Is environmentalism only for the rich?

10Q, Volume 2

Hello y’all,

welcome to another edition of “10 Questions For the Future”, my newsletter. Or should I say “newsletter magazine”, because it sounds cooler and takes into account the length?

Anyways, as I am writing this on the last weekend of the year, we are trying to identify the differences between Gray Foxes and Coyotes out here in Texas. An animal that could be both has been showing up in our neighborhood, looking like a mixture between a wolf and an oversized German shepherd dog (remember: everything is bigger in Texas). The key difference: Coyotes eat pets, while gray foxes prefer to climb trees to prey on birds. You are supposed to spot the difference by looking at the tail. It is all very wild out here (I recently blogged about the neighborhood wildlife if you want to share my joy about these encounters).

But on to this edition. In case it’s the first time you’re reading this, some info:

► This newsletter includes ten topics I’ve been stumbling upon and have been thinking about. As the title suggests, more questions with context than direct answers.

► See this more like a small magazine if you don’t find time right away. Feel free to skip what’s not your cup of tea or read on later. It will still matter in 2019.

► I will send this newsletter every 10-15 days.

► My name is Johannes, I am located in Austin, Texas. And I am happy to talk about these questions or anything else, here or @kopfzeiler (German) @johakuhn.

Here we go.

1. Is environmentalism only for the rich?

There has been an interesting secondary discussion going on about the Yellow Vest protests in France. As you might remember (or not, because it is all rather confusing), their reason for taking to the streets in the first place was the higher gasoline tax, which has been postponed for now. Such a climate-tax affects you more if you live in rural and peri-urban areas and/or have a lower income.

The American sociologist Neil Gross suggests that the protests symbolise how deeply environmentalism is stuck, as such taxes lead to the perception that it is a project of the rich:

“Contrary to the theory of postmaterialism, the well-off aren’t the only ones who care about climate change and the environment. Yet in many of today’s capitalist democracies, class and status resentments, fostered by rampant inequality and whipped up by opportunistic politicians, have developed to such an extent that issues like the environment that affect everyone are increasingly seen through the lens of group conflict and partisan struggle.”

As a commenter under the article notes, inequality is also continuingly contributing to climate change. In unequal societies, people want to catch up with the better off. And the only accepted method to structurally solve poverty is economic growth, which is connected to higher CO2-emissions.

This obviously means that degrowth (an economy that is not based on rising output) cannot work without tackling inequality. Enter Branko Milanovic, my favourite researcher-firebrand. He uses the French climate-tax to attack ideas about degrowth and climate-protection that lack details and substance.

“Proponents of degrowth and those who argue that we need to do something dramatic regarding climate change are singularly coy and shy when it comes to pointing out who is going to bear the costs of these changes.” 

That is pretty much on point and you don’t have to wear a yellow vest to agree (though I have recently seen people wearing yellow vests when they walk their dogs around the neighborhood).

2. Is Organic Farming harming the planet?

The New England Skeptical Society (which I was disappointed to find out are not Freemasons in lab-outfits) has been arguing against organic farming for a long time. The current validation of this argument comes from a new study that was published in Nature. In short: It is all about land-use.

To calculate the CO2-emissions, the scientists (who didn’t declare any conflicts of interest, in case you wonder) included opportunity cost. What does that mean? Well, organic farming is less productive than conventional farming, so we need more farmland, which means less forests and meadows that can catch carbon. And, surprise:

The authors of the paper in Nature conclude: “A finite global land area implies that fulfilling these strategies requires increasing global land-use efficiency of both storing carbon and producing food.”

In all fairness, this equation is not completely fair and conventional agriculture itself brings a lot of problems regarding the effects of pesticides as well as soil degradation. But it is clear that the combination of a growing world population and climate change necessitates a systemic solution (probably starting with repairing the soil that has already made one third of the farmland worldwide unproductive).

3. Will Urban Farming become sustainable?

Speaking of farming: Urban farming has become something like a cultural movement recently, bringing with it countless stereotypes about city hipsters in Latzhosen talking to their tomatoes. But is this kind of agriculture effective? Well, not yet, says a study from Australia that Ars Technica explained. The study is only a limited snapshot, but makes the argument to better link urban farms to existing systems. By using compost from city resources instead of buying it, for example, or by storing rainwater (which some municipalities do not allow). Actually, I thought this already was being done!

A lot of inefficiency is also hidden in the labor that’s necessary, though it is a hobby for most gardeners, I suppose. Well, at least from the “carbon and land-use”-angle could say that urban gardens should only be done on top of buildings. And of course, vertical farming will be much more interesting as far as efficiency is concerned. Though less hip, I suppose.

4. What does reality mean in the internet-age?

Max Read recently listed all the things that have become fake on the internet. Fake clicks, fake people, fake content, fake influence. For god’s sake, even aspiring Instagram influencers are posting fake sponsored content to get real sponsorship deals. Oh and about those thousands of video-views…

(btw: how do they route the IP-addresses?)

You can laugh about it, but it would be funnier if it wasn’t this complicated to fix it. But it is. Traffic and influence measurement has been following the same shady metrics that the advertising industry always has been known for. Networks have become too big, content works too deeply with emotional triggers. Disinformation has become a business model.

So this involves different corners to look for a solution, like auditing (advertising), antitrust (companies), realism about the long tail (in a world of near endless content it’s hard to build something steady), media-awareness (becoming fluent in building networked knowledge) and questioning individualism (placing authentic personalities above what they say & feeling like as human beings we deserve an audience). And there is a role the government has to play regarding disinformation, but it has to be a measured one, or we are going to find ourselves in censorship- and surveillance-territory, especially as social media is becoming more private (groups, chats).

I am still trying to figure out a unified theory about this, so if you don’t hear from me again, my head has probably exploded while doing so.

5. Will truth survive or succumb?

This is obviously related to the above. I can recommend this primer by Jonathan Rauch about how we’ve been creating knowledge and identifying truth since the enlightenment. It is incredibly long, but I appreciate the optimistic conclusion, especially after another year of madness and disorientation.

The complex, professional evidence-based enterprises are still around (like science, jurisprudence, academia, and yes, even journalism - don’t mention Mr. Relotius). What they need is an update to make their methods transparent, as well as even more importantly time and the right incentives to do a proper job. Especially the time-factor has been underestimated, methinks.

6. Is dating without context a good idea?

It has been five years since Tinder launched, and the app has “changed the history of romance”, as Ashley Fetters suggests. One thing that stands out in her analysis is the loss of context that mobile dating has brought about: No context about who the other person hangs out with (like you have when you meet somebody in a social context) or who you both know, not even common interests like classic dating-websites shared.

Which is good, because this means you meet people from different walks of life. And bad, because no context means no social punishment for being rude. And to me, it appears there is always the context of Tinder itself: What people are using it for (don’t start looking for platonic friendships) and certain strategies to impress or appear more likeable.

7. How powerful is the impact of social media movements?

I finally found time to read a recent XXL-interview with the British filmmaker Adam Curtis, who has always been challenging how we construct society and reality. You get and idea of his aesthetic by watching the trailer to “HyperNormalisation”, his latest documentary.

Curtis says many smart things, but I want to quote him about the internet/social-media movements:

“I have this working theory that the internet is the HR [human resources] department for the world. I know because I work for a big corporation [the BBC]. If somebody behaves badly HR swoops in, your desk is cleared and you’re booted out of the building within hours. They never question the system that made that person behave badly. The HR people would never do that. And that’s exactly what the internet is doing at the moment. It identifies bad peoples, swoops in and ejects them. What it never does is question the system and in that way the internet reflects the corporatism of the people who invented it.”

Which kind of fits into my theory that the early 21st century will be known as an age where most people have been trained to focus on symptoms, while conveniently ignoring the roots of our problems. Though I would happy to see this as being a phase we will grow out of.

8. Will vegetarians eat lab-grown meat?

In 2019, lab-grown meat is said to hit supermarkets in the United States. “Lab-grown” means the tissue is made by synthetically replicating meat-cells. But would this make it “meat” as in “something a vegetarian/vegan would not eat?”. As people who know me can guess: As a vegetarian I would very much like to know this myself.

This is why I was happy to find philosopher Michael LaBossiere tackling the existential question: What is meat? Which is pretty similar to the question “Is golf a sport?”, as one commenter noted. But only more complicated!

I won’t replicate LaBossiere’s thoughts, as they are worthwhile reading, but it comes down to what I was kind of suspecting: You have to find out what happened to the original animal. If a cow was killed for the cells of a meatless steak, you are strictly eating the cow, though in an abstract way. The tricky thing is how you morally handle this abstraction (which LaBossiere covers in “The metaphysics of meat”). I suppose vegans won’t eat it anyway because the cells were deviated from an animal. And I guess it would be cheating for me to first taste and then decide, right?

9. Will technology billionaires rule the Democrats?

America’s parties are weak and have always been so. This is why since 2016 there has been a quiet push by some actors in the technology industry to become more influential in the Democratic party (beyond donating millions).

To achieve this, Reid Hoffman (who founded LinkedIn, among other things) and Mark Pincus (Zynga) founded a political umbrella organisation called WTF in 2017, and now Hoffman has been getting into the voter-data-business. If you have granular voter data and can decide who to give it to, this makes you an important player - and it weakens the central party organisation (DNC).

Politico reports that some people in the DNC are freaking out about this, and you can easily imagine Hoffman becoming a kingmaker down the road, though obviously there are many factors involved (including torches and pitchforks, as far as the relationship between left-wing Democrats and the tech industry is concerned).

Everybody who has followed city politics in San Francisco know that the political emissaries of big tech like to play dirty, and as the NYT reports, Hoffman was using “similarly deceptive tactics [like the 2016 “Russian operations”] to divide Republican voters ahead of the Alabama Senate race in 2017. This is pretty creepy and could become even more interesting.

10. Are regular TV antennas making a comeback?

In the U.S., they apparently do. You get around five to two dozen channels with a digital antenna. Not much, compared with cable television. But do you need any more in a time when you can stream almost everything and cable is costing you around 80+ Dollars, internet not included? The fun thing about this kind of unbundling has been that choice can be interpreted as a menace, as we only have 24 hours each day. Or rather: 36-40 hours if you include multitasking and casual media-consumption.

That’s it for this edition. This week’s cover picture is from the HBO-series Succession. I hope everyone of you will have a great and healthy 2019. See you on the other side!