28 July, 2005

Worthy of Attention: Taking Stock of Reality: The Meta-article

I may be just enough of a masochist to try it out on the side as well.
I may be just enough of a masochist
to try it out on the side as well.
If ever there were a more morose, pitiably pedantic, and terribly trite joke of a job than writing weekly articles for no pay, then please let me know about it. I may be just enough of a masochist to try it out on the side as well.

Yet somehow this weekly column bit is teaching me a lot about what is and is not acceptable in writing to a general audience. In the two and a half months that Panangelium.tk has been online, I feel that I have progressed toward making my writing more accessible, interesting, and perhaps fun for the general reader. Though most who read my articles do not leave comments on the site (a situation I heartily regret), I do get e-mails occasionaly from some readers who perhaps feel obligated to read my stuff (i.e., friends and family), and from their incomparably comstructive criticism (which by the way outweighs praise by a factor of three to one), I think I have finally found how to adapt to an audience much more diverse than I've catered to in the past (as can easily be seen from a cursory glance at my LiveJournal). Now all I need is to learn to be more responsible with my deadlines and to (for the love of god) condense my writing (whilst getting rid of unnecessary paranthetical statements) to make it more palatable to the random viewer (of which, by the way, there are literally hundreds -- three hundred unique visitors since the site's conception in June 2005 -- though it may not look it due to the sparse traffic in the commentspace, literally dozens of random visitors in nine different countries [including Singapore, UK, Taiwan, New Zealand, Dominican Republic, and others] in twelve different time zones arrive each week to read one or another of our columnist's weekly articles, and about half of these readers are repeat visitors; admittedly, thats not too impressive when compared to most webzines out there today, but for a two-and-a-half month old site that has only content as its selling point, I'd like to think that it's particularly impressive).

As a weekly columnist, I am often given suggestions for future topic to write on in those letters that friends and family sometimes send me. Strangely, though, all of the subjects recommended to me seem nearly the same: Iraq, animal cruelty, Bush, Wal-Mart, Rove, etc. And though each of them does indeed deserve an article of their own, especially in a column such as this one, I simply cannot do justice to such lofty topics while I am still coming to terms with what it means to write in a weekly column to a very generalized (and multicultural) audience.

I'm telling you all thee things because this week, I have chosen a different topic: the topic of writing this column. Today's article is a metaarticle, where I am writing of the very fact of writing the article itself. I feel that such a topic is indeed worth of attention, not because I am full of myself, nor even of my job (having readers in nine countries isn't quite so impressive when you realize most of them come once, and never return to read another article again), but because I feel that all individuals are worth of attention; and quite frankly, I feel much more qualifed to write on what it's like to write than to take on the topics suggested to me by friends and family.

Writing [Panangelium.tk] articles has been especially hard for me....
Writing [Panangelium.tk] articles
has been especially hard for me....
Writing these articles has been especially hard for me, because I have had to learn to adapt to a general audience, whereas before my targeted audience was a very small chunk of what I write to now. Add to this that the last two and a half months have been some of the most turbulent in my life (see my LiveJournal for details), and one can easily see how keeping up with the demands of a non-paying job such as this one has taken quite a toll on me.

But, of course, I do not expect you to feel sorry for me. I just want you to know what it's like to write these articles. And man, let me tell you: it's fucking depressing.

I just want you to know what it's like to write these articles....  [I]t's fucking depressing.
I just want you to know what it's like
to write these articles....
[I]t's fucking depressing.
Not only do I have to research the terrible atrocities that I write about, but I also have to look for new topics as well, and when one is physically trying to get more information about the sad state of the world, one finds out some very disturbing things. I have read more essays and reports on how horrible things are going in this world in the past two and a half months than I have in the preceding twenty-four years. Life, I have come to find out, sucks.

But I deal with it. I mean, what else is there to do, really? I have a big heart, larger than most people realize, and I truly feel the plight of others whenever they are in trouble. Reading Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky and Peter Singer and William Blum, among others, serves to sadden me a great deal -- but it also gives me the chance to feel alive. It seems like before I spent so much time researching these things, I lived in a fake world, devoid of the concept of good and evil. Yet now, I feel like there is a purpose to life. Not just for me, but for all people.

And that's why writing these weekly articles is so enjoyable to me, even after all that I've said above. As morose, pedantic, and trite as this job is, I feel that it is a worthwhile experience, just because I may be able to share what I've learned to a broader audience, one by one. Starting on September first, Panangelium.tk will be enjoying an advertising campaign aimed at recruiting an order of magnitude more readers. In preparation for this, expect Panangelium.tk to undergo a few changes in how the site looks, as well as the introduction of a guest column, where each week, we'll begin to present articles from you, our loyal readers. If you think you might be interested in writing an article to be posted on Panangelium.tk, please e-mail me directly at Garacan@gmail.com.

Until next week when I bring up something significantly more depressing, be well.

21 July, 2005

Worthy of Attention: Taking Stock of Reality: Duty—NOT Charity

As a philosophical skepticist, I sometimes find it hard to make arguments that would convince anyone that I am correct in my views. But if I restrict my audience to a subset of the population, then I believe that I can, because of shared initial premises, convince a great number of people to see things the way I do.

So, in the spirit of Peter Singer (Famine, Affluence, and Morality), I present the following highly uncontroversial premises. First, I will start by saying that (1suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad. And second, I will assume that (2if it is within our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it. Before I begin my argument, I will take a closer look at each premise to see what kind of audience would agree with them, and whether or not you, as a reader, would be one of those selected few.

Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.
I know more than a few people who would challenge this position, myself included. But if we define the moral sentence "X is bad" as "X is something that I wish everyone considered bad", then I think that everyone I know, no matter how attached to moral relativism they may be (nor how evil they think themselves), will accept this initial premise.

If it is within our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.
This premise is a little more challenging to get the maximum number of people to accept it, yet I still think that the vast majority of my readers will find themselves thinking it correct. When I say "without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance", what is meant is without causing anything else comparably bad to occur, or doing anything that is wrong in itself, or failing to promote some moral good that is comparable in significance to the bad thing that we can prevent. In other words, this premise only requires us to prevent what is bad whenever we can do so without sacrificing anything that is comparably morally important. Allow me to quote an example of this principle from Singer: "If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing."

I think that just from what I have said so far, a large number of you have already accepted this second premise. But if you have, then you may want to consider the following, to see if you accepted too hastily. The reason I say this is because this principle does not take into account the distance between the actor and the actee. It also does not take into account whether or not others might not be following the same principle. Yet I wish that I could convince you all to accept this principle without additional qualifications, because I do not think that distance or agreement with others is particularly relevant from a moral standpoint.

Distance should not matter. If a person is near us, then maybe that makes it more likely for us to help him, but it does not make it more important for us to help him, morally speaking. If we want to be impartial, and consider all equally, then we cannot discriminate against someone merely because he is far away from us.

I imagine some of you might argue: "But we are in a better position to judge what needs to be done to help a person near us, and also to give him the necessary assistance. Therefore, there is ample reason to consider first those that are near to us." Perhaps this may have once been a justification, but today instant communication and swift transportation have changed the situation. Today, expert observers and supervisors sent out by famine relief organizations or permanently stationed in famine-prone areas, can direct our aid in foreign countries almost as effectively as we could get it to someone on our own block.  Therefore this particular objection is not sound.

Agreement with others on this premise should also not matter. The principle makes no distinction between cases in which I am the only person who could possibly do anything and cases in which I am just one among millions in the same position. If we consider the good to be good, then it does not matter if everyone around us is doing bad, we should still do good.

Some of you might argue: "If everyone in circumstances like mine gave $10 to charity, there would be enough to provide food, shelter, and medical care for the starving masses; there is no reason why I should give more than anyone else in the same circumstances as I am; therefore I have no obligation to give more than $10." The premises as stated are true enough; but the conclusion was incorrectly stated.  What should have been said is that "If everyone in circumstances like mine gave $10 to charity, then I have no obligation to give more than $10." This is a completely true statement, but seeing as how not everybody in circumstances like yours gives $10 to charity, the objection is moot. In reality, it is more or less certain that not everyone in circumstances like yours will give $10. So there will not be enough to provide the needed food, shelter, and medical care. Therefore by giving more than $10 (up to the point of marginal utility, at which by giving more you would cause yourself and your dependents as much suffering as you would prevent from the starving masses), you will prevent more suffering than you would if you gave just $10.

To paraphrase from Singer: If there are a hundred people around that same shallow pond, and none of them are doing anything to save the child, that does not mean that it is okay for you to not help.
And for those Christians out there, allow me to quote from St. Thomas Aquinas himself [Summa Theologica, II-II, Question 66, Article 7]:
Now, according to the natural order instituted by divine providence, material goods are provided for the satisfaction of human needs. Therefore the division and appropriation of property, which proceeds from human law, must not hinder the satisfaction of man's necessity from such goods. Equally, whatever a man has in superabundance is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance. So Ambrosius says, and it is also to be found in the Decretum Gratiani: "The bread which you withhold belongs to the hungry; the clothing you shut away, to the naked; and the money you bury in the earth is the redemption and freedom of the penniless."
By now, I would hope that the vast majority of my readers would agree that these two premises are acceptable. And as a result, I'm sure they already see what this means for them. But just to illustrate, I will continue by giving a few cases from Peter Unger's Living High and Letting De: Our Illusion of Innocence.
For many years to come, Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti and the financial security it represents.
For many years to come, Bob enjoys
owning his Bugatti and the financial
security it represents.
Bob is close to retirement. He has invested most of his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, a Bugatti, which he has not been able to insure. The Bugatti is his pride and joy. In addition to the pleasure he gets from driving and caring for his car, Bob knows that its rising market value means that he will always be able to sell it and live comfortably after retirement. One day when Bob is out for a drive, he parks the Bugatti near the end of a railway siding and goes for a walk up the track. As he does so, he sees that a runaway train, with no one aboard, is running down the railway track. Looking farther down the track, he sees the small figure of a child very likely to be killed by the runaway train. He can't stop the train and the child is too far away to warn of the danger, but he can throw a switch that will divert the train down the siding where his Bugatti is parked. Then nobody will be killed—but the train will destroy his Bugatti. Thinking of his joy in owning the car and the financial security it represents, Bob decides not to throw the switch. The child is killed. For many years to come, Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti and the financial security it represents.
Did Bob make an immoral choice? I am certain that most of you will say that he did. Yet consider the following:
In your mailbox there is something from UNICEF. After reading it through, you correctly believe that, unless you soon send in check for $100, then, instead of each living many more years, over thirty more children will die soon. But, you throw the material in the trash basket, including the convenient return envelope provided. You send nothing, and, instead of living many years, over thirty more children soon die than would have had you sent in the requested $100.
Honestly, is there any difference between these two examples? Perhaps some of you might argue: "But Bob is the only one who can save the child on the tracks, whereas there are hundreds of millions of people who can give $100 to UNICEF." This is true enough, but does it make any real difference?
Suppose that there were more owners of priceless vintage cars—Carol, Dave, Emma, Fred and so on, down to Ziggy—all in exactly the same situation as Bob, with their own siding and their own switch, all sacrificing the child in order to preserve their own cherished car. Would that make it all right for Bob to do the same? To answer this question affirmatively is to endorse follow-the-crowd ethics—the kind of ethics that led many Germans to look away when the Nazi atrocities were being committed. We do not excuse them because others were behaving no better.
All it takes is $100 to save the lives of thirty starving children.
All it takes is $100 to save the
lives of thirty starving children.
After reflecting upon this for a moment, in the spirit of both Unger and Singer, I would like to provide a link to Unicef [800.367.5437] and Oxfam [800.693.2687] in the hopes that those of you with a hundred dollars to spare will take the time to donate the hundred dollars you would have spent on unnecessary clothing, video games, restaurants, or metro D.C. trips so that the money can be put to the much more excellent use of saving the lives of thirty starving children.
They will most certainly die unless you donate $100 right now. I'm absolutely serious about this. This is not charity—it is duty. And yet I am certain that only a very small percentage of my readers will actually take the time to donate that hundred dollars. And that deeply saddens me.

But regardless of how each of you reacts, I hope that all of you readers will have lots to think about, and I hope that you will forward a link to Panangelium.tk to all of your friends and family, so that they might also get a chance to think on the points that I've brought up in this week's article.

Until next time, be well.

(Information taken heavily from Peter Singer's Famine, Affluence, and Morality. Cases cited are from Peter Unger's Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence and Peter Singer's The Singer Solution to World Poverty.)

14 July, 2005

Worthy of Attention: Taking Stock of Reality: A Shitty Situation

So the other day, I was reflecting on the fact that I'd just turned 24 years of age, and I found myself taking stock of my life up to that point. My life has really been a roller-coaster ride, rife with soap-opera like circumstances that seem unique at first glance, but upon extrospection turn out to be quite similar to the life stories heard from many different people in very different places in life. Anyway, as I sat at that park bench, watching the rest of civilized society enjoy the free live jazz concert held on the lawn in front of the Washington Monument, I realized that, like most others who went through the tribulations of youth and inexperience that I endured, the majority of my past life is nothing but shit. That's right: shit. My past experiences, though useful as a learning tool of what not to do, benefitted me in only in the most miniscule of ways; far better it would have been to have learned from the past experience of others. After all, it makes no sense to reinvent the wheel, unless you want to create a more efficient design. And since others have already had rich and fulfilling lives, why should I try to improve on their methods to success, except in those areas specific to my own (admittedly strange) personality?

One of my friends recently went through a breakup that on the surface did not seem bad at all; their relationship ended positively, cooperatively, expectedly, and without undue complication. But reading his journal entries makes me realize how much pain he is going through regardless. And that scares me.

It seems that no matter what we do, we can never quite get away with living without shit.
It seems that no matter what we do,
we can never quite get away with living
without shit.
It scares me because I suddenly realize that even an intelligent, well-rounded intellectual who goes through a breakup that is expected, mutual, and ending with a nod to continued close friendship can feel completely and utterly shitty as a result of it. Whereas I thought at first that it was just my past life that was shitty, I suddenly came to the realization that living as a human being in this crazy world of ours is very nearly a sufficient condition for experiencing shittiness at some point or another. It seems that no matter what we do, we can never quite get away with living without shit.

But just because we can't avoid the fact of nature that shit happens all around us doesn't mean we can't have a perfectly wonderful life. Shit happens, but who says it has to be a bad thing?

Apparently, Sweden does.

For years, the Swedes have been the leaders in sewage treatment. In the '60s, a strong economy and a huge environmental lobby angry at the degradation of Sweden's beautiful lakes and rivers made the country the first in the world to apply large scale advanced sewage treatment to urban areas. Their lead was soon followed by most industrialized nations, leading to the extensive sewage treatment facilities often seen today. But after only a few years, it soon became obvious that something was wrong. The more treatment that the sewage underwent, the worse the resulting sludge became. For thousands of years, the use of solid and liquid waste as fertilizer was the norm; but after Sweden started treating sewage, those farmers that used it found unexplained damage to crops, both above ground and in their root systems. Shortly afterward, Sweden banned the use of sludge on agricultural land.

As time wore on, other methods for disposing of sewage sludge were tried: ocean dumping, incineration, and landfilling. But ocean dumping was soon outlawed for the damage it did to the ecosystem, and incineration proved to simply foul up the air. Landfilling was the only viable alternative, and even then no one would accept the waste until a thinktank came up with the idea of renaming sewage sludge as 'biosolids', so as to make the concept seem 'greener'. It was unexplicable; for tens of thousands of years, the disposal of solid waste has simply been a non-issue, but after the introduction of advanced sewage treatmemnt facilities, it seemed that there was no efficient way to get rid of it all.

The problem, Sweden found out, is that of heavy metals found in sludge. The introduction of industrial chemicals found in waste products made what used to be perfectly good fertilizer into extremely toxic sludge. In October 1999, Sweden banned completely the dumping of sludge with concentrations of heavy metals beyond a certain level. But even that was not enough, as much of the populace has absolutely refused to dump sludge even if it was within the tolerance of legal levels.

But if it seems worrisome that Sweden is having such a huge problem with their sludge, then it would be beneficial to take a look at the levels of heavt minerals considered acceptable by one other country: the United States of America.

European Community19861–350–140100–15030–7550–300150–3001–1.5
The Netherlands0.83610035851400.3
United States199320750150021015014008

As can be clearly seen, the levels of tolerance for heavy minerals in the United States is well above that of Sweden, even though the Swedes are actively worried that their sludge is still too dangerous, and the American populace seems perfectly fine with their situation.

Something about this seems a little bit fucked up.

Whereas Sweden and most other countries determine their tolerance levels based on what heavy minerals are in the environment prior to sludge dumping, the United States justifies its much higher tolerance levels of heavy minerals on how each minerals performs in a risk assessment to determine what levels are acceptable. But knowledge of toxicity and environmental interactions of sludge-borne pollutants is wildly incomplete. Because of this, risk assessments can come up with very different results.

For example, both the Netherlands and the United States used the risk assessment approach, yet came up with extremely different standards. (See table above.) This is due mostly to the fact that the U.S. assessed the risk of maximum levels that humans showed resistance to over a five year period, whereas the Netherlands measured the risk of maximum levels that humans felt absolutely no adverse effects from over a fifteen year period. Also, the Netherlands measured the negative impact on important ecological life in the area of sludge-dumping, wheres the only ecological effect taken into consideration by the U.S. is the copper toxicity effect on earthworms.

European countries actively denounce the U.S.' improper standard for tolerable levels. The Report of the Independent Scientific Committee, published by an independent scientific committee in the United Kingdom, wrote in Review of the rules for sewage sludge application to agricultural land: Soil fertility aspects of potentially toxic elements (United Kingdom Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forests and Department of the Environment, MAFF Publications: London, 1993) that caution is entirely appropriate in determining sewage sludge standards, even when the evidence is still partly inconclusive, "particularly because heavy metals, unlike many other pollutants, cannot degrade [and] are retained in soils virtually indefinitely.... As a result, there is little opportunity for natural recovery from the consequences of any error in judgment." As an example of what the committee went on to recommend, the upper tolerance level of zinc in sludged soils was demanded to be reduced to a maximum of 200 mg/kg -- a standard that the U.K. immediately adopted. The recommendation came as a shock to most European countries, though, who had already set a limit of 100-150 mg/kg for zinc. The comparable U.S. standard for zinc in soils is 1400 mg/kg.

But what makes the U.S. standards so apalling is not so much their far more lenient tolerance levels for toxicity; rather, it is the continual decision to ignore results in scientific findings which go against the levels that the U.S. has already determined.

In the case of Rhizobium, non-U.S. studies show that two species (one smbiotic with clover and the other with peas and beans) are adversely affected by high zinc concentrations in soil -- although the soybean symbionts are not (Plant and Soil Science, 1999). Says Dr. McGrath in the study, "Not only does Rhizobium have a major impact on agriculture, but it is also a sentinel species, demonstrating that the heavy metals in sludge are potentially damaging to the soil ecology."

Strangely, similar studies done in the United States found completely contradictory results. The EPA published A Guide to the Biosolids Risk Assessment for the EPA Part 503 Rule (EPA/8332/B-93-005; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Wastewater Manangement, U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, DC, 1995) which found no adverse effects on nitrogen fixation for plants other than clover. Faced with these conflicting results, the United States EPA did not opt for caution. Instead, the agency simply did not accept experiments that showed an adverse effect on Rhizobium. Further, the National Academy of Sciences (an American institution) endorsed the EPA's findings. The NAS review considered the European evidence, but decided it was inconclusive.

Y'know, when I first read about this, it really scared the shit out of me. I mean, I've personally already reached far beyond the point where I think politicians are in the game to truly do what's best for society.  But for some reason, I always held scientists to a higher standard. Yet the fact that the EPA would issue such a blatantly immature report simply astounds me to no end. It's really scary, when you think about it.

But it doesn't have to be this way. There are ways to help the situation, even on an individual level. Like composting toilets.

The composting toilet is the answer to the problem that has plagued us since the Roman era.
The composting toilet is the answer to the problem
that has plagued us since the Roman era.
The composting toilet is the answer to the problem that has plagued us since the Roman era. It is a sanitation system that keeps toxic and human wastes separate, prevents pollution, and returns the nutrients from human waste to the soil as a fertilizer. It is safe, ecologically friendly, inexpensive, and best of all, not the least bit smelly.

In a composting toilet, human waste drops away instead of just sitting in a bowl of water, stinking up the room. Composting toilets never smell, nor fill up. Within three years, the feces turns into the best grade humus fertilizer that one can buy, via bacteria, fungi, worms and other micro and macro-organisms. Within days, the urine does the same thing, and with only a nitrification process needed to turn it into an odorless, stable, nitrogen-rich fertilizer that can easily be sold if the owner does not wish to use it himself.

Composting toilets are inexpensive mostly because they do not really have to do anything in order to work. It isn't complicated systems that kill pathogens in the tank, but rather just lots of time. In general, pathogens require their host to survive. But even those that would survive are unable in the highly competitive environment of the tank. They simply cannot compete with the composting organisms that live in the tank.

Shit happens. But it doesn't have to be a negative thing, unless you force yourself into looking at it as such. That's the real lesson to learn from all of this. Maybe we can't trust scientists. Maybe our sewage will sicken or kill most of our children. But even if we sometimes feel bogged down in shit, we shouldn't feel as though life were just out to get us. Because shit isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Yeah, maybe my past life really has been shit. But I don't care. I like where I am today, and I feel that I received valuable life experience from all the shit I was forced to go through. If you cannot yet say the same, then perhaps maybe it is time that you started.

In the meantime, enjoy your week, and, as always, be well.