Guest Author


Image Courtesy of Ayo Animashaun

This post was written by Ayo Animashaun, a 2014 graduate of DePauw University. Ayo was an Economics major, Management Fellow, and Bonner Scholar. This article details his post-grad experience integrating sustainability and business with Earthships Biotecture Academy as well as his ambitions to bring the Earthship model to his home country of Ghana.

Graduating presented me with the opportunity to pursue ideologies that I had been obsessing over since the first semester of my senior year. A few months after graduation, I was accepted into Earthship Biotecture Academy in Taos, New Mexico. Earthships are radically sustainable buildings that were thought up by Michael Reynolds in the 1970s, and perfected in the last decade. Earthship design hinges on 6 principles: 1) Thermal/Solar Heating & Cooling; 2) Solar & Wind Electricity; 3) Contained Sewage; 4) Building with natural & recycled materials; 5)Water Harvesting; 6) Food Production.  Essentially what you find with Earthships is the personification of a man-made ecosystem, with closed loop energy and material cycles, minimal waste, and sustainability in the long term. The principles come together into a home that takes care of its off-grid inhabitants indefinitely without any utility bills or reliance on the grid.

The possibility of learning how to build an eternal off-grid house with all modern conveniences initially drew me to this esoteric knowledge hidden in the Taos desert mesa plateau 7,500 feet above sea level. My academy session was  six weeks long with eight hour days split evenly in the classroom and on the construction site. During this time, I was able to learn more about the Earthship design principles, philosophy, history, and systems. I decided after the academy to volunteer with the construction crew at Earthship Biotecture and learned everything from installing a roof, framing a greenhouse, stonework finishes, plastering, tiling, electrical wiring layout, and installing a greywater planter during the eight months I spent volunteering. I learnt enough to actually get paid doing some sidework for an African-American family building their very own Earthship 12 miles away from the biotecture headquarters. I had no construction experience prior to enrolling at the academy.

Although I can now confidently say that I have enough experience to enable me to build my very own off-grid Earthship-inspired house, I came away from the experience learning more than that. I came away learning more about sustainable living than the buildings themselves. Living in an Earthship is astoundingly serene, and also makes you quite observant and aware about being a burden to your immediate surroundings. For instance, the south-facing greenhouse in the front of earthships not only keeps the building warm as a passive solar home, but also helps you grow food. The food grown in the greenhouse is cultivated in a greywater planter bed which basically sits in your waste water from the shower and faucets. Whatever waste water that isn’t absorbed by plants, is then pumped back into your toilets to avoid using fresh water to flush your toilet. Unlike in modern architecture, this biotecture reminds you of the intimate relationship humans should have with plants. In order to be able to eat the produce you grow in a greywater planter bed, you have to become more conscious about what you put down the drain, the cleaning/hygiene products you use, and even the food/medicine you put in your body. This is largely because the energy the human body wastes in an Earthship is immediately passed down to the plant. Also on the isolated desert mesa you become conscious about your trash. We often repurpose aluminum cans, cardboard, and glass bottles for building, and are less likely to use plastic bags.

During my time at the Earthship headquarters, I met some amazing people from all over the world doing incredible things to change and challenge norms in their parts of the world. Learning from all these people empowered me to share the knowledge I had gained about biotecture with people back home in Ghana. As a result, I will be moving back home this summer not only to share my knowledge, but also to re-learn sustainable practices in more rural parts of Ghana and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. I also have a prototype roof design that I am developing that would help existing homes in what I call Middle Earth (15°0′N to 15°0′S) be cooler, and more comfortable. The roof design will inevitably reduce the need for energy consuming fans and air conditioners. After graduating, I have found that I’m dedicated not only to cultivation of intellect, and the continual pursuit of knowledge, but also to helping others learn about how they can live more sustainably. Although I haven’t used my Economics degree in a conventional sense, I hope to make an impact where it’s need. I’m really excited about the work I’m involved with now and what is to come in the future. I hope to keep finding inspiration in unusual places. This summer I will be an instructor and particpant for a rammed earth workshop in Abetenim in Kumasi, Ghana. We will be leveraging pre-existing knowledge about earth building in the local village from local craftsmen and natural resources such as laterite and bamboo for the build. As a proud DePauw alum, I would love to see some DePauw input in this exciting project. Hopefully some cool students have an interest in volunteering.

Click here to contribute to Ayo’s Kickstarter campaign.

Urban Chaos Theory by Jose Maria Cuellar CC BY-NC 2.0

Then comes the motherfuckin’ Christopher Columbus Syndrome. You can’t discover this! We been here. You just can’t come and bogart. There were brothers playing motherfuckin’ African drums in Mount Morris Park for 40 years and now they can’t do it anymore because the new inhabitants said the drums are loud.  – Spike Lee, Rant on Gentrification

Spike Lee’s rant against gentrification in the Brooklyn area during a Q+A at the Pratt Institute highlights the negative sentiment that many communities are facing  in the rapid change of the urban world.  Gentrification can be easily understood as the the process of renovation of low-income communities through housing and business development often originating from white middle income persons. However, within the good intentions of “developing” or “cleaning-up a neighborhood” comes many social issues that may contain a lasting harmful impact.

To start off, why is the millennial generation so interested in living in urban areas? First, there has been a major shift in the value change among millennials (those born after 1982) and the parenting generation. Many gentrifiers have grown up under the privilege of gated communities and post-white flight suburbia. Having 20 minutes of commuting time all one’s life from home to school, school to the grocery stores,  grocery stores to restaurants, the millennial and mostly white generation has mostly lived a life inside the commute of the soccer mom’s minvan. For many of us, we are starting to reject that narrative. We want to live, work, eat, and be social all within immediate proximity. As  gentrification has become rapid over the last ten years and millennials showing their ability to start businesses, the desire  for cheap rent found in low-income communities for low-cost social entrepreneurship becomes a high demand.

But good intentions are not always great for all of those living in the community. In fact, communities are not really being developed alongside and with the emergencing populations but are often facing forced evictions, rising property taxes, and drastic rental increase and now relocating to the former home of these gentrifiers- the suburbs. And with gentrification comes the rebranding (code for whitewashing) of communities as neighborhoods are losing their cultural history to names branded, market friendly brands by real estate developers.

Gentrification is a complex issue. On one hand, local business development, and the renovation of buildings  is a positive asset for a city. Fishtown, Philadelphia was an area known where one could easily score heroin but now it is covered with art, bars, and local restaurants. However, Spike Lee rightfully points out a criticism towards the city politicians and developers,“So, why did it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better? Why’s there more police protection in Bed Stuy and Harlem now? Why’s the garbage getting picked up more regularly? We been here!”

As the world grows more urban and as millennials continue to migrate to the cities, the complexity surrounding where one should live is loaded with impact that might just contribute to more harm than good in the long run of city life.  While access to gluten free markets, dog parks, locally sourced sriracha flavored ice cream, and organic kale juice bars might be the positive community one is looking for, chances are, there was evictions, relocations, and pain as some members lost the community they once held dear.

 This Guest Author post was written by Matt Cummings, Coordinator of Community Service at DePauw University.

Quartier des temples, Mari by Jacqueline Poggi CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This Guest Scholar post was written by Rebecca Schindler, professor of Classical Studies at DePauw University. 

Seven thousand years of history in the Middle East is on the brink of being wiped out. The on-going civil war in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have placed the region’s cultural heritage at great risk. Sites and monuments across northern Iraq and Syria are being intentionally destroyed by ISIS and/or looted for their “portable antiquities,” objects that can easily be transported and sold through the black market. In December 2014, UNITAR reported that, based on satellite imagery, 24 sites in Syria have been destroyed, 104 have been severely damaged, and another 162 moderately or possibly damaged. The authors quote Francesco Bandarin, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Culture: “the consequence [of Syria’s crisis] has been a massive development of a phenomenon, illegal excavation, which we think is extremely dangerous for the cultural heritage; I would say lethal.” (UNITAR Report, Dec. 2014) The material culture of some of the world’s great civilizations is disappearing before our eyes.

The looting of archaeological sites in Iraq has been a well-known problem since the US-led invasion in 2003. However, the initial situation in Iraq was quite different than what is happening now. In the years after 2003, archaeological looting was primarily carried out by Iraqis whose other sources of income had been compromised by the war. Archaeologists refer to this as “subsistence looting.” Although such activity is illegal and destroys archaeological data, it is difficult to condemn looters who are desperate to feed their families. They are using their cultural patrimony for a greater ethical good.

At the dawn of 2015 the situation is different. Both The Free Syrian Army and the Syrian government have been involved in looting their own archaeological heritage to support military endeavors. (Reuters, Oct. 17, 2014) In the last 12 months, the rise of ISIS has aggravated the situation even further. ISIS militants are deliberately destroying Sufi, Shiite, Yazidi, and Christian monuments for ideological reasons. The “Tomb of Jonah” outside of Mosul (Iraq) is one such example. ISIS brags about these efforts in its own publications (see Dabiq).

It also appears that ISIS is at least condoning, if not directly profiting from the looting of archaeological sites in Syria. The Mesopotamian city of Mari, founded in the 3rd millennium BCE as a trade center on the Euphrates River, is a case in point. The Syrian region where Mari is located, Albu Kamal, came under ISIL control in June 2014. In satellite imagery dating between August 2011 and March 2014, 165 looting pits are visible; between 25 March and 11 November 2014, 1,286 new looting pits appeared, an average of 5.5 a day. The damage visible in the satellite imagery is visible even to the untrained eye. (“AAAS Analysis Shows Widespread Looting and Damage to Historical Sites in Syria.”) What is less clear is ISIS’s involvement in the looting and sale of archaeological artifacts. In October 2014, Foreign Policy reported that ISIS’s second greatest source of revenue, after illegal oil says, may be from the sale looted antiquities. (Foreign Policy, October 17, 2014) This meme has been widely repeated in the media but FP’s sources may have exaggerated the figures and there is no direct evidence connecting ISIS to the sale of illegal antiquities. (Chasing Aphrodite blogpost, Nov. 18, 2014) On the other hand, there is no evidence that they are not involved in the sale of conflict antiquities and the controversy is a reminder that the unregulated market in conflict antiquities is likely, either directly or indirectly, to contribute to terrorist activities.

We need to keep the problem in perspective: 76,000 people died in Syria in 2014, the deadliest year of the conflict to date, and over 10 million people have been displaced. (BBC, Jan. 1, 2015) Most realistic commentators acknowledge that the cultural heritage crisis in Iraq and Syria cannot be addressed until the conflict itself is brought to an end. In the meantime, we do not have to feel completely helpless. Information is power. Archaeologists and cultural heritage officials are working hard to document Syria’s (and Iraq’s) cultural heritage before it is destroyed and in the hopes that Syria will someday be rebuilt. We can support those efforts (see ASOR’s Syrian Heritage Initiative, for example) and we can continue to educate ourselves about the history of peoples whose lives and labors, in better days, contributed to advancements in art, science, and literature that have enhanced the world for everyone.

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New FitBit Record: 48K Steps Taken by Steve Wilhelm (via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Work out much? On a diet? Dealing with mental illness? How would you feel if anyone online could track down your medical information down to your sleeping habits?

Health data isn’t a topic we consider everyday, but just as geolocation has become an accepted part of owning a smartphone, our health data is increasingly urged to move from the private sphere into the public sphere. Fitbit, a company that produces wearable, wifi-connected fitness products, promotes sharing your health data with others on social media as a motivator to continue your fitness routine. Apple’s “Health” app and the Android “Fit” App also allow for easy sharing of this data. Not that you have to, or should feel obligated to. These companies have put extensive measures into place to ensure the security of this data, so unless you give away your passwords there’s little risk of it falling into the wrong hands.

But consider the effects of this later on. As health care costs continue to rise, insurance companies are more desperate than ever to find reasons to raise your premiums. Many companies already have access to this information. What if this type of disclosure becomes so normal online that we forget the impact it can have?

Now, I’d like to clarify; I’m not saying stop using these apps and devices. This data can be incredibly helpful to health professionals assisting patients, and is safeguarded from the public eye as long as it is not shared. But just as employers may ask for your social media information to run background checks (check this to see if that’s illegal or not in the first place; it varies by state), insurance companies are starting to ask the same.

Both Aetna and Kaiser are already using reduced costs and co-pays as an incentive to engage in healthy habits, but is this overreach? Should we be punished for being unhealthy? And what might be classified as an unhealthy habit? Would the occasional indulgence count? These policies are being developed at this moment, and will only become more detailed as our public data becomes richer.

What price are you prepared to pay?

This Guest Post was written by Lauren Owensby, a junior at DePauw University.

Vulpes et lignator from Sebastian Brant's 1501 edition of Aesop's Fables (Public Domain). The image above is an illustration from The Fox and the Woodsman, a fable which warns readers against hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is the practice of claiming to moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform. Hypocrites are usually disliked and seen as lacking moral fiber. Many people claim that nothing annoys them more about a person than hypocrisy. I believe this is because we as a race dislike criticism and to have someone criticize us while doing the same act that is being criticized is seen as absurd and disgusting. Mankind has an interesting history of hypocrisy. I would wager that humans have committed this moral treason since before we were able to recognize it.

We start seeing mass hypocrisy in recorded history around the time of the Holy Roman Empire founded around 800 AD. Many blame the church for the problems around this time. While preaching charity and goodwill, the Catholic Church would demand high tribute and start wars with foreign lands in the name of their religion. The Hypocrisy here is very obvious. Literally preaching values of early Christianity and then violating those same values simultaneously. Eventually the enlightenment would reconstruct Europe, however it’s dissolution in 1806 marks over 1000 years of mass hypocrisy.

Then continuing on into the 19th Century, American hypocrisy emerges. Slavery was seen as perfectly acceptable, yet the Judeo-Christian values held high in American society do not support these actions. In fact in the Old Testament, the Jews were slaves to the Pharaoh of Egypt and in those stories the Egyptians were seen as the antagonists. This moral dilemma was ignored in the sermons of Southern Protestant churches. Of course hypocrisy in politics was not a new concept. That being said, the 19th Century saw public outcry at this corruption. Therefore, some political leaders such as those in New York’s Tamany Hall, spoke out against corruption while continuing to have their back pockets stuffed with funds from criminals and community leaders. Towards the end of the century, we see a hypocritical sentiment within much of the population leading of to and during the Spanish-American War. The hypocrisy comes from many citizens in the United States accusing the Spanish to be evil because of their treatment of Cubans and Filipinos. While Americans were quick to attack Spain for these colonial actions. After the war when Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines fell into U.S. territory, there was never protest when Dole Fruit Company would spend the lives of Filipino and Hawaiian nationals to turn a profit. Spain was not the only target of public hate in the U.S. France, England, Germany, and Belgium all took flack for their colonial holdings. This is despite the fact that American industry was doing the exact same thing.

The 20th Century saw improvements to technology and new world conflicts. World War II, seen as the greatest conflict in human history, reshaped the world as we see it and it’s after effects can still be felt years later. The creation of Israel was one of the first actions taken by the new world paradigm. The new nation was created on top of the existing state of Palestine and received support worldwide. Israel was seen as compensation for the atrocities committed against the Jewish population by Germany and Palestine. Now, around 70 years later, the Palestinians of Israel are treated as second class citizens. In fact, most minorities experience either societal discrimination or institutional discrimination within the borders of Israel. The treatment of minorities in Israel is eerily similar to 1930s German and pre-war Palestinian treatment of Jews. Also in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia still stands as a monarchy, despite receiving support from the U.S., a staunch supporter of democracy, often using it as an excuse to invade other nations. The same can be said about former dictators Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. Both of these rulers were supported and their regimes sustained by the United States. Hussein was even an honorary citizen of Detroit.

There are unlimited examples of this type of behavior in human history and society today. All around the world the act of hypocrisy is condemned yet also practiced constantly. In fact, the act of discouraging hypocrisy is in itself hypocritical. Hypocrisy is as natural for humans as breathing. Rather than getting depressed about this fact, I embrace this realization. A film critic does not have to make films to be able to criticize films. In the same way, we can accept other people’s suggestions even if they are not implementing them.

This Guest Post was written by Benjamin Booher, a first-year at DePauw University.

Tractatus de legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae Bill Tyne (CC-BY-SA-2.0)

By Erik Kwakkel
This post was originally posted at Medieval Books, and is posted here with Dr. Kwakkel’s permission. 

Old furniture, broken cups, worn-out shoes and stinky mattresses: we don’t think twice about throwing things out that we don’t need anymore. And books? Here things are a bit different. Apart from the fact that you may find it morally abject to throw out a book, that noble carrier of ideas, the object retains its economic value much longer than many other man-made things. Old and worn books will usually have a second – third, fourth or fifth – life in them, for example on the shelves of the secondhand bookstore. Indeed, old age may even increase their value dramatically, as visitors of book auctions will know.

The final curtain call of any book, including medieval ones, is when its content is no longer deemed correct, valid, or useful. Between the end of the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century thousands and thousands of medieval manuscripts were torn apart, ripped to pieces, boiled, burned, and stripped for parts. While these atrocities were undertaken to various ends, the ultimate explanation for this literary genocide is the same: the old-fashioned parchment book had run its course. It was forced to bow and leave the stage, where the printed book was now stealing the show. This post sheds light on a dark chapter of wilful destruction – which came with surprising benefits for the culprits.

Culprit 1: The Bookbinder

15th-century fragment inside bookbinding (Rolduc Abbey library) - Photo EK
Fig. 1 – 15th-century fragment inside bookbinding (Rolduc Abbey library) – Photo EK

If you have followed my blogs – both here and on Tumblr – you known I have a soft spot for so-called manuscript “fragments”. Ranging from small snippets no larger than your pinky to full leaves, they were the product of the knives of bookbinders. When Gutenberg invented moving type, handwritten books became old-fashioned overnight. All over Europe they subsequently became the victims of recycling at the hands of binders, who cut them into pieces and pasted them inside bookbindings, where they often still remain. And so we encounter a little strip from a medieval Dutch Bible glued to the inside of a sixteenth-century binding (Fig. 1); and snippets from a medieval Hebrew text peeping out of a damaged binding (pic at the top). These examples show how medieval books were mutilated and stripped for parts, like cars at a scrap yard. Thousands of them disappeared this way – though fortunately not without a trace.

Culprit 2: The Tailor

Copenhagen, Den Arnamagnæanske Samling AM 666 b 4to (13th century)
Fig. 2 – Copenhagen, Arnamagnæanske Samling AM 666 b 4to (13th century)

The strength and durability of parchment made medieval pages ideal for supporting bookbindings. Tailors loved to recycle the material for the same reason. The pages in Fig. 2 form the lining of a bishop’s mitre, to which a layer of cloth was subsequently pasted. The practice is observed in other mitres as well (two examples are mentioned in the comments at the bottom of thisblog). What’s really remarkable about the lining seen above is not so much that the poor bishop had a bunch of hidden medieval pages on his head, but that they were cut from a Norwegian translation of Old French love poetry (so-called lais). Lovers were chasing each other through dark corridors, maidens were frolicking in the fields, knights were butchering each other over nothing. All the while the oblivious bishop was performing the rites of the Holy Mass.

Dress made in Cistercian abbey of Wienhausen, Germany
Fig. 3 – Dress made in Cistercian abbey of Wienhausen, Germany – Source

There are other examples where tailors (I’m putting mitre makers under this label for convenience) used leaves from medieval manuscripts to “stiffen” the cloth. Dr. Lähnemann, chair of German Studies at Newcastle University, has identified several such cloth items with hidden content in her work. An unusual case is seen in Fig. 3: a dress made in the late fifteenth century by Cistercian nuns in Wienhausen, Germany. It was not meant to be worn by people, however, but to be draped around a statue in the convent. It’s not unlike doll’s clothes you pick up in the toy store today, except that the remains of a Latin text are hidden inside.

Culprit 3: The Scribe
And then there were the scribes. Surrounded by used books and with a pen knife in their hand, makers of medieval books were bound to do some damage. There are several ways in which old pages could be put to good use in the monastic scriptorium or library. You can make bookmarks out of them, as I have shown in a recent post (here). A more hidden way of recycling concerns the so-calledpalimpsest, where the words were scraped off a page after which a new text was copied down on it. In the early Middle Ages entire books were palimpsested. There was a definite upside to this practice from the scribe’s point of view. It gave him, without effort, a pile of parchment to fill with something new: it allowed him to cut corners without having to cut corners, so to speak (Fig. 4).

Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Guelf. 64 Weiss. (9th century)
Fig. 4 – Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Guelf. 64 Weiss. (9th century) – Source

There was a downside as well. As seen in Fig. 4, the scraped away lower text never fully disappeared from sight: it tended to pop up unexpectedly throughout the new book. While the text at the forefront (the upper text) of this spectacular manuscript dates from the eight century, what’s hidden underneath it is much older. To produce this manuscript a fifth-century copy of Paul to the Romans was palimpsested, as well as parts of a sixth-century Gospel Book in Greek uncial letters (the blue text that is shining through).

The last words: the joys of destruction
While it is a thrill to look for bits and pieces of medieval text inside a bookbinding or below the surface of a page, destroying books – especially medieval ones – is bad. However, the cases of recycling shown here also point out how very useful the second life of the manuscript could be. To medieval scribes and post-medieval binders and tailors it must have been a joy to have piles of recyclable parchment books at their disposal. Moreover, to speak as an optimist, their slicing and dicing is proving most useful. Thanks to the destructive practices in the past we at least have some pages or strips left from given manuscripts – which would otherwise have completely disappeared. Seeing a few lines is often enough to identify a text and determine when and where it was copied. In this way fragments become blips on the radar: they add, often significantly, to the study of medieval literary and scholarly culture. While destroying medieval books is bad, it is most useful to have their sorry remains.

Note – More about fragments in bookbindings in this and this post. Take a closer look at a palimpsest here. More on using manuscripts in textiles here.

 "Water Pollution with Trash Disposal of Waste at the Garbage Beach" by epSos .de (via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Guest post by Anthony Baratta, Sustainability Director at DePauw University.  Check out the Office of Sustainability on Facebook and Twitter.Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.53.07 AM

Soulja Boy CDs, broken office chairs, flip phones, jean shorts, used plastic forks, Capital One junk mail, and homemade Christmas gifts from ex-girlfriends. What do these items have in common? No one wants them.

Technological advances, fashion trends, and the allure of the “new”  banish some of these items to discounted bundles on eBay and spots on nostalgic Buzzfeed lists. Unfortunately, though, most of them are simply thrown away, tossed in a black garbage bag when Dad decides that it’s time to clean out the basement, or a high school locker is cleared out, or a dorm room is packed up in May.

But where is “away?” What will happen to the items purchased by many of us on Black Friday or Cyber Monday? Where will iPhone 6s, black leggings, and Hunger Games tote bags be five years from now? Where do toothpicks, Gatorade bottles, and receipts go now, and why should we care?

The answer to these question matters, and it’s why DePauw’s theme for 2014-15 is “Envisioning Zero Waste.” Most of these items end up in a landfill or incinerator, creating more greenhouse gas emissions and harming air and water quality. The production of these items is not benign, either, often involving unethical extraction of resources in other countries with assembly in unsafe factories. The scenario is much more complex than a glossy Best Buy advertisement.

What is zero waste? We define the term as an ideal, where everything that could be reused, repurposed, or recycled would be kept out of a landfill or incinerator. The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics, Facilities Management, Environmental Fellows, and others are partnering with the Office of Sustainability to consider zero waste this year.

DePauw students are leading the way. Many of DePauw’s 20 Eco-Reps—students who gather weekly and work on small group sustainability projects—are taking on various initiatives related to zero waste. Mary Satterthwaite ’18 and Anna Muckerman ’15 are doing a recycling audit of campus, and Nick McCreary ’15 and Eric Steele ’15 have worked tirelessly with members of the Campus Sustainability Committee and Facilities Management to implement recycling at home football tailgates. The juniors in Environmental Fellows are considering a parternship with Bon Appetit and local farmers on compost efforts too.

We invite the DePauw community to participate in our “Envisioning Zero Waste” theme year.  Reduce, reuse, and recycle, at the office and at home. For a more complete set of goals and context to the theme year, please check out a recent DePauw web story on the project. And please consider coming to any of the What a Waste! Reclaiming the Value of People and Things events, led by Professor Jennifer Everett. On November 17th at 4pm, we will be screening Terra Blight in Watson Forum, a documentary about the harmful effects of “recycled” electronics sent abroad. You can watch the trailer below.

It’s issues like these that we should consider as we prepare for the upcoming holiday season, for Black Friday, and Cyber Monday. When you make your purchase, please consider: where will this item be in five years?

Wielenberg, pioneer of robust godless normative realism (Image by Richard Fields for the DePauw Photo Gallery)

Last week we published the abstract of Erik Wielenberg’s new book, Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative RealismIn this guest post, Wielenberg, Professor of Philosophy at DePauw University, follows up with a more in-depth discussion of the book and some of the philosophers that have influenced his thinking on moral realism and God’s existence.

In 1977, two events that would significantly impact my life took place. First, the film Star Wars was released. Second, two prominent philosophers, J.L. Mackie and Gilbert Harman, unleashed some influential arguments against moral realism.  My book is about the second of these two events.

In his famous argument from queerness, Mackie listed various respects in which objective values, if they existed, would be “queer.” Mackie took the apparent queerness of such values to be evidence against their existence. One feature of objective values that he found to be particularly queer was the alleged connection between a thing’s objective moral qualities and its natural features: “What is the connection between the natural fact that an action is a piece of deliberate cruelty — say, causing pain just for fun — and the moral fact that it is wrong? … The wrongness must somehow be ‘consequential’ or ‘supervenient’; it is wrong because it is a piece of deliberate cruelty.  But just what in the world is signified by this ‘because’?” (1977, 41)  Mackie was also dubious of the view that we could come to have knowledge of the objective moral qualities of things. He wrote that friends of objective moral values must in the end lamely posit “a special sort of intuition” that gives us knowledge of objective values.

Harman, for his part, noted an apparent contrast between ethics and science.  He compared a case in which a physicist observes a vapor trail in a cloud chamber and forms the belief “there goes a proton” with a case in which you observe some hoodlums setting a cat on fire and form the belief “what they’re doing is wrong” (1977, 4-6).  Harman was happy to classify both of these as cases of observation (scientific observation and moral observation respectively), but he noted that the moral features of things, supposing that they exist at all, seem to be causally inert, unlike the physical features of things. Harman thought that this feature of moral properties suggests that we ought to take seriously the possible truth of nihilism, the view that no moral properties are instantiated (1977, 23).  But others have drawn on Harman’s premise to support not nihilism but rather moral skepticism, the view that we do not (and perhaps cannot) possess moral knowledge. It is the latter kind of argument that I discuss in my book.

Some have suggested that theism provides the resources to answer these challenges. Mackie himself, although an atheist, suggested that theism might be able to answer his worries about the queerness of the alleged supervenience relation between moral and natural properties. In his 1982 book The Miracle of Theism, he suggested that “objective intrinsically prescriptive features, supervening upon natural ones, constitute so odd a cluster of qualities and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events, without an all-powerful God to create them” (1982, 115-6). More recently, Christian philosopher Robert Adams suggests that the epistemological worries that arise from Harman’s contrast between science and ethics can be put to rest by bringing God into the picture (Adams 1999, 62-70).

Thus, an interesting dialectic presents itself. Mackie and Harman, who do not believe that God exists, see their arguments as posing serious challenges for moral realism. Some theistic philosophers argue this way: if we suppose that God does exist, then we can answer these challenges to moral realism. Without God, these challenges cannot be answered. Since moral realism is a plausible view, the fact that we can answer such challenges only by positing the existence of God gives us reason to believe that God exists.

I accept moral realism yet I believe that God does not exist. I also find it unsatisfying, perhaps even “lame” as Mackie would have it, to posit mysterious, quasi-mystical cognitive faculties that are somehow able to make contact with causally inert moral features of the world and provide us with knowledge of them. The central goal of my book is to defend the plausibility of a robust brand of moral realism without appealing to God or any weird cognitive faculties.

A lot has happened since 1977.  A number of increasingly mediocre sequels and prequels to the original Star Wars have been released; disco, mercifully, has died. But there have also been some important developments in philosophy and psychology that bear on the arguments of Mackie and Harman sketched above. In philosophy, the brand of moral realism criticized by Mackie has found new life. In psychology, there has been a flurry of empirical investigation into the nature of the cognitive processes that generate human moral beliefs, emotions, and actions. As a result of these developments the challenges from Mackie and Harman sketched above can be given better answers than they have received so far — without appealing to God or weird cognitive faculties. That, at any rate, is what I attempt to do in my book. In short, my aim is to defend a robust approach to ethics (without appealing to God or weird cognitive faculties) by developing positive accounts of the nature of moral facts and knowledge and by defending these accounts against challenging objections.

Works Cited
Adams, Robert. 1999. Finite and Infinite Goods. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Harman, Gilbert. 1977. The Nature of Morality: An Introduction to Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mackie, J.L. 1977. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. New York: Penguin.
Mackie, J.L. 1982. The Miracle of Theism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

"Divestment Day of Action, Western Washington University May 2nd 2013" via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Guest post by Rich Cameron, Associate Professor of Philosophy at DePauw University

Scott Wisor recently wrote a post titled “Why Climate Change Divestment Will Not Work” over at the blog for the journal Ethics & International Affairs (EIA).  The post is quite provocative.  Visit the EIA blog, here, to read it.

Wisor presents himself as convinced that climate change is happening, poses a grave threat, and makes ethical demands on us all.  Nevertheless, as his title suggests, he believes that one prominent strategy for generating mass action on climate change is destined for failure:  the movement – led by Bill McKibben and his – to get large universities and investment funds to divest from fossil fuel companies.  If fossil-fuel divestment efforts are doomed to fail, then McKibben’s movement functions as a costly distraction from our pressing ethical obligation not just to act but to act effectively.  As Wisor puts it, “why spend half a decade or more on a tactic that at best won’t make a difference? Why not direct attention to the more urgent and effective task of placing a price on carbon?”

I have a number of responses to Wisor’s specific arguments, but in this post I’d like to offer two more general reflections aimed at tempering his conclusions.  The line of criticism I’ll be pursuing in this post is an odd one – that Wisor’s arguments and conclusions are all too plausible.  More specifically, his argumentative target is ill-defined and appears too easily established.  When looked at more closely, the real difficulties movements face in achieving success also require more nuanced arguments that a particular movement will fail.

My first point begins by noting that a sober look at the evidence certainly suggests that Wisor’s conclusion is likely to be true.  Pick any successful social movement from the past – the civil rights movement, the movement for India’s independence from England, etc.  Scholars of social change frequently note that while those movements were in process the odds seemed stacked against them.  Moreover, even movements we know (with hindsight) to have been successful seemed destined to fail almost right up until they managed – somehow – to succeed.  Indeed, all large scale and eventually successful movements for social change have faced armies of naysayers claiming that the tactics they employed (e.g., non-violent resistance in the cases I’ve mentioned) would not work and that those movements’ efforts served as distractions from other, allegedly more effective measures that people genuinely devoted to the cause should be supporting instead.  Perhaps the most eloquent response to this kind of criticism comes in Martin Luther King Jr.’s justly famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”  We’re on your side, his critics said, but your tactics are wrong and will backfire.

Antonio Gramsci made a similar point in saying, “I’m a pessimist because of intellect, but an optimist because of will.”  The idea in Gramsci’s quote is that rational reflection on the odds of social change will almost always result in a thoroughly justified pessimism.  If you’re aware of the obstacles and think about the circumstances carefully you’re sure to come up with a thousand reasons why social change just doesn’t stand a chance.  Gramsci acknowledges that effective advocates for social change need to face up to this grim fact.  They need the “pessimism of the intellect” so that they know what they’re up against – without this they will be ineffective idealists tilting at windmills.  But social change movements do sometimes succeed, and without the benefit of hindsight it’s extremely difficult to tell which movement, if any, is going to pull off a major victory.  And that means that people devoted to the hard work of social change need more than just the pessimism that comes from clear-sightedness of the long odds we face.  They also need the “optimism of the will,” the willingness to work against long odds with the hope and confidence that some apparently doomed strategy will eventually succeed.  To quote Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  Without the benefit of hindsight, a strong case can be made that all social movements are doomed to failure, and if that is all Wisor is arguing in the case of the fossil fuel divestment movement then his arguments are both unsurprising and should be of little interest to committed and thoughtful activists.  If Wisor is arguing for an interesting claim, it must be not just that we’re justifiably pessimistic about the divestment movement’s odds of success.  He must argue for the stronger claim that the movement is actually tilting at windmills, that it is so clearly out of line with reality that it should be viewed as a waste of time even by those with intimate knowledge of the challenges all social movements face.

My second response to Wisor’s argument is generated by asking a simple question:  when can we say that a movement has succeeded, that its efforts have “worked”?  Wisor’s blog post seems to imply a very demanding standard for movement success – a movement must solve the problem it’s designed to address (in this case climate change).  And if this is what success requires then once again Wisor is arguing for a conclusion that is simply too easy.  It is widely acknowledged that there are no silver bullets with regard to large problems like this, and in the case of climate change it is also widely acknowledged that it’s too late to “solve” the problem anyway:  what we’ve already done commits us to enough warming that dangerous impacts are already unavoidable.  Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t still succeed in mitigating climate change and heading off even more catastrophic impacts, but no one heading up the fossil fuel divestment movement is under the illusion that their efforts will “solve” the problem in this sense.

Still, this isn’t the only metric for success.  Activists often view movement success not in these all-or-nothing terms but as, instead, accruing piecemeal, slowly, and building over time.  A social movement that doesn’t “solve” its intended problem in the first sense may nevertheless raise awareness (and so make future solutions easier to institute).  Movements may build networks of effective and motivated actors (who may work better together in the future because of their present experience).  They may convert major institutions and groups to take stands that they otherwise would not have taken (and so, again, make future change more likely).  And so on.

All of these things plausibly constitute social movements succeeding, but none of Wisor’s specific arguments for why the fossil fuel divestment strategy “will not work” undermine the idea that the movement has already succeeded – that it has “worked” far beyond the dreams of most movements.  According to a report by Arabela Advisors, “181 institutions and local governments and 656 individuals representing over $50 billion dollars have pledged to divest to-date.”  Think too of the marches, meetings, media attention, position papers, etc. the movement has generated, and what they mean for better advocacy for policies of all sorts in the future.  The point is just that by reasonable standards the divestment movement is already a success, and nothing in Wisor’s piece suggests this movement (and others) can’t build (piecemeal, and bit by bit) on their successes in the future.

Moreover, it is important to note that when Wisor suggests alternative efforts that he thinks stand a greater chance of succeeding he mentions only a “price on carbon” and unspecified “regulatory efforts” to combat climate change.  The problem here is that Wisor’s suggested solutions do not constitute ideas for building a movement.  To generate a movement you need to mobilize masses of people and institutions and organize them around applying political pressure for change.  Of course we should put a price on carbon – but how exactly does Wisor propose that we build the political movement to get that done?  When Wisor has an idea for building a powerful movement around putting a price on carbon (or his favorite regulations) and he can show, further, that his new strategy is likely to generate more traction, enthusiasm, and support from grassroots activists and major institutions than the divestment movement has already succeeded in generating then will he have a strong real case for saying that there are more effective strategies we should be pursuing.  Saying simply that we should put a price on carbon isn’t even in the same ballpark as building the movement to divest from fossil fuels, however.  McKibben’s fossil fuel divestment strategy may not be a silver bullet guaranteed to succeed (no social movement in history ever has been, of course), but it has been a concrete and already effective strategy for bringing together a new, strong, and powerful coalition on climate.

I realize that my fairly general criticisms of Wisor’s post don’t address the specifics of his arguments.  For all I’ve said here it remains possible that his specific objections to the fossil fuel divestment movement’s strategies are indeed damning.  That is, I have not argued that the fossil fuel divestment movement is not tilting at windmills in a way that anyone who cares about climate action should shun, nor have I argued that it is only beset by the perfectly ordinary sort of “pessimism of the intellect” that beset all social movements (even ones that have succeeded).  Still, I hope I’ve clarified the way in which Wisor’s argument seems to aim at a conclusion that is both too easy and too unsurprising.  If his arguments are to be of service to his claimed allies in the incipient climate movement they will need to show more than just that there are good reasons for pessimism.  He’ll need to show that the divestment movement tilts at windmills.  With regard to the former task Wisor’s arguments (unsurprisingly) succeed.  With regard to the latter task I’m much less sure.