Shared Responsibilities for Climate Change Mitigation

The dangers of climate change pose a threat to all of humankind and to ecosystems all over the world. Does this mean that all humans need to equally shoulder the responsibility of mitigating climate change and its effects? The concept of CBDR (common but differentiated responsibilities) is routinely discussed at international negotiations about climate change mitigation. The underlying principle of CBDR in the context of climate change is that highly developed countries have historically contributed far more to climate change and therefore have a greater responsibility to reduce their carbon footprint than less developed countries. The per capita rate of vehicles in the United States is approximately 90 cars per 100 people, whereas the rate in India is 5 cars per 100 people. The total per capita carbon footprint includes a plethora of factors such as carbon emissions derived from industry, air travel and electricity consumption of individual households. As of 2015, the per capita carbon footprint in the United States is ten times higher than that of India, but the discrepancy in the historical per capita carbon footprint is even much greater.

CBDR recognizes that while mitigating carbon emissions in the future is a shared responsibility for all countries, highly developed countries which have contributed substantially to global carbon emissions and climate change for more than a century have a greater responsibility to rein in carbon emissions going forward than less developed countries. However, the idea of “differentiated” responsibilities has emerged as a rather contentious issue. Some representatives of developed countries do not embrace the idea of asking their populations to steeply curb the usage of carbon fuels and achieve strict carbon emission goals, whereas people living in less developed countries face fewer restrictions merely because they are “late developers”. On the other hand, representatives of less developed countries may reject universal standards on carbon emissions which ignore their historical carbon frugality and instead perceive these standards as attempts to curtail their industrial and economic development.

Are citizens of industrialized countries willing to recognize their privileged status and thus contribute more towards climate change mitigation? A team of researchers lead by Reuben Kline at Stony Brook University recently designed a behavioral study published in the journal Nature Human Behavior with volunteer college students from the United States and China to address this question. The students participated in a version of an “economic game” to ascertain how economic advantage would affect their choices. The study consisted of two phases. In the initial “Economic Development Game”, participants were divided into groups of six players and each participant could remove either $0, $1, $2, $3 or $4 per round from a shared pool of money ($180) belonging to the group. There were a total of 10 rounds so the maximum one individual could extract during the 10 rounds was $40. The clever twist in the experimental design was that half the participants were not allowed to extract any money during the first five rounds, so that the total they could have extracted was only $20. The second group thus emulated “late developers” in terms of industrialization and economic growth which merely watched as “early developers” accumulated wealth during the first five rounds.

The second phase of the experiment consisted of the “Climate Game” in which all the participants of a group were asked to return money into the common pool (“climate account”). The amount of money that had to be replenished in each group was 53% of what the group had removed from the common pool of $180 during the “Economic Development Game”. For example, if the combined sum of money removed by all six players in a group, was $100, than the group as a whole had to return $53 during the “Climate Game”. If the group did not meet the 53% target, the group risked a “climate catastrophe” in which all players of a group would lose their earnings. The probability of a catastrophic loss depended on the amount of money extracted during the “Economic Development Game”. If, for example, players in a group depleted $150 during Phase 1 and did not meet the threshold of returning $80 (53% of $150) during Phase 2, there was a 92% chance of a “climate catastrophe” in which all players of a group would lose all earnings. This discouraged greed by individual players and instead encouraged judicious extraction of funds during Phase 1 as well as active replenishment during Phase 2 to meet the 53% target.

The fundamental goal of the study was to understand how “early developers” would act because they had additional time to accumulate wealth during the first five rounds of Phase 1 and whether this advantage would affect their willingness to donate funds into the climate account during Phase 2. The results were quite remarkable and give reasons for hope in regards to how recognizing advantage affects social behavior. “Early developers” initially accumulated funds but then chose to extract less money during the later rounds once the “late developers” entered the game. Furthermore, early developers who had accumulated more funds were also more willing to donate money in order to replenish the “climate account” and help stave off the “climate catastrophe”.

Importantly, these experiments were performed in the United States and China, with similar results in both student populations. Interestingly, a representative quote by a “late developer” participant also explains why “late developers”  had lower rates of donations in Phase 2: “I decided not to contribute any because I felt that the individuals who were able to [appropriate] more money in the first round (early developers) should contribute more because I started with a disadvantage.”

The researchers interpret their data in the context of climate change mitigation behavior and suggest that recognizing one’s privileged status does indeed motivate individuals to greater sacrifice for the common good. The strengths of the study are the elegant design of the two-phase study, the replication of findings in two different countries as well as the inclusion of control groups in which all players were given equal opportunity to extract funds (without subdividing groups into “early” and “late developers”). Reuben Kline and his colleagues recognize the limitations of a highly stylized economic game experiment in a laboratory experiment using young educated college students to infer real world acceptance of carbon frugality by broader groups of citizens and political leaders in developed countries.

However, there is one fundamental issue which is not addressed in the context of this study. The “early” and “late developers” represented highly developed and less developed countries. However, the two countries they chose – United States and China – are marred by a tremendous amount of socio-economic inequality. Fifteen percent of Americans live in poverty even though the United States are often touted as the wealthiest country in the world.  CBDR and the results of the experiment detailed above are predicated on the idea that members of highly developed groups recognize themselves as being advantaged. But if there is such a discrepancy between rich and poor in a highly developed country, how likely is it that socio-economically disadvantaged members of society in a highly developed country will accept their status being labeled as advantaged? Populist political leaders in developed countries appeal to voters who are struggling to pay their bills, and their voters often perceive themselves as marginalized victims. Their income and quality of life may be far higher than that of their counterparts in less developed countries, but it is not clear that they would recognize this as an advantage in the same sense that the “early developer” college students recognized it in the experiment.

The research study by Kline and colleagues indeed provides reason for hope when it comes to climate mitigation behavior as well as perhaps other forms of prosocial behavior. It suggests that recognizing privilege can motivate greater sacrifice for the greater good. However, future studies may need to include a more complex experimental design in which the heterogeneity of “early developers” is addressed and we can derive more insights about how individuals recognize their advantage and privilege.

References

Kline, R., Seltzer, N., Lukinova, E., & Bynum, A. (2018). Differentiated responsibilities and prosocial behaviour in climate change mitigationNature Human Behavior, 2: 653-661.

Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.

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Escape The Tyranny Of Algorithms By Leading A Life Of Poiesis

“Accused not of crimes they have committed, but of crimes they will commit. It is asserted that these men, if allowed to remain free, will at some future time commit felonies.”

From “The Minority Report” by Philip K. Dick

 

In the science fiction short story “The Minority Report” by Philip K. Dick, mutant “precogs” are able to see one to two weeks into the future. Their precognitive prophecies are decoded and analyzed by a computer, and used by the Precrime police unit pre-emptively arrest would-be perpetrators before they commit crimes. The story proposes the existence of multiple time-lines and futures, which explains why crimes can indeed be averted because the pre-emptive arrest leads to a shift in the time path towards an alternate future in which the crime does not place. But the story raises the fundamental question of how a person can be arrested and imprisoned for a crime that was not committed, if indeed the alternate future begins upon his arrest. The dilemma of pre-emptive arrests is one of the many questions pondered by the Austrian philosopher Armen Avanessian in his most recent book “Miamification”.

“Miamification” is basically a journal written during Avanessian’s two week stint as an artist-in-residence in the city of Miami during the fall of 2016, just weeks before the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. Each chapter of the book represents one day of his stay in Miami, containing musings on so many topics that it feels more like a bricolage than a collection of traditional philosophical essays. The stream-of-consciousness style of writing is filled with several digressions and side-notes. This reflects the journal-like nature of the book but it perhaps also mirrors how we peruse online texts on the web with various levels of links to other webpages as well as the snappy phrases and soundbites that we encounter during social media conversations. The book cover of the German edition lists several of the topics Avanessian ruminates about: Trump, Big Data, Beach, Pre-emptive Personality, Make American Great Again, Immigration, Climate Change, Time Complex, Post-Capitalism, Post-Internet, Recursion, Déjà-vus, Algorithms – just to name a few.

Obviously, none of these topics are exhaustively discussed in this short book, and some readers may struggle with the Ideenüberflutung (idea flooding) in each chapter. But each short chapter provides the reader with the lingering pleasure of having continuous food for thought and questions to ponder for weeks to come. Even though the chapters are not thematically structured, common themes do emerge. “The Disappearance of the Subject” is one such theme that was recently discussed in a brilliant essay by Adrian Nathan West. Another central theme is that of temporal discordance.

“Miamification” begins with physical and biological manifestations of temporal discordance, one that many who have traveled across time zones can easily relate to. Avanessian experiences jet-lag after flying from Berlin to Miami but his jet lag is not limited to having difficulties sleeping or waking up early. When reading his emails, he feels that he is continuously lagging behind. The work day in Europe is nearly over while his day in Miami is just getting started and people in Europe are expecting responses in real-time. This temporal disconnect between expectations and reality not only occurs in the time zone lag situation but even in our daily routines. For example, when tackling complex ideas, we know that we need time to analyze and ponder several concepts in depth but the reality of being perpetually connected to the world by our smartphone exposes us to continuous emails and social media pings which distract us and prevent us from devoting the necessary time. Avanessian also observes other absurd examples of temporal discordance in Miami. Instead of enjoying a swim in the warm water, many tourists appear to be more obsessed with taking selfies of themselves standing in the water so that they may capture this moment for posterity – delaying gratification in order to some time in the future enjoy the memory of a time at the beach when they decided to forgo the pleasure for swimming.

After watching the movie “Minority Report” (loosely based on the Philip K. Dick short story) on his third day in Miami, Avanessian broadens his inquiry into our relationship with time. Even though contemporary police forces do not use mutant precogs to prophecy the future, we are surrounded by computational algorithms which aim to predict behavior. Law enforcement agencies increasingly rely on predictive algorithms to identify individuals who are at risk of committing terrorist acts in the near or distant future, in fact “neuroprediction” of criminal behavior is establishing itself as a scientific discipline. Corporations such as Amazon prompt us with products that we could purchase based on algorithms that analyze our past purchases. At what point do these algorithms become self-fulfilling prophecies? Are individuals who are continuously monitored and questioned by law enforcement perhaps more likely to radicalize and commit crimes? At what point do online “suggestions” by algorithms become a subconscious mandate to buy consumables in order to remain true to our past self?

The temporal assault occurs at several fronts: Surveillance agencies and corporations use predictive algorithms about our future behavior to define and create present behavior. But these algorithms are rooted in past behaviors – thus in some ways chaining us to the past and limiting our ability to change, especially once the predictive algorithms begin influencing our present behavior. At the same time, we are being bombarded with clickbait, social media posts and sensationalist news – all which appear to glorify and obsess about the present. Their rapidity often does not allow us to analyze them in the context of the past or the future. Lastly, we are seeing the rise of reactionary forces in many countries of the world who conjure up bizarre images of a glorious past that we ought to be striving towards. Avanessian specifically mentions Donald Trump and his supporters in their Make American Great Again fervor as an example – weeks before the 2016 presidential election in the USA.

How do we best handle this dysfunctional relationship with the Past (reactionary and revisionist glorifying of the past), Present (barrage of mindless and often meaningless information about the present) and the Future (predictive algorithms which predetermine our future instead of allowing us to define our own future)? Lead a poetic life. Avanessian uses the word poetic in the original Greek sense: Poiesis – to create and produce. Poiesis requires that we prevent algorithms from dictating our behavior. Corporations prompting us to buy certain products as well as political extremists goad us into algorithmic behavior. For example, a common contemporary phenomenon in politics has been the frequent use of racist, misogynist and other offensive social media posts by far right politicians and leaders. Their scandalous and sensationalist tweets elicit a predictable backlash from those opposed to racism, misogyny and other forms of prejudice.  Even though it is absolutely necessary for those of us opposed to hatred and prejudice to voice opposition and resistance, far right activists and politicians use our predicted reactions to further embolden their political base and mock liberal-progressive citizens,and then begin their next cycle of hateful statements. This recursive cycle ends up consuming our attention and undermining our ability to be creative and escape the algorithmic life.

Poiesis, on the other hand,  creates the unexpected and unpredictable and thus generates a reality that eludes predictive algorithms. Art, music, literature, philosophy, science provide poietic paths but the challenge for us is to learn how can integrate these poietic paths into our social, economic and political lives. Political poiesis may be especially important in our current time to counter the rise of far right political movements. One of the reasons for their success is that they conjure up images of a glorious past as well as the supposed danger of a bleak future unless society returns to the status quo of the glorious past. But progressive movements now have the opportunity to offer a poietic vision of the future.

One such poietic success in the United States during the past decade has been the revolution in the acceptance of universal access to healthcare as a human right. In most countries of the developed world, all members of society have enjoyed access to universal healthcare for the past decades. However, up until approximately 10 years ago, Americans accepted the fact that they might face financial bankruptcy and denial of health insurance coverage if they were afflicted by a devastating disease such as cancer. Through the joint efforts of patients, healthcare professionals, community organizers, politicians and most importantly – citizens from all socioeconomic backgrounds – American society began to recognize access to healthcare even for those with pre-existing medical conditions as a human right.

Townhall meetings, marches and door-to-door engagement, medical journal articles, new collaborations across communities and professions were all needed to bring about this change. The sheer scale of the efforts and the creativity of the proponents took right-wing opponents by surprise who had assumed that the American public would stick to its traditional distaste for anything that resembled a universal healthcare system that was so common in other industrialized countries with strong social welfare systems. Conservative and far right politicians in the United States were confident they could repeal the laws implemented during President Barack Obama’s administration which guaranteed health insurance for all – even patients with severe prior illnesses. All subsequent efforts by right wing politicians to abolish the fundamental achievement of the universal healthcare movement to enshrine the right to obtain medical insurance despite pre-existing medical conditions have failed thus far.

The success of the US healthcare movement could serve as an inspiration for all who struggle under the yoke of algorithmic and reactive behavior. Our willingness to dream and create can allow us to break the algorithmic mold. Considering the challenges we face in our world – which include the growing socio-economic divide, the rise of nativism and racism, and the devastating impact of climate change – we need to foster poietic creativity and imagination to overcome these challenges.

Reference

Avanessian, A. (2017). Miamification. Merve Verlag.

This book is also available in an English translation published by Sternberg Press.

Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.

Optimizing Ourselves into Oblivion

The short story “Anekdote zur Senkung der Arbeitsmoral” (“An anecdote about the lowering of work ethic”) is one of the most famous stories written by the German author Heinrich Böll. In the story, an affluent tourist encounters a poorly clad fisherman who is comfortably napping in his boat. The assiduous tourist accidentally wakes up the fisherman while taking photos of the peaceful scenery – blue sky, green sea, fisherman with an old-fashioned hat – but then goes on to engage the lounging fisherman in a conversation. The friendly chat gradually turns into a sermon in which the tourist lectures the fisherman about how much more work he could be doing, how he could haul in more fish instead of lazing about, use the profits to make strategic investments, perhaps even hire employees and buy bigger boats in a few years. To what end, the fisherman asks. So that you could peacefully doze away at the beach, enjoying the beautiful sun without any worries, responds the enthusiastic tourist.

I remembered Böll’s story which was written in the 1960s – during the post-war economic miracle years (Wirtschaftswunder) when prosperity, efficiency and growth had become the hallmarks of modern Germany – while recently reading the book “Du sollst nicht funktionieren” (“You were not meant to function”) by the German author and philosopher Ariadne von Schirach. In this book, von Schirach criticizes the contemporary obsession with Selbstoptimierung (self-optimization), a term that has been borrowed from network theory and computer science where it describes systems which continuously adapt and “learn” in order to optimize their function. Selbstoptimierung is now used in a much broader sense in German culture and refers to the desire of individuals to continuously “optimize” their bodies and lives with the help of work-out regimens, diets, self-help courses and other processes. Self-optimization is a routine learning process that we all engage in. Successful learning of a new language, for example, requires continuous feedback and improvement. However, it is the continuous self-optimization as the ultimate purpose of life, instead of merely serving as  a means to an end that worries von Schirach.

She draws on many examples from Körperkult (body-cult), a slavish worship of the body that gradually replaces sensual pleasure with the purpose of discipling the body. Regular exercise and maintaining a normal weight are key factors for maintaining health but some individuals become so focused on tracking steps and sleep duration on their actigraphs, exercising or agonizing about their diets that the initial health-related goals become lose their relevance. They strive for a certain body image and resting heart rates and to reach these goals they indulge in self-discipline to maximize physical activity and curb appetite. Such individuals rarely solicit scientific information as to the actual health benefits of their exercise and food regimens and might be surprised to learn that more exercise and more diets do not necessarily lead to more health. The American Heart Association recommends roughly 30-45 minutes of physical activity daily to reduce high blood pressure and the risk of heart attacks and stroke. Even simple and straightforward walking is sufficient to meet these goals, there is no need for two-hour gym work-outs.

Why are we becoming so obsessed with self-optimization? Unfortunately, von Schirach’s analysis degenerates into a diffuse diatribe against so many different elements of contemporary culture. Capitalist ideology, a rise in narcissism and egotism, industrialization and the growing technocracy, consumerism, fear of death, greed, monetization of our lives and social media are among some of the putative culprits that she invokes. It is quite likely that many of these factors play some role in the emerging pervasiveness of the self-optimization culture – not only in Germany. However, it may be useful to analyze some of the root causes and distinguish them from facilitators. Capitalist ideology is very conducive to a self-optimization culture. Creating beauty and fitness targets as well as laying out timelines to achieve these targets is analogous to developing corporate goals, strategies and milestones. Furthermore, many corporations profit from our obsession with self-optimization. Companies routinely market weight regimens, diets, exercise programs, beauty products and many other goods or services that generate huge profits if millions of potential consumers buy into the importance of life-long self-optimization. They can set the parameters for self-optimization – ideal body images – and we just obey. According to the German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, such a diffusion of market logic and obedience to pre-ordained parameters and milestones into our day-to-day lives results in an achievement society which ultimately leads to mental fatigue and burnout.  In the case of “working out”, it is telling that a supposedly leisure physical activity uses the expression “work”, perhaps reminding us that the mindset of work persists during the exercise period.

But why would we voluntarily accept these milestones and parameters set by others? One explanation that is not really addressed by von Schirach is that obsessive self-optimization with a focus on our body may represent a retreat from the world in which we feel disempowered. Those of us who belong to the 99% know that our voices are rarely heard or respected when it comes to most fundamental issues in society such as socioeconomic inequality, rising intolerance and other forms of discrimination or prejudice. When it comes to our bodies, we may have a sense of control and empowerment that we do not experience in our work or societal roles. Self-discipline of our body gives our life a purpose with tangible goals such as lose x pounds, exercise y hours, reduce your resting heart rate by z.

Self-optimization may be a form of Ersatzempowerment but it comes at a great cost. As we begin to retreat from more fundamental societal issues and instead focus on controlling our bodies, we also gradually begin to lose the ability to dissent and question the meaning of actions. Working-out and dieting are all about HowWhen and What – how do I lose weight, what are my goals, when am I going to achieve it. The most fundamental questions of our lives usually focus on the Why – but self-optimization obsesses so much about HowWhen and What that one rarely asks “Why am I doing this?” Yet it is the Why that gives our life meaning, and self-optimization perhaps illustrates how a purpose-driven life may lose its meaning. The fisherman prompted the tourist to think about the Why in Böll’s story and perhaps we should do the same to avoid the trap of an obsessive self-optimization culture.

Reference:

von Schirach, Ariadne. Du sollst nicht funktionieren: für eine neue Lebenskunst. Klett Cotta, 2014.

 

Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog. 

Let Them Make My Cake: Exporting Burden, Importing Convenience in the Externalization Society

On 5 November 2015, an iron ore tailings dam burst in Bento Rodrigues near the Brazilian city of Mariana, releasing 60 million cubic meters of a reddish-brown mud-flood. This toxic flood buried neighboring villages and flowed into the Rio Doce, contaminating the river with several hazardous metals including mercury, arsenic and chromium as well as potentially harmful bacteria. The devastating and perhaps irreparable damage to the ecosystem and human health caused by this incident are the reason why it is seen as one of the biggest environmental disasters in the history of Brazil. The German sociologist Stephan Lessenich uses this catastrophe as a starting point to introduce the concept of the Externalisierungsgesellschaft(externalization society) in his book Neben uns die Sintflut: Die Externalisierungsgesellschaft und ihr Preis (“Around us, the deluge: The externalization society and its cost”).

What is the externalization society? According to Lessenich, this expression describes how developed countries such as the United States, Japan and Germany transfer or externalize risks and burdens to developing countries in South America, Africa and Asia. The Bento Rodrigues disaster is an example of the environmental risk that is externalized. Extracting metals that are predominantly used by technology-hungry consumers in developed countries invariably generates toxic waste which poses a great risk for the indigenous population of many developing countries. The externalized environmental risks are not limited to those associated with mining raw materials. The developed world is also increasingly exporting its trash into the third world.

The US, for example, are the world’s largest exporter of paper trash, exporting scrap paper worth US$ 3.1 billion each year. The US is also the largest producer of electronic waste (E-Waste), estimated at more than 7 million tons of E-Waste per year (PDF). Every new smartphone or tablet release generates mountains of E-Waste as consumers discard their older devices. Re-cycling the older devices sounds like a reasonable solution bu true recycling and re-using of electronic components is quite costly and time-consuming. It is also often not clear which electronic components of devices actually get recycled. To track the fate of discarded electronic devices, Jim Puckett from the Basel Action Network and his colleagues placed GPS-trackers in old electronics dropped off at US-based recycling centers. They found that a third of the “recycled” electronics were shipped overseas to countries such as Mexico, Taiwan, China, Pakistan, Thailand and Kenya. Puckett used the GPS signal to identify the sites where the E-Waste ended up and visited such a location in Hong Kong, where he found that the “recycled” electronics were being dismantled in junkyards by migrant workers from mainland China who were not wearing any protective clothing that would have protected them from hazardous materials released during the extraction of salvageable E-Waste materials. There are many regulations that restrict the trading of E-Waste but the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimates that up to 90% of the world’s E-Waste is traded or dumped illegally. This means that even though dropping off old devices at a recycling center may alleviate the conscience of consumers, a significant number of these will not be re-used but instead shipped off to junkyards in other countries – without appropriate monitoring of how these electronic waste products will affect the local environment and health of the population.

Exporting environmental risks to developing countries by either outsourcing high-risk extraction of raw materials or simply dumping waste is just one example of externalization according the Lessenich. Externalizing occupational health risks and poverty by severely under-paying workers are other examples. Bangladesh has now emerged as one of the world’s largest manufacturers of clothing because of its cheap labor. In 2011, the typical monthly wage of a garment industry worker in Bangladesh was estimated at $91 per month – roughly one and a half dollars per day! In addition to this dismally low pay, garment factory workers in Bangladesh also face terrible occupational risks. The collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building in 2013 which called over 1,100 people and injured more than 2,500 people is just one example of the occupational risks faced by the workers.

Lessenich’s concept of the externalization society isn’t just another critique of the global inequality that we so often hear about. The fundamental principle of the externalization society put forth by Lessenich is the interdependence between the “imperial lifestyle” of wealth and comfort in the developed world and the “wretched lifestyle” of poverty and hardship in the developing world. If those of us who live in the developed world want the convenience of upgrading our smartphones every few years or buying cheap cotton t-shirts, then we need those who manufacture these products in the developing world to be paid lousy wages. If those workers were paid humane wages and their employers instituted appropriate occupational safety measures, as well as health and disability insurance plans that are routine in most parts of the developed world, then the cost of the products would be incompatible with our current economy and lifestyle which are fueled by consumerism and the capitalist imperative of incessant growth.

The pillars of the externalization society are indifference and ignorance. We are indifferent because we see the differential in lifestyle as a Selbstverständlichkeit – a German word for obviousness or taken-for-grantedness. They were born in developing countries, so of course they have to struggle – tough luck, they ended up with the wrong lottery tickets. This Selbstverständlichkeit also extends to the limited mobility of the people born in the developing world. They lack the birthright of the developing world citizens whose passports allow them to either travel visa-free or obtain a visa to nearly any country in the world with minimal effort. This veneer of Selbstverständlichkeit is easiest to maintain if “they” and “their” problems are invisible and thus allow us to ignore the interdependence between our good fortune and their misery. We might see images of the toxic flood in Brazil but few, if any, members of the externalization society will link the mining of cheap iron in Brazil to the utensils they use in their everyday life.

A decade ago, disposable single-use coffee pods such as the Keurig K-cups or the Nespresso pods were extremely rare but by 2014, K-cup manufactures sold a mind-boggling 9 billion K-cups! A new need for disposable products that had previously been met by standard coffee machines arose without considering the environmental and global impact of this need. In theory, the K-cups are recyclable but this would require careful separating of the paper, plastic and the aluminum top. It is not clear how many K-cups are properly recycled, and the E-Waste example shows that even if items are transported to recycling centers, that does not necessarily mean that they will be successfully recycled. Prior to the advent coffee pods, our coffee demands had been easily met without generating additional mountains of disposable plastic and aluminum coffee pod trash. Out of nowhere, there arose a new need for aluminum which again is extracted from the aluminum ore bauxite – another process that generates toxic waste. Instead of feeling a sense of absolution when we drop a disposable item into a recycling bin, we should simply curtail unnecessary consumption of products in disposable containers.

How do we overcome the externalization society? We can make concerted efforts through advocacy, education and regulations that restrict exporting environmental waste, improve health and safety conditions for workers in the developing world and try to restrict our consumerist excesses by clarifying the interdependence between wealth in the externalization society and the poverty in the developing world as well as the moral imperative to abrogate the inequality and asymmetry. Numerous advocates have already attempted this approach for the past decades with limited success. Maybe instead of appealing to the ethics of interdependence, a more effective approach may be to educate each other about the consequences of the interdependence. When millions of refugees show up at the doorstep of the externalization society, “they” are no longer invisible. One can blame wars, religious extremism and political ideologies for the misery of the refugees but it becomes harder to ignore the extent and central role of the underlying inequality. Creating humane working and living conditions for people in the developing world is perhaps the most effective way to stop the so-called “refugee crisis“.

Global climate change is another threat to the externalization society, a threat of its own making. Transferring carbon footprints and pollution to other countries does not change the fact that the whole planet is suffering from the consequences of climate change. Political leaders of the externalization society often demand the closing of borders, erecting walls and expanding their armed forces so they are less likely to have to confront the victims of their externalization but no army or wall is strong enough to lower the rising water levels or stabilize the climate. The externalization society will end not because of a crisis of conscience but because its excesses are undermining its own existence.

Reference:

Lessenich, S. (2016). Neben uns die Sintflut: Die Externalisierungsgesellschaft und ihr Preis. Hanser Berlin.

 

Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.

Should Biologists be Guided by Beauty?

Lingulodinium polyedrum is a unicellular marine organism which belongs to the dinoflagellate group of algae. Its genome is among the largest found in any species on this planet, estimated to contain around 165 billion DNA base pairs – roughly fifty times larger than the size of the human genome. Encased in magnificent polyhedral shells, these bioluminescent algae became important organisms to study biological rhythms. Each Lingulodinium polyedrum cell contains not one but at least two internal clocks which keep track of time by oscillating at a frequency of approximately 24 hours. Algae maintained in continuous light for weeks continue to emit a bluish-green glow at what they perceive as night-time and swim up to the water surface during day-time hours – despite the absence of any external time cues. When I began studying how nutrients affect the circadian rhythms of these algae as a student at the University of Munich, I marveled at the intricacy and beauty of these complex time-keeping mechanisms that had evolved over hundreds of millions of years.

Lingulodinium polyedrum (scanning electron micrograph)
Lingulodinium polyedrum (scanning electron micrograph) – Credit: FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (via Flickr)

 

I was prompted to revisit the role of Beauty in biology while reading a masterpiece of scientific writing, “Dreams of a Final Theory” by the Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg in which he describes how the search for Beauty has guided him and many fellow theoretical physicists to search for an ultimate theory of the fundamental forces of nature. Weinberg explains that it is quite difficult to precisely define what constitutes Beauty in physics but a physicist would nevertheless recognize it when she sees it.Over the course of a quarter of a century, I have worked in a variety of biological fields, from these initial experiments in marine algae to how stem cells help build human blood vessels and how mitochondria in a cell fragment and reconnect as cells divide. Each project required its own set of research methods and techniques, each project came with its own failures and successes. But with each project, my sense of awe for the beauty of nature has grown. Evolution has bestowed this planet with such an amazing diversity of life-forms and biological mechanisms, allowing organisms to cope with the unique challenges that they face in their respective habitats. But it is only recently that I have become aware of the fact that my sense of biological beauty was a post hoc phenomenon: Beauty was what I perceived after reviewing the experimental findings; I was not guided by a quest for beauty while designing experiments. In fact, I would have been worried that such an approach might bias the design and interpretation of experiments. Might a desire for seeing Beauty in cell biology lead one to consciously or subconsciously discard results that might seem too messy?

One such key characteristic of a beautiful scientific theory is the simplicity of the underlying concepts. According to Weinberg, Einstein’s theory of gravitation is described in fourteen equations whereas Newton’s theory can be expressed in three. Despite the appearance of greater complexity in Einstein’s theory, Weinberg finds it more beautiful than Newton’s theory because the Einsteinian approach rests on one elegant central principle – the equivalence of gravitation and inertia. Weinberg’s second characteristic for beautiful scientific theories is their inevitability. Every major aspect of the theory seems so perfect that it cannot be tweaked or improved on. Any attempt to significantly modify Einstein’s theory of general relativity would lead to undermining its fundamental concepts, just like any attempts to move around parts of Raphael’s Holy Family would weaken the whole painting.

Can similar principles be applied to biology? I realized that when I give examples of beauty in biology, I focus on the complexity and diversity of life, not its simplicity or inevitability. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Weinberg was describing the search of fundamental laws of physics, laws which would explain the basis of all matter and energy – our universe. As cell biologists, we work several orders of magnitude removed from these fundamental laws. Our building blocks are organic molecules such as proteins and sugars. We find little evidence of inevitability in the molecular pathways we study – cells have an extraordinary ability to adapt. Mutations in genes or derangement in molecular signaling can often be compensated by alternate cellular pathways.

This also points to a fundamental difference in our approaches to the world. Physicists searching for the fundamental laws of nature balance the development of fundamental theories whereas biology in its current form has primarily become an experimental discipline. The latest technological developments in DNA and RNA sequencing, genome editing, optogenetics and high resolution imaging are allowing us to amass unimaginable quantities of experimental data. In fact, the development of technologies often drives the design of experiments. The availability of a genetically engineered mouse model that allows us to track the fate of individual cells that express fluorescent proteins, for example, will give rise to numerous experiments to study cell fate in various disease models and organs. Much of the current biomedical research funding focuses on studying organisms that provide technical convenience such as genetically engineered mice or fulfill a societal goal such as curing human disease.

Uncovering fundamental concepts in biology requires comparative studies across biology and substantial investments in research involving a plethora of other species. In 1990, the National Institutes of Health (NIH – the primary government funding source for biomedical research in the United States) designated a handful of species as model organisms to study human disease, including mice, rats, zebrafish and fruit flies. A recent analysis of the species studied in scientific publications showed that in 1960, roughly half the papers studied what would subsequently be classified as model organisms whereas the other half of papers studied additional species. By 2010, over 80% of the scientific papers were now being published on model organisms and only 20% were devoted to other species, thus marking a significant dwindling of broader research goals in biology. More importantly, even among the model organisms, there has been a clear culling of research priorities with a disproportionately large growth in funding and publications for studies using mice. Thousands of scientific papers are published every month on the cell signaling pathways and molecular biology in mouse and human cells whereas only a minuscule fraction of research resources are devoted to studying signaling pathways in algae.

The question of whether or not biologists should be guided by conceptual Beauty leads us to the even more pressing question of whether we need to broaden biological research. If we want to mirror the dizzying success of fundamental physics during the past century and similarly advance fundamental biology, then we need substantially step-up investments in fundamental biological research that is not constrained by medical goals.

 

References

Dietrich, M. R., Ankeny, R. A., & Chen, P. M. (2014). Publication trends in model organism research. Genetics, 198(3), 787-794.

Weinberg, S. (1992). Dreams of a final theory. Vintage.

Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog. 

 

 

ResearchBlogging.org

Dietrich, M., Ankeny, R., & Chen, P. (2014). Publication Trends in Model Organism Research Genetics, 198 (3), 787-794 DOI: 10.1534/genetics.114.169714

 

Weinberg, Steven (1992). Dreams of a Final Theory Vintage Books

Empathy, Connectedness and Responsibility: German Academics Discuss the Refugee Crisis

Nearly half a million applications for asylum submitted by refugees were processed by German authorities in 2015, according to the German Federal Office for Refugees and Migration. The number of people who were officially registered in Germany as potential asylum seekers was even far higher-roughly one million in 2015 – which suggests that Germany anticipates an even higher number of official asylum applications for 2016. Chancellor Angela Merkel has defied many critics even in her own party and cabinet by emphasizing that Germany can and will take on more refugees, most of whom are coming from war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “We can do it!” (“Wir schaffen das!”) was the phrase she used in September of 2015 to convey her optimism and determination in the face of ever-growing numbers of refugees and the gradual rise of support for far right extremist demonstrations and violent attacks by far right extremists on refugees centers in Germany.

Refugees welcome

 

The German media and right wing populists are currently obsessing about statistics such as the fact that the far right and libertarian party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland – Alternative for Germany) will garner 10% of the popular vote or that the vast majority of the refugees are male and could lead to a demographic gender shift if they remain in Germany. While such statistics serve as an important barometer of the political climate in the German electorate or to prepare for the challenges faced by the refugees and German society in the next years, they do not address the fundamental philosophical questions raised by this refugee crisis. In the latest issue of the popular German philosophy periodical “Philosophie Magazin“, the editors asked philosophers and other academic scholars to weigh in on some of the key issues and challenges in the face of this crisis.

Should we be motivated by a sense of global responsibility when we are confronted with the terrible suffering experienced by refugees whose homes have been destroyed? The sociologist Hartmut Rosa at the University of Jena responds to this question by suggesting that we should focus on Verbundenheit (“connectedness”) instead of Verantwortung (“responsibility”).  Demanding that those of us who lead privileged lives of safety and reasonable material comfort should feel individually responsible for the suffering of others can lead to a sense of moral exhaustion. Are we responsible for the suffering of millions of people in Syria and East Africa? Are we responsible for the extinction of species as a consequence of climate change? Instead of atomizing – and thus perhaps even rendering irrelevant – the abstract concept of individual responsibility, we should become aware of how we are all connected.

We are connected with the children of Syria and Somalia by virtue of the fact that they are fellow humans who deserve to live, learn and love. We are connected to the species facing extinction by climate change because we share the ecosystems of this planet and our species may also face extinction. For Rosa, the sense of connectedness is what motivates us to help the refugees without trying to precisely determine our relative global responsibility.

Are rational thoughts or emotions a better guide for how to respond to the refugee crisis? The philosopher Volker Gerhardt from the Humboldt University of Berlin emphasizes the importance of balancing rational and emotional responses. Rationally calculating the economic cost of taking on refugees and the benefit of increasing the younger workforce once the refugees are granted permission to settle and work in Germany does not do justice to the issues. Gerhardt is aware of his own background as the child of a refugee mother after World War II who were both cared for by their relatives. Every time he sees a photo of a refugee child, it evokes memories of his own past and serves as a motivation to help. But he is also aware of the limits of such emotional and rational willingness to help. Currently, hundreds of thousands of German citizens are volunteering to help and welcome the refugees by donating their time, money and other essentials but the German government needs to realize that this spirit of charity may become exhausted if the influx of refugees is not restricted. Hilde Landweer is a philosopher at the Free University of Berlin who studies the philosophy of emotions. She explains the underlying mechanisms which allow us to feel empathy for refugees. According to Landweer, there are three components which allow to feel empathy: 1) we have to feel a sense of similarity towards the other person, 2) we have to be able “experience” their situation and 3) we have to realize that one day, we might be able to also find ourselves in such a situation. Germany’s leadership role in its willingness to help the refugees when compared to other developed countries – Britain is planning on taking in 5,000 Syrian refugees per year, the USA only 1,000 to 1,500 – may be rooted in the fact that Germans can identify with the plight of the Syrian refugees. Millions of Germans experienced expulsion and forced resettlement from their homelands after World War II when post-war Germany was carved up. Landweer believes that empathy can be nurtured by meeting refugees and hearing about their personal narratives. But empathy needs to be more than shared pain, it needs to also include looking forward to how one can restore security and joy. This positive vision is what ultimately motivates us to help.

Does Germany have a unique historic responsibility when responding to the refugee crisis? Aleida Assmann is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of Konstanz who studies collective memory and its impact on German culture. Assmann refers to the Erinnerungskultur – the culture of remembrance – in Germany. Contemporary Germans are aware of the fact that their ancestors either actively participated or passively ignored the mass murder of millions of Jews, Slavs, gypsies and other ethnicities. According to Assmann, this historic responsibility is sometime summarized as “Auschwitz should never occur again!” but she takes a broader view of this responsibility. The root of Auschwitz was the labeling of fellow humans as fremd – foreign, alien or “other” – which did not deserve respect, empathy and help. Our historic responsibility requires that we avoid the trap of viewing refugees as fremd and instead encounter them with a sense of fellowship. The inherited burden of the Nazi past becomes an opportunity for Germany to define its future: Do we want to become a society that closes its doors to fellow humans in despair or do we want to welcome them in order to build a future society characterized by caring and sharing.

These are just some of the responses given by the philosophers in the Philosophie Magazin issue but they filled me with hope. As a German living in the USA, I often fall into the trap of reading clickbait and sensationalist news articles about the refugee crisis such as the rise of crimes committed by both right wing extremists and refugees in Germany, the imagery of refugees “flooding” German cities and the political gossip about Merkel’s future. But thinking more deeply about the core issues reminds us that what is at stake in Germany is our humanity. Yes, it will be challenging to integrate millions of refugees and provide them with a new Heimat – homeland – but our history and culture compels us to act in a humane fashion and not ignore the plight of fellow human beings.

 

 

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Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.

We Have Become Exhausted Slaves in a Culture of Positivity

We live in an era of exhaustion and fatigue, caused by an incessant compulsion to perform. This is one of the central tenets of the book “Müdigkeitsgesellschaft” (translatable as “The Fatigue Society” or “The Tiredness Society“) by the German philosopher Byung-Chul Han. Han is a professor at the Berlin Universität der Künste (University of the Arts) and one of the most widely read contemporary philosophers in Germany. He was born in Seoul where he studied metallurgy before he moved to Germany in the 1980s to pursue a career in philosophy. His doctoral thesis and some of his initial work in the 1990s focused on Heidegger but during the past decade, Han has written about broad range of topics regarding contemporary culture and society. “Müdigkeitsgesellschaft” was first published in 2010 and helped him attain a bit of a rock-star status in Germany despite his desire to avoid too much public attention – unlike some of his celebrity philosopher colleagues.

Fatigue

The book starts out with two biomedical metaphors to describe the 20th century and the emerging 21st century. For Han, the 20th century was an “immunological” era. He uses this expression because infections with viruses and bacteria which provoked immune responses were among the leading causes of disease and death and because the emergence of vaccinations and antibiotics helped conquer these threats. He then extends the “immunological” metaphor to political and societal events. Just like the immune system recognizes bacteria and viruses as “foreign” that needs to be eliminated to protect the “self”, the World Wars and the Cold War were also characterized by a clear delineation of “Us” versus “Them”. The 21stcentury, on the other hand, is a “neuronal” era characterized by neuropsychiatric diseases such as depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), burnout syndrome and borderline personality disorder. Unlike the diseases in the immunological era, where there was a clear distinction between the foreign enemy microbes that needed to be eliminated and the self, these “neuronal” diseases make it difficult to assign an enemy status. Who are the “enemies” in burnout syndrome or depression? Our environment? Our employers? Our own life decisions and choices? Are we at war with ourselves in these “neuronal” conditions? According to Han, this biomedical shift in diseases is mirrored by a political shift in a globalized world where it becomes increasingly difficult to define the “self” and the “foreign”. We may try to assign a “good guy” and “bad guy” status to navigate our 21st century but we also realize that we are so interconnected that these 20th century approaches are no longer applicable.

The cell biologist in me cringed when I read Han’s immunologic and neuronal metaphors. Yes, it is true that successfully combatting infectious diseases constituted major biomedical victories in the 20th century but these battles are far from over. The recent Ebola virus scare, the persistence of malaria resistance, the under-treatment of HIV and the emergence of multi-drug resistant bacteria all indicate that immunology and infectious disease will play central roles in the biomedical enterprise of the 21st century. The view that the immune system clearly distinguishes between “self” and “foreign” is also overly simplistic because it ignores that autoimmune diseases, many of which are on the rise and for which we still have very limited treatment options, are immunological examples of where the “self” destroys itself. Even though I agree that neuroscience will likely be the focus of biomedical research, it seems like an odd choice to select a handful of psychiatric illnesses as representing the 21st century while ignoring major neuronal disorders such as Alzheimer’s dementia, stroke or Parkinson’s disease. He also conflates specific psychiatric illnesses with the generalized increase in perceived fatigue and exhaustion.

Once we move past these ill- chosen biomedical examples, Han’s ideas become quite fascinating. He suggests that the reason why we so often feel exhausted and fatigued is because we are surrounded by a culture of positivity. At work, watching TV at home or surfing the web, we are inundated by not-so-subtle messages of what we can do. Han quotes the example of the “Yes We Can” slogan from the Obama campaign. “Yes We Can” exudes positivity by suggesting that all we need to do is try harder and that there may be no limits to what we could achieve. The same applies to the Nike “Just Do It” slogan and the thousands of self-help books published each year which reinforce the imperative of positive thinking and positive actions.

Here is the crux of Han’s thesis. “Yes We Can” sounds like an empowering slogan, indicating our freedom and limitless potential. But according to Han, this is an illusory freedom because the message enclosed within “Yes We Can” is “Yes We Should”. Instead of living in a Disziplinargesellschaft(disciplinary society) of the past where our behavior was clearly regulated by societal prohibitions and commandments, we now live in a Leistungsgesellschaft (achievement society) in which we voluntarily succumb to the pressure of achieving. The Leistungsgesellschaft is no less restrictive than the Disziplinargesellschaft. We are no longer subject to exogenous prohibitions but we have internalized the mandates of achievement, always striving to do more. We have become slaves to the culture of positivity, subjugated by the imperative “Yes, We Should”. Instead of carefully contemplating whether or not to pursue a goal, the mere knowledge that we could achieve it forces us to strive towards that goal. Buying into the “Yes We Can” culture chains us to a life of self-exploitation and we are blinded by passion and determination until we collapse. Han uses the sad German alliteration “Erschöpfung, Ermüdung und Erstickung” (“exhaustion, fatigue and suffocation”) to describe the impact that an excess of positivity has once we forgo our ability to say “No!” to the demands of the achievement society. We keep on going until our minds and bodies shut down and this is why we live in a continuous state of exhaustion and fatigue. Han does not view multitasking as a sign of civilizational progress. Multitasking is an indicator of regression because it results in a broad but rather superficial state of attention and thus prevents true contemplation

It is quite easy for us to relate to Han’s ideas at our workplace. Employees with a “can-do” attitude are praised but you will rarely see a plaque awarded to commemorate an employee’s “can-contemplate” attitude. In an achievement society, employers no longer have to exploit us because we willingly take on more and more tasks to prove our own self-worth.

While reading Han’s book, I was reminded of a passage in Bertrand Russell’s essay “In Praise of Idleness” in which he extols the virtues of reducing our workload to just four hours a day:

In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and capacity. Men who, in their professional work, have become interested in some phase of economics or government, will be able to develop their ideas without the academic detachment that makes the work of university economists often seem lacking in reality. Medical men will have the time to learn about the progress of medicine, teachers will not be exasperatedly struggling to teach by routine methods things which they learnt in their youth, which may, in the interval, have been proved to be untrue.

Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid. At least one per cent will probably devote the time not spent in professional work to pursuits of some public importance, and, since they will not depend upon these pursuits for their livelihood, their originality will be unhampered, and there will be no need to conform to the standards set by elderly pundits. But it is not only in these exceptional cases that the advantages of leisure will appear. Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion.

While Russell’s essay proposes reduction of work hours as a solution, Han’s critique of the achievement society and its impact on generalized fatigue and malaise is not limited to our workplace. By accepting the mandate of continuous achievement and hyperactivity, we apply this approach even to our leisure time. Whether it is counting the steps we walk with our fitness activity trackers or competitively racking up museum visits as a tourist, our obsession with achievement permeates all aspects of our lives. Is there a way out of this vicious cycle of excess positivity and persistent exhaustion? We need to be mindful of our right to refuse. Instead of piling on tasks for ourselves during work and leisure we need to recognize the value and strength of saying “No”. Han introduces the concept of “heilende Müdigkeit” (healing tiredness), suggesting that there is a form of tiredness that we should welcome because it is an opportunity for rest and regeneration. Weekend days are often viewed as days reserved for chores and leisure tasks that we are unable to pursue during regular workdays. By resurrecting the weekend as the time for actual rest, idleness and contemplation we can escape from the cycle of exhaustion. We have to learn not-doing in a world obsessed with doing.

Notes: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily Blog. Müdigkeitsgesellschaft was translated into English in 2015 and is available as “The Burnout Society” by Stanford University Press.

ResearchBlogging.org

Byung-Chul Han (2015). The Burnout Society Stanford University Press