Back to Prindle Institute

When Should You Boycott?

close-up image of Benjamin Franklin on a hundred dollar bill

Public calls to boycott companies are increasingly common. Recently, musicians and podcasters have pulled their content from Spotify, and a member of Congress urged people to cancel subscriptions, due to the company’s relationship with Joe Rogan. Republican figures in the U.S. have called for boycotts of “woke” corporations. There is a rich history of calls to boycott Starbucks, from reasons ranging to the design of holiday cups to their recent removal of employee vaccine requirements. The examples go on, but I’ll stop for the sake of brevity.

Given the frequency and intensity of calls to boycott, slowing down and analyzing this practice may be useful. My goal here is to briefly reflect on the nature and purpose of boycotts to determine criteria for when one ought to join a boycott.

My analysis here will be somewhat limited. First, I won’t directly consider international boycotts – the refusal to purchase goods that are produced in some foreign nation due to policies of that nation. Second, this analysis will only look at consumer boycotts rather than practices like diplomatic boycotts. However, what I present below may nonetheless have bearing for non-consumer boycotts.

We should start by considering the purpose of a boycott. Each boycott should have specific goals and aims. There must be a motivation that differentiates a boycott from matters of mere convenience, say, shopping at store A rather than store B because store A is around the corner while store B is on the other side of town.

One might think that a boycott serves as punishment. Namely, a punishment that consumers inflict on companies for engaging in wrongdoing. Corporations aim to make profits. So, refusing to consume their wares is a way to make them worse-off. In contrast, it hardly seems like I am trying to punish other grocers when I shop at the store closest to me.

Although some might view boycotts as a form of punishment, this does not capture the whole picture. This is apparent when we consider the idea of expected consequences. Suppose that my friends and I decide to stop buying clothes from a manufacturer who we believe uses exploitative sweatshop labor. This is a classic example of boycotting.

What consequences can we expect to follow from this choice? Well, practically none. If this clothing company is of any significant size, the choices of a few consumers will have little, if any, impact on their profits. The choices of a small collective are just proverbial drops in the bucket compared to their billions of dollars in sales each year. If a boycott is supposed to be a form of punishment, then perhaps my friends and I should abandon this boycott; we can’t hope to put a dent into their profits.

So, we’d be better served by abandoning the conception of boycotts as punishments. Instead, we might see them as a form of expression. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that spending money is a speech act. So, consumers who choose to engage in a boycott might be seen as performing a speech act in the marketplace. Vote with your dollar. Namely, their economic behavior and choices are meant to express opposition to some action, behavior, or policy of a corporation.

Viewing boycotts as a matter of expression can change our understanding of the circumstances under which we should join a boycott. Specifically, I think that we ought to join a boycott if it a) aims to express the right kind of message and b) if it has a reasonable chance of succeeding at this. A note of clarification about the later criteria is necessary, though. By “succeed” I do not mean that a boycott must bring about change. Rather, this requirement is less rigorous. When we view boycotts as being about expression, a boycott is successful simply if it sends the message. These criteria taken together give rise to at least three conditions that a boycott should meet before we ought to join it.

First, the boycott should be organized. The marketplace can be chaotic. A variety of reasons determine consumer choices. Businesses are left with raw sales figures and must determine the reasons behind any changes. Suppose many joined in on our clothing boycott. Unless our messaging is organized, the corporation may never attribute the sales decline to consumer outrage and thus our message will not be received. So, our boycott should be organized in some form, whether this is through petitions, messaging on social media, etc.

Second, the boycott must have a clear goal. For a behavior to be wrong, there must be something else that one could perform. This is one implication of a principle that philosophers call “ought implies can.” If I told you that breathing was wrong due to the chance that you might inhale and kill a small insect, you’d be right to respond incredulously – you cannot stop breathing, so breathing cannot be wrong. By having a clear goal (which it sends through its organized messaging) a boycott makes the case that the behavior of the corporation is wrong by showing the morally superior alternative.

The organization and goal requirements have an additional benefit – they may allow us to avoid frivolous boycotts. For instance, some have boycotted vodka over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, despite the fact that almost no vodka consumed in the U.S. is a Russian product. A more organized boycott would target specific, actually Russian-produced brands. Further a boycott with clear goals would not merely expressing outrage at a product due to its association with a particular culture – it would aim to send a message to an authoritarian regime, not condemn the people suffering under it.

Third, boycotts should send the message that a behavior is morally unacceptable, rather than merely disagreeable. This stands in contrast to actions that one merely finds displeasing or does not agree with. Unlike the previous two criteria, this is not a practical consideration. Rather, the concern involves the message we send when we join boycotts motivated solely by disagreement.

Imagine the owner of a local pizza shop made a series of posts on a personal social media account supporting a particular candidate for office. Screenshots of these posts then circulate, maybe on a sub-Reddit. Members of the community who support a different candidate begin questioning whether they should continue to order pizza from here. They should ask themselves: What message might a boycott send?

Well, the boycotters might be seen as expressing the sentiment that they refuse to support others whose political beliefs run counter to their own. This is not an incoherent position to take. However, it is antithetical to the attitudes that enable the functioning of a democratic society. To live somewhere with a free, deliberative, and collective decision-making process requires accepting that others will not always share your outlook. So, we should not engage in boycotts simply due to political disagreements. Instead, the positions and behaviors worthy of boycott should be those that cross the line from merely contentious into morally unacceptable.

Of course, the line between the political and the moral is blurry. Indeed, political ideology may determine moral beliefs. This leads to moralism in politics; the attitude that one’s political views are universal moral truths which cannot be compromised. Thus, for many, a Venn diagram of the politically disagreeable and the morally unacceptable may just be a circle.

And this could be why calls to boycott have become more common in recent years. As political disagreements become increasingly more morally charged, they are less about the merits of particular policies and more about how we should live our lives. In a capitalist society, our behavior on the marketplace is part of how we live our lives. Thus, it makes sense that our decisions about what we buy and where are increasingly shaped by our political preferences.

‘Don’t Look Up’ and “Trust the Science”

photograph of "Evidence over Ignorance" protest sign

A fairly typical review of “Don’t Look Up” reads as follows: “The true power of this film, though, is in its ferocious, unrelenting lampooning of science deniers.” I disagree. This film exposes the unfortunate limits of the oft-repeated imperative of the coronavirus and climate-change era: “Trust the Science.” McKay and Co. probe a kind of epistemic dysfunction, one that underlies many of our most fiercest moral and political disagreements. Contrary to how it’s been received, the film speaks to the lack of a generally agreed-upon method for arriving at our beliefs about how the world is and who we should trust.

As the film opens, we are treated to a warm introduction to our two astronomers and shown a montage of the scientific and mathematical processes they use to arrive at their horrific conclusion that a deadly comet will collide with Earth in six months. Surely, you might be thinking, this film tells us exactly whom to believe and trust from the outset! It tells us to “Trust the Scientists,” to “Trust the Science!”

Here’s a preliminary problem with trying to follow that advice. It’s not like we’re all doing scientific experiments ourselves whenever we accept scientific facts. Practically, we have to rely on the testimony of others to tell us what the science says — so who do we believe? Which scientists and which science?

In the film, this decision is straightforward for us. In fact, we’re not given much of a choice. But in real life, things are harder. Brilliantly, the complexity of real-life is (perhaps unintentionally) reflected in the film itself.

Imagine you’re a sensible person, a Science-Truster. You go to the CDC to get your coronavirus data, to the IPCC to get your climate change facts. If you’re worried about a comet smashing into Earth, you might think to yourself something like, “I’m going to go straight to the organization whose job it is to look at the scientific evidence, study it, and come to conclusions; I’ll trust what NASA says. The head of NASA certainly sounds like a reliable, expert source in such a scenario.” What does the head of NASA tell the public in “Don’t Look Up”? She reports that the comet is nothing to worry about.

Admittedly, McKay provides us a clear reason for the audience to ignore the head of NASA’s scientific misleading testimony about the comet. She is revealed to be a political hire and an anesthesiologist rather than an astronomer. “Trust the Science” has a friend, “Trust the Experts,” and the head of NASA doesn’t qualify as an expert on this topic. So far, so good, for the interpretation of the film as endorsing “Trust the Science” as an epistemic doctrine. It’s clear why so many critics misinterpret the film this way.

But, while it’s easy enough to miss amid the increasingly frantic plot, the plausibility of Trust the Science falls apart as the film progresses. Several Nobel-prize winning, Ivy-league scientists throw their support behind the (doomsday-causing) plan of a tech-billionaire to bring the wealth of the comet safely to Earth in manageable chunks. They assure the public that the plan is safe. Even one of our two scientific heroes repeats the false but reassuring line on a talk show, to the hosts’ delight.

Instead of being a member of the audience with privileged information about whom you should trust, imagine being an average Joe in the film’s world at this point. All you could possibly know is that some well-respected scientists claim we need to destroy or divert the comet at all costs. Meanwhile, other scientists, equally if not more well-respected, claim we can safely bring the mineral-rich comet to Earth in small chunks. What does “Trust the Science” advise “Don’t Look Up” average Joe? Nothing. The advice simply can’t be followed. It offers no guidance on what to believe or whom to listen to.

How could you decide what to believe in such a scenario? Assuming you, like most of us, lack the expertise to adjudicate the topic on the scientific merits, you might start investigating the incentives of the scientists on both sides of the debate. You might study who is getting paid by whom, who stands to gain from saying what. And this might even lead you to the truth — that the pro-comet-impact scientists are bought and paid for by the tech-billionaire and are incentivized to ignore, or at least minimize, the risk of mission failure. But this approach to belief-formation certainly doesn’t sound like Trusting the Science anymore. It sounds closer to conspiracy theorizing.

Speaking of conspiracy theories, in a particularly fascinating scene, rioters confront one of our two astronomers with the conspiracy theory that the elites have built bunkers because the they don’t really believe the comet is going to be survivable (at least, not without a bunker). Our astronomer dismissively tells the mob this theory is false, that the elites are “not that competent.” This retort nicely captures the standard rationalistic, scientific response to conspiracy theories; everything can be explained by incompetence, so there’s no need to invoke conspiracy. But, as another reviewer has noticed, later on in the film “we learn that Tech CEO literally built a 2,000 person starship in less than six months so he and the other elites could escape.” It turns out the conspiracy theory was actually more or less correct, if not in the exact details. This rationalistic, scientific debunking and dismissal of conspiracy is actually proven entirely wrong. We would have done better trusting the conspiracy theorist than trusting the scientist.

Ultimately, the demand that we “Trust the Science” turns out to be both un-followable (as soon as scientific consensus breaks down, since we don’t know which science or scientists to listen to), and unreliable (as shown when the conspiracy theorist turns out to be correct). The message this film actually delivers about “Trust the Science” is this: it’s not good enough!

The Moral and Political Importance of “Trust the Science”

Let’s now look at why any of this matters, morally speaking.

Cultures have epistemologies. They have established ways for their members to form beliefs that are widely accepted as the right ways within those cultures. That might mean that people generally accept, for example, a holy text as the ultimate source of authority about what to believe. But in our own society, currently, we lack this. We don’t have a dominant, shared authority or a commonly accepted way to get the right beliefs. We don’t have a universally respected holy book to appeal to, not even a Walter Cronkite telling us “That’s the way it is.” We can’t seem to agree on what to believe or whom to listen to, or even what kinds of claims have weight. Enter “Trust the Science”: a candidate heuristic that just might be acceptable to members of a technologically developed, scientifically advanced, and (largely) secularized society like ours. If our society could collectively agree that, in cases of controversy, everyone should Trust the Science, we might expect the emergence of more of a consensus on the basic facts. And that consensus, in turn, may resolve many of our moral and political disagreements.

This final hope isn’t a crazy one. Many of our moral and political disagreements are based on disagreements about beliefs about the basic facts. Why do Democrats tend to agree with mandatory masks, vaccines, and other coronavirus-related restrictions, while Republicans tend to disagree with them? Much of it is probably explained by the fact that, as a survey of 35,000 Americans found, “Republicans consistently underestimate risks [of coronavirus], while Democrats consistently overestimate them.” In other words, the fact that both sides have false beliefs partly explains their moral and political disagreements. Clearly, none of us are doing well at figuring out whom we can trust to give truthful, undistorted information on our own. But perhaps, if we all just followed the  “Trust the Science” heuristic, then we would reach enough agreement about the basic facts to make some progress on these moral and political questions.

Perhaps unintentionally, “Don’t Look Up” presents a powerful case against this hopeful, utopian answer to the deep divisions in our society. Trusting the Science can’t play the unifying role we might want it to; it can’t form the basis of a new, generally agreed upon secular epistemic heuristic for our society. “Don’t Look Up” is not the simple “pro-science,” “anti-science-denier” film many have taken it to be. It’s far more complicated, ambivalent, and interesting.

‘Don’t Look Up’: Willful Ignorance of a Democracy in Crisis

image of meteor headed toward city skyline

Don’t Look Up spends over two hours making the same mistake. In its efforts to champion its cause, the film only alienates those who most need to be moved by its message.”

Holly Thomas, CNN

“it’s hard to escape the feeling of the film jabbing its pointer finger into your eye, yelling, Why aren’t you paying attention! … The thing is, if you’re watching Don’t Look Up, you probably are paying attention, not just to the news about the climate and the pandemic but to a half-dozen other things that feel like reasonable causes for panic. … So when the credits rolled — after an ending that was, admittedly, quite moving — I just sat there thinking, Who, exactly, is this for?”

Alissa Wilkinson, Vox

“[The film’]s worst parts are when it stops to show people on their phones. They tweet inanity, they participate in dumb viral challenges, they tune into propaganda and formulate conspiracy theory. At no point does Don’t Look Up’s script demonstrate an interest in why these people do these things, or what causes these online phenomena. Despite this being a central aspect of his story, McKay doesn’t seem to think it worthy of consideration. There’s a word for that: contempt.”

Joshua Rivera, Polygon

And so on, and so on. Critics of Adam McKay’s climate change satire all point to the same basic defect: “Don’t Look Up” is nothing more than an inside joke; it isn’t growing the congregation, it’s merely preaching to the choir. Worse, the movie flaunts its moral superiority over the deplorables and unwashed masses instead of shaking hands, kissing babies, and doing all the other politicking necessary for changing hearts and minds. When given the opportunity to speak to, it speaks down. In the end, this collection of Hollywood holier-than-thou A-listers sneers at their audience and is left performing only for themselves.

But what if the critics have it all wrong? What if the movie’s makers have no intention of wrestling the various political obstacles to democratic consensus? Indeed, they seem to have absolutely zero interest in playing the political game at all. Critics of “Don’t Look Up” see only a failed attempt at coalition-building, but what if the film’s doing precisely what it set out to do – showing us that there are some existential threats so great that they transcend democratic politics?

“Don’t Look Up” takes a hard look at the prospects of meaningful collective action (from COVID to the climate and beyond) with democratic institutions so corrupted by elite capture. (Spoiler: They’re grim.) Gone is any illusion that the government fears its people. In this not-so-unfamiliar political reality, to echo Joseph Schumpeter, democracy has become nothing more than an empty institutional arrangement whereby elites acquire the power to decide by way of a hollow competition for the people’s vote. This political landscape cannot support anything as grand as Rousseau’s general will – a collection of citizens’ beliefs, convictions, and commitments all articulating a shared vision of the common good. Instead, political will is manufactured and disseminated from the top down, rather than being organically generated from the ground up.

The pressing question “Don’t Look Up” poses (but does not address) is what to do when democracy becomes part of the problem. If our democratic processes can’t be fixed, can they at least be laid aside? With consequences as grave as these, surely truth shouldn’t be left to a vote. When it comes to the fate of the planet, surely we shouldn’t be content to go on making sausage.

Misgivings about the democracy are hardly new. Plato advised lying to the rabble so as to ensure they fall in line. Mill proposed assigning more weight to certain people’s votes. And Rousseau concluded that democracy was only rightly suited for a society composed entirely of gods.

Like these critical voices, Carl Schmitt similarly challenged our blind faith in democratic processes. He remained adamant that the indecisiveness that plagued republics would be their downfall. Schmitt insisted on the fundamental necessity of a sovereign to address emergency situations (like, say, the inevitable impact of a planet-killing comet). There has to be someone, Schmitt claimed, capable of suspending everyday political norms in order to normalize a state of exception – to declare martial law, mobilize the state’s resources, and organize the public. Democracies which failed to grasp this basic truth would not last. The inability to move beyond unceasing deliberation, infinite bureaucratic red tape, and unending political gridlock, Schmitt was convinced, would spell their doom. In the end, all governments must sometimes rely on dictatorial rule just like ancient Rome where time-limited powers were extended to an absolute authority tasked with saving the republic from an immediate existential threat.

This is the savior that never appears. The tragedy of the movie is that our protagonists know the truth, but cannot share it. There remain no suitable democratic channels to deliver their apocalyptic message and spur political action. They must sit with their despair, alone. Like Dewey, Kate Dibiasky and Dr. Mindy come to recognize that while today we possess means of communication like never before – the internet, the iPhone, Twitter, The Daily Rip – (so far) these forces have only further fractured the public rather than being harnessed to bring it together.

By the end, when the credits roll, the film leaves us in an uncomfortable place. In documenting the hopelessness of our heroes’ plight, is “Don’t Look Up” merely highlighting the various ways our democracy needs to be repaired? Or is it making the case that the rot runs so deep, democratic norms must be abandoned?

Whatever the answer, it’s a mistake to think “Don’t Look Up” fails to take the problem of political consensus seriously. It simply treats such division as immovable – as inescapable as the comet. The question is: what then?

The Politics of Earth’s Climate

photograph of COP26 banner

This past weekend marked the end of COP26, an annual event started in 1995 to bring countries together to discuss climate change. All eyes fell on the leaders of the world’s highest-carbon emitting countries. With each passing year, the future looks more and more dire as the planet continues warming.

Shortly before the commencement of the COP26, a summit was held in Rome involving many of those same world leaders. The topic of climate change was merely brushed over. A photo of the leaders tossing a coin into the Trevi Fountain quickly went viral on social media. The smiling faces and picturesque background made it seem as if these leaders were mere tourists partaking in a common ritual, rather than meeting to discuss the future of life on Earth. With such little progress made and such little attention paid to climate change at the summit, the photo suggests a carefree attitude: devastating climate disasters happen in other, far less wealthy countries.

The COP26 conference, in Glasgow, however, offered hope that global warming would be treated like the crisis it is, with serious and extensive discussions resulting in real and measurable action. Along with one of the warmest years in history, within the warmest decade in history, 2020 brought the most expensive year of weather disasters ever, carrying a $50 billion price tag. With all the money spent on disasters like earthquakes, wildfires, and flooding, you’d think world leaders would make addressing the climate crisis a priority.

The conference brought some encouraging news: COP26 represented the biggest climate meeting in history. Almost 200 world leaders managed to agree upon the Glasgow Climate Pact, which is meant to keep the Earth’s climate warming below the 1.5 degrees Celsius through multiple strategies like decreasing carbon emissions. This commitment to this new, lower threshold is encouraging. The previous Paris Accord from 2015 had settled on a 2-degree target. However, this would mean the complete sinking of coastal countries and cities, encompassing millions of people. Currently, the world is on track to reach a warming of 2.7 degrees Celsius within this century, which almost ensures catastrophic climate disasters for every country on the globe. In order to reach the 1.5 goal, the world needs to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.

Leaders at COP26 discussed decreasing some of the most polluting activities in the world, such as fossil fuel production, deforestation, and methane emissions in order to work towards the 2030 goal. The world may have just witnessed an amount of global cooperation and delegation that hasn’t been seen in decades, and certainly never with the context of climate change. This does not mean, however, that world leaders were truly able to set aside politics, even in the face of a worldwide threat indifferent to human conditions.

One of the biggest weaknesses of these arrangements is that they depend solely on the word of dozens of world leaders. The agreements lack any sort of enforcement mechanisms to ensure that countries will actually put into action the pledges they agree to on paper. Given the grave stakes and the necessity of cooperation in achieving our goals, having no sort of penalty for defection or inaction may spell disaster. The countries who signed on to the 2015 Paris Agreement are not even close to hitting those targets. The global coordination that is needed to actually take meaningful action on climate change has never been witnessed before (with consequences that are life-changing for every person on Earth), yet world leaders have refused to hold each other accountable.

This lack of enforcement sheds light on one of the biggest disparities that exists in climate change: the countries who contribute the most pollution and the countries who have felt the worst of climate change so far. Just 12% of the global population (living in wealthy countries) are responsible for 50% of the global greenhouse gas emissions from the beginning of the industrial revolution. This fact has long been discussed, and in 2009 wealthy countries even pledged to help shoulder the costs of the climate disasters in countries that struggle financially with the impacts. Unsurprisingly, this funding had no sort of enforcement, so in the Glasgow Agreement it was noted

with deep regret that the goal of developed country Parties to mobilize jointly USD 100 billion per year by 2020 in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation has not yet been met.”

This time around, the pact encourages wealthy countries to voluntarily help fund lesser developed countries with the high costs of climate change that they have barely contributed to in comparison to countries like the U.S., England, China, and Russia. While the COP26 certainly resulted in world leaders making strict goals towards climate change in a way that we have never seen them commit to before, there seems to be plenty of both historical and scientific evidence to believe these goals to be made in blind optimism.

Another glaring issue at the COP26 was who was actually in attendance, or at least who was able to get there. For decades, oil company executives have had plenty of seats at the table of climate change discussions, knowing that it is their business that was going to take a hit if the world ever transitions away from fossil fuels. This conference was no different with over 500 people in attendance all from countries with major oil and gas companies or lobbying organizations in support of the fossil fuel industry. This allows the very industries that have helped bring the climate to catastrophic warming, all the while denying the impact of climate change for decades, to have a significant say in the future of a world without the need for their business. At the same time, young activists whose homelands are directly threatened by climate change struggled to afford the costs of attending the conference. These activists bring first-hand knowledge of the impacts of climate change to their lands. Unfortunately, they’ve found that their experience and perspective is not welcomed at a conference specifically committed to helping these very lands and people.

Yet another issue of access was revealed when the energy minister for Israel, Karine Elharrar, was unable to attend the conference as she could not find a transportation that was wheel-chair friendly. Another disability and climate activist, Jason Boberg, could not get in because the accessibility entrance was closed and pointed out the exclusion was bigger than the conference: “We know that disabled people are left behind in climate disasters, floods and fires, and now we are left out of the conference that is supposedly meant to address that.” The field of attendees illustrates that there are ethical issues not just in what decisions are being made at the conference, but who is able to influence, discuss, and witness these decisions. The conference was meant to be full of diverse conversations across the topic of climate change, but even these conversations were limited.

Ultimately, COP26 was illustrative of just how complicated the issue of climate change really is. In a world that is more globally connected than ever before, climate disasters will affect not just one country, but spread beyond national borders. Additionally, just as greenhouse gas emissions are not being released equally, they are not impacting countries equally. There are very serious ethical concerns in how countries that have the capability and finances to assume responsibility for their own pollution are refusing to do so. Despite the various pledges they make, nations continue to allow captains of industry, actively working against progress on climate change, to sit at the head of the table. Politicians may have been able to agree upon extensive plans for climate mitigation under the watchful eye of activists and millions of onlookers, but only time will tell whether these new pronouncements will be anything more than empty promises.

Vaccine Hesitancy as Free-Riding

photograph of masked passengers on subway

As the pandemic rages on, attention is beginning to turn to the moral status of those who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine. Some of these individuals have succumbed to outlandish conspiracy theories concerning microchips and magnetic implants. But for most, vaccine hesitancy is instead the expression of a genuine concern regarding the safety of the vaccine. It was, after all, developed using a novel mRNA approach to vaccines, and approved in what seemed like an exceedingly short period of time. For these individuals, their hesitancy to receive the vaccine is not based on bad-faith conspiracies, but in a sincere — if scientifically unfounded — fear of the unknown.

There are many arguments we might make regarding those who are hesitant to take the vaccine. Some of these focus on the risk the unvaccinated pose to others who, for whatever medical reason, are unable to be vaccinated. Most of us agree that it is morally wrong of us to unnecessarily put others in harm’s way — particularly when that harm is as serious as hospitalization and death. Given this — and given the importance of ‘herd immunity’ to protecting the vulnerable — we might argue that it is morally wrong for those who can receive the vaccine to refrain.

But the argument I wish to consider here is different. It’s not based on the moral wrongness of failing to protect others, but instead on the unfairness of being a free-rider. What’s a free-rider? Put simply, it’s someone who affords themself a special privilege that they don’t allow for others. More specifically, free-riding occurs when someone receives a benefit without contributing towards the cost of its production. Suppose that my town runs a phenomenal public transport system. Suppose, further, that I frequently make use of this system — commuting to work via bus, and utilizing public transport to run all other kinds of errands. Because I’m particularly stingy, however, I refuse to ever pay a fare — instead sneaking onto buses and expertly avoiding those who would check my ticket. What I’m doing, it seems, is unfair on those who do pay their fare. Why? Because I’m carving out a special exception for myself; an exception that I don’t extend to others. I clearly value the public transport system, and therefore value the contributions of those who pay their fare (since, without those contributions, the system would cease to exist). At the same time, however, I refuse to make any contribution myself. This is deeply inconsistent. If I were asked why I can ride for free when others cannot, I would struggle to provide a good answer.

We might argue that the same is true of vaccine hesitancy. Mass vaccination is directed towards a clear public good — that is, the attainment of herd immunity. As such, we each must be willing to contribute towards the cost of its production. And that cost is receiving the vaccine.

But there’s one potential problem with this argument. As we’ve seen, someone is only a free-rider if they refuse to contribute to the cost of something from which they will benefit. In the case of mass vaccination, the benefit is the protection of those who are unvaccinated. But there’s the problem. As soon as someone contributes to this project by receiving the vaccine, they are no longer eligible to receive the benefit. Herd immunity doesn’t help those who are already vaccinated.

But this is to take an unnecessarily narrow view of the benefits of mass vaccination. Even if I am vaccinated, herd immunity might benefit me by protecting those who I care about — such as loved ones who are unable to receive the vaccine. Further, mass vaccination limits the opportunities for the virus to mutate into newer, more virulent strains (such as the Delta variant that has seen renewed breakouts around the world). And the benefits of mass vaccination extend even further than this. As a result of the pandemic, many of us have been — and continue to be — unable to work, unable to attend classes, unable to travel, and unable to reunite with loved ones. Our ability to do these things will continue to be limited to varying degrees until we find a way to end this pandemic.

All of  us can agree that the world returning to normal is an unequivocal good, and the scientific data suggests that mass vaccination (around 80-90% of the population) is the most effective way of doing this. Of course, more conspiratorially-minded individuals will disagree with this assertion. But this argument isn’t for those people. It’s for those who recognize that vaccination is required, but who — contrary to the evidence — still harbor concerns about its safety.

Essentially, it boils down to this: If a vaccine hesitant individual both (1) wants the world returned to normal, and (2) accepts that mass vaccination is the most effective way of doing this, then they must be willing to contribute to the cost of its production — namely, by receiving the vaccine. If not, then they need to provide a convincing reason as to why they get to be among the 10-20% of individuals who needn’t pay the cost of getting vaccinated. Some — like those who cannot receive the vaccine for medical reasons — will have good reason. But those who are merely hesitant will not. Many of us would love to “wait and see” what happens with the vaccine rollout, or avoid the inherent unpleasantness of an injection altogether. But we don’t have that luxury. The vulnerable must be protected, and the world must return to normal. By failing to contribute to this project, we are free-riding, and — like the fare-dodging bus passenger — treating those around us in a way that’s grossly unfair.

Why Trivial Contributions to the Climate Crisis Still Count

photograph of water pollution with skyscrapers on opposite shoreline

Countries resistant to meaningful climate action often point to the relatively small size of their contributions to global carbon emissions. It is this very point which conservative Australian broadcaster Alan Jones sought to convey with his infamous grain-of-rice demonstration. The argument against Australia taking climate action, it seems, goes something like this: Even if anthropogenic climate change is a concern, and even if Australia is adding to this problem, their contribution (about 1%) is trivial compared to the exceedingly large contributions of other nations (such as China and the U.S. with 28% and 15% of global emissions respectively). Given this, it is these emissions heavyweights that should bear most — if not all — of the responsibility for taking climate action. Call this the Trivial Contribution Argument.

But is this a good argument? For starters, let’s ignore the fact that — despite their relatively small total emissions — Australia has the third worst per capita emissions rate in the world. Let’s also ignore the fact that when emissions from coal exports are taken into account, Australia’s total contribution to global carbon emissions is closer to 3-4%. Assuming that Australia is responsible for only 1% of global carbon emissions, does this excuse them from taking meaningful climate action?

In order to answer this question, it’s necessary to dig a little deeper into how the Trivial Contribution Argument works. One underlying assumption seems to be that a trivial contribution, when remedied, will only ever provide a trivial solution — one that is unlikely to solve the problem in question. Suppose, to borrow a vivid illustration provided by one philosopher, I am currently pouring a jug of water into a flooding river. Suppose, further, that the river is about to breach its banks downstream and cause devastation to a nearby town. Am I under some kind of obligation to curb my behavior? My contribution to the flood is trivial, and — for this same reason — any remedy to my actions will only provide a trivial solution. Sure, I can refrain from pouring the jug into the river — but this won’t prevent the flood. Given this, there seems to be no compelling reason for me to modify my behavior; it makes no difference either way.

This, it seems, is the fundamental reasoning behind a country pointing to its trivial carbon emissions as a way of avoiding their obligation to engage in meaningful climate action. Unless larger polluters (like China and the U.S.) do more, there is little to be gained from the remedial actions of smaller emitters. Given that climate action always comes at a cost — both economically and otherwise — why would countries decide to bear this burden when it won’t solve the problem?

Such reasoning, however, is deeply flawed. Consider another example to show why this is the case. Suppose that official waste disposal is expensive in my neighborhood, and that — instead of paying for this service — my neighbors begin dumping their garbage on my front lawn. The damage to my garden (and property value) is predictably severe. I eventually catch one of my neighbors tossing a burger wrapper on to my property and confront him about his behavior. He shrugs his shoulders and says that he isn’t the culprit I need to worry about. He surveys the accumulated rubbish pile and estimates that he’s responsible for less than 1% of the waste. He identifies two of my neighbors as littering heavyweights, claiming that they, together, are responsible for more than 40% of the waste. He explains that curbing his own behavior won’t do much to help until I convince those neighbors to do something about their own behavior. With that, he shrugs his shoulders, flings a banana peel onto the heap, and departs.

In this context, the unreasonableness of my neighbor’s defense is plain to see. Yes, there are those who are more responsible for the problem. But he is still responsible for at least some of the problem, and thus responsible for at least some of the solution. While ending — or at least reducing the extent of — his littering will not remedy the issue entirely, this does not excuse his complete inaction.

In fact, the Trivial Contribution Argument isn’t merely flawed — it’s actually paradoxical. Suppose we accept that a 1% contribution is small enough to excuse a country like Australia from any obligations regarding climate action. What percentage, then, would require them to act? Those emitting 2% will point to those emitting 5%, and those emitting that amount will shift the blame on to those emitting even more. Inevitably, the buck will be passed upwards until only the largest emitter is held responsible. But herein lies the paradox: While China is the world’s largest carbon emitter, they are still responsible for ‘only’ 28% of total global emissions. Thus, any remedial action taken by China would be limited to solving no more than a quarter of the problem. Indeed, China could shirk their own responsibilities by saying “even if we do all we can, it won’t be enough, as the remaining countries (combined) are doing far more damage than we are.” In this way, the rationale behind the Trivial Contribution Argument would allow China to shift blame back on to the smaller emitters — leading us full circle, with no responsibility attributed.

The only way to avoid this is to deny the validity of the Trivial Contribution Argument; that is, to deny the claim that a trivial contribution to a problem should be treated like no contribution at all. This is why — when considering the demands of climate justice as they relate to climate action — philosophers tend to take a more pluralistic approach. While the extent to which an actor has contributed to a problem (often called the Polluter Pays Principle) is relevant, we also take into account other principles — such as the extent to which an actor has benefited from the problematic behavior (the Beneficiary Pays Principle) and the actor’s capacity to provide a solution (the Ability to Pay Principle). This more nuanced approach is vital if we wish to engage in real and effective climate action on a global level.

Under Discussion: Global Warming and the Right to Risk Wrong

photograph of industrial chimney stacks polluting air over natural landscape

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: Combating Climate Change.

There is an increasing call to use climate engineering as a solution to global warming. Rather than simply try to decarbonize the economy, some think we should work to develop new technology that will allow us to prevent global warming even while fossil fuels are used. Some think we can use carbon sequestration to leech carbon out of the atmosphere even as we continue to burn fossil fuels. Others think that even if carbon continues to build up in the atmosphere, we can counteract the greenhouse effect by reflecting more sunlight away from earth. (For a great introduction to the questions surrounding climate engineering check out this great episode: Pushkin podcast Brave New Planet.)

Some support the use of climate engineering because they think the global coordination required for decarbonization is politically unfeasible; some because they think global warming is already too far gone and we need to buy time; and some because they think the real costs to decarbonization are too high.

There are, of course, also compelling objections to climate engineering. In particular, many worry about the inevitable unintended consequences of messing with the environment even more to fix our initial mistake (remember the old lady who swallowed a fly?). (Though for myself, I think it unlikely that the negative impacts of carefully studied intentional environmental intervention are as bad as the uncoordinated and unintended effects of carbon industrialization.)

However, I don’t want to spend this post investigating the prospects of climate engineering. I’m not nearly expert enough to do that. Instead, I want to talk about an odd sort of moral obstacle to climate engineering.

Here is a simple question: who has the right to run a massive program to change the earth’s climate? Would it be right, for instance, for the United States to unilaterally decide that the risks of global warming are great enough that it justifies a massive cloud seeding project? Any such decision will affect every other country, but of course the citizens of those other countries do not get a vote in U.S. politics (you might worry, then, that this is profoundly undemocratic because those deeply affected by a policy should have a say in its shaping, for an overview to these questions of democracy see Robert Goodin’s paper on the ‘all affected interests’ principle). So perhaps the United Nations should make the decision? But, of course, many nations are not voting members of the UN, nor is the UN a particularly democratic institution.

Even if geoengineering is the right solution to climate change, it is not altogether clear who should be the one to make that final determination? If I, Marshall, personally decide climate engineering is the way to go, and also come into a lot of money, then do I have the moral right to change the climate for everyone else (even if I’m trying to counteract what was already a negative artificial change). Or to make the scenario more realistic, if the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation decided it was time to act unilaterally, would it be right for them to do so?

Now, here is where things get puzzling. How could we have had the power to mess up the environment, and yet not be morally empowered to fix it?

There are two possibilities here. One, it might be that countries were acting wrongly when they messed up the environment. Perhaps we are all blameworthy for the amount we have contributed to global warming; but just because we did damage does not mean we are thereby entitled to find our own way to clean it up.

Second, it might be that actually many did not act wrongly in using carbon. There is something of a collective action problem here. Perhaps each person only produced a small amount of carbon, such that no one person really impacted the climate of anyone else.  It is only in aggregate that the bad effect occurred. However, we cannot fix the climate in a similarly disaggregated way. It might be that each of us could plant some trees, but it would require systematic and careful coordination to adopt a more aggressive climate engineering strategy (and no one has the right to act as the global enforcement coordinator).

Global warming, then, is an instance of an annoying type of moral problem. Sometimes we do things which could be fixed, but which we are not morally empowered to fix. Sometimes we say something cruel and want to apologize, but the person we hurt wants nothing to do with us and we have no right to impose on them even to apologize.  Sometimes we spill stuff on a carpet in a party, and the host waves us out of the way and insists that they will fix the problem. Sometimes we do wrong things, things we’d like to make up for, but which we cannot make up for acting on our own. While often unfortunate, it remains a fascinating problem.

COVID-19 to Climate Change: Who Can Act?

photograph of national flags flying at UN

Many parts of the world have been isolating for months. These measures have caused a drastic reduction in the processes that represent individual’s impacts on the environment, including gasoline consumption related to commutes and transportation to visit loved ones and eating out. Airlines and cruise ships have not been able to make port calls in the US and have largely cancelled vacations for months. The unprecedented human isolation has led to a number of reports about how cities are “returning to nature,” running the gamut of dubious to reliable (no, dolphins weren’t returning to the canals of Venice, but some penguins and goats hopefully had a fun time exploring their local cities free of humans noisily lugging ourselves about).

However, a number of expert trackers report that all of these different and dramatic behaviors on our part have made only a slight impact on the climate efforts that nations have been pushing for in the recent decades. If this were true, we could be dispirited – even with this much change in our behavior, perhaps there is no hope in fixing or altering our climate reality. Luckily, environmental ethics have been framing this question for decades with this very assumption in place.

There are two issues related to individual impact on climate change: empirical issues and normative ones.

The empirical question is whether individuals contribute to the current issues we are seeing affecting the environment? This question gets at the sort of behaviors that are making changes for flora, fauna, and climatic conditions on our planet. For instance, we see plastics in the ocean killing turtles and altering their habitat. We see the Great Pacific Garbage patch, making a huge impact on untold oceanic conditions. We see the deep sea fishing trawlers disturbing seabeds that make up habitats of a great number of creatures and disturb the water conditions that go on to impact many more.

When we look at these issues from the lens of individual behaviors, we think that to help the number of plastics in the ocean killing sea turtles, for instance, we should use sustainable straws; to help the Great Pacific Garbage patch, we should recycle and create less waste. To reduce the impact of deep-sea fishing, we should be mindful of our seafood consumption. The underlying assumption there is that individual behaviors contribute to the current conditions, and therefore altering them can make a difference to them. However, evidence is mounting that individuals will not resolve the climate issues we are facing. Individuals recycling and reducing plastic use will not make a sufficient dent in plastic pollution, for instance. According to Ted A. Warfield in “Eating Dead Animals,” the individual choice to refrain from consuming or purchasing meat will not make a significant difference in the damages of the meat industry.

These adjustments have largely been hypotheticalit’s hard to get masses of people to change their habits. Let’s turn to the current impact of isolationone of the most drastic mass adjustments to individual behaviors in this generation. Consider the amount that carbon emissions have actually dropped since isolation measures began in the US: they are down approximately 6% according to some sources, a feat that regulations and treaties have failed to accomplish. Significantly, this drop in emissions seems to be the result almost solely of individual behavior shifts. However, it is important to note that this drop is STILL lower than the goals set by the Paris Climate Agreement, and according to the UN we need to cut emissions by 7.6% every year to stand a chance of avoiding the catastrophic heating of our planet. As Guardian correspondent George Manbiot says, “The lockdown exposes the limits of individual action. Travelling less helps, but not enough. To make the necessary cuts we need structural change.”

The second, normative, issue related to the individual impact on climate change is the extent to which individuals are responsible or the ones at fault for the current issues we are seeing affecting the environment. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong argues that it is not the responsibility of the individual to reduce the impact humans are having on climate change. Because climate change is a global challenge, groups that exist at the global level hold the responsibility for addressing it: governments. The way that governments can address climate change include enforcing regulations on corporations and industries that have high carbon emissions (airline and cruise companies), that create waste that harms biomes (chemical, paper, and paint manufacturing), and whose practices inhibit the healthy functioning of habitats (deep sea fishing, intensive animal farming).

When governments fail to address these global, shared problems, the responsibility for fixing them does not necessarily disseminate to individuals. Problems that exist that require more than individual efforts to solve, like repairing bridges and tunnels, and building roads, create group responsibilities. The fault for not addressing climate change is at the level of governments and members of international communities that are in a position to regulate the operation of corporations and industries that are causing damage to our collective resources.

Thus, the implication of the empirical issue is that the contribution of individual behaviors to mitigate or reverse climate change is minimal. The implication of the normative issue is that it is the responsibility of governments and international organizations to mitigate or reverse climate change. Hopefully, one of the results of this time of international crisis can be the realization that it is not just pandemics that require the development of international will and coordination in times of global need.

Anti-Lockdown Protests: Private Liberty v. Common Good

photograph of family at Open Ohio protest

Thousands of Americans across various states have decided to take a stand against the lockdown measures imposed on them as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the nation. In a particularly large protest in Washington state’s capital of Olympia, over 2,000 people gathered to fight for relaxed rules for the economy. Others have been much smaller—such as the 200 people who gathered outside of Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb’s residents to show their disapproval of the strict stay-at-home orders. Protesters carry signs with slogans ranging from “Land of the Free” to “The cure is worse than the virus” to “Let me work.” They often are advocating for an ease in lockdown measures, a reopening of the economy, and the opportunity to return to their jobs. They feel as if the government has restricted their freedoms too much, and are fighting for their rights. Protesters are using their right to freedom of expression to fight for their right to assemble, as well as the ability to work to earn money for their families. However, many protesters do not follow social distancing restrictions or wear masks, per Dr. Fauci and the National Institute for Health’s recommendations. Some experts worry that their protesting could lead to an increase in COVID-19 cases, more deaths, and possibly a prolonged quarantine period. This issue has sparked debate and controversy across the country. Technically, protesters are exercising their constitutional and basic human rights. Yet, is it ethically correct for them to do so, if it could make others sick—possibly killing some?

There is no easy or straightforward way to answer that question. To grasp the moral conflict at play, one must understand the idea of collective action. Managing the risks of the current crisis will require a concerted group effort. Unfortunately, what individuals perceive as their best interest is sometimes at odds with what is in the best interest of the group. Achieving the best public health outcomes for everyone involved may require individuals to forgo some of their rights, their jobs, and social lives. For example, it may be in the individual’s best interest to buy as many masks as possible to protect himself from the virus, but hoarding masks will cause a shortage for others, especially those that need them (such as healthcare workers). This situation gives each person the opportunity to benefit themselves, while spreading the negative consequences of their actions across the larger population.

This tension between the need for collective action and the exercise of individual rights is at the heart of the recent protests in America. Protesters are looking for what is in their best interest—exercising their constitutional freedoms, returning to their places of business, and seeing their friends and family—while the entire community will share any negative outcomes of their protesting. We can examine this problem by looking at both sides of the argument.

Let’s start with the protester’s point of view. There have been signs that America is reaching “the top of the curve,” and infection rates have decreased in some states. Yet, there is no sign that the strict lockdown measures that Americans have lived under for weeks will be loosened anytime soon. The protesters are people fighting for their freedomand they have valid reasons to do so. All citizens of the United States have had some of their basic freedoms restricted in the hope of slowing the spread of the virus. There are curfews, business closures, and church gathering bans. They have no right to freedom of assembly, and have been heavily encouraged to wear masks. Many have lost their jobs because of lockdown measures—over 6.65 million Americans filed for unemployment at the start of April. Protesters want their normal lives and freedoms back. They want to be able to work to earn money for their families.

Many protesters don’t believe that their rights should be taken just because the government says so. And they have taken a stand to show their disapproval. For example, a protester in California stated that “We need our freedom back, we need to be able to work, we need to be able to socialize, as soon as we can.”

Many protesters share the opinion that the government has been too controlling over their lives and decisionssome have stated that the prolonged lockdown is “basically slavery.” They feel as if the government is being too intrusive without giving them a say in the matter. One protester went as far to say that the California governor Gavin Newsom is a “dictator” for promoting strict lockdown measures. California residents have experienced one of the strictest stay-at-home orders in the countryreceiving countless alerts on their phones from the government promoting social distancing, staying at home, and closing businesses. They are only allowed to leave their house for “essential needs/work,” and their governor shows no sign of easing restrictions anytime soon. This can be seen as an invasion of privacy and a violation of their rights.

Some other protesters feel that it is the obligation of the government to try to “fix” the problems that the lockdown has caused. The quarantine that the government issued has negatively impacted private and small businesses, as well as citizens’ livelihoods. This means that the government may have to be the one to fix or mitigate the damages that their lockdown caused. However, many citizens have had economic troubles because the relief bill assistance has been slow to arrive. And it is not only citizens marshaling these arguments, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley has stated that the government is responsible for offsetting what lockdown measures have cost the country.

Others simply feel that lots of the government requirements and action taken are unnecessary. The 2019 novel coronavirus is usually only fatal to those with compromised immune systems or those with old age. Protesters don’t feel as if they, as healthy individuals with strong immune systems, should be stuck at home, unable to work and live relatively normal lives. The signs they carry (“Quarantine the sick, not the healthy”) show this sentiment. Protesters in rural areas also feel as if the lockdown measures aren’t as necessary where they live, as their population is less condensed as it is in big cities, making it harder for the virus to spread.

And while many protesters gathered in large crowds without masks, ignoring safety recommendations, many others have not. There are protesters who wear masks, or who have been protesting in their cars instead of gathering with other people.

However, many people disagree with the protests. They believe that protesters are not taking proper precautions to protect against the disease, and they could cause an increase in cases, deaths, and possibly increase the quarantine period.

“Give me liberty or give me death” is a frequent slogan in protest. But as many have suggested, protesters could be “campaigning for both.” It is a fact that many protesters, especially in news footage, were not following social distancing precautions. They were gathered in crowds as large as 2,500 and most were not wearing masks to prevent spreading the virus. Experts worry that these anti-quarantine protests can cause a surge in COVID-19 cases. Rachel Revine, the Pennsylvania State Health Secretary, stated that “This is how COVID-19 spreads,” when talking about the protests. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and public health scientist at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, tweeted that he predicts a “new epidemic surge” with an incubation period of about 5-7 days before the onset of any symptoms and transmission, concluding that there will likely be “[an] increase in 2-4 weeks from now” of cases in America.

Some nurses who do not support the protests have also made their opinions known. A few (in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and in Denver, Colorado, to name a few) have stood in a counter-protest at crosswalks, blocking the cars of angry protesters. In Michigan, many healthcare workers have complained that the protests caused them to arrive late to work. Some ambulances have had a slight delay in reaching the hospital because of the gridlock protests.

Others simply don’t agree with the message of the protests. They feel as if strict lockdown measures should still be in place. America has been the center of the pandemic, with over 735,000 known cases and 40,000 known deaths nationwide. Many don’t feel that their country is ready to re-open. For example, Rachel Revine said that there needs to be a decrease in cases and an increase in the amount of tests produced, stating that “the idea that we can ease up is exactly the wrong answer.”

Yet one of the main reasons that people are not pleased with the recent protests is because they feel as if the protesters are not thinking about the common good. Protestors carry signs saying “My body, my choice.” But, is it really their choice? Their actions could lead to an increase of coronavirus cases, and possibly fatalities, in their community.

It all comes back to the idea of collective action. The individual protester sees it in their best interest to protest for their own rights, and for their own ability to work—they fully have this right to freedom of expression. But many protesters aren’t asking themselves what the possible costs of their actions could be. By gathering in large crowds without masks to protest for what is in their own short-term benefit, they could cause an increase in COVID-19 cases. This can risk the lives of everyone in the community, and undoes a lot of the “progress” made under the quarantine.

Could we outwit human nature’s phenomenon of collective action? It would involve us as individuals sacrificing some of our own wants for the good of the community. Protesters may have to use social media or other digital platforms to have their voices heard and make a stand without endangering the vulnerable people in their community.

This coronavirus pandemic is a difficult time for all of us. We’ve stayed inside for weeks, many without jobs or people to interact with, to help “flatten the curve.” And now, as people call for change through protests, we may run the risk of increasing COVID cases. In the midst of the uncertainty and the controversy, one thing is for certain: We need to ask ourselves what possible costs our actions have for others. We must consider the phenomenon of collective actionare we acting in the interest of our own individual short-term pleasure, only for the entire community to share the negative effects of our actions? In this case, only time will tell.

US Exceptionalism, Foreign and Domestic

photograph of American flag painted on side of brick wall with barb wire strung on top

The Trump administration continues to reduce the US’s participation in cooperation and coordination schemes at home and abroad. Pursuing collective interests often satisfies private interests, especially in cases where what happens to someone else will have an impact on the interests of all individuals in the collective. That is the case with highly contagious and dangerous viruses like COVID-19. But coordinated action by the federal government has been in line with the American exceptionalism that has defined Trump’s presidency. During this crisis, however, it has been directed inward rather than outward.

During his tenure, Trump has removed human rights oversight from the UN despite clearly voiced concerns over the treatment of many groups of people under government care and jurisdiction. His administration has removed the country from treaties aimed to avoid military escalation with nations like Iran that we have historically tense relations with, and imposed sanctions that, during the current health crisis, have clearly caused more unnecessary suffering. He has also removed the US from agreements that represent the best chance of saving our planet from devastating environmental collapse.

The United States has now cut funding to the WHO during a global pandemic. Many analysts are attributing this move as a strategy for redirecting blame for horrible outcomes after months of federal inaction.

There are times that collaboration is necessary to improve individual well-being, but this fact is lost on the Trump administration. By having treaties, agreements, and collective procedures that may restrict individual latitude in decision-making for particular areas of life and government, this not only raises the welfare of the worst off, but ensures the welfare of the best off as well. In other words, collective bargaining is not charity. It is not supported merely by liberal principles of justice. We can see that it is in the best interest of all, as the suffering of the pandemic and the stakes of these other exceptionalist policies brings out.

Consider arms treaties. The US can consider it in our own best interests to pursue dangerous weaponry and balk at the constraints of collective treaties that curtail our production and economic interests that result. However, our interests are in fact undermined by avoiding such treaties because now we have created an arms race where everyone is put in more danger.

Further, we may balk at restrictions like international agreements that limit behavior causing damage to the environment. However, in pursuing our conception of our private interests, we actually are undermining the good that comes from the collective action – by having a common agreement, we recognize that the actions of all individuals do, in fact, affect each other: we are all jointly affected by the environment on earth. The air in Morocco doesn’t stay in Morocco. The water in the North Atlantic doesn’t stay in the North Atlantic. All of our interests are served by joint commitments to restrictions.

A final example is space exploration. An individual country may consider their best interests to go it alone and take advantage of the private or corporate pursuit of gathering resources or claiming land. Trump in fact issued an executive order to this effect on April 7th: “Americans should have the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space.” However, conceiving of space exploration in single-country terms is impractical and undermines the individual state’s interests. The Center for Strategic and International Studies and NASA both argue that international cooperation is crucial for pursuing space exploration. As one expert states, “When there’s a hurricane, earthquake or other disaster, […] multiple countries with remote-sensing satellites — including the U.S., Japan, South Africa, Russia and the European Union — are part of a disaster charter. Whomever had a satellite passing over the disaster-ridden region before, after and during the event has agreed to share data to mitigate damage, saving lives and property.” Thus it is in the interest of each individual state to cooperate with the many.

In the last few years, Trump has removed federal regulations in a variety of domains that have effects in social welfare such as the EPA, education, and civil rights protections.

By distancing the federal government from regulating standards for environmental protection, this allows varying interventions depending on more local government interests and resources. The same goes for states. This results in public goods such as health and education—cornerstones of a democratic country that lead to democratic legitimacy—being denied to some and ensured to others. Democracy is served by a healthy and educated electorate. Social mobility is possible when residents are educated and healthy, and this promotes the welfare of everyone, not just the underserved. Trump’s removal of these different restrictions has made it unclear how we are distributing public resources, an ominous forecast of the mishandling of the pandemic now.

There are now three consortiums of states that are coordinating the pursuit of medical supplies and their strategies for policies regarding isolation and lifting of isolation policies. These groups make up about half of the population of the country, with one comprising the three West Coast states, one in the Northeast, and one in the Midwest. The impetus for these groups of states being formed was the obstruction that the federal government introduced to the “free market” for necessary lifesaving medical supplies. Governors found themselves bidding against each other, effectively driving up the price during a period when time and money were at a premium with lives at stake. The groups have coordinated to various degrees regarding developing criteria for when and how to lift isolation measures, given the lack of leadership from the federal government. Having consistent measures in place under the conditions of a medical crisis that is contagious has clear benefits. If, in one state, movement is unrestricted and businesses are widely open, the next state over is impacted.

Trump has actively promoted “liberating” the states with stay-at-home policies, despite all medical and expert advice. Actually, to the point of possibly inciting insurrections in some cases.  We could interpret this as a lack of value for human life because of the complacency being shown to the dire situations the states find themselves in. The administration has been willing to sacrifice millions of people for the nebulous “economic” value of folks returning to work (without acknowledging the impact on the economy of the millions of people impacted by the spread of disease). The brute neglect or rejection of the estimates of death and severe illness by medical experts will have lasting effects on the public health and faith in government long after the isolation policies are lifted.

Grassroots Environmentalism and California’s CAPP

photograph of air pollution with cars on highway and yellow smoke in city

In 2017, the Californian legislature passed a bill that led to the creation of the Community Air Protection Program (CAPP). By promoting the development of community emissions reduction programs and collecting data about their success, the CAPP aims to provide practical guidelines for improving California’s air quality. Most notably, the program’s focus is specifically committed to equipping local stakeholders with the tools and resources needed to improve their own communities, providing $15 million in grants to build air monitors and promote outreach. Full reports from the first ten focus districts are expected in October of this year, with additional communities being selected for participation in early 2021.

Although it might seem inconsequential when compared to wildfires, hurricanes, or other headline-breaking results of global anthropogenic climate change, air pollution carries with it a host of demonstrable health and environmental problems beyond mere aesthetic unpleasantries. For decades, smog and atmospheric pollution has been linked to decreased capacities for plants to conduct photosynthesis, to the decrease of wild animal populations as they either migrate or die, and the generation of “acid rain” as atmospheric gases interact with the water cycle, thereby eroding the landscape and further increasing stresses on local flora and fauna. In humans, air pollution exacerbates a variety of respiratory diseases, contributing to the deaths of over seven million people; furthermore, recent studies have linked increased atmospheric particulates to increased symptoms of dementia and cognitive decline, to obesogenic outcomes, and to a spate of negative mental health results. Multiple studies have indicated a link between air quality and skillful performance, such as that of chess players, baseball umpires, and students; one recent report suggests that the installation of relatively inexpensive air filters in elementary school classrooms correlates with increased test scores to roughly the same degree as reducing class sizes by thirty percent. High levels of air pollution even seem to have a detrimental effect on computer operations.

Improving air quality, however, is a complicated task, given both the accessibility of the atmosphere and the high number of stakeholders with potential influence. Industrial factories of all sorts generate tons of atmospheric waste each year, mining operations release numerous atmospheric pollutants as byproducts, and landfill emissions are surprisingly large as organic waste decomposes. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the single largest human activity that contributes to atmospheric pollution is the burning of fossil fuels, whether in industrial operations or by private consumers – such as in the frequent use of passenger vehicles. According to a 2014 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, “cars and trucks account for nearly one-fifth of all US emissions, emitting around 24 pounds of carbon dioxide and other global-warming gases for every gallon of gas” – when planes, ships, freight trains, and other forms of transportation are included, that calculation increases to nearly thirty percent of the country’s emissions.

While some have touted various replacements for internal combustion engines to reduce fossil fuel emissions, such solutions are expensive and often not viable options for many; instead, California’s CAPP initiative aims to empower concerned citizens to pursue realistic solutions to improve local air quality. Through town hall meetings, workshops, canvassing, and other active forms of communication, CAPP districts have worked to identify and seek funding to fix specific problems noticed by local citizens, such as the Feather River District’s need for newer school buses with cleaner-running engines, San Bernardino County’s concern to limit truck traffic through residential areas, and the South Coast District’s desire to regulate petroleum refineries more strictly. By maintaining a focus on ground-level concerns, the CAPP program hopes to increase long-term effectiveness of these environmental regulations by fostering participation and support from the communities most affected by poor air quality conditions.

However, given the scope of the air-pollution problem, small-scale action will be insufficient to counter its most pernicious long-term effects; consequently, the Environmental Protection agency has, historically, implemented regulatory measures on a broader scale. Additionally, some states – like California – enact even more strict fuel economy standards to encourage citizens and companies to remain mindful of environmental concerns. However, such regulations inevitably raise the hackles of the industries they are designed to constrain; automakers, in particular, have balked at California’s high expectations for engine efficiency (intended to curb emissions), citing concerns about manufacturing expense and market fairness. The Trump White House has recently made moves to repeal environmental regulations on a large number of industries, including loosening many rules designed to mitigate atmospheric pollution, and the president indicated last autumn that California’s ability to set its own emissions standards will also be revoked in support of the auto industry (state lawmakers have already issued legal challenges against this move).

So, while conflicts over large-scale regulatory measures continue on the federal and state levels, pilot initiatives like the Community Air Protection Program offer a promising opportunity to promote small steps towards improving the air quality for local communities, empowering neighborhoods to make long-desired positive changes to contribute to the massive project of caring for the environment. As with so many other examples, may this be a grassroots-level movement that grows into something far greater.

Collective Action and Climate Change: Consumption, Defection, and Motivation

photograph of dry, cracked earth with grass growing on a few individual pieces

Last month, the United Nations held talks regarding international climate agreements in hopes to abate and adapt to the changes to our global environment due to the industrialization and emissions by humans. With the president of the United States vocally skeptical about the moral imperative to action, other countries have been considering defection from previous joint commitments. If the United States continues to consume resources at its current rate, the United Nations’ climate goals will not be possible. This is a feature of climate change agreements: they impact nations differently, irrespective of any country’s particular contribution to the problem. Thus, tied up with the responsibility to commit to taking action is the question of whether there should be different burdens depending on the level of industrialization and development (i.e., consumption) of the nation in question.

Environmental ethicist Martino Traxler distinguishes between two approaches in assigning the duties and burdens for responding to climate change. The first approach would be “just”, in that it takes into consideration the historical context in which we now find ourselves, as well as the power/structure dynamics at play. For instance, placing identical duties on all countries to reduce energy consumption equally doesn’t attend to countries’ differing ability to pay, varying causal contributions to the current state of things, and the extent to which various countries have unequally benefited from previous policies and activities that were environmentally damaging. For instance, some developing nations are improving economically by taking advantage of some less-clean technologies, and it is arguably hypocritical for developed nations with a history of colonialism, imperialism, or military interference/manipulation to intervene at this stage and charge the developing nations with the responsibility to reduce their pollution. Such a policy would slow the progress toward leveling the international playing field. Countries that are developing now and changing the shape of their economies in order to grow out of poverty may have greater claim to use resources that have damaging effects on the environment than countries that have put the globe in a place of climate crisis while at the same time creating conditions for global poverty that allowing the use of environment-damaging resources would go some distance to alleviate.

Thus, some examples just approaches to alleviating the impact of climate change would be to make:

  1. Benefiters pay (in proportion to benefits)
  2. Polluters pay (in proportion to responsibility)
  3. Richest pay (in proportion to their ability)

This would distribute burdens unevenly internationally, and typically nations that have more industrialized infrastructure would bear heavier burdens than those nations that are in the process of building their economies. This can be concerning for the most-developed nations and the nations that have experienced the most power and privilege historically. For nations that already have systems of infrastructure that involve emitting greenhouse gases, for instance, committing to being more environmentally responsible according to the just approach can amount to committing to a strikingly different way of life. Some still may recall George H. W. Bush’s declaration at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that “The American way of life is not up for negotiations. Period.” In 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, delegates noted that a child born in the developed world consumes 30 to 50 times as much water as one born in the developing world, emphasizing the different relations to resource consumption depending on the ways of life established in one’s society.

These features highlight how a “just” approach to burden sharing may disincentivize the richest, most internationally powerful nations from agreeing to combating climate change. The alternative approach style is a “fair” model of burden allocation, which has each nation share evenly in the responsibility to remain in a safe zone of resource consumption and emission standards. The fair approach presents a clean slate and looks forward, rather than backward at the contextual perspective of the just approach. The approach is fair in the sense that there is even distribution of responsibility, but most find the just approach more appropriate. Are there reasons why we might find the fair model appealing? The breakdown at the UN last month suggests several reasons why.

When we face an issue like climate change, nations need to determine how to act together. It’s difficult enough to determine the path for a single country or nation, but collective action like this requires agreement and commitment that structurally resembles classic dilemmas from game theory and economics. Traxler argues that because of these structural similarities, we should opt for fair rather than just allocations. In short, because the cost of the rich countries deferring is so great, we need to construct agreements that don’t over-burden them. As we see this year with countries like China and India hesitating to make commitments to change if the U.S. isn’t on board, Traxler may be onto something. In modeling climate change agreements in terms of incentivizing the related parties to not defer, Traxler is suggesting that we face an international Prisoner’s Dilemma.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a classic problem in game theory. The puzzle arises when what is in the best interest of a collective diverges from what is in the interest of an individual. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is set up as follows: two burglars (or criminals of some sort) are arrested and separated so they cannot coordinate. The authorities are attempting to get a confession from at least one of the burglars to aid in their investigation and conviction. If both burglars remain silent, they will each receive a sentence of 1 year. The authorities are attempting to incentivize cooperating with them because they would get information and successful convictions. However, the information will be most useful if one burglar cooperates and turns on the other, allowing the authorities to “throw the book” at one of them. Therefore, if one of the burglars betrays their comrade and gives information to the authorities while the other remains silent, this would result in the betrayer going free and the silent conspirator getting a 3 year sentence. If both burglars attempt to achieve this end (confessing in hopes that the other remains silent), the authorities have information on both of them and neither can go free. Instead, both will serve 2 years. Each burglar thus faces the decision of whether to cooperate with their conspirator or betray them and confess to the authorities. The possible combinations and outcomes are displayed in the table below.

The reason this poses a game theoretic dilemma is that the ideal outcome for each burglar is to exploit the cooperation of the other (i.e., to betray while the other stays silent). This creates a scenario where what is in the individual’s best interest is at odds with what is in their collective interest; if we consider the burglars together as a group and evaluate what would get the best outcome overall, then they should both remain silent. If, however, the individual aims for his or her best individual outcome, then there is great pressure to defect so as to potentially receive the best individual outcome (go free) and always avoid the worst (3 years).

As individual nations, it is in our best interest to over-consume and hope that the rest of the international community behaves responsibly and attempts to save the planet. That way we enjoy the benefits of our consumption of resources AND the benefits of the rest of the international community’s conservation efforts. BUT! If everyone in the international community behaves this way (parallel to both burglar’s betraying their partnership), we end up in a bad scenario. What is in the interest of the collective is for everyone to cooperate, but individual interests encourages us to over-consume.

The structure of the Prisoner’s Dilemma arises in a few areas of public life, not just among police bargaining with alleged criminals. The key to the dilemma is that what is collectively rational comes apart at times from what is individually rational. This is also the tension in Tragedy of the Commons cases. The Tragedy of the Commons describes cases in economics or scenarios in shared-resources situations where the best thing to do from an individual level is to consume more than others, but this focus on immediate use leads to a situation such that our shared ability to use the resource over time is undermined.

Described by William Forster Lloyd in the 19th century, we could imagine a case of the Tragedy as a river by a village that sustains an ecosystem containing fish. If the village fishes in the river some reasonable amount over time, the river is sufficient to replenish itself and feed the village. So, collectively speaking, it’s rational for the village to maintain fishing levels at this restrained rate. However, at an individual level, each villager is in a position where they have access to a resource that is potential income, and though it undermines the future use of the river and the other villagers’ potential use of the resource, overfishing to get more food and more resources is in the individual’s best interest. Thus in a similar way that the burglars have conflicting strategies in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in shared-resource scenarios, there is tension between individual and collective interests.

In order to avoid countries defecting and not living up to the commitment to abate climate change, we may need to “sweeten the deal” a bit, according to Traxler and not go with the just approach that would perhaps be too burdensome to the richest, most industrialized nations. This would give them fewer reasons to over-consume and ignore the agreements. However, it would also perhaps produce less pressure for the richest and most able countries to aggressively researching “cleaner” alternatives to the technology so that they may continue something like their current ways of life.

Is This an Emergency?: Why Language Matters

image of emergency road sign

Last September, the UN Secretary General António Guterres delivered an address on climate change, calling it a ‘climate emergency’ echoing the terminology employed by the prominent climate scientist Prof Hans Joachim Schellnhuber.

The language we use matters a great deal; and itself has ethical implications.

Given the severity of the situation: warnings coming from a raft of recent reports from agencies such as the IPCC and the UN, have scientists sounding the alarm that human society is in jeopardy from the heating atmosphere, the accelerating decline of the Earth’s natural life-support systems, and other forms of ecological destruction, it is manifestly necessary to speak about the situation with an appropriate level of alarm and urgency.

There is a concern that the media have, for decades, failed to adequately report the dangers of greenhouse emissions and the scale of their increase. In fact it seems clear that some of the mainstream media – primarily right-wing and conservative presses – have been chronically under-reporting on the dangers of climate change while deliberately subverting the problem with skeptical reporting.

Many governments have been treating the issue with the same mixture of obfuscation and ignorance. In the past several years some have become much worse, notably America under Trump and the Australian government now under Scott Morrison. Morrison, recently responded to the impassioned speech given to the UN Climate Conference by Greta Thunberg by saying that “the climate change debate is subjecting Australian children to “needless anxiety.”

The first ethical implication of language choice is about truth. If we have any hope of addressing this issue, then the truth must be widely, openly, and adequately acknowledged.

It is the responsibility of government, in its role as sovereign state, to inform its citizens. Democratic governments have this responsibility in virtue of the fact that the people are needed in order to grant authority legitimacy. To function in this role, citizens must have the relevant knowledge to choose the right candidates and correctly instruct them in how to serve the community. (A free press has a democratic responsibility in this regard as well. A free press is only free when its agenda is not set by special interests.)

Recently, The Guardian made a decision about changing some of the language it uses to report on the climate and ecological emergency, introducing: “terms that more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world.” Instead of “climate change” the new terms are “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” and “global heating” is favored over “global warming.”

We’ve used the term ‘climate change’ for several decades in reference to what is also often called ‘global warming,’ or sometimes ‘the greenhouse effect.’ But, to many, this terminology makes the problem sounds like a gradual, natural, and passive event. But in reality we are now using it to denote something that has been caused and is rapidly being accelerated by human actions – so is neither gradual, nor natural.

António Guterres told the gathering of leaders in September 2018: “We face a direct existential threat,” adding that we have until 2020 to change our behavior or “we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change, with disastrous consequences for people and all the natural systems that sustain us.” Given that this is the case, the language of crisis and emergency is not alarmist – it is warranted and necessary.

Professor Richard Betts, of Britain’s meteorological monitoring organization, has called for a change from ‘global warming’, which many have also noted sounds rather too benign, to ‘global heating’ which more accurately reflects the reality of what is happening.

Future life on Earth and future and present human society is now in serious jeopardy. With so little time left to turn the situation around, we are going to have to start acting like it is an emergency, but complacency is still rife, and it is now the greatest barrier to urgent change.

Language has been part of the complacency, and changing the language we use is necessary for action. To combat the problem, we first need to understand our situation, and to do so we must be able to name it. We also need to reorient ourselves in the way we talk about our current predicament to reflect the fact that the effects of climate change are happening now.

The outcomes will be so bad that there is no other mode to adopt than emergency-mode if we are to mobilize in time, and our language needs to reflect that. We can talk about ‘climate change’ and then turn back to topics of ordinary life – we can drift away from ‘climate change.’ But we cannot as easily drift away from an emergency. Once you start talking about an emergency, about breakdown and collapse, then it is much harder to turn away. We are in a crucial moment – a window of opportunity, a vanishing window, we can ill afford to turn back to other, everyday subjects.

We need for our language to be unequivocal about the seriousness of the situation; to help reduce cognitive dissonance and allow us to conceptually make the connections we need to make in order to act. That is why the question of what we are calling this is a moral question.

The analogy of the burning house, evoked by Thunberg in her speech, is apt here:

The building is on fire, and all occupants need to move very quickly or face serious injury or death. If in that situation I merely say to the occupants something like: “it’s getting warmer in here” instead of something more like: “the house is on fire, quick, run for your life!” then I have essentially lied to them through omission and am guilty of moral negligence.

I can say I didn’t at first know it was on fire, or did know but didn’t believe the situation to be serious, it will still be surprising that it has taken so long to reach the conclusion that the building is on fire and we must get out. That is, as soon as one comes to the conclusion that we are in very serious trouble, one immediately wonders how we can possibly be in such serious trouble when we could easily have prevented from becoming a serious problem.

On one view, our language ought to change as the changing situation demands; but one wonders where we might be if our way of talking about the situation (our way of comprehending it) reflected its seriousness from the beginning.

Those are very important questions, and the answers we can provide to them might in the long run have a bearing on our continued survival – but not if we don’t get out of the burning building now.

There seems to be a clear moral duty here for governments, the media, and whoever else is participating in the discussion to tell it like it is – to stop softening the truth. That duty is, I believe, connected with any hope we might have of taking urgent action to mitigate the impending crisis. In one sense our language-choices seems immaterial – this is an emergency, whether we say so or not. But our survival probably depends on our saying so and then acting like we mean it.

The California Housing Crisis and Collective Action

photograph overlooking San Francisco

The situation in California has become increasingly dire, and is even beginning to appear on the periphery of the 2020 presidential race. While there are factors that make California unique, it might be a sign of things to come for cities like Chicago, Austin, and Nashville. The political discourse currently taking shape may be indicative of the US’s future treatment of problems stemming from population growth and density.

California’s housing shortage places enormous pressure on tenants as supply shrinks and demand continues to expand. Strong economic growth, mostly in the tech sector, has created hundreds of thousands of new jobs, but has been met with inadequate construction of necessary housing. A report by the McKinsey Global Institute found that California needs to build 3.5 million more homes by 2025 to meet demand. This situation has seen the state’s home prices grow to 2.5 times the national average, while rents are 50 percent above average. As a result, nearly a quarter of the nation’s homeless population lives in California.

Current homeowners like Los Angeles resident Glenn Zweifel insist that “there is not necessarily a shortage of housing but an excess of people,” and attribute the problem to an attitude of entitlement: “Just because you want to live somewhere doesn’t mean you can.”

This, however, oversimplifies the problem. First, this is a matter of displacement; it isn’t simply a case of turning prospective residents away. Property values are skyrocketing which means that current tenants can’t earn enough to keep up with rising rents. It’s estimated that you’d need to make $34/hour in order to afford a two-bedroom rental home. Not everyone is in a privileged position to be able to uproot their lives. Tenants may not have much of a choice about where they live; their jobs, families, and financial, medical, or social situation may mean that relocation is simply not an option.

Second, the housing crisis is a byproduct of class and generational conflict. The interests of old, rich, white property owners are at odds with the young, poor, minority renters. The two main obstacles to increasing housing development are zoning laws and community opposition. Apartment buildings are banned in most of California, and single-family zoning laws prohibit higher-density housing construction in residential areas. Current residents don’t want affordable housing going up next door. They are intent on protecting the value of their assets, and know that environmental protections can be easily abused so as to protect their investment.

Conservative/libertarian writers, like Edward Ring, emphasize concerns of fairness:

“There’s a reason people work hard for decades to pay off their mortgages so they can own homes in spacious suburbs. It’s because they value the leafy, semi-rural atmosphere of an uncrowded suburban neighborhood. [Policy initiatives] will effectively double the housing density in these neighborhoods, violating the expectations of everyone living there who relied on the zoning rules that were in effect when they bought their homes.”

Property owners, they argue, have earned the right to restrict others’ access to those goods for which they have labored. To undermine that basic right of ownership and fail to reward these individuals’ hard work is manifestly unjust. And yet lawmakers continue to recommend the 

“forcible integration of people who, for whatever reason, require government assistance to support themselves, into communities of taxpayers, who, by and large, are working extra hard to pay the mortgages on overpriced homes in order to provide their children with safe neighborhoods.”

Market forces may be conspiring to put people on the street, but property owners, so the argument goes, are not the guilty party and are not obligated to make accommodations. In the end, they argue, it’s unfair to have homeowners shoulder others’ burdens.

This is a common sentiment. But the neighborhoods in California are, in effect, gated communities aimed at maximizing monetary gains and keeping out the undesirables. Even when residential communities are pried opened and new residents are admitted, those who’ve threaded the needle and somehow gained access to such a scarce resource are the very same that attempt to slam the door closed behind them. As San Francisco Assemblymember Phil Ting explains, “If you’re a city council, the people who vote for you oppose the housing you’re creating, and you’re creating housing for the people who have yet to move in. And when they do move in, they fight the next project.”

The political incentives all point in one direction. Homeowners are entrenched; they have ties in the community and their voices carry the weight of immediate political consequence. There are few other voices — certainly not the homeless or prospective residents — that might countermand it. This may change if businesses start feeling the effect of not having the necessary workers and talent to function. Being unable to attract necessary professions like nurses, teachers, janitors, and firefighters threatens to grind the economy to a halt. Property Shark notes that despite San Francisco paying nurses one of the highest wages in the US, a nurse would have to earn 10 annual incomes in order to afford a house there. The situation is no different for tech workers. But until businesses start feeling the pinch, there is more of a political incentive to protect current residents, slow development, and push the homeless to shelters elsewhere.

Conservatives are often partial to subsidiarity — the idea that actors closest to the problem are the best positioned to address it. They prefer local solutions which might limit government meddling and eliminate red tape. But the California Housing Crisis is a collective action problem; conflicts of interest between individuals encourage actors to pass the buck, while sustainable solutions require a concerted group effort. The consequences of doing one’s part to address the housing crisis encourage free-riding (that mirrors the immigration crisis at the national level). Those who flout their obligations are the ones who stand to reap the greatest rewards. Towns who haven’t built an apartment in a decade are also ones where the median home sells for $1.6 million. Given the incentives at play, a decentralized approach is unlikely to work.

There are a number of proposed solutions, but the two which have gained the most traction concern “upzoning” and rent control. SB 50 would allow apartment buildings to be built near major transit hubs, increasing housing capacity six-fold while also mitigating increased traffic congestion. It represents a market-based solution that looks to harness developer incentives in order to accelerate the development rate.

But critics contend that a market-based solution like SB 50 is unlikely to provide relief. Michael Storper, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, argues that the bill is essentially about “raising housing opportunities for highly skilled, relatively high-income people.” Upzoning may encourage more housing, but it will be housing designed to maximize the return on investment. The bill doesn’t make development in lower-income neighborhoods any more attractive or profitable. Instead, it may very well “gentrify what’s left to gentrify in highly desirable areas.” Francisco Dueñas, the housing campaign director at the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, agrees: “We think that in general, similar to what happened in Chicago, [SB 50] is just going to increase the value of that land, fueling greater speculation, and then that gets translated into increased rent and more people getting pushed out.” Ultimately, while the bill may encourage development thus increasing supply, critics worry it does nothing to address the issue of displacement.

An alternative aimed directly at this issue is rent control. (One such proposal, Proposition 10, was on the ballot in 2018 and was defeated. Another measure, AB1482 is currently gathering steam.) As property values soar and wages stagnate, renters are unable to keep up with rising prices. By placing legal limits on what landlords can demand for rent and tying those figures to cost of living calculations, these measures hope to protect renters from effectively being forced out of their residences. Renters may no longer be victims of arbitrary market forces and suffer the consequences of prices which reflect whatever the market will bear.

Critics emphasize the negative effect expanding rent control will have on housing development, as it eliminates financial incentives to build new housing or develop existing properties. Given the magnitude of the housing shortage at hand, ensuring renters remain where they are might not be the most pressing objective. Rent control creates immediate gains, but, as a Brookings Institute study concludes, “in the long run it decreases affordability, fuels gentrification, and creates negative spillovers on the surrounding neighborhood.” Reduced profit margins discourage landlords from regular maintenance, renters bunker down in apartments that are too big or small for their needs, and the neighborhood housing market is depressed.

There are no easy solutions. At best, the crisis in California is a cautionary tale that might signal when to raise the alarm, and, if we’re lucky, where to look to find a way out.

Why Act When It Doesn’t Make a Difference?

This post originally appeared on May 28, 2015.

I’ve got a friend who’s suffering from depression. He’s been holed up in his house for the last two years; living first on sick pay, then savings; venturing out only for fish and canned vegetables. (“They’re healthy.”) I visit him from time to time, which isn’t often enough, and I excuse the infrequency with a lame thought: it doesn’t matter whether I go.

The problem is not that I’m wrong. He doesn’t want visitors, we have the same conversation each time, and he isn’t getting any closer to the man he once was, all bright and bounding. If I’m showing up to make a difference, I’m probably wasting my time.

This defense of inaction is psychologically powerful. We know how the election will play out, so we don’t vote. We know that having tofu won’t save a cow from slaughter, so we have the burger. We know that Old Navy isn’t going to notice whether we shop elsewhere, so we may as well save some money. When we can’t make a difference, why bother?

Sometimes, because we’re wrong. It only seems like we can’t make a difference because so many people contribute to the effect. This tends to be the story in consumer ethics: industries don’t care about what any one person does, but they certainly care about what lots of people do, and “lots of people” don’t do anything if we don’t do something.

In other cases, we really can’t accomplish what we’d like—too few are willing to take up the cause—but we can do something else worthwhile. Consider, for example, participating in Adjunct Walkout Day. My university isn’t going to start paying adjuncts a living wage, so canceling class for their sake feels pointless. By joining in, though, we stand in solidarity with those who aren’t being treated fairly, insisting that wrongdoers be held accountable. That’s a far cry from achieving securing fair wages, but it still isn’t trivial to encourage and criticize, respectively, those who deserve encouragement and criticism.

All that said, my friend’s depression isn’t a collective action problem; it isn’t as though a few more supporters will tip the scales. Protest won’t help either: depression may be a thief, but it can’t be shamed. And we could conclude, on this basis, that my excuse is a good one. But I remain unsatisfied by it. When I drive the twenty-two miles to his door, I’m his friend. When I pick up a book instead, I’m not. And that choice isn’t trivial.

It might sound like I’ve just made this about me. “I can’t make a difference in my friend’s life, but I can make a difference in mine: I can choose what sort of person I’ll become, the ideals that I’ll embody.” And although those things are true, they’re beside the point.

Which is this: sometimes, difference-making doesn’t matter. If I’m going to be a friend, I’m going to sit with him in his depression. Not at the expense of everything else in my life—that’s martyrdom. But at real expense, since that’s what friendship involves. Likewise, if I’m a citizen, I vote; if I’m compassionate, I don’t want anything to do with factory farms. That’s what it is to be a friend, or a citizen, or compassionate. And that’s why we aren’t bad friends or citizens if we fail, or a little less compassionate when we keep eating animals. Rather, we are “friends” and “citizens” and “compassionate.” We have different versions of these relationships and roles and virtues—the paltry, calculating ones where “This is my country” isn’t argument enough for voting, and “That creature suffered needlessly” isn’t argument enough for abstaining. Not so with the versions worth having: they settle how we ought to proceed. (Indeed, that’s much of why they’re worth having.)

Why act when it doesn’t make a difference? In some cases, because it does—though only with some help, or not how we’d hoped. But often enough, this is the wrong sort of question to ask, and the right kind is much simpler:

Are we friends?