The theodicy of ethical consumerism

I wrote a few weeks ago about the ideological function of free will: we don’t blame people because they have free will, we say they have free will so we can blame them. In the theological realm, the goal of granting us free will isn’t to enhance our dignity or the meaningfulness of our life, but to make sure God has someone to blame for all the bad things that happen — and I believe we can apply the principle of a homology between the theological and the political realm here as well.

A perfect example of this is dynamic is ethical consumerism. It often strikes me as bizarre that we’re even given a choice between the gross processed food and the healthy organic food, or between the hideously wasteful product and the ecologically conscious product — much less that the “price signals” are invariably tilted toward the bad option. Wouldn’t it be better to remove the bad option in the first place? Why is something so important left to arbitrary individual choice?

Here I think the fact that we know consumers will generally make the wrong choice is not a bug, but a feature of ethical consumerism. The political class and business elites have already collectively decided that ethical farming and environmental sustainability are not important goals — and so they have left them up to individual consumer choices so that they can disavow responsibility and blame all of us for not choosing correctly.

Whenever we’re offered a free choice, we’re being set up.

Non-Theology in the Pigsty (A Non-Philosophcal Theory of Nature Book Event)

As surprising as it may seem to those of us who consider ourselves, despite it all, theologians, Anthony Paul Smith comes in peace. ‘Ultimately’, he writes, ‘this non-philosophical and non-theological practice, with all its constitutive parts, declares peace to all – the philosophers, the theologians, and the ecologists’ (p62). What sort of peace does he offer? Not the colonial peace of the Radically Orthodox, for whom reconciliation is possible only on condition of the unconditional surrender of all things to Christ the king and theology his queen; nor the hippy peace of certain sorts of green thinking for which we join hands around the world to live in harmony with Nature; nor even (not quite, not exactly) the democratic peace of weak theology, in which we are all as wrong as each other and the real task to cultivate a multiculturalism within which the only thing which will not be tolerated is intolerance. Rather, this is the peace of ecology, a nature red in tooth and claw, the circle of life within which all things interact with one another, a peace which is a matter of indifference to the grass, joy for the lion, but not quite so much fun for the antelope.

The problem with theology, Anthony says, is its incorrigible bossiness. It can’t stop telling nature what it ought to be like, and insofar as it engages with scientific accounts of nature it does so only to demonstrate that they have failed to wash behind their ears, or to hold them up, squirming with embarrassment, as a shining example for everybody else. Theology knows that cleanliness is next to godliness, that good girls wouldn’t ever; theology will take over your country because the poor savages need somebodyto tell them what to do, and it will drag you up kicking and screaming into some semblance of a civilised human being, just as long as it doesn’t murder you first. Read the rest of this entry »

On the respective ease of imagining the end of the world and the end of capitalism

When I was growing up, environmentalist propaganda efforts were in full swing. I learned about environmental problems in school. I watched Captain Planet at home. Recycling programs were rolling out in local communities for the first time. My father, an ardent Republican and Rush Limbaugh listener, dutifully peeled the labels off of cans and rinsed out milk cartons, doing his part. As the Cold War wound down, US and Soviet authorities collaborated on environmental measures, and MacGyver went from being a spy to being an environmental activist. George Bush, Sr., had pioneered a cap-and-trade program that significantly mitigated acid rain, and other leading Republicans such as John McCain were happy to work with Democrats on similar measures. And finally, in 2000, the Democratic presidential candidate was Al Gore, a man who had published a book on the environment characterizing the automobile as the most destructive technology ever devised.

I didn’t give it a lot of thought at the time, but if you’d asked me when I was 16, I probably would have guessed that by the time I was an adult, progress on the environment would be so far advanced as to be unrecognizable. What we got instead was tax subsidies for SUVs (a class of vehicle virtually no one needed), along with a housing boom based on even more intensive suburban and exurban expansionism (which is extremely wasteful of energy in essentially every way), an end to all US participation in international environmental treaties, growing distrust of public recycling programs, and the emergence of environmentally sound products as a luxury niche for the wealthy and aspiring. My local grocery store, in a pretty progressive neighborhood famous for its lesbian population, doesn’t even bother to carry recycled paper towels. The effects of global warming are undeniable in the increased number of unprecedented natural disasters and even in the uncanny disruption in weather patterns that we experience every day, and no serious action is being taken or even discussed — or indeed, even imagined as a live possibility. Meanwhile, the market forces that were supposed to make alternative energy competitive have instead made it profitable to drill for oil reserves that would have been economically infeasible a generation ago, so that the US has reemerged as a major oil and natural gas producer.

In the light of such an absolute and irretrievable failure, I think we need to revise the slogan about it being easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. It’s as though we collectively were given a choice of which we would choose, and we chose to end the world. The decisive victory of liberal-democratic capitalism really was the end of history, just not in the sense intended.

Bush v. Gore and climate change

In 2000, the majority of Americans voted for Al Gore, a staunch environmentalist who had written in Earth in the Balance that the car was the most destructive invention of all time. A significant number of Americans also believed that Gore did not go far enough and voted for Ralph Nader, the Green Party nominee. At this point, there were many Republicans who admitted the existence of anthrophogenic climate change. Had Gore won the Electoral College vote — and I’m one of those bitter dead-enders who will maintain till my dying day that Bush ultimately received Florida’s electoral votes due to deliberate fraud — it seems to me that it’s a near-certainty that major action on climate change would have taken place, most likely a “cap and trade” plan.

It would’ve been bad enough if the inauguration of Bush put that on hold. In reality, though, the Bush administration, representing the interest of the fossil fuel industry, aggressively pushed back against the consensus on global warming. Suddenly it became Republican orthodoxy to adopt a kind of “kettle logic” on climate change: global warming isn’t happening, and we aren’t causing it, and anyway it would be ruinously expensive for us to reverse it. Idiotic policies like tax breaks for SUVs were pushed through. Self-styled centrist Democrats found that climate change was suddenly a strictly “partisan” issue and refused to lend their support when Obama pushed for climate change legislation. And now Democrats appear to view climate change as a toxic issue, such that Obama has scarcely mentioned it.

And of course now we’re starting to see irreversable “vicious cycle” type of phenomena like the melting of frozen methane in Siberia, etc., and precisely the kind of bizarre weather disruptions (i.e., “snow hurricanes”) that have been predicted.

So in conclusion, I’m pretty sure that future historians — assuming there even are any! — will look back at Bush v. Gore as the moment we irretrievably fucked up. What do you think, readers?

What will we do with all those cows?

Whenever people discuss issues like vegetarianism, my tendency is always to think in terms of how one could systematize or universalize it. For instance, granted that veganism is the most desirable diet (due to environmental sustainability, ethical concerns, better health, or whatever other reason), what would it look like if we made it mandatory and redesigned the entire food production system around it?

The first question I have is what ideas people have put forth in terms of “winding down” animal domestication. For instance, there are some breeds of various domesticated animals that simply cannot survive in the wild — they’re bred to produce the maximum amount of meat or milk and they can’t do much else. Would they be subject to further breeding or genetic modification to make them viable in the wild, would that breed be allowed to die out, or what other solution would there be? Similarly, would it be a realistic goal for all of these breeds of animals to return to their pre-human forms and live in the wild, or would we instead be obligated to continue caring for them insofar as we in a certain way “created” them in their current form?

Many readers know much more about these topics and debates than me — what are the basic proposals out there, if any? Do any seem to you to be more workable, desirable, etc.?

A hypothesis for discussion

The hypothesis is as follows: The Chinese Communist Party is still engaged in a recognizably communist project and meeting with success in some respects, perhaps most notably on ecological matters. Hence, those on the left should seriously consider supporting China and holding it up as a model.

What do you think?

Recycling and the limits of ethical consumerism

I am not a very pious recycler. In fact, if I didn’t live with The Girlfriend, I might not even bother with recycling in my home. I understand that this makes me a bad person to a certain extent, but every time I sort recycling, I think, “This cannot possibly be even remotely the best way to implement this.” The system is so obviously a clunky add-on to our manufacturing process that I can barely stand to think about the inefficiencies involved.

Read the rest of this entry »

One way of looking at global warming

I’m sure many of you have heard the news of the methane gas being released from melting Arctic ice. It seems to me that this is an appropriate time to pause and reflect on the basic sequence of events that led us to this catastrophic point.

What happened was that we found an extremely powerful energy source buried in the ground, a source so powerful that it made all kinds of previously impossible things possible. That energy source is what allowed us to put a man on the moon, for instance — an amazing feat! But what we mostly used that energy source for — other than to fight wars — was to build suburbs, fuel little boxes for us to be stuck in traffic in, and pointlessly ship goods around the world so that companies could take advantage of lower labor costs.

And when it became clear that the side-effects of wasting so much of this precious fuel for stupid shit were threatening to throw off the equilibrium of the entire planet, what we did was build even more suburbs requiring even longer commutes and ship even more goods pointlessly around the world, until the whole thing collapsed into a self-induced catastrophe that has so disrupted human societies that the thought of focusing on the long-term threat of global warming doesn’t even seem to occur to our leaders anymore.

Surely we are the prodigal son of species! We wanted our inheritance as quickly as possible, and we used it up — but there’s no father for us to go home to, no one to fix our mess for us.

What is Creaturely Theology?

First, just a “thanks” to aufs for hosting the livestream of our divinanimality conference at Drew this past weekend. While the event is still fresh, I also thought I might pose a couple of questions that began to gestate over the course of this four day conference. My ears are selectively attentive. So whatever I report will (naturally) be told a bit slant. But, nonetheless, I’m interested in broad questions, about how religious studies and theology might infect/intersect with the ever-expanding storehouse of scholarship in animal studies.

Of course there were theological questions, calling attention to the sticky relations between creatures, creators, creations. But I think one of the most fruitful conversations—one that kept coming up over the course of the weekend—was the ontological distinction between the “animal” and the “creaturely.” While the conference intended to foreground the challenges that animals and divinities pose to humanist orthodoxies, many pointed to the “creaturely” as a plane of engagement that seems to do something different. I’ve actually given a lot of thought to this question (and have a forthcoming piece about it, in the volume resulting from the “Metaphysics & Things” conference at the Claremont Graduate University last December). But it was interesting to hear this conversation broadening. Kate Rigby suggested that the creaturely is a more “democratic” conceptual space—inclusive of both humans and animals, as well as plants, monsters. Perhaps even machines. This space isn’t unlike that given to “actors” in Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory, Alfred North Whitehead’s “actual entities” or even OOO’s objects. But, of course, the creaturely has a theological genealogy. Which makes it easier to explore this concept in the field of religious ideas. In spite of the generic, egalitarian potential of the creaturely, however, Read the rest of this entry »

Hey Teacher, Play Your Part!

I remember once, when I was a graduate student, speaking to some other graduate students who insisted that “you just can’t teach (fill in the blank) philosopher to ungrads.” At the time, I thought, no way. If you can’t teach something it’s because you don’t know it well enough; if you’re truly inside a thinker, then you can make that thinker speak to anyone, at whatever level.  Read the rest of this entry »


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