Ranganaut

Here's why I am deeply skeptical of the moral compass of the climate movement.

First order of business: ban the use of the phrases “saving the planet/good for the planet.”

Consider how the latter is used in this article (all quotes below are from the article):

“Years ago, we observed that people didn’t just want food that’s good for them, they also wanted food that’s good for the planet.”

This by a man who runs a dairy monster – 37000 cows housed in one massive five star hotel – just kidding, 37000 cows housed in god knows what circumstances though I fear the worst since their website has everything else besides the conditions of the cows themselves.

So one might ask: what does the term “good for the planet” mean when it comes with torture and slaughter. We will let that question warm some of the gas that's coming out of some human behinds.

Then comes this major vote of thanks:

“We owe much of it to our 37,000 cows. Three times a day, we collect their manure and deliver it to sealed chambers called anaerobic digesters. They effectively serve as a cow’s fifth stomach, where bacteria continue to digest the organic matter left in the cows’ waste and turn it into methane. The gas is captured and used to power the farm and fuel the trucks that take our milk to market.”

Yeah, but what happens to the cows? They have cleverly recognized that the climate first crowd cares about reducing methane emissions from cattle but don't care much about how. Here's how:

“Through gene mapping, editing and breeding, we can further improve the efficiency with which cows turn feed into milk with fewer emissions. Automation and robotics are generating billions of pieces of data that enable us to improve diets and care based on each cow’s consumption, weight, and other indicators of health and growth. Armed with these innovations, producers can increase yields and resource efficiency, build healthier and more resilient soil, shrink our carbon footprint, and measure and verify that these improvements are happening.”

and

“we produced a billion gallons of milk with 21 percent of the animals, 23 percent of the feed, 35 percent of the water, and only 10 percent of the land, while generating only 24 percent of the manure and 37 percent of the carbon emissions. We achieved these efficiencies before we were even measuring them. Imagine what we can do with measurable targets, financial incentives, and technological innovations.”

The headline says “cows are leading the way.” Do they have any choice in the matter? What kind of leading involves increasing the control over your body? We are just solving a problem of (rich) human making by increasing the suffering of animals you already treat as machines.

That's just intensifying the anthropocene not resisting it.

#ClimateChange #AnimalRights

End Live Exports

By Shpernik088 CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons

Yes, I know human rights are under threat all over the world and we need to do whatever we can to end exploitation, racism, casteism, communalism etc etc.

Nevertheless nothing else comes even remotely close to what we do to our fellow creatures day in and day out, 24/7 365 days every year, year after year.

Nothing.

Consider live export. It happens across state and national borders everywhere in the world.

Imagine being crowded into a truck with fifty of your peers and driven for days on end as you puke and shit on each other. Then left to broil in the humid heat that's the new normal in the climate changed summer. Or the freezing cold of liberal Canada if you prefer your hell frozen over.

If someone tries to rescue or free these victims, they will be arrested on the spot in places where the police oversee this terror or assaulted by one of your own where it's a private matter. Forget rescue, you can get arrested for offering water to one of them.

This is what we are. And as long as this is what we are, the world would be better without us.

#AnimalRights

Bullshit is Bullshit Source: Doug Becker on Flickr

It's always gratifying when one of your terms becomes a meme. It's much easier to become a meme coiner if you're smart, carry an air of radical chic while enjoying a tenured position in a well known imperial institution. Like David Graeber. I remember reading his article on Bullshit Jobs and not being convinced by its overall argument even as I agreed with the individual examples.

That article has become a book now, but importantly, it's become a meme. Here's a person turning that vague argument about bullshit jobs into another vague argument about bullshit websites. Yes, websites are bloated just as our economies are bloated. Let me also add that for the first time in human history, there are more obese people than there are underweight people. So our bodies are bloated too. And don't forget: our air is bloated with carbon, in fact, more of it than any time in recorded history.

There's bullshit in the air, bullshit in our food and bullshit on our desks. What are we going to do? Who's to blame?

Behind all of these bloated tragedies is another vague claim: that capitalism is the root of all these evils. I am usually the first person in the room to point the finger at our our greed for profit, but such vague claims have no explanatory value and worse, they do not help us change the world in a better direction.

Consider the idea of a bullshit job: management consultants, brand strategists, deans for academic planning etc etc, i.e., paper pushers the world over. They don't make shoes but tell other people which shoes to wear. It's a romantic position that unifies the left and the right, that there are honest toilers at the bottom, greedy capitalists at the top and the middle of the sandwich is occupied by legions of bureaucrats who create work where there's none so that the masses are kept occupied instead of occupying Zuccotti park or whatever.

Honestly, all of these accusations are true, but they're besides the point. Let's take the jobs for example: what's the opposite of a bullshit job? Graeber gives us a clue: “Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, ‘professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers’ tripled, growing ‘from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.’”

If you're an oil rig worker extracting black gold out of the earth, you're a full-on productive genius. So is the slaughterhouse throat-slitter, the gun assembler, and the tree logger. In fact, every extractive industry in the world is a good thing cuz it's not a bullshit job.

Here's my problem with this argument: the non-bullshit job (should we call it the bullsteak job?) is arguably worse for us than its paper pushing counterpart. Do we need a new shoe line every year? Or a new model of whatever car you're going to trade in this year? A great deal of production is as unnecessary as the unproductive administrator who oversees the assembly line. Actually, it's worse, for the bullshitter only produces bullshit, i.e., documents – while the productive worker produces cars and plastic bags and cute little dolls handed out to kids after birthday parties only to end up in a landfill.

The problem isn't one of bullshit jobs. It's all jobs. The machine needs jobs (until yours is automated away) and the very nature of a job is to expand until it occupies the time available for its completion. That's Parkinson's law. There's no returning to an industrial utopia.

Preschooling Society Sharon McCutcheon

Everyone says we live in a knowledge society. What they really mean is we live in a knowledge economy, where knowledge is a source of profit.

You can see the workings of the knowledge economy in the ubiquity of two terms: innovation and intellectual property.

What does it even mean when someone says XX is the most innovative company in YY industry? Do they stack the brains of the employees and see which one is highest? How can knowledge even qualify as property? Isn't that term restricted to resources like land or water or basmati rice that can be used by only one person or group at a time and often never again?

Preschooling Knowledge Societies Tobias Fischer

Fair enough, but you're naive to the ways of capital if you succumb to these doubts. The magic of capitalism is in changing the ways of the world first and then giving it a name. Property expands to include algorithms and experiences while lexicographers and lawmakers struggle to catch up. That's why companies and countries protect their IP ferociously, for everything from war to surveillance to profit depends on restricting access to their epistemic possessions.

The robots are coming

The Robots are Coming Daniel Cheung

Like it or not, this new era of knowledge is here to stay; our current worries about robots taking our jobs is only the tip of the knowledge iceberg. Of course we should worry about robots taking our jobs, just as the weavers of Dhaka worried about the mills in Manchester taking their jobs with good reason and the state will support the usurpers this time around too.

However, in the long run, the impact of manufacturing based capitalism was much bigger than the pre-industrial economies it disrupted – it's impact includes everything from the colonization of Asia and Africa to the communist revolutions to the great depression, the rise of fascism and the two world wars all the way to climate change and the potential end of human life on earth as we know it.

Not that I know what knowledge based capital will do, but if it's impact is even 10% of manufacturing based capital we need to pay close attention to it.

But how?

Preschool

Preschool Everyone Mike Fox

I am not advocating a utopia, not yet anyway; adults need to contribute to society but what do we do when all our current contributions are commodities? Of course we need a new politics for this new era, but I have a counterintuitive suggestion: set aside mass protests, labor regulations and progressive political parties for a moment and pay attention to kindergarten.

Why kindergarten?

Because it's not school. School is where we are disciplined into responsible citizens, people who know how to read and write and solve equations and set one widget on top of another until it's ready to roll down the line to the next widget stacker.

Everything a responsible citizen can do, a robot can do better. If not now, five years from now.

Kindergarten (assuming you went to a decent one – not guaranteed by any stretch of the imagination) is the last time that we weren't “schooled,” when learning and play merge into an experience that teaches you without teaching you. After that it's a lifetime of monitoring, tests and judgment.

If we extend school and college to a lifetime of getting degrees and certificates, we are only going to extend the surveillance society to every corner of our lives. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if educational metrics became the liberal way of discipling society.

Surveillance fascism is easy to understand: every move you make I am watching you but surveillance liberalism is about self-disciplining: notice how some of the most privileged kids in the world in liberal enclaves accumulate social work opportunities, internships and SAT scores as if their life depended on it – and it does!

It's easy to imagine a future in which continuous scoring is the norm – why wouldn't it be? After all, if you are going to be a knowledge laborer when you're 60, why would I believe a certificate you received when you were 22?

The brave new world of EdX and Coursera and other venues for lifelong learning is a market driven response to a knowledge economy; it works well enough for someone like me but it also prepares the ground for lifelong disciplining.

What's the alternative?

As I said: preschool everyone. Give people a space to play without judgment, where exploration is more important than achievement.

#Play

Buddhist philosophers like to talk about “two truths”, where one level of truth is conventional and provisional and the other level is absolute.

I find that distinction useful when thinking about utilitarianism.

There are many formulations of utilitarianism in the realm of ethics, but all of them have an optimization principle built into them: maximize something such as pleasure or happiness or alternately, minimize something else such as pain or suffering. Both of these can be subsumed into a general principle: act in a manner that maximizes utility (which is equivalent, mathematically, to acts that minimize negative utility).

All other things being equal, once we agree on a path of action, we would want to do so in a manner that maximizes utility. For example, all other things being equal, if I am hungry and craving chicken soup, I eat chicken soup.

Unfortunately, all other things aren't equal. My pleasure in eating chicken soup causes some pain to the chicken that the soup comes from. Is my pleasure greater than the chicken's pain? I would think not, for I can probably find pleasure and nourishment in eating something else, but killing the chicken is an irreversible process. There's an alternative to eating chicken soup but no alternative to being alive.

In other words, utilitarianism helps us reason in contingent circumstances but is unlikely to deliver ultimate grounds for comparison. There's an obvious rejoinder: are there any ultimate grounds for moral judgment?

One answer lies in the historical trajectory of ethics, which mostly passes through religious communities. If one's a member of a religious or moral community which considers certain entities sacred (eg: do not kill) then that tradition delivers ultimate grounds: if I am a member of that tradition, I maximize utility subject to the constraint that I do not kill.

Utilitarianism itself can't tell me where those ultimate principles come from. A bigger worry might be that there's no ultimate ground outside of a religious community, that all ethical principles are grounded in community specific ideals that can't be defended as absolute truths.

If I think that eating chicken is bad because I am a vegan and you think eating chicken is central to living a religious life in your community, we have no grounds for agreement. Until lab grown meat becomes good enough as a replacement for slaughtered meat, when we our differences become those of taste rather than morals.

There's a deeper point lurking in the background: the tension between exploiting uncertainty and ensuring certainty. When it comes to sacred values we want to ensure certainty – killing is bad with exceptions only in exceptional situations such as capital punishment (I don't agree with that one) or war (which I can imagine is unavoidable, especially if it's foisted on you).

Certainty oriented reasoning doesn't do well with optimization and can't be modeled probabilistically. In contrast, uncertain reasoning is eminently suited to optimization and can be modeled probabilistically. If privacy is a sacred value, we don't want systems implementing them to be probabilistically secure. We want them to be provably secure. In contrast, if I am trying to sell a widget, I want to learn how to maximize my sales percentage and probabilistic prediction is a perfectly sound way to reason.

Flourishing requires both forms of reasoning. Certainty is crucial as a bedrock – that's why human rights or animal rights are the right principles to adopt in foundational documents such as constitutions. At the same time, certainty is expensive and sucks up resources that could be used to benefit more beings.

Even if every tree is sacred, it might be better to water the forest from the air everyday instead of watering a hundred trees by hand daily and killing the forest because every tree gets watered only once a year on average.

#Ethics

If you're Indian you know this already and if you aren't you may not care, but in this essay, I want to pay some attention to a new innovation in the annals of violence: the Whatsapp driven lynchings of muslims accused of being rustlers of cows, though like every other innovation, it's spread to lynchings of men and women accused of stealing children. We are having our Salem Witch Trial via social media moment.

TLDR Why lynchings now?

My take is that they are a cheap and targeted way of sowing terror in the Muslim community. In fact, they are better at achieving that goal than the previous innovation in the annals of violence, i.e., riots.

In comparison with riots, lynchings are less expected, more sharable and cause more helplessness in the minds of the victims.

In other words, truly shameful and disgusting and evil but with a malevolent logic that suits the times we are in.

Indiaspend recently released a visualization of all the cow related violence in India since 2010. Note how they are all concentrated around Delhi and almost all of them are in North India. We'll come back to that later.

Yes, it's the 21st century and it's an abomination that lynchings are even happening. Of course they have to end and of course everything about them is about terrorizing Muslims. Especially when you read that the police are doing absolutely nothing to save the victims.

Nevertheless, there's a gruesome logic to lynchings; one might argue that they are better than riots, for the latter kill people wholesale while the former are retail murders. They might also be more effective in achieving the political goals behind them. For that reason, they are the perfect terrorist acts. In fact, they might be the quintessential acts of terror in the age of social media.

Why?

Let's answer that by asking what an act of terror must accomplish:

  1. It must strike fear into the enemy.
  2. It should cost you little.
  3. It should make maximal use of media.

Now consider this headline:

What does this tell an Indian muslim? It says that your life is utterly unimportant (as a vegan, I am not inclined to say “your life is less important than an animal's”) that you can be assaulted out of the blue and when help arrives in the form of the police, they might do nothing or side with the oppressor.

At least you can prepare for riots. But if you can be picked out of the blue, assaulted and your beating is broadcast on a thousand Whatsapp channels, you are being told that all resistance is futile and that you have no power whatsoever.

Now to speculate on their political objective, we have known for a while that the emasculation of Indian muslims serves the current dispensation. The message that's being broadcast is that you can vote as an individual but you can't vote as a muslim, i.e., your community's interests don't matter and we will actively discourage you from voting as a community.

How might one accomplish the emasculation of an entire community? By facilitating a form of learned helplessness and what better way to accomplish that than to encourage small but targeted acts of extreme violence so that you lose all will to articulate and defend your political goals.

If riots constitute an industrial form of violence, lynchings are the violence of the information age. Quite similar to drone attacks, which too track their victims from far away and the bomb arrives out of the skies. It's the marriage of video-games, predictive analytics, social media spectacle and communal hatred. We'll see more of them for sure.

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