Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun


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Is biodiversity valuable?

Coral reefThe other day a friend shared a link to a story on the importance or preserving biodiversity. I can’t find that link now, but what struck me at the time was that the value of biodiversity was simply assumed and undefended. This isn’t surprising of course, popular discourses around conservation and environmental protection continually repeat this message such that it’s hard not to just take it as read that biodiversity is important and should be preserved. But, why is biodiversity important and in what ways?

The other day a friend shared a link to a story on the importance or preserving biodiversity. I can’t find that link now, but what struck me at the time was that the value of biodiversity was simply assumed and undefended. This isn’t surprising of course, popular discourses around conservation and environmental protection continually repeat this message such that it’s hard not to just take it as read that biodiversity is important and should be preserved. But, why is biodiversity important and in what ways?

Biodiversity refers to the variety and variability of living things. But, what is it about variety and variability that is valuable?

First, it seems strange, at least to me, to think that we can create or increase value by making things less alike and/or producing more of them. Conversely, similarity and rarity don’t seem intuitively disvaluable (indeed, rarity can increase the value of many things).

Second, claiming that biodiversity is valuable leads to difficult questions. For example: do types of species matter: are a few more complex species (in terms of genetic material) more valuable in their contribution to biodiversity than a great variety and number of simple organisms? These sorts of problems cause me to question that biodiversity is valuable for its own sake.

Imagine a modern-day Dr. Moreau destroys all living creatures on an island, places a dome over the island and populates it with a new ecology of his own fiendish bioengineered creation. Imagine further that the variety and variability of the organisms that Dr. Moreau’s clone creates is greater than what had been there before. To say that the crazed doctor’s creation is potentially more valuable than the lifeforms it replaced is rather counter-intuitive (although a utilitarian would likely simply reject this intuition). But, why would whether organisms were created by man matter for the value of variety or variability?

It’s more plausible to think that biodiversity is valuable in terms of the benefits it brings for the organisms that comprise it: it instrumental value. However, there are a huge mass of complex problems that accompany this thought too. Members of ecosystems interact dynamically; they prey upon one another, compete for resources, may have varying moral value of their own and so forth. This means that the value of biodiversity will be different depending upon whether you are the one being eaten by another organism or the one doing the eating, and it will be constantly changing. Thus, is seems impossible to place a value on biodiversity that is not qualified in some way with details of the point of time it is valuable and the entity for which it is valuable. This doesn’t seem all that controversial, but it doesn’t appear to map to the ordinary way in which we talk of the importance of biodiversity. We don’t think ‘today biodiversity is valuable for clams, lions, and humans, tomorrow it may be valuable for thrushes, the flu virus, and banana trees.’ Nor does that description of the value of biodiversity appear all that interesting.

What’s more, returning to our Dr. Moreau clone above: what if not all of functions of the engineered ecosystem were fulfilled by living things? Perhaps our doctor has replaced many of the trees with carbon absorbing fakes? It would seem here that reducing the variety of living things reduces the number of potential conflicts whist preserving the instrumental value of the ecosystem to those remaining organisms. Why would that be a worse state of affairs than a greater variety of living things engaged in more competition?

The sorts of reasons given above cause me to question whether biodiversity is valuable either intrinsically (for its own sake) or instrumentally. Two ways to solve these problems would be either to adopt a speciesist ethic and value biodiversity solely in terms of its values to humans, or to deny the value of individual organisms and adopt something like Leopold’s land ethic. Neither of those two options is terribly appealing to me, so I’m initially minded to just reject the claim that biodiversity is valuable entirely. It’s certainly an interesting topic to return to.


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Measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

When I first started this blog I needed a pretext to get writing. I forced my self to write by working through a few of those big philosophy books we all buy and then only read snippets of, and then writing reflections on those readings. I learned a lot doing this, but it turned out that writing summaries of other people’s summaries wasn’t all that interesting. I chose the blog’s title (The Thrifty Philosopher) on the basis that I was making good use of the things picking up dust on my bookshelf. I’d like to spend more time writing about my research, my teaching, and current affairs, so I think it’s time to change the name. I also need a full-time job (I’m having to be far too thrifty with more than just my book collection for my own liking right now), so I’m going to advertise myself whilst doing my best to live the life of theõria.

The strapline is from a quote from Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca: ‘measure the boundaries of our nation by the sun. Seneca was a cosmopolitan and his quote entreats us to give ethical consideration to all humans regardless of national boundaries. Seneca wasn’t just a cosmopolitan, he was also a vegetarian (at least until he feared people would think that made him a Christian and so persecute him for it). Given that I’ve written on a cosmopolitan approach to animal rights the quote seems fitting: you can read my paper on a cosmopolitan animal rights theory here: Perpetual Strangers: Animals and the Cosmopolitan Right.


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Reducing energy bills: why cutting green taxes & freezing energy bills are bad ideas

WindmillConservative and Labour policies on reducing energy bills are short-sighted and self-defeating.

Green taxes make up roughly 9% of the cost of energy bills. Wholesale prices that the energy suppliers pay for gas and electricity comprise 47%. A large part of the price rises we’ve seen in our bills has been because the UK is running out of its own gas and has increasingly had to import it. As a result, gas prices have risen 240% over the last 10 years. 20% of our energy bills also comes from network costs – the cost of upgrading, maintaining, and supplying our energy, partly to cope with diversified energy supplies.

The Conservatives are making lots of noise about lowering energy bills by scrapping green taxes. A consequence of this policy is that the development of alternatives to fossil fuels (you know, the very thing that’s responsible for 47% of our bills) will be slowed. Wouldn’t it make more sense to work on reducing the cost of energy supply? Wouldn’t the best the way to do that be to reduce our reliance upon diminishing supplies of a finite resource that we are forced to import? The Tory plan leaves us more reliant upon fossil fuels and so sees our bills rise in the long term. Also, our planet gets screwed in the process.

Meanwhile, Labour’s policy is to freeze energy bills for 20 months in 2015 also looks like a terrible idea. The big six energy companies are currently making around 7% profit. Labour’s policy will see energy companies hiking their prices up just before a price freeze, and again straight away after it. Meanwhile, because wholesale costs will continue to rise in the freeze period, energy companies will find their margins narrowing. The big six companies will likely be able to ride out those cost increases, but smaller companies will struggle. The likely outcome is that improvements to our networks will be stalled and that the big companies will come out with a bigger monopoly on supply. That means green energy production is stalled and there’s less competition in the market. Once again, the consumer and planet get screwed.

The solution to rising energy bills is to reduce consumption and reduce reliance upon fossil fuels. It is not to scrap green taxes and freeze energy bills. Each of these solutions is self-defeating and merely shifts problems onto the following government (perhaps this is why the two big parties are keen on them).


For the figures used in this post see:

http://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/1672_CCC_Energy-Bills_bookmarked.pdf

http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2013/10/wholesale-energy-and-the-network-grid-the-parts-of-our-energy-bill-politicians-cant-control/

http://fullfact.org/factchecks/energy_generation_profits-29248


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Getting the most out of Google for academic research

Many students (and academics) waste time and get frustrated because they aren’t using search engines like Google as well as they could. In a previous life I worked for many years as a web developer and lecturer in web design, so I’ve learned a few tricks when it comes to researching on the web. Rather than keep them all to myself, I’ve created a little online guide to help you find what you need quicker and easier. The link below will teach you how to access some powerful features of Google and get the most out of search engines for your research.

search-icon-mdHappy Googling!


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Animal Rights and Environmental Terrorism

My paper ‘Animal Rights and Environmental Terrorism’ just been published in the Journal of Terrorism Research. In the paper, I argue that not only are many paradigmatic, putative acts of animal rights and environmental terrorism such as illegal animal liberation and tree-spiking not terrorism at all, but also that even those that are terrorism may justified nevertheless (or at least are not straightforwardly wrongful). In the paper, I also lay out a taxonomy of animal rights/environmental direct action, separating acts into civil disobedience, rescue acts, sabotage, and terrorism.

The Journal is Open Access and operates with a Creative Commons licence, so there’s no pay-wall to negotiate. Link: http://ojs.st-andrews.ac.uk/index.php/jtr/article/view/532

The paper was written while I was employed as the Society for Applied Philosophy‘s 30th Anniversary Research Fellow, so thanks are due to them for funding my research.


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The language of animal oppression

I’m finally getting some rest and relaxation (and by ‘rest and relaxation’, I mean ‘job hunting’) after three days of the MANCEPT Workshops in Political Theory conference. I co-convened a workshop at the conference, on ‘The Political Turn in Animal Rights’ – 12 really good papers from some top academics and brilliant students. Two things really struck me during the conference.

The first was the huge influence Donaldson and Kymlicka’s book, Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights has had on the field. Although many academics were doing political theory and animal rights for many years before the book, it’s really provoked a lot of research and wider engagement.

The second came as a result of a paper by Les Mitchell from Fort Hare, SA. Les drew our attention to the way in which language contributes to injustice towards non-human animals by directing our thought and expression. Two particular modes of expression were telling: the way we refer to animals by adjectives that refer to their purpose, and the use of mass nouns to remove individuality and identity from an animal. For example, we refer to chickens as ‘broiler hens’ or ‘layers’, to cows as ‘beef cattle,’ ‘dairy cows,’ ‘veal calves’. By using these adjectives we reinforce assumptions and cultural practices with an implication that the purpose or telos of a non-human animal is to be used by us. Additionally, mass nouns, nouns that do not permit counting as individual units,: beef, lamb, meat, pork etc., all divorce the product of the farming/meat industry from the individual life that was taken to provide it. When speak of chicken wing, beef rib, leg of lamb rather than ‘the wing of a chicken,’ ‘lamb’s leg,’ ‘cow’s rib’ it may make it easier to divorce the contents of our dinner from the individual that suffered and died to provide us with our gustatory pleasure.

One example Les gave really struck me; it concerned the expressions we use to discuss pets. There’s been a trend in animal rights literature and animal activism to refer to pets as ‘companion animals’. A pet is property, it exists as an instrument to provide its owner with benefits, but a companion animal is something different, something more. However, Les pointed out that even this way of referring to an animal makes us think that its existence is directed towards the purpose of being our companion. If we speak of ‘animal companions’ rather than ‘companion animals’ we are describing a friend rather than an object.

Of course you might be forgiven, reading this post, for being lulled into making the common mental distinction between humans and animals, forgetting for a moment that there is no such distinction (which is why scholars in my field try to refer to non-human animals or to ‘humans and other animals’).

Les’ challenge to our use of language in order to create a shift in perspective got me thinking, I thought it worth sharing.


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Public Good/Private Bad: debating the NHS

Last night, watching Question Time on the BBC, I was struck once again by the repetition of the public good/private bad dichotomy that so easily trips off the tongue when discussing the NHS. Today is the 65th anniversary of the NHS, so I thought I’d blog about the claim that private involvement in it is bad.

How many times have we heard the line that private involvement in the NHS is a bad thing? To many times to count. But what do people mean when they say that? The problem is that consistent and coherent reasons are rarely given in support of the ‘private bad’ claim, and that’s problematic; you’ll see why in a moment. So, what reasons might support the claim that private involvement in the NHS is bad? Here are some possibilities.

1. Private involvement in public services is intrinsically bad.

Underlying the ‘private bad’ claim is, I think, often the reason that it’s somehow wrong to profit from the provision of a public service. What would make profiting from public services wrong? One thought is that it feels wrong to profit from someone’s need rather than their mere desire. Certain goods are non-contingent, we need them regardless of our desires, and our need for them is strong enough to generate a right to them. If we have a right to something, then others are under a duty to provide it to us, which might make withholding it unless we pay wrong. Perhaps this is what makes the NHS different and which makes it more morally wrong to profit from it than other public services like, for example, town planning? The problem is that this argument doesn’t really work.

Public services provide goods that require collective action to deliver and coordinate, and for this reason we delegate responsibility for fulfilling our duties to the state. In the case of health provision, when the state pays a private company, it’s distributing some of the resources it’s raised through taxation to fulfil our duties. What matters here is that the duties are fulfilled and not how they are fulfilled. The duties met through public services are imperfect duties – they do not fall upon particular individuals. If I’m sick there’s no particular individual I can identify as the duty-bearer who must aid me: I do not get to decide the who fulfils the duty and how it is fulfilled. Rather, it falls upon society as a whole to fulfil the duty and determine the manner in which it is met. To put it another way: if I’m drowning I don’t get to choose who saves me and what stroke they use to do so, what matters is that I am saved.

What’s more, if we were to accept 1. then we would be forced to conclude that the NHS should not purchase anything which is sold for profit. Just think for a moment how the NHS would look if it were forced to manufacture the uniforms, medical equipment, computer systems, pens, clipboards, badges, etc, etc, etc. that it uses! In fact, if profit were ruled out it’d have to make the machines and factories to make that equipment too. I think we can all probably agree that that would be absurd.

Perhaps then the claim that private involvement in the NHS is bad can rest upon different reasons.

2. Private involvement in public services does not/cannot work.

Many people claim, citing numerous examples, that the private provision of services just doesn’t work. Often, the perfectly plausible claim is made that the profit motive distorts priorities and so leads to bad outcomes. It could be the case that the NHS is simply unable to meet its duties if it uses private companies to deliver services. The problem is that the evidence people cite doesn’t show that private companies are by necessity unable to deliver services – very often they do provide the services asked of them even if they do so badly in many cases. Instead, the evidence can at best be used to support the much weaker claim below.

3. Private involvement in public services is inefficient.

Given that we have limited resources, finding the most efficient way to provide services is very important. Perhaps there is something necessarily inefficient in using private companies to deliver public services? This looks like a plausible claim since it’s clear that because private companies seek profit they do not use all of the resources given to them to provide the services required. What’s more, they have a motive to use the minimum amount of resources to fulfil their duties, which might lead to increased risk of failure and a poorer quality service. This means that the state may have to give them more resources to provide the same level of service as a public sector organisation: if the resources were instead used by a public sector organisation then all of them would go on duty fulfilment. However, the counter-argument can be made that perhaps the public sector organisation, because it lacks the profit motive, is contrastingly prone to over-use of resources and waste: lack of competition and cumbersome bureaucracy leads the public sector to spend more than is necessary to achieve its outcomes.

It strikes me that both arguments are plausible: private involvement can lead to poorer services and greater risk, and public services can lead to waste. What I don’t think it’s easy to show is that private provision is always going to be less efficient than purely public provision.

Where does that leave us then? First, we should be sceptical of arguments based on claims 1 and 2. The debate about private sector involvement in the NHS should first be about whether we prefer higher risk and poorer services to waste and and the problems associated with bureaucracy. The answer to this will depend upon how much risk, how much poorer services might be, how much waste, and how much money we have to spend at any given time. Second, we should be asking whether both private provision can be provided in ways which minimise the negative aspects outlined. Perhaps restricting private provision to less risky procedures, or setting constraints on the amount of profit it’s permitted to generate might work. And, perhaps there are more efficient models or structures of public provision, such as social insurance or limited public competition, that we should consider. I happen to think that this is the area in which policy-makers tend to operate, it’s just a shame that the NHS is so fetishised that public debate is almost never conducted in these terms. Rather, we get endless versions of argument 1. and 2. So, let’s celebrate the 65th anniversary of the wonderful NHS, but let’s also be honest and reasonable in our consideration of how best to meet our collective duties.

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