If Environmentalism were a Religion

One thing you hear from proponents of carbon pollution and climate change is that environmentalism is a religion. It’s a silly argument, of course, but to show how silly something is, it is often best to take it to its logical conclusion. This post is a short, simple attempt at that exercise.

Before that, do they really mean they believe environmentalism is a religion? What they seem to mean is that it constitutes an unchecked belief in the primacy of the environment, a faith-based worldview that prefers the maintenance of the environment, that divides actions into sins and acts of virtue on the basis of how they apply to the environment, etc. So, yes. They apparently do believe it is a religion.

What results would come from recognizing environmentalism as a valid religion?

Start with employers. Employers typically have to make reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs. So Environmentalists would get Earth Day (22 April) off. But is that all? There are quite a large number of days dedicated to specific environmental issues. Some are more notable than others, like Arbor Day (last Friday in April). Some wouldn’t fit the bill at all, like Bike-to-Work Day (third Friday in May), as taking the day off would defeat the purpose.

Employers also might be required to take pro-environment steps to meet the religious accommodation requirements. Now, a truck driver probably couldn’t force an employer to replace a carbon-fueled truck with a H-powered truck or an electric truck, but to the extent that they could make modest changes to reduce the environmental burden, it might be required.

To the extent that it does not present an undue hardship on the employer, an Environmental religion practitioner would have the ability to proselytize during work. Some states have passed laws that allow pharmacists to not supply certain drugs for religious reasons. Environmentalists might be able to use those laws or similar laws to refuse to sell environmentally harmful products.

It would also increase the cost of compliance across the business world. Lawyers cost money, and they would be needed to deal with the increase in issues related to the Environmentalism religion. Public employees may also have additional religious rights that various governments would have to make accommodations for.

It should also be noted that given the Hobby Lobby decision, which did not establish a sweeping revision, but may point to further rulings in the future, Environmentalists might gain the right to not pay for childbirth and related healthcare, if they believe overpopulation is a burden to society and an affront to their religion.

Beyond employers, other current and future laws protecting religious freedom would also cover an Environmentalist religion. School vouchers and tax credits could be used to send children to Environmentalist schools. They would be eligible to give invocations or prayers at government meetings.

There is a massive interplay of regulation that would also have to be considered. For example, if a drug company had an environmentally intensive manner for the manufacture of a drug, would an Environmentalist be allowed to violate the patent protection to have it manufactured in an environmentally friendly manner? The issues go on.

Environmentalism is not a religion, but if it were it would result in a number of changes in society that the people who currently, naïvely claim it is a religion would no doubt bitch about. The same applies to any other silly claim that some thing x is a religion.

Making Capitalism Care

People often lament the capitalist view of economics (which itself is a corruption of the underlying mechanics, but still a better explanation than any other yet writ), claiming it imposes certain dire outcomes upon the world. These harms include social parasitism by the dominant cohort, wage slavery, ecocide, and advertising.

Indeed, Upton Sinclair, the famous socialist muckraker, said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” To expect a coal company or a Koch-head to understand the risks of pollutive terraforming (also called climate change) is like expecting a mailman to understand the Internet. Once we establish the problem, willful blindness caused by an insensitive incentive scheme, the solution seems to present itself: change the incentive scheme.

How do we make capitalism care? Or first, can we or should we? Many liberal people believe it is a lost cause. Indeed, some of their own paychecks depend on them believing that abolishing capitalism is the ticket. But for the majority, we can see both the good and bad in capitalism. We can see it in the relatively cheap foodstuffs and relatively short lines to buy them. We can travel coast to coast mostly unmolested by the state or privateers (depending on our mode of transport).

And the downside is equally apparent. Many services are encumbered with adroit legalese that burdens us with high prices for anything from mere entertainment to life-sustaining medical care. To quote the Tao Te Ching, “The more legal affairs are given prominence, the more numerous bandits and thieves.” And yet we are a legalistic society, where the capitalist aesthetic has invaded even the criminal justice system; the rich are free to go, the poor charged to stay.

(It is entirely common to see Internet discussions devolve to the bare legal issues and seem settled from these alone. The legality is never the whole story, though. Legal discussions are an appropriate subdiscussion, but such threads should acknowledge there is a bigger picture.)

So, it seems, we should make capitalism care about the pain it exacts from us. There is every reason to think the system can be improved in this way. After all, the care of capitalism, the sensitivity that makes it effective at all, is already fictive. Adding more lies upon the existing successful lies can improve it, if they are the right lies.

Lies is not the precise word. We already care, truthfully. But to make capitalism budge, it requires formally telling capitalism that some value now exists where capitalism did not see it before. And we have been very successful in this maneuver in the past. We, at one time, cared not for clean rivers or streams. Not even to drink from. And then we told capitalism we did.

Capitalism may develop something akin to antibiotic resistance over time, as the sensitivities we try to impose on it erode. Our waterways became somewhat less adulterated, at least for a time. Some are worse now than ever before. But only because capitalism became insensitive again, or because it was never sensitive to the particular pollution form.

The question arises, can we make capitalism care without resorting to the sorts of artificial constraints it may desensitize itself to?

Picking Arbitrary Values and Numberline Subtraction

Society has a plethora of arbitrary values. I was inspired to see that kids are learning subtraction using the concepts of distance and the number line (LearnZillion: Solve subtraction problems using a number line). I’ll give an example if you didn’t check out the link.

  1. Pick two numbers x, y (given: 273, 834).
  2. Construct a number line with the given numbers as points:
    <--273---------------------------------834-->
  3. Step up or down from the numbers in hops:
    <--273-(1)-274-(60)-334------(500)-----834-->
  4. Add up the hop distances:
    500 + 60 + 1 = 561

So 834 - 273 = 561.

But the neat thing is that it gives children the chance to learn about making choices of where to hop. Given 105 - 35 they might hop to 55 and then to 105 or they might hop (bidirectionally) to 40 and 100.

The best choices for this sort of subtraction is, as far as I can tell, the following:

  1. For each common column, from smallest to largest, hop from the low number until that column is normalized.
  2. If the last hop increased the column count, include that column as a common column.
  3. Add the remaining uncommon amount of the larger number.

So for 123,456 - 789:

<--789-(7)-796-(60)-856-(600)-1,456-(2,000)-3,456---(120,000)---123,456-->
120,000 + 2,000 + 600 + 60 + 7 = 122,667

At each step we only focus on matching the single column. If we overrun the default number of columns for the smaller number (eg, 856 + 600 = 1,456), we may take more steps. But we will never add more than nine of whatever unit size we’re focused on.

So in this case we probably have a good algorithm for picking what would otherwise be arbitrary hops. Kids can still learn the method without this algorithm, and they can play around with finding their own hops.

But we find arbitrary numbers throughout the law and in our daily lives. They have economic, social, and psychological ramifications. Tax brackets tend to be based on arbitrary income levels, for example. Inflation and other factors (such as the number of people with incomes previously considered outliers increase) may invalidate those existing, arbitrary values.

We should tend to avoid arbitrary values in the law. Fines should be based on an individual’s income, as is done in some European countries. Fining a poor person the same as a rich person for a minor infraction such as speeding makes zero sense. Either the fine will be excessive for the poor person, or it will be meaningless to the rich person.

We may again face problems with arbitrary values as new technologies come along. Autonomous vehicles may be able to safely exceed speed limits, but will undoubtedly be forced to comply with limits that make little sense for years beyond the widespread adoption of such vehicles.

And yes, the federal budget. What amount should the budget be? We have endless scoring of laws and regulations from the Congressional Budget Office and Office of Management and Budget. But when we actually formulate the budget, it is entirely arbitrary. It is based on whims and beggings of special interests, or on emotional appeals for the social welfare.

I favor social welfare, but just as prison sentences should be chosen for their effect and not out of emotional reflexes, so should social welfare programs budgets.

But at least young kids will become acquainted with picking arbitrary values using the number line. Maybe they will find algorithms for picking other values that have profound repercussions on society. Or maybe they’ll just get better at picking the arbitrary ones.

TPB AFK: a Documentary

Today I watched TPB AFK, a film about the Swedish website The Pirate Bay. You can read some background on the website on Wikipedia: Wikipedia: The Pirate Bay.

Basically the website is a clearing house for BitTorrent file sharing offerings. BitTorrent is a protocol (a set of conventions for computer network traffic) that allows you to share files in a distributed manner. This means multiple people can facilitate both the sending and receiving of the files.

A crucial point about the way the website works, it never actually sends or receives any of the files. It only announces other people who say they will send them.

But there comes a problem: what if people share files they don’t own the temporary rights to. And the result has been a lot of legal fuss and political fuss aimed at stopping this from happening.

That is what this film is about: the ad hoc owners of some of the files, along with Swedish authorities, prosecuted the people running The Pirate Bay.

The main question is, of course, not the one being asked by authorities or the custodians of the content. The main question is what shape of custodial rights works in the digital era? Their question, instead, is how do we maintain the status quo?

And so they try what they always tried before: sue them, prosecute them, “disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” them. They sue over the most minimal infringements, including cases of Fair Use (the doctrine that some unlicensed uses of temporarily held works are not infringement, due to the nature of the use).

This is a doomed effort. They freely admit this, for the temporary custodians of the world’s content have asked the governments to act by passing new laws they have drafted and treaties they have negotiated in secret.

In some ways it is akin to the foster parent that loves the child so much that they don’t want the child to return to the natural parents when they are located. But in this case the foster parent also makes quite a lot of money off of the newest children, and a few of the older children, but neglects the rest.

But The Pirate Bay has a unique culture. They take offense at the status quo, and ridicule it at every turn. Their original claim to notoriety (other than the name of the site) was the posting and mocking of barking letters (letters sent by lawyers that carry no legal authority, but are nonetheless meant to intimidate the recipient into action).

The film drives this attitude home repeatedly. At one point it recounts the creation of a website where people were encouraged to rate the dumbness of American soldiers for how they died in the United States and coalition invasion of Iraq.

This is the culture of the Darwin Awards and dead baby jokes. But it is a revolt or reaction against the poisonous reverence that drives humans to ignore vast hypocrisies in their cultures and politics.

That’s your keyword: reaction. The Pirate Bureau is created as a counterpoint to the government/industry Anti-Pirate Bureau. The widespread adoption of BitTorrent is at least partly a reaction to the establishment dismantling centralized file sharing protocols.

But the biggest reactions are yet to arrive. The prosecutor’s language you will see in the trial as filmed in the documentary tells all you need to know. The prosecutor asks a question, what if users of the website share copyrighted materials? Ah, but excepting the occasional work that has returned to the public domain, all works are copyrighted.

Not just all intentional works. All works. The way your plate looks after you finish your breakfast is your unique creation, and you hold a temporary, but legally enforceable right over that depiction. The arrangement of the refuse in your wastebasket are your copyright. If I throw something away there, assuming I have permission, I am now your collaborator in a unique work.

But instead of being clear, saying something like, “copyrighted work shared without permission and where the custodian reserves their rights,” we are left with this convenient notion that copyright serves the big man, never the little man.

Anyway, go check the film out. It is under a Creative Commons license (the main film is CC:BY-NC-ND, meaning you can share it but not profit or edit it; there is another version that allows editing). And yes, you can download it from The Pirate Bay.

This tended off on a tangent, because copyright is a mess. And the people arguing that it is immoral to download the latest pop album have yet to waste their breath to challenge the greater immoralities of copyright.

My understanding there is simply this: if you value the work, try to pay for it in some way. If it’s nothing but a way for you to pass the time, consider finding something better than the creation of people who would like to see you in jail and in debt for life for not paying for their waste of time. In the latter case you will be better off anyway.

Intragroup Competition

There is a tendency of man to try to outdo his peers, to play off his peers’ moves. It’s part competition, part group loyalty or cheering for the group.

We see it in bullying when done as a group. We see it in hazing rituals. We see it in some behaviors surrounding drinking. But we also see it on Wall Street and we see it in the Republican party. We see it in lobbying firms.

It crops up among teenagers playing the so-called “penis game” in which they successively try to say the word “penis” louder than the previous player.

This is one-upmanship. Each participant sees the previous act, and tries to go just farther.

Emboldening the Group

One factor for this behavior is that it gives the whole group an increased confidence (at least in the repeated behavior). The members of the group see how far they went together, and recognize they played a role in that. They have power.

Similarly, if Bob goes to ten, Alice wants to take it to 11. Alice wants to show that she’s just as fearless as Bob, that she’s as vital to the group, that she belongs. Then, Charlie wants to go for 12. Charlie doesn’t want to be the weak link.

Safety in Numbers

Another factor is testing group integrity. If Charlie goes to 12 and the group loses its nerve, Charlie may be left in danger. This informs both Charlie and the group of the tensile strength of their alliance.

If the group rescues the one that went too far, they are again emboldened. They find themselves invincible once more.

A Root in Sibling Competition

We see bear cubs wander away from the mother’s safety, each testing how far they may stray before mom will react. Which of the litter is the bravest? How harsh will the reaction be? What is safe and what is not?

What Happens Without Limits

And here we run into the wall. What happens when these group antics are left unchecked? When they can continue because the mother is absent, or because the authority is timid or dependent upon the actors?

There we are reliant upon greater, more fundamental forces. We await the erosion of the foundations upon which these monsters, born of silly kids games, stand.

Eventually the extremism of the modern Republican party must collapse. The public will recognize they have gone too far. But going too far in these games means someone gets hurt. Either the cub is lost to predators or gets swept away by the river. Or in the case of bully groups, the victim is hurt too severely, or fights back and the bully is maimed.

Awareness of this behavioral dynamic is essential to a modern government. Impunitas continuum affectum tribuit delinquendi (“Impunity confirms the disposition to commit crime,” 4 Coke’s English King’s Bench Reports, 45). Impunities semper ad deteriora invitat (“Impunity always invites to greater crimes,” 5 Coke’s English King’s Bench Reports, 109).