People of the future have no buying power and don't enter the demand equation.

A third would be simply to ignore non-environmentalist economists who confidently tell us that the environmental future is completely imponderable, while simultaneously trying to sell us utopian cornucopian descriptions of the future, and idealized descriptions of the perfection of the market economy.

One non-imponderable. for example, is that we are draining finite aquifers faster than they can be replenished, and that freshwater is non-substitutable. "We'll always be able to find more somewhere" is not a plan. Sending the arctic rivers south is possible, but it bring the same kinds of unpredictable problems as global warming. (Note here that economists, in the interest of optimism and unrestricted business, ignore the sure thing, exhausting present water supplies, while also ignoring the imponderable, which is the outcomes of arctic diversions.)

As far as technological change, it makes sense, as Cala says, to plan conservatively and then integrate innovations after they have appeared, rather than to plan on the expectation that something or another will turn up.

This is chapter 100 in the series "Learn not to think like an economist".

And nobody is talking about limiting growth. We're talking about maintaining the environment. Economists express this in terms of limiting growth because that's a possible consequence, because growth is an absolute value for economists, because t seems that environmental protection might screw up their fantasy, and because they neither know nor want to know about the environment.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ogallala_Aquifer


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-12-07 5:50 AM
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I think it's a mistake to draw such a sharp distinction between economics/growth ideology and environmentalism. As countries grow economically, they tend to become more, not less, concerned with environmental issues. They have more wealth available to address environmental damage. Also, economic theory presents lots of reasons to be concerned with environmental damage and plenty of economists have worked to improve regulation in that area. Name another social science that has been more active in creating theory about the causes and potential ways to regulate environmental damage. Cornucopianism just is not economics, and if you think it is you don't have a full sense of the discipline. You seem to be confusing economics with libertarian ideology.

BTW, economists have been campaigning for years for more rational pricing of water resources in arid regions. An important reason why they are being drawn down so quickly is because they are essentially free to so many agricultural users. That's politics, not economics.


Posted by: marcus | Link to this comment | 08-12-07 9:12 AM
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Marcus, growth was brought up by you, not me. Growth is the economists' dog in this fight; it's what economists know and care about. I'm not sure that anyone here has made a no-growth statement.

It's only half true that development reduces economic damage. More efficient methods are counterbalanced by more demands as the standard of living rises. The rise of E. Asia and even of Poland has already had a negative effect on fisheries.

As far as I know, economists have been mostly footdraggers on environmentalism since 1960. They have never been on the forefront. Once an issue is raised (always by non-economists) economists sometimes pooh-pooh the question and sometimes propose the most economically efficient ways of attaining goals. Economists, as such, have no concern at all for the environment; it's not part of their training. Environmental economics is a subspecialty, or even a heterodoxy, and is not terribly influential within the field.

In government we have the Federal Reserve, the council of economic advisers, and the treasury secretary. All economists. How much concern have any of them ever had specifically for the environment? My guess is none. Who in government can stand against them from the environmental point of view? There's no one with influence coparable to that of any one of the economists, and there wouldn't be even if Bush weren't President.

Herman Daley has written about his experiences as an early environmental economist. It didn't do his career any good.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-12-07 9:29 AM
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I read something awhile back to the effect that when estimating the negative effects of free trade, economists are careful to consider the various adjustments the market will make to compensate for them, but when estimating the negative effects of environmental regulation, they leave these adjustments out of account in order to maximize the reported effect.

In this kind of argument I always come against a.) individual exceptions and b.) the claim that the public face of economics misrepresents the actual state of the field. The first is irrelevant. There are always exceptions. As for the second, economists really need to get to work to change the public face of economics.

Frankly, though, when I read the ravings of Becker (highly respected Nobelist) I tend to conclude that the field as a whole is problematic.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-12-07 9:37 AM
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Last night was a pleasure. I hope to have more such meetups in the future. Marcus is very kind in his description of my spastic ways. I swear that in my heart, I am weary, cheerless, and inert.


Posted by: redfoxtailshrub | Link to this comment | 08-12-07 10:42 AM
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