Posts Tagged ‘rationalism’

Seeing through fuzzy lenses

Things look a little blurry?

This week, I’ve come across two articles on the ever-popular topic of sunscreen safety. The first presents some early research suggesting that zinc oxide may not be as safe as we thought. The second, citing the EWG, claims that nano zinc oxide based sunscreens have been given a green light for safety and effectiveness. How you respond to these articles probably has a good deal to do with your opinion of the safety of cosmetics to start with. If you believe most commercial cosmetics are unsafe, you are more likely to be alarmed by the first article and dismiss the second. If you believe that most commercial cosmetics are safe, you are likely to find the first unnecessarily alarmist and think the second reassuring.

(Where do I stand? I am a staunch supporter of staying out of the sun during peak intensity, wearing a hat and breathable clothes with good coverage, and if neither of those is possible, applying sunblock. And then not worrying about it. I defy any sunblock to cause measurable damage to my health in just ten or twenty applications per year.)

We all see the world through certain lenses of opinion, experience, background, and emotion. Objectivity doesn’t come naturally; maybe doesn’t come at all. But being able to identify your own fuzzy lenses is a helpful way to understand why you think and react the way you do. Let’s take one of my fuzzy lenses — one of the sillier ones — as an example. I like cats. I genuinely think they’re cooler than dogs.

The belief that cats are awesome influences my behavior in quite a lot of ways:

  • I have a cat
  • I volunteer at a cat rescue
  • I follow cat organizations on Twitter and Facebook
  • I read cat stories online
  • I surround myself with fellow cat people
  • I put more weight on articles that show cats to be superior lifeforms
  • I am more likely to be skeptical of articles that show cats to be inferior to / invasive / less intelligent than dogs

So, by limiting my exposure to things I don’t agree with and increasing my exposure to things I do, I’m reinforcing what I want to believe while (maybe) thinking that I am making a rational assessment. In fact, it’s more or less just ideology. In Jennifer-land, cats are cool, and there’s not much you can do to persuade me otherwise.

In his article on, cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski brings up this point as an ideology litmus test: what evidence would you need to change your mind about an issue? If the answer is that nothing would change your mind, you’ve stumbled upon some ideology.

Frankly, the anti-science tendencies of the environmental movement scare the dickens out of me. I came across a comment earlier this week about how the sun doesn’t cause cancer, sunscreens do, and the breathtaking disregard for a large body of scientific knowledge and consensus as to the effects of UV radiation on skin appalled me. The Skeptical Environmentalist, perhaps rightlysneers at our tendency to adopt binary beliefs (organic = good, GM = bad, for example) as a ‘litany.’ In surrounding ourselves with studies we want to believe and doubting the ones that don’t align with our beliefs, are we really that much better than climate change deniers?

It’s a sobering thought, and it prompted me to identify, if not completely clear off, some of my other fuzzy lenses:

  • I want to believe that a vegetarian diet is healthier, kinder, and more environmentally friendly.
  • I want to believe that organic farming is lower impact and more sustainable than high-efficiency conventional farming.
  • I want to believe that all industrial scientists whose data goes against my beliefs are corrupt.
  • I want to believe that natural is safer, more sustainable, and more effective.
  • I want to believe that our planet and its remarkable biodiversity is inherently valuable.
  • I want to believe that science is the most reliable way to understand our world.

I’m pretty sure there’s evidence that could affect my opinion for most of these, and I have already moved towards urging a more case-by-case consideration on farming practices and chemicals. I have been following the debate over Rothamsted’s GM wheat experiment with great interest and appreciate all the open conversation that is taking place between the scientists and the public.  But I don’t think you could budge me on the last two. I don’t think ideology is necessarily a bad thing, or an avoidable one, but it’s good to know where it is.

(By the way, the questions in this Baloney Detection guide, although aimed towards orthorexic vegans, are quite useful for evaluating information in general.)

What are your fuzzy lenses when it comes to all things green? What evidence would it take to change your mind?

Photo by Crunchy Footsteps

The most likely scenario

Activists have to be, at least on some level, optimists. You just can’t throw yourself into something thinking, “Well, this is a waste of energy.” I believe, because I have to believe, that we are capable of doing something about this giant iceberg we’re about to hit. Even if we can’t turn this boat around, we can still wake up, governments can start reining corporations in, and we can all start making more sensible decisions that mitigate catastrophic climate change, biodiversity loss, fresh water shortages, and ocean acidification.

From a rational perspective, I have to admit that it’s all starting to sound a little improbable. The scientific evidence has piled up, yet governments are still taking, at best, baby steps — not all of them in the right direction. A significant minority of people is still unconvinced that climate change is anything more than a political hoax. My neighbors still don’t recycle their empty water bottles.

If I take off the rose-colored activist lens, I think we’re probably screwed to some extent. Most likely, we’ll continue to hem and haw and bury our heads in the sand for another few decades, maybe 20-50 years. Our world governments will continue to dither about environmentalism vs economy. In the meantime, we’ve seen plenty to suggest that our food supply, especially from the oceans, will destabilize, fresh water availability will decrease, and natural disasters will increase in frequency and scale. I think it’s almost inevitable that we will lose most of our endangered species, including our beloved pandas, African elephants, amur leopards, and orangutans, along with many less glamorous but equally important components of ecosystems.

There will probably be more riots and less stability. Some industries will adapt, new ones will spring up, but many will suffer.  The population will likely continue to increase until famine, disease, and other resource shortages start taking us out. The younger generation will probably be pretty pissed off with how we handled things.

At some point, the majority of us will probably realize what’s going on and go, “Oh, crap.” At this point, I think we’ll finally learn whether or not humans can, in fact, act collectively and wisely as a species to adapt to the new situation and make better decisions. Our track history is against it, but who knows?

One thing is certain: we’re heading for some interesting times. 

On that note, I’ve decided to take a blogging break. (It’s probably pretty clear why from this post.) I’ve had some other projects — a novel, my pottery — on the backburner for a while, and blogging really does take a significant chunk of time and energy away from them. I’ll be back in a few weeks. In the meantime, here’s my newest piece out of the kiln:

Until later.

Ending my romance with dollar stores

I have a confession to make: I used to like dollar stores. For this, as for many other things, I blame my parents. They immigrated to the US with virtually nothing and climbed their way into solid middle class respectability — without ever losing their immigrant mentality regarding money. This meant a number of things: never saying no to free stuff (did my dad ever love those big computer conventions ), never buying ice cream from the ice cream truck (because it cost four times as much as getting it at the supermarket), and bargain hunting as if it were a world class sport.

Friday nights were spent at Big Lots, followed by a massive Dollar Tree (both helpfully located within a two block radius). Saturday mornings were spent at garage sales and flea markets. We never bought a lot of stuff — more often than not, we came out empty-handed — but it was our form of entertainment and, er, quality family time. Dollar stores, redolent with the smells of cheap new plastic, carpet square adhesive, and off-label cleaning goods, are as much a component of my childhood memories as homemade birthday cakes and half-melted crayons.

Over the years, I’ve found a number of goodies at dollar stores. Organic cotton and bamboo socks, stone coasters, pillowcases with cool tree patterns on them, fairy wrapping paper, and even surprisingly decent books. But I now also realize how emblematic dollar stores are of our national love affair with cheap, imported crap whose dollar price tag doesn’t even begin to cover its environmental and social costs. Dollar stores perpetuate just about every social and environmental crime you can think of. And lest you think they only discriminate against developing nations, they rip off US employees, too.


I’ve all but stopped going, because when I do, there’s nothing I can buy responsibly.  Anything I buy would be an exception to my own ethical convictions, which I hope are worth more than $1. What I’ve learned about mindful consumption has cost me that part of my childhood. I feel sad about its loss, even though there is no rational reason to hang on to it. (No one ever claimed that putting rationality and environmental responsibility in front of family tradition, cultural acceptance, and instant gratification was, well, fun.) But I also see my own reluctance to give dollar stores up entirely and wonder how rationality on its own could ever be strong or compelling enough to change culture, tradition, or emotional perception in mass.

Being cheap and going green can be fully compatible, but only if you take the DIY/reduction routes. Dollar stores? Not so much. What do you think think? Do you have a history with dollar stores, too?

Balancing the Costs of Being Childfree

A while ago, fellow childfree blogger Piper Hoffman posted a rather brave entry about the disadvantages of not having children. She listed a few that I personally don’t find compelling (disappointing my family — eh, it’s practically a hobby, alienation from peers — hey, I’m already a misanthrope!). I’d like to argue that the primary disadvantage, the only one that holds any weight for me, is the voluntary forsaking of a relationship and set of experiences that have the potential to be deeply satisfying, rewarding, and important.

Note the key word in that sentence: potential. For all the people who find parenting a wonderful experience, there are also plenty who find it frustrating, stressful, and limiting, plenty who have unhappy, complicated relationships with their kids, and plenty who wish they had never bothered. And for that potential return, they pay very real and essentially unavoidable costs of time, energy, resources, and money. There’s no return policy if it doesn’t work out, either. Sorry.

Let me concede that the desire to have children or not isn’t fundamentally a rational one, subject to ROI (return on investment) calculations and carefully thought out reasons. I declared I didn’t want children when I was ten, and while I have subsequently considered that decision from a rational perspective, it didn’t produce that gut level conviction that I never wanted to be a mother.

However, if you’re on the fence, I think it’s worth weighing the costs of having children against missing out on a potentially rewarding experience. These are the costs, as I see them.

  • Free time. My life at present is relatively slow-paced, quiet, and calm. I have time to cook from scratch, time to splurge at the pottery studio, time to play with lonely shelter kitties, time to read, time to blog, time time time. I love my uncluttered, contemplative life.  Because I live with two other essentially self-maintaining beings (Kevin and Brie), my time outside work is essentially mine to do with as I please.
  • Headspace/energy. Although you can be a mom without having a Twitter handle like @crazymommyblogger and think and talk about other things besides your kids, plenty of women don’t succeed. I don’t think it’s due to any lack of intelligence. It’s just that kids take up a lot of your finite energy and space to think, and I’d rather put them towards other things.
  • Money. Kevin and I don’t make a lot of money, but we have low expenses and enjoy a good quality of life and the occasional luxury without feeling the pinch. Now consider that middleclass Americans spend about $250,000 to raise a child to age 17. That’s without college tuition.  Yow. Goodbye, local organic produce.
  • Environmental resources. As a concerned global citizen, one of the most impactful things I can do is to be an evolutionary dead end. I accept this. I’d rather have a future with pandas and amur leopards than one with my biological descendents running amok.
  • Other relationships. Kids take up so much of your resources that it’s almost inevitable that other important relationships — with your spouse, your friends, your pets — get neglected. Plenty of studies show that childfree couples are happier than parenting couples.

Are kids worth this significant price of admission? No doubt for some people they are. But the next time someone asks me why I don’t want children, I’m tempted to answer, “I’ve done a cost analysis study, and I just don’t think the return on investment is there for me.”

Why I care.

Kevin and I drove to the coast yesterday on a whim and spent the afternoon watching the interplay of tide, sand, bird, and wind. Wet sand reflected azure skies, then began to dry into undulating patterns of darkness and light. Feeling small against the expansive blue of the sea, we sat there and talked about the planet, its fragile beauty, and the problems we’ve helped to cause.

I tend to think of environmental problems as a failure of rationality. If we were rational creatures, we would be willing to accept overwhelming evidence, see probable outcomes and consequences, and make quick, far-reaching changes. Kevin, in contrast, thinks of them as the result of an underlying spiritual problem, an inability to see beyond oneself or an indifference about anything beyond oneself. (Some day I will persuade him to guest blog about this.)

I don’t like his perspective.  It means that educating people won’t necessarily make them care, take responsibility, or make significant changes. And if offering that information isn’t enough, I don’t know where to go from there. How do you make people care?

I wish I knew. The answer probably depends on the person; we all have different buttons to push. These are mine, and this is why I care about the fate of this little blue green world.

I care because I am a rationalist. I don’t believe in gods or an afterlife.  This life, this world, right here, right now — that’s where my attention and responsibility belong. I don’t think we can afford to count on having someone or something save our asses if we really screw this up.  The foreseeable future really isn’t looking all that rosy right now. Our lives depend wholly upon the planet and its health, so we’d better start being more responsible renters if we want to stick around on it.

I care because the great diversity of life and its ability to adapt on this planet are amazing, and we’re ruining it. Is it even possible to look at butterfly wing scales, watch a chameleon’s eyes swivel independently of each other, or even share a home with a cat without being astonished, grateful, and awed at living on a planet where this is possible? Not for me.

I care because our planet came so close to ending up a barren wasteland like Venus. I care because I appreciate natural beauty. I care because I am a part of this world, and a part of its problems. I care even though caring breaks my heart, even when it seems like caring will make no ultimate difference.

I care because I have no choice but to care.


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