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If my friend Ike lived in Britain they’d call him a “one-off.”  An avowed anarchist who thinks that things started going downhill when humans invented agriculture (and thus the need for government), he thinks of Marx as a conservative–“just another neoliberal”—who tried to save the industrial revolution’s exploitation of nature from its own immediate social consequences.  He belongs to the NRA and Ducks Unlimited and hunts with great pleasure—and with ammo that he packs himself in a basement workshop.  He can recite long passages from Hamlet and Yeats, and has strong opinions on whether Boerling or Caruso was the better tenor.

And he teaches political theory.

I’d been out of touch with him for quite a while when we caught up by phone recently.  The Oklahoma Abortion Law controversy was in the news—the law that requires  providers of abortions to fill out a 37-item questionnaire on every abortion they do, collecting personal information about their clients, with the information to be posted on the internet.  Opponents of the law say that the questionnaire will intimidate women from seeking legal abortions, since the data collected, though supposedly anonymous, is specific enough that it could be used to identify them.

Ike had an interesting proposal:

“Let’s have a questionnaire for everyone who wants to buy an SUV,” he said.

“Go on,” I encouraged.

“I’m all for reducing human pain and suffering when we can.  And every SUV on the road today means that some human, somewhere, is going to starve.  If not now, then five years from now.  So we ought to collect information on people who buy them, so we can figure out how to minimize this behavior.  It’s clearly a public bad.  And if it shames some people into not going through with it, so much the better.”

The “SUVs kill people” argument is one I’d run across before, in the work of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, whose ideas I’ve written about elsewhere.  He’s the economist whose masterwork, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, was the first systematic elaboration of the idea that an economy ought to be modeled as a thermodynamic system: low entropy (valuable) matter and energy in, high entropy (less valuable) matter and energy out.   If all goes well with the world, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process will take its place alongside Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Marx’s Kapital, and Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom as a paradigm-defining text that changed how we think about economics.  So far, it’s underappreciated.

The low-entropy output of an economy is also called “pollution” or “waste.”  From a strictly material point of view, that’s all an economy produces; all of the stuff you buy and value is just a temporary incorporation of ordered molecules that will someday succumb to entropy and be thrown out or left to rot in place.  Unless parts of it are recycled, your fine shiny car is going to be a brown iron-oxide smudge on the planet in a century or two.  Before that happens, you get to use it for a decade; from its temporary ordering of matter and embodied energy, you derive services and satisfaction. And that’s the point of the economy: not to produce throughput of matter and energy, not to output waste, but to augment something that isn’t physical:  what Georegecu-Roegen called “an immaterial flux:  the enjoyment of life.”

Georgescu-Roegen also pointed out that our agricultural system receives an enormous subsidy from antique solar energy in the form of fossil fuel, and that of course the subsidy isn’t sustainable (a point that Ike emphasizes when he extols the virtues of hunting and gathering, which, unlike modern agriculture, had a positive caloric balance sheet).  The earth has a finite energy budget, and energy used for one thing can’t be used for something else—that’s a thermodynamic law.  (You can recycle matter, but you can’t recycle energy.)  At one point in The Entropy Law Georgescu-Roegen offered a modernization of an old Romanian folk saying.  The farmers in Romania where he grew up used horses, and knew that land planted in hay to feed them couldn’t be planted in crops to feed people.  “Horses eat people,” is how they put it:  feed horses, or feed people, but you can’t feed both from the same plot of land.   Georgescu-Roegen, writing in 1976, modernized it this way:  “Cadillacs eat people too.”  Back then (remember those days?) the Cadillac was the symbol of automotive excess; surely if he were writing today Georgescu-Roegen would target SUVs, most particularly the Hummer.

Georgescu-Roegen also said, prophetically, that “future generations will be amazed at the avidity with which we turn a liquid fuel into foodstuffs, because they will desperately be trying to do the exact opposite.”  The relationship is clear with ethanol:  the corn you turn into fuel can’t be used to feed people.  And every gallon of gas we burn today is a gallon of gas that doesn’t go toward making pesticides, or toward making nitrogen fertilizer; it’s a gallon that doesn’t feed someone.  Cars eat people.

“So,” Ike said, “Hummers kill people.  No doubt about it.  I’d like to see them banned, but just like the people who campaign against abortions, I know that I’m unlikely to get my moral vision made into the law of the land.  So, in the words of the Oklahoma state legislature, why don’t we just collect a little information on the people who want to buy them and make the information public?  Objective social science.  So we can better understand the policy challenges we face.”

He sent me an email version of the questionnaire Oklahoma administers to prospective abortion patients, along with his revisions to the questions to make them appropriate for  prospective SUV purchasers.  Like the Oklahoma questionnaire, he’d ask questions about the date of the transaction, the place, the marital status of the purchaser, their level of education; like the Oklahoma questionnaire, there are 30-plus questions.  The ones that were tweaked to make them more specific to SUV purchasers included these gems:

Total number of previous vehicular purchases by the purchaser:

_____still in service by purchaser

_____sold as used vehicle

_____wrecked

_____retired from service for other reasons

Total number of internal combustion engines of all kinds owned by purchaser:

_____automobiles, trucks, other 4-wheeled vehicles licensed or licensable to travel on public thoroughfares

_____motorcycles

_____other wheeled vehicles not licensable for travel on public thoroughfares (ATVs, go carts, race vehicles, etc.)

_____lawn mowers, push

_____lawn mowers, self-propelled

_____weed whackers, trimmers

_____chainsaws

_____motorboat engines

_____snowmobiles

_____electrical generators

_____pumps, drills

_____other

If purchased with loan, percentage of purchase price given as down payment:

Annual household income of purchaser’s household:

_____$10,000 to $49,999

_____$50,000 to $99,999

_____$100,000 to $124,999

_____$125,000 to $149,999

_____$150,000 to $174,999

_____$175,000 to $199,999

_____$200,000 or more

Percentage of monthly household income represented by loan payment, if any:

Other model lines carried by the dealer:

Was information on the MPG rating of the vehicle given to purchaser?  If yes, how?   Check all that apply:

____window sticker

____verbal conveyance by salesman

____verbal conveyance by partner or friend of purchaser

Is the purchaser cognizant of the likelihood that gasoline prices will increase in the   near and long terms?

Does the purchaser use mass transit?

____never or rarely

____sometimes

____often

____regularly

Was any portion of the purchase process, including the test drive (if any), performed with the use of any public institution, public facility, public equipment, or other  physical asset owned, leased, maintained, or controlled by the state, its agencies, or any other political subdivision?

Was spouse of purchaser present at any point during the sale?

Is the vehicle owned jointly by a couple, or is it titled to a single owner?

(You can read the Oklahoma questionnaire embedded in the law that mandated it; find it starting on p. 8 of the document at http://www.sos.state.ok.us/documents/Legislation/52nd/2009/1R/HB/1595.pdf )

“What I’d like to see,” Ike said, “is for some enterprising and progressive state to pass a law that requires SUV buyers to fill out this questionnaire before they can drive off in one of those gas hogs.”

And why stop there?  Questions 22 and 23 in the Oklahoma questionnaire ask if particular “information” has been given to the woman who seeks an abortion  –“information required by paragraph 1 of subsection B of Section 1-738.2 of Title 63 of the Oklahoma Statutes,” and (separate question) information in paragraph 2 as well.  “That’s the material they require the woman to look at—pictures of aborted fetuses, stuff like that,” Ike said.  “I want some laws that require car salesmen to put information about global climate change and its effects in front of SUV purchasers.  I like to think that SUV drivers just don’t realize how selfish they’re being.  If they knew, there’d be whole lot fewer SUVs out there.”

Personally, I think that a sizable carbon tax would accomplish what Ike wants to see done.  If gas cost eight or ten dollars a gallon at the pump, I wouldn’t care if someone wanted to waste their money by driving a Hummer (supposing that the tax had been set high enough to discourage gasoline use sufficiently to bring it under a cap that represents our country’s share of a scarce resource:  the ability of the planet to absorb CO2 and remain unchanged).  Such a tax could be gradually phased in, bringing greater certainty to a volatile market.  (Doesn’t commerce do better when businesses face fewer unknowns?)  And it could be revenue neutral:  we could give every household a rebate or “prebate” that represents the tax that would be paid by an average user.  If you use less carbon fuel than the average household, you’re money ahead; use more than average, and you pay the tax.  And there could be some income-sensitivity feature that ensures that the tax wouldn’t fall disproportionately on those least able to pay it.

Or, in a different approach:  instead of taxing work (which is a public good), ditch the income tax completely and raise all public revenue from taxing carbon fuel use (which is clearly a public bad).  The tax could be imposed at the well-head, the Port of Entry, or the railyard at the mine:  easy, low-cost administration.  Fewer administrators and bureaucrats.  The increased costs imposed by the tax would ripple automatically through all the markets in our economy, no further regulation of carbon necessary.  Such a tax would make prices tell the ecological truth about carbon use—a necessary condition if we’re to preserve free markets while meeting the real-world challenges of limiting our economy to a level of throughput that the ecosystems of the planet can sustainably offer up to us and sustainably absorb from us.

But Ike’s idea has some appeal.  Absent an economy-wide carbon tax, how else would we limit consumption of fossil fuels except by his kind of laborious, intrusive, command-and-control regulation?  And wouldn’t it be interesting to see the Supreme Court have to decide the Oklahoma case alongside an SUV questionnaire case?  Laws, and the principles behind them, are supposed to be blind to specifics and individual circumstance.  Fairness and equity in law and policy depend on a capacity to empathize, to imagine what circumstances would be like if the shoe were on the other foot.  If intrusive and intimidating questionnaires can be used in service of what one legislature sees as a public good, why can’t another legislature use them in service to their vision?  A law requiring SUV purchasers to answer some tough questions–and to read material on global climate change—is supported by the same logic that supports the Oklahoma law.  Reflecting on that might give the supporters of that law a real “what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander” problem—and encourage them to see something fundamental about the nature of law.

Eric Zencey is Visiting Associate Professor of Historical and Political Studies in the Graduate and International Programs of Empire State College, State University of New York.  He is the author of Virgin Forest:  Meditations on History, Ecology, and Culture, and a novel, Panama.

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Eric Zencey currently teaches in Europe, Central America and the United States as Visiting Associate Professor of Political and Historical Studies in the Graduate and International Programs at Empire State College, State University of New York.  He is author of a collection of essays about how we think (and ought to think) about nature, Virgin Forest:  Meditations on History, Ecology, and Culture (University of Georgia Press, 1998), and of a novel, published in a dozen foreign editions, that was (briefly) a national best-seller in the U.S.:  Panama (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995).  He holds  a Ph.D. in political philosophy and the history of science from Claremont Graduate University, where his dissertation, Entropy as Root Metaphor, established him as a trans-disciplinary thinker and an early practitioner of what has come to be known as sustainability studies.  A member of the Boards of the Vermont Natural Resources Council and of GNH USA, Zencey is also a featured contributor to The Daly News, the sustainability blog published by the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, and an Affiliate scholar of the Gund Institute of Ecological Economics.  He splits his time between his home in Montpelier, VT; St. Louis, MO; and Prague, Czech Republic. Visiting Associate Professor of Historical and Political Studies, Empire State College, State University of New York Affiliate, Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, University of Vermont Director, UVM Chapter, Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, http://steadystate.org/

21 COMMENTS

  1. As far as I can tell, this entire article depends on a construed parallel between SUVs and abortions which falls apart when one considers that a) a SUV is a piece of metal that one drives and b) an abortion is the killing of an unborn child. An equation of the two is inane to the New York Times degree.

    What’s going on at the Porch?

  2. Unless I’m completely misreading this, Georgescu has the whole thing backwards.

    You can certainly use entropy as a measure in economics. We start with high-entropy materials like clay; a skilled mason puts labor and knowledge into the clay to get a low-entropy brick building.

    As we then consume the building, we need to add work (subtract entropy) from time to time as nature takes its course. If we stop adding work, the building will finally resume its natural high-entropy condition.

    Civilization is the creation of little closed systems of low physical entropy and low cultural entropy, where we low-entropy biological units can have longer and healthier lives, and where the baseline is low enough that we can easily create even lower entropy (more order, more beauty).

    Georgescu seems to be saying that labor is an inconsequential and accidental thing that just sort of happens, and the return to high entropy is the only thing that counts??????

  3. I aren’t smart enough to figger this one out! So’s I’ll rely on V.M.G. and Polistra who, apparently, know of such stuff.
    For me, I’m reminded of Algore’s wit and wisdom in the comment, “The planet has a fever,” which should have gotten the carbon credit baron arrested for fraud…it didn’t, which tells us all we need to know of the environmental movement these days…a bunch of commies.

  4. Okay, a little extension and elaboration.

    “SUVs kill people.” If you accept Georgescu-Roegen’s logic, every SUV (or, more broadly, all egregious waste of fossil fuels today) causes human pain and suffering–in the future, and (as we saw with the corn riots in Mexico last year, brought about by the increasing price of corn, which in turn was brought about by the US making ethanol out of a significant part of its harvest) in the here-and-now.

    Do you think that the rioters were rioting just for fun, or for some abstract political princple? No: they were sparked by increases in the price of a food staple–price increases that meant some people were going to go hungry. As in starve. As in, die.

    The sun distributes a caloric income to us. We harvest it–and we’ve learned the trick of harvesting past solar income, stored as fossil fuel, which we use to create wealth (including fertilizer and pesticides, which increase agricultural production) in the present. It would be nice (yes: “nice”–as in pleasant, comforting) to think that there’s plenty of caloric income for every conceivable human purpose, and that we don’t have to face up to the practical difficulties and moral problems of living in a world that has limits.
    I’m sure the “niceness” of that vision is why so many people accept it uunthinkingly.

    But with a human population of 7 billion, and an economy that already uses 40% of the planet’s Net Primary Productivity, there isn’t (in Locke’s phrase) “enough and as good” to go around when the SUV driver appropriates matter and energy from the common ecological endowment of humanity. (NPP is a measurement of how much sunlight ecosystems turn into biomass. Forty percent is an incredibly high number; it forces natural processes to subsist on just 60% of their customary input, their “design income”–which is one reason natural processes worldwide are faltering and failing. Try this thought experiment: cut your intake of everything to 60% of what it was, and imagine everyone else doing the same. What effects would this have on your life and the network of relationships that form the community you’re in? I think you have to agree that human civilization would be dramatically changed, mostly for the worse.)

    Let’s talk about the parallel. A doctor performs a legal medical procedure on a woman, a procedure that many people find to be immoral. They believe it is immmoral because it causes the death of an unborn fetus. The abortion and its participants (and, anti-choice people would say, its victim) are remote from me; I never see them. The victim isn’t complaining to me or the doctor, and can advance no claim within our legal system. But, anti-choice activists believe this act wrong, and seek to change the law to reflect their moral belief. They believe it is wrong because a life that could have been lived won’t be lived.

    A man buys a Hummer. Because the capacity of the earth to support humans is limited, his use of scarce resources to indulge that lifestyle choice has consquences: there is less food for hungry people. People somewhere in the world will starve–now and in the future. The Hummer driver is killing people–an act that is no less morally culpable (or, to a pro-choice advocate, certainly more culpable) than that of the abortion doctor. The death is not proximate to me, and the person who suffers it has no recourse under law in our system–but it happens just the same.

    Do you begin to see the parallel?

    AS for one commenter’s confusion about entropy: You have it backwards. The economy takes in low-entropy inputs, and uses them to create products that embody even greater low entropy. That clay that is mined to make the pottery represents a highly organized resource. (Imagine trying to collect clay molecules from a bit of randomly chosen soil–the process of seiving out the useful clay molecules would be very labor and energy intensive.) Ores in general represent pockets of organized, low-entropy matter. We use other low-entropy inputs (oil, coal, solar energy; human labor and intelligence) to refine those ores, organizing them further, until they embody a finished product and a great deal of low entropy. And then those products begin their downward slide to a state of high-entropy.

    A barn represents a great deal of organized low entropy. To build one takes matter (the lumber, organized by the low-entropy power of sunlight), energy (the labor of the workers, which traces to the low-entropy inputs of food, and the energy of their power tools, which is a low-entropy input from the fuels that power the grid) and intelligence (the architectural plan, low-entropy that comes from brainpower) and turns these relatively low-entropy inputs into an even lower-entropy structure, the barn.

    Left to itself for a few centuries (i.e., with no maintenance whatsoever), the barn will tend to become a random jumble of broken, rotting lumber on the surface of the earth.

    And here I’m reminded of something LBJ reportedly said: “It takes a carpenter to build a barn, but any jackass can kick it down.” The carpenter is an agent of organization and intelligence; the jackass is an agent of entropy, hastening a process that would happen in time eventually. The law of entropy is the law of “rust, ravage, random, and rot,” as Herman Daly put it. There are millions of ways for a bunch of lumber to be a random jumble of boards, but only a few thousand ways for it to be a structurally useful barn; over time, and without the low-entropy input represented by maintenance, the barn will gradual move from the less probable to the more probable state. That’s a consequence of the entropy law.

    The amount of low entropy that our economy can suck up from nature is finite. This limit wasn’t a problem when humans were few and far between, but we’ve reached the carrying capacity of our landscapes. Technical advances may move the limiting boundary out a little more in the future, but no technical advance can violate the law of entropy. (Which is to say, perpetual motion is impossible.) Because we can’t create energy, and because energy can’t be recycled, we must learn to live within a thermodynamic budget. Again, when humans were scarce, the thermodynamic limit to appropriation of scarce low entropy was not a controlling factor. But humans are not scarce anymore. And when we turn corn into ethanol, when we burn fossil fuel that might have produced fertilizers or pesticides, we condemn some people to starvation.

    So, Ike’s parallel stands: the egregious waste of resources that is represented by a Hummer is a morally culpable act. And those of us who are interested in the moral quality of public life ought to be busy thinking about the implications of facing up to limits.

  5. in re: My comment above: I’m wrong in my part of my response to Polistra. Polistra’s thinking goes astray when he desribes clay as a high entropy input, and when he suggests that labor doesn’t matter in Georgescu-Roegen’s thermodynamic model of the economy; but otherwise he or she is onto it. Sorry for my misreading.

    An SUV is just a machine you drive: yeah, and an abortion is just an operation that some people have.

  6. Have I accidentally veered onto the website for the Nation?

    Surely, you must be able to see the difference between doing something mediately and doing something immediately, between intent and potential collateral -surely, you cannot really be limiting the scope and richness of human action to a mere table of results, which you are tabulating in utilitarian fashion and declaring roughly equal. This is the same sort of logic that goes, “Drunk driving/smoking/eating fried chicken kills more people than war, drunk driving is worse than war, ban automobiles and alcohol and tobacco and fried chicken…”

    In the first place, there is no good reason to accept the (sempiternal socialist) notion that one man’s wealth is always another man’s poverty. Perhaps it may be so, but very often it is not. Simply because I can gorge myself on food does not mean a child in Africa is therefore unable to gorge himself on food -the inability of the child has very little to do with my ability. We are not living in mercantilist times, when the amount of capital is fixed, and one man’s gain is another’s loss; there is ample food to feed both me and the child in Africa. The problem is not that I am taking the African child’s food, but that the African child is living in a disordered society that suffers from social breakdown and cannot begin to perform the basic economic tasks. So yes, the resources of the Earth are limited, but no they are not so limited that the purchase of commodities in America necessitates the death of children in the Congo; at the very least, that is not the main factor in the death of those children.

    But even granting that “SUVs kill people,” which is at best a wildly exaggerated piece of rhetoric and at worse deliberately false, let us look at the issue philosophically. The purchase of an SUV is made with the intent of purchasing a vehicle to drive, very often one that is friendlier for a larger family, very often one that is stronger and safer than most vehicles on the road. The purchase of a vehicle is a necessity for participation in society nowadays, for better or worse. The purchaser is not thinking about calculations of “entropy” (and if he did think about them, he would find them rightly unconvincing). Let us compare that with the “purchase” of an abortion. The “purchase” of an abortion is made with the intent of directly killing an unborn child whose future you have unique power over, until birth. It is made in the full light of other options, very often with the rather selfish calculus, best expressed by our President, that, the purchaser does not want, “to be punished with a baby.”

    On the one hand, we have a direct and willful act, the sole purpose of which is to kill an unborn child. On the other hand, we have an act the purpose of which is to buy a commodity necessary for participation in society and that is usually a great convenience for the family. Even if that purchase indirectly “kills people,” which you have not done a good job showing, the difference in both intent and means distinguishes these two acts.

    But the logic that SUVs lead to starvation in Africa is so construed that a more appropriate logic would be that SUVs lead to car accidents and deaths in America, which is manifestly true, and they should therefore have this questionnaire on that basis. But note that even that potential result (death) does not put into the same category as every other act involving the same potential result (and especially not in every act producing the same desired result).

    This is a feat of logical leveling unseen.

  7. Why of course the “amount of capital is not fixed”….we have printing presses to address that pesky problem. However, it seems that it is rather academic to enjoin this debate when the supporters of “Reproductive Rights” will not acknowledge that abortion is a form of infanticide or that, on the other front, driving a steroidal military issue vehicle tricked out for suburbia and pocketing a tax break to boot is not somehow sordid as well. In New England, we have curvy little roads and these lumbering vehicles always present a kind of unexpected evasive driving pleasure when they shoulder their way around a curve in all their glorious Bergdorf Goodman tonnage. The little people should drive little cars.

    Uniting these two disparate issues in one mosh of dyspepsia may seem a little counter-intuitive but so be it. The life of the lapsed republic is a tad counter-intuitive all around so I can only say how anxious I am for some enterprising oaf to start a Mobile Abortion Clinic with his Humvee pulling an Airstream Trailer emblazoned with an American Flag and a Feminist Manifesto so then we could really have a fine roaring fire of stomping approbation all around.

    Though from an anthropological standpoint, we should start filling out forms for every purchase so that the folks of the future can have a good laugh about how damned dumb we really are.

  8. Sordid, my dear Sabin, but in another sense. I find much to like about people who wave the flag, worship God, drink down six-packs, eschew the dicta of the technocrats, and drive trucks without apology. I would certainly not put them in the same moral universe as those who get abortions; to do is rather sophomoric, which is what this article strikes me as.

    I would also note that one act is systemic and social (buying an SUV) and is only really a problem when repeated over and over again by millions upon millions and even then is not evil in intent but only evil in indirect consequence, whereas the other is intrinsically and intensely evil in each individual case, all other considerations aside.

  9. If someone eating more than enough in one place does not take food from someone, somewhere else, then perhaps there’s a ready explanation for why the number of overweight people is roughly equal to the number of hungry people?

    On the other hand, what generally goes unacknowledged in the US is that the people with unordered societies quite often have their land used to produce export crops sold to ordered societies like the US and EU. It is the “beauty” of neo-liberal free trade, and tacking the adjective “free” on the front makes it seem like nobody’s fault.

    One might also ask that if we should assign such value to human life that abortion should be illegal, should we not assign enough value to human life that people already alive should not starve?

    At the very least shouldn’t the Africans whose land is used to orchard nuts and coffee get the value adding of processing those raw materials into goods that we can eat and drink while driving our SUV’s? As it stands, they mostly do not so that our ordered society corporations can see ever greater quarterly profits and pay salaries that can afford SUV’s and enough food to fatten ourselves.

  10. V. Maro G. ,
    A Truck, driven by a tradesman going about his rounds or hauling his goods (or Budweiser empties) is not to be confused with a Hummer, driven by some soft-palmed, Chablis imbibing Baby Boomer who likes to imagine himself…or herself, as astride a grand chariot in Ben Hur, shredding the opponent with spiked alloy wheels. Trucks are utility vehicles, Hummers are patently not “utilitarian”. They are a billboard with a transmission. Don’t suck me into some perceived slight against tradesmen…..they are my close and admired associates.

  11. “If someone eating more than enough in one place does not take food from someone, somewhere else, then perhaps there’s a ready explanation for why the number of overweight people is roughly equal to the number of hungry people?”

    I presume this to be a joke?

  12. Great posting…but it’s too easy to make inanimate objects the bad guys. SUVs kill. Roads are dangerous. Too often we use this language to side-step human responsibility. I have yet to see an unattended motor vehicle threaten me, or a road rise up and smite me.

    The fact of the matter is that if you spend much time occupying your community from the outside of a windshield, you soon realize that the behaviors of MOST motorists seem threatening, intentional or not. One second of negligence or beligerence and the guy without the automotive exoskeleton is toast. Beneath it all are pervasive, often unspoken assumptions about motorists’ rights to pre-empt the built environment

    In most of suburban and rural America, motorists so dominate public thoroughfares – and driving is such a deeply entrenched norm – that very few people are willing to walk or bike. Yes, convincing people to cease driving around in three-ton Tonka-Toys to prove their manhood would be an improvement, but that in itsef would not help us overcome our unsustainable addiction to Happy Motoring. The only thing that will help in that respect is for us to occupy our communities much more often as pedestrians and bicyclists, and far less often as motorists.

    Habitat follows behavior, after all…

  13. “The problem is not that I am taking the African child’s food, but that the African child is living in a disordered society that suffers from social breakdown and cannot begin to perform the basic economic tasks.”

    And before they can ever get organized, Shell or some other oil company will make sure they get “unorganized” so they can make most of the profit from their resources. The rich SUV-driving nations are also the nations that destroy developing countries so that they can’t organize themselves.

    But I have to mention one fatal flaw with this blog entry: it sets up a left-vs.-right argument by suggesting that you either love SUVs or you love abortions, depending on which “side” you’re on.

    Personally, I think they are both examples of horrible and anti-social human behavior. If you don’t want to have children, get sterilized or avoid penetration entirely. To “terminate” a child’s life before it can cry… is very similar to driving cars (using resources) that kill people who are too far away from you for you to see their suffering.

    The poster who trivialized SUV driving as “something you drive” should remember than any atrocity can be trivialized if it is ubiquitous enough. Why do you think Israel and cigarette companies spend so much on branding?

  14. SUV’s may kill people, but they also help people live. Mechanics produce SUV’s because they’re paid to do so; the oil that SUV’s guzzle also drives the economies of Middle Eastern and South American nations; as Joseph Schumpeter said, this is what you should expect of capitalism: destruction, but of a creative variety. I don’t own an SUV (or a car, for that matter), but, if I did, I doubt I would have much trouble sleeping at night.

  15. As the Ike who was quoted in Eric’s article, let me say I am surprised and disappointed by the level of response here. There aren’t too many comments worth reading.

    As for the argument that “SUVs let people live.” You can’t be serious. The nazi guards at Buchenwald pulled down paychecks, so their work “let them live” and support families–but that doesn’t mean that employing them that way was a morally good thing. I know, this is a “reductio ad hitlerium,” but really–if you’re going to make such thin and unsupportable arguments, you’re going to see responses like that. The fact that some people make a living by making, selling, or working on SUVs is irrelevant to the point. (I am tempted to say “duh.”)

    I think qatzelok has got it right, except for: I didn’t set up a left v. right thing. There are people who drive SUVs who believe in a woman’s right to have control of her reproductive functions, and there are people who think SUVs are a horrible waste of resources who are against allowing women the right to choose when and how to become a parent. So, no, I don’t think these are mutually exclusive classes. I just wanted to point out: intrusive regulation for moral purposes is a two-edged sword, one that could be weilded by others for other moral values. I wanted anti-choice people to think: Are you ready to submit fundamental rights to legislative control under ANY possible regime, or just under the ones you agree with?

    As for the contribution by Grammaticus: nice try and slicing and dicing along a distinction, but I don’t accept it. Once upon a time, when humans were few and far between, then my appropriation of resources (enough resources to, say, build and drive a Hummer) left “enough and as good for others.” But sadly, the planet is not infinite, and we’ve built out past the limits. In the world we have, my appropriation does not leave enough and as good for others. There are too many people for that. So, to use your logic against you: abortion rights, by checking population growth, actually help restore the world in which your distinction might have some force. Given that there are close to 7 billion of us on the planet, it’s a bit precious to be sentimental about the unborn when there are mature, full-bodied, but relatively disempowered “post-born” people suffering from starvation brought on by (corporate and market-driven) ecosystem degradation in various parts of the world–degradation we helped cause by being consumers. Population reduction saves resources, thus reducing the pain and suffering of humans who are already here. Or do they not “really” have rights? Are they less human than American foetusses? Really.

  16. The idea that there is not enough food on the planet to feed the population is not true. In fact, almost the reverse is true -the lamentations of the porch are in no small part due to the fact that we need only dedicate a very small part of our labor force to produce a stable, sustainable, sufficient food source. Blaming the West for the misfortunes of the Third World, meanwhile, is a canard. Insinuating meanings that are not there regarding American fetuses is the only “precious” thing about this discourse. Note also that what I am arguing is a philosophical and moral difference between an action whose intent is ending a life and an action whose intent has nothing to do with ending life and of which the “ending a life” is highly contestable at best. I have seen no evidence provided for the rather extraordinary claim that SUVs kill people, despite much musing about entropy. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and the onus is on you. There really has been a drop in the level of discourse produced here on the Porch.

  17. VMG: Dude, your writing is so direct, accurate, and reasoned that it is, indeed, a pleasure to read your posts.

    DW: “A Truck, driven by a tradesman going about his rounds or hauling his goods (or Budweiser empties) is not to be confused with a Hummer, driven by some soft-palmed, Chablis imbibing Baby Boomer who likes to imagine himself…or herself, as astride a grand chariot in Ben Hur, shredding the opponent with spiked alloy wheels.”
    Dude, it ain’t nobody’s business what I drive, particularly the gummints’. We better stop gummint incursions into our private lives or we’re going to end up a bunch of commie-dems.

  18. At the risk of casting more pearls before swine, I go on.

    VGM: “an action whose intent is ending a life and an action whose intent has nothing to do with ending life.”

    You put an awful lot of weight on intent. Law and ethics recognize a distinction, but still judge people guilty of causing harm without intending to. (Ever hear of “manslaughter”?) Western use of limited resources causes pain and suffering and death by starvation elsewhere on the planet. The only circumstance in which that would not be true is if resources were unlimited.

    Interestingly this is a contention that you make. (You don’t make an argument, just a bald unsupported assertion. A little evidence would be nice.) “The idea that there is not enough food on the planet to feed the population is not true. In fact, almost the reverse is true.” What dream world are you living in? The Green REvolution is a bust; it did in fact increase world food production (and give us an historically unprecedented low ratio of agricultural workers to other workers) but it did not eliminate starvation, because population expanded up to and beyond the limits of the newly expanded food supply. And notice that the Green Revolution runs on oil–a resource that is limited, and that we are pumping out of the ground at very near to maximum capacity right now. EVen so, even with our wide-scale conversion of past solar income (oil) into current food, there are people starving or experiencing “food insecurity” (not sure where their next meal is coming from) today.

    “the “ending a life” is highly contestable at best.” Do you have any idea what you’re saying? The starting of life is a highly contestable proposition, at best–which means that “abortion is the ending of a human life” is a highly contestable proposition at best. Why should your beliefs “win” that contest? Because you and you alone have access to the truth? Excuse me, but when someone tells me that they have a pipeline to revealed truth, I start thinking that they are way more dangerous than a government that is reined in by my possession of Constitutional rights–including the right to privacy, the right to choose when and how I become a parent. All that bravuro swagger about “gummint” is misplaced–it is people like you who threaten freedom on this planet. Why? Because if we don’t limit population and don’t limit throughput of scarce matter and energy in our economy, we are either going to have the collapse of civilization from loss of ecosystem services (like clean water, clean air, recycling of nutrients, creation of soil fertility, and a host of others), or we’ll limp along under a severe centrally planned regime that tries to preserve enough ecosystem services to support civilization. And to do that, it will be necessary to limit civil freedom.

    In Colorado, it’s illegal to catch the rainfall off your roof–not because some government official thought that it would be cool to regulate people’s use of water for fun, but because that water is subject to the Colorado River Compact, and every drop–every drop!–has been promised to a use–including irrigation to grow food. If people in Colorado start impeding the flow of water to the river, they are reducing agricultural productivity downstream–and did I mention? People need that food to live? So rainbarrels in Colorado kill people–and there goes another civil liberty, sacrificed to the god of economic/agricultural production, because we simply have too many people on the planet. If you’re a fan of liberty, you’d work to keep population steady or to reduce it.

    If we continue to pretend that the world is infinite, and that more human population is a good thing, we’re in for big changes: either social collapse, or a degree of social control that will make Stalinist Russia look like a paragon of Liberal democracy.

    SUVs Kill People. I admit, it takes an understanding of thermodynamics to get this argument. It also takes a little empathy, a little of the capacity to understand another’s cxperience (or, in Jesus’ words, the ability abide by the golden rule and treat our neighbors as we would treat ourselves) in order to see the connection I am making. My morals say that an SUV driver is more guilty of harm than a woman who makes the difficult decision to get an abortion. My little pipeline to the truth tells me that; and oh, my pipeline carries publicly ostensive knowledge that has been vetted by the egalitarian, meritocratic processes of science. Your pipeline? Faith based. Faith based systems haven’t a very good track record in supporting civil liberty, including the supposed right to grab a beer and honk around in a Hummer.

    There’s nothing arbitrary or faith-based about the second law of thermodynamics and the fact that the earth is finite. The belief that human life starts at conception is an arbitraty decision that some people are trying to enforce on others. Why not go whole-hog and outlaw (as the Bible mentions) the “spilling of seed”? Semen, after all, is potential life.

    But then, if masturbation were illegal, there are a lot of people who would have to go get a real political theory instead of the one they’re using.

    Who’s to say whether I’m right and you’re wrong, or vice-versa? Rational argument from clear premisses and evidence is one way to do it. I’ve offered clear premisses and rational argument supported by publicly ostensive facts and definitions that have the support of the open, free-market epistemological system of science. You dismiss this in favor of–what? What have you got? Faith? So did Joe Stalin.

  19. Dear Ike,

    Your insertion of religion into an argument in which I did not mention religion, and your inference of several things about my religion, in addition to your increasingly frenetic and increasingly rude response, tells me that I have struck a nerve. Nor am I particularly appreciative of the tone displayed in the comment, “ever heard of manslaughter?” I don’t know what they would call people like you in Britain (the author of the above article says “one-off”) but where I come from, we have a distinctly less pleasant term.

    I do place quite a bit of weight on intent. That you do not is rather strange.

    Whether a fetus is a human life is not particularly a matter of religious belief. I am not arguing from potentiality, and even if I were, you should be able to distinguish levels of potentiality. The matter stands that by any definition of a human that can purport to be general, a fetus fits, and if we can make no definition, that would still imply the illegality of abortion since it is absurd to err on the side of allowing what may potentially be a murderous activity. But this is not about abortion.

    It takes a rather frantic mind to jump from my assertion that there is enough food/capacity to produce food to feed most (if not all) people on earth to pretending that I asserted resources are unlimited. I did not. But the fact of the matter is that where there is starvation, there is either a) potential for food to be grown, potential undeveloped by a disordered society whose disorder is by no means a product of the West or b) such a lack of resources in that particular area that sustaining a population there is impossible, despite modern advances (the middle of the desert, perhaps. The first is much more likely than the second. You have yet to produce concrete evidence or concrete reasoning that implies that if a farm in Iowa produces enough food for a whole village, that means a farm in Angola is incapable of performing the same feat.

    Your rhetoric seems to flatten, dualize, and level several shades of nuance, and several shades of truth are lost in the process.

    Yours, &c,
    VMG

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