Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Did your Dasani kill a baby?

Two weeks ago, I participated in OSU's commencement ceremony in which several thousand students graduated. We sat under the hot sun for a few hours with great anticipation. But to soothe us in our wait, the OSU Alumni Association had provided large bottles of water under each seat. At the end of the ceremony, there were dozens of unopened bottles, and half drunk ones, all around Reser Field.

At the same time, research at OSU is pointing out how environmentally unsound bottled water is. Professor Todd Jarvis indicates that we spend about $20,000 a minute in the U.S. on bottled water. However, it is not better for us than normal tap water and there are serious environmental impacts as a result of having to produce the plastic bottles and ship them everywhere. About 1.5 million barrels of oil are used to produce the plastic for the bottles each year. and some 90% of them are not recycled, according to the Earth Policy Institute.

There may also be some important global justice implications involved in drinking bottled water. Peter Singer argues that in a world with so much wealth and income inequality (in which almost half the population must make do on less than $2 of purchasing power for all their housing, food, and health needs), drinking bottled water might be a luxury that we really should do without. Especially when we consider how the United Nations estimates that several million people die each year as a result of exposure to dirty water, then we might want to think about pouring billions of dollars into an industry that is essentially providing most of us with fur coats in summer.

Much of that money goes to soda corporations and almost none of it is reinvested into improving water systems. As the BBC reports, the world is facing a crisis in terms of access to potable water and future international relations (and wars) could be at risk. For the sake of a peaceful and just world, it seems we need to think about whether we can reduce our personal and institutional use of such products.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Is Diversity Bad for Democracy?

New studies by Robert Putnam ("Bowling Alone") could suggest that it is! Putnam's new data seems to say that living and working in an ethnically or racially diverse environment can be stressful. The outcome for many people is a tendency to self-isolate and "hunker down" in their own homes. Ultimately, the worry is that these people become disconnected from their communities and tend to display less trust in others. (Interestingly enough, the distrust is not just of people who are ethnically or racially different--its of everyone!)

Putnam is, of course, famous for his argument about the loss of social capital in the United States. Less people bowl in leagues today, but about the same amount of people still go bowling. In other words, Americans are not joining social groups as much as they did even 40 years ago. They are not building community ties and civic friendships as much as previous generations.

The worry about such trends, Putnam argues, based on previous studies, is that the loss of social capital in a society makes democracy function much less efficiently. Its harder to make collaborative decisions and think about the common good when the community is distrustful of one another.

Putnam was shocked by some of these results concerning diversity, considering that he supports diversity as a social good. His hope is that even though diversity might reduce social capital in the short term, exposure to diversity can help to erase the stereotypes that lead to the discomfort, in the long term.

Assuming that the data is correct and diversity leads to a kind of mistrust in community: is this necessarily bad for democratic politics? Is trust essential to democratic community?

Perhaps if your vision of democratic politics involves honest talk among equals that's meant to arrive at a consensus about what needs to be done to satisfy everyone. But that's not the only view available. Ian Shapiro, in "The State of Democratic Theory", argues for a view of democracy as a system oriented toward trying to prevent domination. He draws heavily on Machiavelli's work in "The Discourses On Livy" (especialy this part). Democracy is not about deliberation among equal parties for the common good in this view. Its about maintaining power relations to prevent other groups from amassing too much control that they can use it to dominate you. Here, mistrust is more of a guarantee of your liberty than trust is. Diversity is not a problem in this view. Its just the state of things, but one that can create the conditions for a robust politics of different interests confronting one another.

So how ought we to integrate diversity into our democratic life?

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Richard Rorty (1931-2007)

Rorty speaks on the war on terrorism and the effects on civil liberties. One of the few philosophers in America who could genuinely be called a "public intellectual".

Online Videos by Veoh.com

UPDATE JUNE 12, 2007

An obituary by Jurgen Habermas for Rorty.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Engage on New Blog Carnivals!

Check out all the good stuff in the 39th Carnival of Feminists (including an Engage post!) at Laurelin in the Rain.

Engage also made the 48th Philosophers' Carnival at Common Sense Philosophy.

Thank the hosts for providing the blogosphere with a space to gather together some of the best writing on a diverse array of subjects.

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Friday, June 08, 2007

Gandhi vs. Osama: Who Wins?

If you're Peter Gelderloos, then the answer might be: Neither, because both of them are just as dangerous to real peace and justice in the world today. Gelderloos is the author of "How Nonviolence Protects the State". The main purpose behind this book is to try to shake off the supposed stranglehold that nonviolent theory has upon political activists in the United States and point out that nonviolent movements have never accomplished any significant social change in modern history. In a few short chapters, Gelderloos argues that nonviolence is 1) ineffective as a means of transforming society, 2) racist, 3) patriarchal and sexist, 4) tactically inferior to other methods of social change (read: direct action), and 5) statist (that is, instead of standing up the institutional injustices of the nation-state, nonviolence theory and its practitioners actually do everything to make sure that the state remains as an organization to inflict harm upon communities). You can read an exerpt from the book here.

What is most frustrating and seemingly contradictory about the thesis of this book is this: Gelderloos claims to want to open up the discussion of social change to include the possibility of a "diversity of tactics" and that peace activists today are so wedded to nonviolence that they immediatly rule out the use of sabotage, property destruction, and other forms of potentially violent ( to persons and property) action. But the argument quickly turns into how nonviolence is NOT an option in the world today and if you think thing are going to change using nonviolence, you are either 1) seriously deluded or 2) morally corrupt and part of the structures that need to swept aside. An passage from Gelderloos:

"Our options have been violently constrained to the following: actively supporting the violence of the system; tacitly supporting that violence by failing to challenge it; supporting some of the existing forceful attempts to destroy the system of violence; or pursuing new and original ways to fight and destroy that system. Privileged activists need to understand what the rest of the world's people have known all too long; we are in the midst of a war, and neutrality is not possible. There is nothing in this world currently deserving of the name peace. Rather, it is a question of whose violence frightens us most, and on whose side we will stand." (p. 134)

What is most frightening about this rhetoric is how closely is matches the language of world leaders used to justify war and violent retaliation (for instance, in the "war on terror"). The world is us against them, and the only morally relevant question is: whose side are you on?

For what its worth, most of the major theorists of nonviolent direct action, Gandhi, King, and Chavez for instance, rejected thinking of the world in these terms. Gandhi would have said the stark choices laid out by Gelderloos might be appropriate as part of the law of the jungle, but we are no longer in that kind of existence. We would not have survived as long as we are today if we had not learned different forms of cooperation and creative means by which to live with one another. The task for nonviolent activists, say these figures, is to push ourselves to learn more and more creative ways to resolve conflict peacefully.

Toward that end, I really appreciate Mark Juergensmeyer's article which attempts to point out how Gandhi might approach the problem of terrorism today. Juergensmeyer points out that Gandhi was certainly not passive and would not have allowed anyone to be taken advantage of (Gelderloos continually conflates the idea of pacifism and passivity), and might even have justified the use of some force to contain violent offenders like Osama bin Laden.

Hopefully the world is more complex than having to decide which forms of violence are more appropriate for the work of justice today.

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Sunday, June 03, 2007

No Justice, No Peace

A new Global Peace Index places the United States as the most "unpeaceful" of the developed nations. From a list of 121 countries, the U.S. ranks 96, inbetween Yemen and Iran. The most peaceful nation is Norway; Canada ranks 8th, Ireland 4th, Germany 12th, Mexico 79th, and Iraq is dead last at 121.

The GPI was created by Australian philanthropist Steve Killelea who is interested in providing measurment tools to assist in the fight against global poverty.

The GPI measures a nation's peacefulness according to 24 indicators, including the size of the nation's military budget, the availability of weapons, incarceration rates, respect for human rights, gender equality in politics, involvement in military inteventions, and the level of domestic homicide and violent crime. These factors are weighed against levels of education, unemployment and democratic political culture.

The Economist raises some questions about the index, especially whether some nations get to freeload their security from other nations. Isn't Europe safer as a result of NATO militarization and the expenditures of the United States?, the Economist asks.

What seems promising about this index is that it takes seriously the idea that peace means something more than just the absence of war, or even just the absence of violence. As Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say, the absence of tension is not the same thing as the presence of justice. This index points out that peace is a complicated concept that involves understanding how a society organizes its social, political, and economic institutions in order to provide a rich and fulfilling life for its people. Such efforts include not just reducing access to the means to engage in violence, but also providing opportunities for employment, political involvement, and cultural expression. It means taking seriously the idea that gender equality is a prerequisite for peace. So perhaps the old movement slogan "No justice, no peace" can now find a way into serious public policy discussions about what it will take to bring about a world dedicated to human rights and equity.

(The GPI website also has a wealth of information on peace and peace work, including an entire page on the philosophy and religions of peace! Its worth a look)

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