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Writing and Reading the Latin American Other

Fiction writers often find themselves pulled in opposite directions. On one hand, many of them want to portray reality as carefully as possible in order to expose injustice. On the other, they have to cater to what their readers expect that reality will look like – otherwise, their work will not sell. That tension has played out in a big way in recent novels about Latin America.

By: Andres Amerikaner, Rock Ethics Institute Humanities Dissertation Fellow

Why do we read novels? Often, it has to do with the thrill of walking, briefly, in someone else’s shoes. If that journey takes place far away from home, all the better. It’s partly about escapism and excitement, sure, but also about expanding our worldview by learning something about others.

This helps account for the popularity of travel writing. A prime example is Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, where Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty cruise across the U.S. and then, when they run out of road, down south to Mexico, past whorehouses and marihuana plantations. There, they stop to consider the isolated existence of what they call “mountain Indians” or, in present-day speak, indigenous agricultural workers. “How different they must be in their private concerns and evaluations and wishes!” Dean declares.

In this moment, the text’s scaffolding reveals itself: Sal and Dean might not know much about Mexicans, but they need them to be different, as they need Denver to appear in stark contrast to San Francisco and to New York City. The Mexicans, in Dean’s imagination, are driven by mysterious, inscrutable motivations. Our curiosity, as readers, is piqued.

My work focuses on the way that contemporary inter-American migrant writers lean on difference, as Kerouac once did, to attract the interest of readers. In the U.S., for example, stories of miscommunication, abuse and rejection have flourished starting in the early 1990s. They tell us about the plight of migrants from Latin America trying (and usually failing) to enter or settle into the country. Among them: Maria Full of Grace, Fast Food Nation and Sin nombre in film; Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying, Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Jorge Franco’s Paraiso Travel in fiction.

What we see here is what I call “disarming difference,” a charming, pleasing sort of difference. It allows the reader to feel righteous indignation for the treatment of immigrant-victims while simultaneously presenting them as Other; it offers a vicarious, exoticized form of poverty tourism; and it shields the reader from confronting the expansion of U.S. hegemonic culture throughout the continent. In these narratives, peripheral subjects are struggling to enter the center. In actuality, the center has already entered their lives, chipping away at the alleged difference that these authors so skillfully fictionalize.

Latin America is still home to a variety of unique cultural legacies, but the neoliberal processes determining life in the region today are rarely portrayed in fiction. As a consequence of improved communications, the spread of U.S.-centric pop culture and, most of all, increasing mobility, the region’s inhabitants find themselves subjected to homogenizing forces, where their “private concerns and evaluations and wishes,” as Kerouac puts it, flatten under a thin layer of regional particularity. Subtitled reruns of Two and a Half Men light up TV screens from Mexico City to the southernmost stretches of Argentina, English becomes the de facto language of Facebook interaction, and CNN-style news broadcasts shape daily political realities.

Thanks to support from the Rock Ethics Institute, my ongoing dissertation project studies the representation of migrants in contemporary novels by English-language authors in the U.S., such as Junot Díaz, a Dominican-born Pulitzer Prize winner, and Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-born writer, alongside works in Spanish by Latin American authors such as Martín Rejtman, a writer and film director from Argentina, and Alberto Fuguet, a Chilean writer and co-founder of the McOndo literary movement. Comparing views from the north of the American continent, where the emphasis is largely on difference and inequality, and the south, where we read about characters that lead indistinct urban lifestyles that could easily take place in the U.S., tells us something about varying reader preferences – what kind of text is perceived as “realistic” or “urgent”? – and about the effects of neoliberal reform throughout the continent. Most centrally, it leads us to a series of ethical questions: How can writers productively represent the suffering of others? Is triggering empathy or denouncing wrongdoing enough in an era of voracious cultural consumption? And at what point does an emphasis on difference cross into patronizing exoticism?

It is hard to know what Kerouac’s “mountain Indian” would have made of Sal and Dean’s road trip, and whether a novel from his viewpoint would have attracted the same amount of interest as the original. But one thing is certain: the well-intentioned drive to speak of and for Latin American subjects may prevent us from tackling, with sensitivity and realism, many of the most urgent social problems resulting from migratory movement across the continent today.

Andres Amerikaner is a Ph.D. student in the Comparative Literature program and a current Crawford Fellow. Among the courses he has taught at Penn State are Human Rights and World Literature, Latin American Literature, and Intermediate Spanish. He is a former reporter for the Miami Herald.

Wrapping Gifts the Recycled Way

In an earlier blog post entitled, "Taking out the Trash, " I mentioned that we are closing the loop on solid waste at Penn State by redirecting most of our trash to compost or recycling bins. In that same spirit, I am providing some helpful tips below for gift wrapping using recycling techniques. With a little creativity, we can continue to reduce, reuse, and recycle over the holidays!

In an earlier blog post entitled, "Taking out the Trash, " I mentioned that we are closing the loop on solid waste at Penn State by redirecting most of our trash to compost or recycling bins. In that same spirit, I am providing some helpful tips below for gift wrapping using recycling techniques. With a little creativity, we can continue to reduce, reuse, and recycle over the holidays!

1. Little Brown Bag

Paper bags from the grocery store can be turned inside out and then used as wrapping paper.  Add a colorful bow for flair!

2. What is white, black, and read all over?

Wrap your gifts in newspaper or the comics section. Both options give your gift a modern, artistic look.

3. These boots are made for walking... but one of these days this box will be given to you!

If you purchased a new pair of peep toe shoes for that holiday party, don't throw out the box just yet! Wrap the top and bottom of the box separately with eco-friendly wrapping paper, newspaper, or paper bag. Tie the entire box with raffia or ribbon to complete the look!

4. Out shopping...

Tuck bulky items like sweaters in department store bags. The added bonus is that some department stores include tissue paper with your purchase. Reuse this too!

5. Try Bojagi or Furoshiki

Fabric can be used to make bags and wrap items of all shapes and sizes. Perhaps you have an old skirt, shirt, or sweater that you don't need anymore. If you'd like to try this idea but want something exciting, try the Japanese art of gift wrapping called Furoshiki or the Korean art of Bojagi.

6. Skip the tape!

Should you decide to recycle your gift paper, it cannot be recycled with cellophane tape on it. Instead, secure the paper on your gifts using foil seals that can easily be removed before recycling. Another option would be to use paper labels (the ones that can be written on).

7. Can it!

Cans,  jars, and containers of all sorts can be used to hold small items, such as candy. Mason jars, which are usually used for canning food, give a rustic, homey feel to any gift. Tie the top of the container with colorful ribbon or raffia and you are done!

8. Give gifts like my father

It is truly the thought that counts! There may be times when you'd be better off not wrapping your gift at all! For example, a bottle of wine or large electronic such as a television, carries enough "wow" on its own!

9. Dot. com it!

Send Holiday greetings via email instead of mailing them. There are many websites that will allow you to send free Holiday cards. The other option would be to just send an email with a festive picture or quote in your signature line. Similarly, send monetary gifts to friends and family by electronic transfer or PayPal. Alternatively, you could send Holiday postcards as opposed to full-sized cards to places where it is better to mail a note than to email it. Purchase recyclable, biodegradable or recycled postcards.

10. Soy! Soy! Soy! And Happy Holidays to All!

For those who want to wrap their gifts with the traditional festive prints indicative of the season, purchase biodegradable and recycled/recyclable gift wrap printed with soy-based inks.

For more tips and pictures of others who have wrapped their gifts in eco-conscious ways, check out these sites:

Slideshow of stylish and sustainable gift wrap ideas

Pictures of eco-conscious gift ideas on Pinterest

So, how will you wrap your gifts this Holiday Season?

Why should I attend a lecture on Research Ethics?

The Rock Research Ethics Lectures Series brings discussion of key ethical issues in research to the campus community. These events bring up ideas that are relevant to everyone.

The Rock Research Ethics Lectures Series brings discussion of key ethical issues in research to the campus community. These events bring up ideas that are relevant to everyone.

Are you a Penn State student? If so, these events are chances to explore issues that you'll encounter both in your personal and professional lives.  Besides gaining a broader perspective on important issues, you'll also be able to engage a wide cross-section of the campus community in thinking more critically about the role values play in your own life.  And if you don't think values play a role... think again!
As graduate students, you might think you don't have time to worry about ethics - or even reason to worry.  But ethical issues are embedded in and through scientific work, so excluding portions of them from your daily intellectual diet can be bad for your professional health.  Look no further than recent local news for examples, if you don't believe us!  These lectures are easily consumed as important supplements for your professional lives.
Faculty are particularly stressed for time and for the space to think outside of their specializations.  But many of you have interest in the ethical dimensions of your work.  The research ethics lectures do two things to help. First, they give you access to cutting edge perspectives from experts on specific topics.  Second, they demonstrate pedagogical or conceptual approaches that you can use in your classrooms, labs, and working groups.
The relevance of these topics extends beyond the academic community.  Community members too will find that the discussions about ethics that we host resonate at home, at work, and in politics.  Coming to better understand how other people think about ethics and values can play a vital role in decision-making in our communities.
So join us for these engaging events as one way of putting ethics to work in your own experiences!

Why Ethics Requires Acknowledging Links Between Tornadoes and Climate Change Despite Scientific Uncertainty.

The outbreak of recent killer weather events including US tornadoes hitting Joplin, Missouri and Tuscaloosa, Alabama has everyone asking whether there is a link between tornadoes and human-induced climate change. In this writer's experience when US TV or radio weathermen are asked about the cause of recent strong tornadoes, they most always ignore climate change as a potential cause and point to a cyclical ocean circulation event known as La Ni�a as the cause of recent tornadoes if they comment on causation at all. Rarely is human-induced climate change mentioned as a cause or contributing factor in the recent outbreak of sever tornadoes although questions about causation are becoming more frequent on TV and newspapers in this writer's experience.

I. Identifying Links Between Climate Change and Tornadoes?

The outbreak of recent killer weather events including US tornadoes hitting Joplin, Missouri and Tuscaloosa, Alabama has everyone asking whether there is a link between tornadoes and human-induced climate change. In this writer's experience when US TV or radio weathermen are asked about the cause of recent strong tornadoes, they most always ignore climate change as a potential cause and point to a cyclical ocean circulation event known as La Ni�a as the cause of recent tornadoes if they comment on causation at all. Rarely is human-induced climate change mentioned as a cause or contributing factor in the recent outbreak of sever tornadoes although questions about causation are becoming more frequent on TV and newspapers in this writer's experience.

This post argues that ethics requires acknowledging the links between tornadoes and climate change despite scientific uncertainties about increased frequency and intensity of tornadoes in a warming world. However, because there are also scientific reasons to doubt that tornado propagation and intensity will increase in a warming world, as we shall see, care is necessary about how we should discuss these risks.

As we shall see there are certain aspects of atmospheric conditions necessary to produce violent tornadoes that climate change is enhancing while there are other atmospheric conditions necessary to form tornadoes about which scientists are uncertain exactly how a warming world will affect them. To figure out whether climate change will cause more intense and frequent tornadoes requires asking lots of smaller questions about the atmospheric conditions necessary to produce tornadoes and to determine how climate change will affect each of these various atmospheric conditions that combine to propagate tornadoes.

Before discussing tornadoes, it is important to note that it is scientifically uncontroversial to conclude that climate change is causing more violent weather particularly in the form of: (a) more damaging thunder storms, (b) the kind of devastating flooding we have seen this year in Australia, Pakistan, Brazil, Columbia, Venezuela, along the Mississippi and the Tennessee valleys, and (c) more severe droughts such as those experienced this year in China, Brazil, and Texas. Similarly more intense hurricanes have been linked to climate change although it is still uncertain whether global warming will increase hurricane frequency. (Emanuel, 2005)

Most climate scientists agree that future weather will be characterized by far more chaotic weather causing greater damage to human life, health and ecological systems and so tornadoes are not the only intense weather events that could be enhanced by climate change and that will likely cause increased damage and suffering. .

It also can be said that in one way climate change is already changing all global weather including tornadoes. This is so because climate change has already caused changes to the global climate system such as raising ocean temperatures and increasing the amount of water in the atmosphere. Increased ocean temperatures and the water content of air have an effect on the amount and timing of precipitation that is being experienced in any one location. And so a strong claim can be made that climate change is now at least partially responsible for all global weather although the part played by climate change could be small for any individual climate event relative to other causes such as normal ocean circulation patterns. Yet, no tornado or hurricane experienced recently would likely be the same without some contribution from climate change. That is no tornado would appear at the same place, the same time, with the same wind speed without changes to the climate system that have been caused by human impacts on climate And so every tornado is very likely affected somewhat by climate change. That is although strong tornadoes have occurred before recent human-induced climate change, no recent tornado is likely to have happened in the same way at the same place in the absence of global warming.

This is not to say, however, that the intensity and frequency of tornadoes will surely increase in the years ahead.. Yet, although it is not clear that climate change will be responsible for more tornado caused damages, other kinds of storm damages are virtually certain to increase.

This post, however, looks at links between tornado intensity and frequency and climate change and what ethics requires when discussing these links. That is, this post does not examine other links between climate change and damaging weather.

II. The Scientific Links

A. The Earth Is Warming Because of Human Activities

We know with high levels of confidence that the Earth is warming and that most of the warming is attributable to human activities despite the natural variability of thee Earth's climate. Earlier this month, the United States Academy of Science issued its most recent report on the science of climate change that once again concluded that human-induced climate change was a very serious threat to humans and ecological systems around the world and that the Earth is getting warmer as predicted by mainstream climate change science. . This Report was entitled "America's Climate Choices 2011" (US Academy, 2011) Among other conclusions, this report found:

Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by the emission of greenhouse gases from human activities, and poses significant risks for a range of human and natural systems. Emissions continue to increase, which will result in further change and greater risks. In the judgment of this report's authoring committee, the environmental, economic, and humanitarian risks posed by climate change indicate a pressing need for substantial action to limit the magnitude of climate change and to prepare for adapting to its impacts. (US Academy, 2011)

That the Earth is warming is based upon many robust lines of independent evidence including temperature measurements of many different types of land, ocean, and atmosphere, diminishing sea ice, retreating glaciers, the timing of the formation and melting of river ice, the timing and aerial extent of snow cover, and the migration of plants and animals among other things.

There are also multiple robust lines of evidence of human causation of this undeniable warming that the Earth is experiencing that include multiple attribution studies, fingerprint studies based upon how the Earth would warm if greenhouse gases are causing the warming compared to how it would warm is climate change is caused by the sun, volcanic activity or ocean cycles, carbon isotope analyses that have demonstrated that carbon compounds appearing the atmosphere can be traced to fossil fuel burning, and model results that achieve the best fit between prediction and observation when both natural climate forcing and greenhouse gas climate forcing are combined. (Forcing means changes in heat energy from a baseline year.)

B. There Will Be More Intense Droughts, Floods, and Destructive Storms As the Earth Warms.

As the Earth warms, more water continues to be transported into the atmosphere under the forces of evapotranspiration. The global water cycle is believed to be at least 4% wetter from recent warming. As a rule of thumb, every 1 degree F in temperature will result in 4% more water in the air.

Basic physics predicts that increased warming and atmospheric water content will lead to increased droughts, floods, and intense storms. More droughts will be experienced despite more water in the atmosphere because the atmosphere will become more turbulent creating a propensity to discharge the water in stronger storms. Also as the Earth warms it will also more quickly deplete soil moisture in some areas therefore further intensifying drought conditions. And so, some places will get wetter and some drier and some places may cycle between drought and floods. The precipitation increases due to more water in the atmosphere under some conditions will include both more snow and rain. As a result, recent heavy snows are predicted by climate change theory despite somewhat counter intuitive notions that snow should decrease in a warming world. Of course, as temperatures continue to arise eventually snow will decrease in some areas.

C. Atmospheric Winds and Global Temperatures Will Be Affected and Weather Will Become More Violent As Oceans Warm.

Winds are caused by uneven heat causing differences in high and low pressures and pressure differences are caused by differences in temperature. Cold air is denser and exerts more pressure than worm air. Therefore increased warming changes global wind patterns. As one observer sums this up in regard to ocean temperature:

Heat exchange between the ocean and atmosphere drive atmospheric circulation over the entire planet and modifies temperatures and atmospheric wind patterns. Ocean surface currents play an important role by redistributing some of the heat the ocean absorbs and affect local weather patterns around the world. Understanding this complex relationship between surface ocean currents and weather is important to understanding global climate patterns and the changes that they are undergoing due to global warming. . .. The ocean-atmosphere system is a delicate balance between incoming and outgoing energy. If this balance is upset, even slightly, global climate can undergo a series of complicated changes. (Missouri, 2011)

Both an increase in water vapor and a rise in temperature will boost a metric that meteorologists use to forecast severe thunderstorms, known as Convective Available Potential Energy, or "CAPE." A higher CAPE value indicates that there is more potential energy in the atmosphere to fuel thunderstorm development, should some trigger come along and set them off.

D. Weather Is Becoming More Chaotic As Predicted. 

Not only is more chaotic weather predicted by climate change, it is actually happening. There is strong scientific evidence that "indeed the weather has become more extreme, as expected, and that it is extremely likely that humans are a contributing cause." (Romm, 2011)

We also know that oceans are warming due to human activities and that warmer oceans both lead to higher levels of moisture in the atmosphere and more energy in the climate system. (Romm, 2011) Romm, quoting Dr. Kevin Trenberth, Senior Scientists with the Climate Analysis Section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research describes the evidence of how recent temperatures rise in the oceans has affected storms.


The SSTs (Sea Surface Temperatures) in the Gulf have been running perhaps 2 deg F above pre 1970 values. Warm waters also extend across the tropical Atlantic north of the equator in the region favored for hurricanes, and hence the recent NOAA forecast for an above average hurricane season (although the La Nina is fading and will likely be over by August, so there may be more competition from the Pacific).

Of those 2 def F, 1 can be assigned to human influence. With 1F increase in SST there is 4% increase in water holding capacity over the oceans and hence in this case the plentiful supply of moisture means there is likely to have been 8% increase in moisture flowing in the southerlies into the warm sector, thereby acting as fuel for the thunderstorms, and thus increasing the likelihood they would become super cells, with the attendant risk of tornadoes. And of course heavy rains. In spring the westerly jet stream aloft and southerlies at the surface create a wind shear environment that is favorable for tornadoes as the wind shear can be turned into rotation. This part of the situation is largely in the realm of weather. The climate part is the warmth and moistness of the air flowing out of the Gulf and the resulting very unstable atmosphere. So while a big part of that is natural variability, a substantial part was anthropogenic global warming.

These changes are making the weather more violent . In fact a believed contributor to the recent severe weather is an unusually warm Gulf of Mexico, where sea surface temperatures are running 1 to 2.5 degrees Celsius above average. (Freedman, 2011) The Gulf is the main moisture source for storm systems as they move east from the Rockies, and the additional moisture is helping to fuel thunderstorm development.

E. Tornadoes are Caused By A Combination of A Certain Type of Atmospheric Instability and Wind Shear

Tornadoes are caused when certain atmospheric temperature conditions exist along with certain wind conditions.

Tornadoes form in unusually violent thunderstorms when there is sufficient (1) instability and (2) wind shear present in the lower atmosphere. Instability refers to unusually warm and humid conditions in the lower atmosphere, and possibly cooler than usual conditions in the upper atmosphere. Wind shear in this case refers to the wind direction changing, and the wind speed increasing, with height. An example would be a southerly wind of 15 mph at the surface, changing to a southwesterly or westerly wind of 50 mph at 5,000 feet altitude.

This kind of wind shear and instability usually exists only ahead of a cold front and low pressure system. The intense spinning of a tornado is partly the result of the updrafts and downdrafts in the thunderstorm (caused by the unstable air) interacting with the wind shear, causing a tilting of the wind shear to form an upright tornado vortex. Helping the process along, cyclonically flowing air around the cyclone, already slowly spinning in a counter-clockwise direction (in the Northern Hemisphere), converges inward toward the thunderstorm, causing it to spin faster. This is the same process that causes an ice skater to spin faster when she pulls her arms in toward her body.

(Weather Questions 2011)

And so tornadoes form when warm moist air collides with cold air that is moving at a different direction and speed under certain conditions. For this reason, the two main ingredients for tornado formation most often quoted are atmospheric instability and wind shear.

F. There Is A Likely Connection Between El Ni�o and La Ni�a and Tornadoes.

El Ni�o and La Ni�a are extreme phases of a naturally occurring ocean climate cycles referred to as El Ni�o/Southern Oscillation. Both terms refer to large-scale changes in sea-surface temperature across the eastern tropical Pacific. (Weather Almanac, 2011) Usually, sea-surface readings off South America's west coast range from the 60s to 70s�F, while they exceed 80�F in the "warm pool" located in the central and western Pacific. Weather Almanac, 2011) This warm pool expands to cover the tropics during El Ni�o, but during La Ni�a, the easterly trade winds strengthen and cold upwelling along the equator and the west coast of South America intensifies. (Weather Almanac, 2011) Sea-surface temperatures along the equator can fall as low as 7�F below normal during La Ni�a. Both La Ni�a and El Ni�o impact global weather patterns. (Weather Almanac, 2011)

The scientific community has identified at least a weak correlation between El Ni�o and La Ni�a ocean circulation patterns and the frequency of tornadoes. As the US National Weather Service has recently concluded:

Since a strong jet stream is an important ingredient for severe weather, the position of the jet stream helps to determine the regions more likely to experience tornadoes. Contrasting El Ni�o and La Ni�a winters, the jet stream over the United States is considerably different. During El Ni�o the jet stream is oriented from west to east across the southern portion of the United States. Thus, this region becomes more susceptible to severe weather outbreaks during La Ni�a. During La Ni�a the jet stream and severe weather is likely to be farther north.

(Weather Almanac, 2011)

G. Evidence Exists That Climate Change Is Affecting the Intensity and Frequency of El Ni�o and La Ni�a Events.

Although the jury is still out over how climate change is affecting El Ni�o and La Ni�a events there is increasing evidence that climate change is already affecting the frequency and intensity of these ocean circulation cycles. According to Kevin Trenberth, a senior climate scientist with the National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR):

There have been changes in the El Ni�o-La Ni�a cycle since the 1970s. It's a complex cycle but the associated droughts, flooding and other manifestations have been stronger over the last 30 to 40 years......It would be surprising if there wasn't an effect [between climate change and the strength of El Ni�o-La Ni�a cycles] .

(Leahy, 2011, quoting Trenberth)

Since climate change has fundamentally altered the global climate system, trapping more heat and about four percent more water vapor in the atmosphere, it is reasonable to conclude it is affecting the has affected the El Ni�o and La Ni�a cycle. For these reasons climate scientists believe a warming world may be increasing the intensity and frequency of these ocean cycles. If La Nina's are increasing from climate change, it is reasonable to conclude tornado propagation will be affected.

III. Not All Atmospheric Conditions Required For Tornado Generation Will Necessarily Increase In A Warming World.

In order for tornadoes to form, several factors have to combine in just the right way. (Freedman, 2011) These ingredients include a warm and humid atmosphere, strong jet stream winds, and atmospheric wind shear (winds that vary with speed and/or direction with height), as well as a mechanism to ignite this volatile mixture of ingredients - such as a cold front. (Freedman, 2011). Neither trend data on tornado propagation nor our understanding of future atmospheric conditions as the Earth continues to warm allow strong predictions on the number and intensity of future tornadoes in a warming world. Some of the reasons for this uncertainty is as follows:

A. There is No Trend Data Supporting Greater Tornado Production Over A Long Enough Time To Draw Conclusions About Future Tornado. 

There is no clear indication that severe thunderstorms and tornadoes have become more common due to climate change, in part because of major limitations in relying on the historical record of severe weather reports. (Freedman, 2011) While the number of tornadoes recorded in the U.S. has just about doubled during the past 50 years, the number of strong tornadoes (EF2 and above) has actually been decreasing. (Freedman, 2011) It may be the case that more tornadoes are being noticed today, given a network of trained storm spotters and a national Doppler radar network, both of which didn't exist as recently as the early 1980s. (Freedman, 2011)

The Joplin tornado is the deadliest since modern record keeping began in 1950 and is ranked 8th among the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history. (NOAA, 2011) Preliminary estimate is that there have been approximately 1,314 tornadoes so far this year. (NOAA, 2011). The previous yearly record number of tornadoes was set in 2004 with 1,817. (NOAA, 2011). The overall yearly average number of tornadoes for the past decade is 1,274. (NOAA, 2011) The preliminary estimated number of tornado fatalities so far this year is 512. (NOAA, 2011). There were 365 tornado fatalities before the Joplin event. There were 132 fatalities from the Joplin tornado. (NOAA, 2011) An additional 18 fatalities were reported for a tornado outbreak on May 24, 2011 (NOAA, 2011). 2011 is preliminarily ranked 7th among the deadliest tornado years in U.S. history. (NOAA, 2011)

And so trend data is inconclusive in regard to how climate change may be affecting tornado propagation. There appear to be more tornadoes recently but not necessarily stronger or more deadly tornadoes. Most likely it will be decades before sufficient trend data will emerge that allow scientists to what extent a warming world is affecting tornadoes in frequency and intensity. A warming world could increase frequency but not intensity or increase intensity but not frequency or have little affect on tornado propagation.

B. The Relative Strength Of Cold Fronts Could Be Reduced in A Warming World. 

Because cold fronts colliding with warm moist air masses are optimal for tornado production, it is not clear what happens to tornado production as differences between artic and tropic temperatures decrease in a warming world. A warming world could actually reduce differences betweem Earth's cold spots compared to warmest parts of our planet. Because tornadoes are propagated when warm moist air collides with cold air, future frequency of tornadoes are in question despite a warming world.

C. As the Planet Heats Up, Wind Shear May Not Increase.

Some modeling studies indicate that a warmer world may also have less wind shear, which is necessary in order to transform ordinary thundershowers into organized squall lines and supercells, capable of dropping large hailstones, producing damaging straight line winds, and spawning tornadoes. (Freedman, 2011) And so, if a warming world produces less wind sheer, tornado intensity and frequency may actually decrease as the world experiences other increased weather caused damages. It will take years if not decades before models can predict wind sheer. As one commentator has noted:

It will take years or even decades to build the scientific models that would allow us to actually attribute individual weather events to manmade global warming. This will be even tougher with tornadoes, where the historical records are less well understood than other extreme weather events. (Walsh, 2011)

And so it is possible that average frequency and intensity of tornadoes decrease in warming world. Only time will tell.

IV. The Ethical Obligation To Discuss Tornado/Climate Change Links Despite Scientific Uncertainty.

And so, as we have seen, there are scientifically sound reasons to conclude that as the world heats in response to human activities tornadoes will increase in intensity and/or frequency. That is there are both scientifically sound theoretical basis for linking increased warming with more frequent and intense tornadoes and empirical evidence supporting the theory. Yet there are some theoretical reasons for being doubtful that tornado activity will increase in frequency and intensity in a warming world and insufficient trend data to draw conclusions at this time. Yet, it is very likely that storm damage will increase in a warming world because of human activities but it is not clear that this increase in damages will be caused by increased tornado activity.

Because of the complexity of the climate system and the need to predict atmospheric conditions at specific locations to be able to predict future tornado activity, it is unlikely that strong proof about the causal connection will emerge in the near future. Compelling proof would require a much better understanding of how the timing and magnitude of local atmospheric conditions will change than our current modeling capability allows or decades of experience with tornado formation to be able to establish credible trend data.

And so, in summary, when it comes to tornadoes and climate change there is reason to believe that tornado caused destruction will increase due to human induced climate change and also reason for doubt.

Many commenting on the connection between climate change and destructive tornado equate the lack of proof with the lack of any scientific evidence. In so doing they are implicitly claiming only absolute proof counties as evidence. Yet, as we have seen, it would be untruthful to conclude there is no scientific basis for connecting climate change to more damaging tornadoes. Climate change will clearly enhance certain atmospheric conditions that should lead to more intense and frequent tornadoes while possibly diminishing others. Evidence of a connection exists despite lack of conclusive proof.

We also know, that any tornado that greatly harms people in a specific place and at a specific time would not likely have happened at that place and time without climate change because climate change has already changed aspects of the climate system so as to influence where and when tornadoes will form and with what intensity. That is although killer tornadoes may have formed in May of 2011 somewhere in the United States without climate change, the tornadoes experienced in Joplin and Tuscaloosa would not likely have formed at the same exact time and place in the absence of climate change because climate change has already transformed the initial conditions which trigger tornadoes. When and where a tornado is generated is dependent upon initial conditions and climate change has changed initial conditions around the world.

As Bill McKibben has stated there is now no place on Earth that is now unaffected by climate change and human activities. (McKibben, 1989). As a result all tornadoes have been affected somewhat by global climate change although tornado frequency and intensity need not have increased.

In a warming world it is possible that for some time periods tornado activity may increase while decreasing in other periods. Yet is not truthful to claim there is no connection between climate change and tornadoes because all weather events are being affected by climate change and some of the atmospheric conditions needed to propagate tornadoes have been enhanced by climate change . Yet it is not proven that tornadoes will in general increase in intensity and frequency.

It would appear that many weatherman and the media claim that there is no connection between climate change and tornadoes because of the absence of proof of increases in tornado frequency and intensity from climate change. Yet it is simply not true that there is no scientific basis for being concerned that tornado damage may increase as human activities warm the planet. And so it is untruthful to say that there is no evidence of a connection although truthful to claim there is no proof of increased intensity and frequency of tornadoes.. That is, it is truthful to claim that there is no absolute proof that climate change is causing more intense and frequent tornadoes. Yet it is not true to claim that there is no evidence of scientific links between climate change and tornado damage.

Given this, a strong case can be made that when talking about the connection between climate change and tornadoes there is a duty to warn people of the possible connection even in the absence of absolute proof once it is established scientifically that behavior causing climate change is increasing the risk of harm from tornadoes. This is particularly true in cases when waiting for the proof will make it too late to avoid the harm from risky behavior.

To fully understand this it is helpful to understand why climate change is essentially an ethical problem. Climate change is an ethical problem because: (a) Some people in some parts of the world are putting others at risk, (b) The harms to those at risk could be catastrophic, and (c) Most of the victims of climate change can do little to avoid harm, they must rely on a sense of justice will motivate those who are putting others at risk to reduce their climate changing causing behavior.

For this reason, since we now know that it is scientifically plausible that tornado frequency and intensity will increase as the world warms and climate change is already affecting timing, location, and intensity of tornadoes that will form, it is not ethically acceptable to assert there is no link because such a claim implies that there is no scientifically valid basis for concern or risk. To understand why this it is ethically problematic to deny evidence. it is necessary to review the ethics of dangerous behavior.

From a proposition that a problem like global warming creates a particular threat or risk, one cannot, however, deduce whether that threat is acceptable without first deciding on certain criteria for acceptability. The criteria of acceptability must be understood as an ethical rather than a scientific question. For instance, although science may conclude that a certain increased exposure to solar radiation may increase the risk of skin cancer by one new cancer in every hundred people, science cannot say whether this additional risk is acceptable because science describes facts and cannot generate prescriptive guidance by itself. The scientific understanding of the nature of the threat, of course, is not irrelevant to the ethical question of whether the risk is ethically acceptable, but science alone cannot tell society what it should do about various threats. In environmental controversies such as global warming where there is legitimate concern, important ethical questions arise when scientific uncertainty prevents unambiguous predictions of human health and environmental consequences. This is so because decision-makers or those engaged in risky behavior cannot duck ethical questions such as how conservative "should" scientific assumptions be in the face of uncertainty or who "should" bear the burden of proof about harm. To ignore these questions is to decide to expose human health and the environment to real risk before changing the risky behavior, that is, a decision to not act on a serious environmental threat has serious potential consequences. Science alone cannot tell us what assumptions or concerns should be considered in making a judgment about what to do about potentially dangerous behavior. This is an ethical question. And so from the standpoint of ethics, potential risks are relevant to what should be done.

For this reason, environmental decisions in the face of scientific uncertainty must be understood to raise a mixture of ethical and scientific questions. Yet, the scientific skeptics on global warming or those denying connections between tornadoes and climate change often speak as if it is irrational to talk about duties to reduce greenhouse gases until science is capable of proving with high levels of certainty what actual damages will be.

That only proven facts should count about dangerous behavior can be shown to be ethically problematic by looking at how societies often deal with other kinds of unsafe behavior. For instance, many societies make dangerous behavior criminal such as dangerous driving, irresponsible use of hazardous substances, and negligently setting fire to a forest. Many social norms about dangerous behavior can be found in various cultures that recognize that burdens of proof and quantity of proof should shift depending upon what is at stake, who has been harmed, whether society can wait until the uncertainties are resolved, whether those harmed by the decision have consented to be put at risk. In other words, when the burden of proof should shift to those proposing to do something dangerous or how much proof should satisfy the burden of proof are ethical questions that need to take into consideration many different factors. Because these are ethical questions, they cannot be answered by an algorithm or a "value-neutral" scientific calculation. That is, there is no escaping asking the question what is the right thing to do given the uncertainty about links between tornadoes and climate change.

Because scientists are expected to produce scientific knowledge that can be applied to public policy questions, they must be able to describe threats that are not fully proven. From the standpoint of public policy, therefore, scientists should not deny that climate change creates risks of increased damage from tornadoes. A claim that there is no link between climate change and tornadoes is misleading. If someone is concerned about whether to adopt policies reducing the threat of climate change they need to know whether climate change creates risks of damage from tornadoes even if there are open questions about what happens to tornado frequency and intensity in a warming world.

In other words, when science is applied to public policy where there is reasonable basis that some human activity is dangerous, science has an important role in communicating any scientifically plausible dangerous risks-not just proven facts.

As long as anyone is asking the question of whether there is a link between climate change and tornado damage because they want to know whether there is reason to limit greenhouse gas emissions, it is therefore ethically problematic to say there is no link

However, it is also ethically required to acknowledge that increased tornado damage and frequency are not yet proven. When talking about these risks it is important to acknowledge that there is also scientific basis for doubt about increased tornado and frequency in a warming world. However, if this said, it is also ethically important to acknowledge that increased damage from other kinds of storms is virtually certain as the planet warms. Furthermore, it is ethically important to acknowledge that tornadoes will appear in places that they would not likely occur in the absence of global warming even if tornado frequency and intensity decrease because a changing climate is already affecting tornado propagation.

V. References

Emanuel, K. 2005. Increasing Destructiveness Of Tropical Cyclones Over The Past 30 Years. Nature 436:686-688.

Freedman, Andrew, 2011, Are La Nina and Global Warming Behind the Extreme Tornado Activity?, Washington Post,

Leahy. Stephen, 2011, Climate Change Could Be Worsening Effects of El Ni�o, La Ni�a,

McKibben, Bill, 1989, The End Of Nature, Random House

Missouri Department Of Natural Resources, (Missouri) 2011, Global Climate Change: Oceans' Effect on Climate,

NOAA. 2011, 2011 Tornado Information,

Romm, Joe, 2011 Joplin Disaster Spurs Media Whirlwind On Link Between Climate Change, Extreme Weather, And Tornadoes, Climate Progress,

US National Weather Service, 2011. Frequently Asked Questions About El Ni�o and La Ni�a ,

US Academy of Sciences, 2011, America's Climate Choices (2011),

Walsh, Bryan, 2011, Why the Argument Over Climate and Tornadoes Is Pointless, Time Magazine,

Weather Almanac, 2011, El Ni�o & La Ni�a,

White, Robert, 1978, Oceans and Climate -Introduction, Oceanus, 21:2-3

Weather Questions, 2011, What Causes A Tornado,


Donald A. Brown
Associate Professor, Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law, 
Penn State Univesity

Where the Rhetoric Hits the Road

Like many of you, I've been following discussions of Gov. Corbett's proposed budget cuts fairly closely over the last week. My focus has been on trying to understand the line of reasoning that leads us from a claim around which there is general consensus ('Pennsylvania is in financial trouble') to a claim that is highly controversial ('The proper response to this trouble involves cutting the appropriation to Penn State by roughly 52%'). I am well aware that in admitting that, despite the effort I have put in, I still haven't grasped the connection between these claims, I run the risk of coming off as politically and economically naive. That's a risk I am willing to take, however, because I think the obstacles I have encountered in my attempts might deserve a bit more attention than they are currently getting.

Like many of you, I've been following discussions of Gov. Corbett's proposed budget cuts fairly closely over the last week. My focus has been on trying to understand the line of reasoning that leads us from a claim around which there is general consensus ('Pennsylvania is in financial trouble') to a claim that is highly controversial ('The proper response to this trouble involves cutting the appropriation to Penn State by roughly 52%'). I am well aware that in admitting that, despite the effort I have put in, I still haven't grasped the connection between these claims, I run the risk of coming off as politically and economically naive. That's a risk I am willing to take, however, because I think the obstacles I have encountered in my attempts might deserve a bit more attention than they are currently getting.  

I tried to locate the line of reasoning I was looking for in Gov. Corbett's March 8th Budget Address. What I found was an admittedly clear and coherent rhetorical strategy (the echoes of which one can also hear in the 'man up' rhetoric of subsequent editorials and blog comments). The governor begins with the obvious problem: a $4 Billion projected budget deficit. He then identifies the shortcomings of a 'quick-fix' culture that has dominated in Harrisburg and has only contributed more to the problems we now face. From there, reference is made to the platform he ran on (jobs, jobs, and jobs) as providing him a mandate from the people. Next we get reasons for thinking that increasing taxes would threaten the creation of new jobs. Finally, we get the conclusion that the only thing for the state to do is the same thing that private businesses and households have to do when they are in dire financial straits: cut spending.

While the strategy here is clear, whether or not it is also a good one to adopt seems to depend on two important factors that are quite a bit less clear: Are the claims that lead to this conclusion true? If they are, how do we get from the very general conclusion they support to specific claims about cutting Penn State's appropriation?

Now, I'm not convinced that these claims are true. But, even if they were, we would still have a long way to go to understand why the necessary cuts should come in the specific form the governor proposes. Why should we think that cutting the appropriation to Penn State would be less detrimental to the creation of jobs than would making the cuts in other areas instead? Why should we think that continuing the level of investment taxpayers are currently making in Penn State promises less significant long-term returns than do other investments outlined in the proposed budget? I don't see those who favor the cuts answering these basic economic questions. Until they do, I won't be able to grasp the connection between problem and policy, and it will remain very difficult to tell where their rhetoric hits the road.

Perhaps even more importantly, though, I'm not seeing any response to the central point that I took away from President Spanier's press conference last week: It is not about the money for Penn State!

If I understand what he is saying correctly, the most important challenges this budget raises are not so much economic as they are ethical. These challenges concern our identity and our mission as a publicly supported, land-grant university that serves the good of the commonwealth. They concern the fairness of asking that we bear such a disproportionate amount of a burden for which we bear no real responsibility. They concern the level of wisdom and prudence that the new governor's administration is showing in its stewardship of the commonwealth.

What if President Spanier is right that the real bottom line here is not the money? What if the question of whether and how Penn State can survive the cuts, important as it is, is also somewhat beside the point? What if the real question is one about fairness? In that case, overcoming the obstacles to grasping the connection between problem and policy would require more than economic analysis and projection. 

What would our fair share of the burden be? What is it fair for us to expect from the state? 
What is it fair for the state to expect from us?

Could it be a genuine concern with what the cuts will mean for the commonwealth we serve, rather than a narrowly self-interested concern with how much money will be flowing into our coffers, that motivates the 'surprising' response from State College?

Surely we are all too politically and economically savvy to think that could be the case... right?

When “It Can’t Happen Here” Does and Will Happen Again

A common refrain after mass shootings is “we never thought it could happen here.” The idea is so common that Penn State’s Applied Research Lab produced a nationally circulating school security documentary entitled It Can Happen Here.[i] As a warning call, it signals to other communities that they are at risk and need to do whatever they can to prepare for violence. Implicit in this warning call is the hope that if more communities take the threat more seriously, then perhaps targeted violence will disappear. What would it take to guarantee security?

By: Brad SerberRock Ethics Humanities Initiative Dissertation Fellow

Authors note: Following the recent shooting at Umpqua Community College, politicians, journalists, bloggers, and op-ed writers have once again flooded television and the internet with their opinions about how to stop the next shooting. Often one-sided and seeking quick and easy solutions, these pieces try to shape what the nation does in response to targeted violence. This piece, which comes from my dissertation research, aims to contribute to this same conversation in a slightly different way: to shape how the nation thinks about targeted violence by slowing down knee-jerk reactions, recognizing the complexity of the problem, and considering the unintended consequences of the language and frameworks we use to understand it.

A common refrain after mass shootings is “we never thought it could happen here.” The idea is so common that Penn State’s Applied Research Lab produced a nationally circulating school security documentary entitled It Can Happen Here.[i] As a warning call, it signals to other communities that they are at risk and need to do whatever they can to prepare for violence. Implicit in this warning call is the hope that if more communities take the threat more seriously, then perhaps targeted violence will disappear. What would it take to guarantee security?

Title screen shot from Penn State-produced school shooting documentary It Can Happen Here (dir. Lynne Squilla, University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Applied Research Lab, Institute for Non-Lethal Defense Technologies, 2010)

Because many instances of targeted violence involve guns, debates over gun control often resurface after they occur. While this conversation gets at the genre of school shootings, expanding to the broader genre of targeted violence points toward events like the Boston marathon bombing, the Germanwings plane crash, and the Franklin Regional High School stabbings.[i] Not all incidents of targeted violence involve guns, and even if they did, the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission Final Report estimates that there are over 300 million guns in the United States.[ii] Politics aside, the weapons problem is hard to solve when those who commit violence are determined to do so by any means necessary.

When the gun debate stalls, those interested in prevention typically turn toward mental health or security. However, these issues are also messy and only provide partial solutions. Although many perpetrators of targeted violence suffer from some kind of mental illness, they do not fit neatly into one single category from the DSM. Even if they did, the vast majority of people with mental illness do not commit violence against others. A recent article from the American Journal of Psychiatry reports that “only 4% of violence can be attributed to persons with mental illness” and that “mental health experts do little better than chance in predicting who will be violent.”[iii] Although mental health professionals generally support improving mental health services, they worry about the stigma that comes from conflating mental illness and targeted violence.

Meanwhile, security, whether in schools, shopping malls, entertainment venues, or places of worship, is also not guaranteed. Cameras, locks, police officers, and metal detectors can alleviate some risk, but they cannot eliminate risk entirely. Perpetrators of targeted violence are adaptive; they lock victims inside buildings (Cho), wear protective gear (Holmes, Breivik), and shoot through windows (Lanza). Moreover, security measures are costly in terms of both money and personal freedoms and dependent upon contextual factors like funding, police response time, and spatial layouts.

Aside from “we never thought it could happen here,” another common refrain after targeted violence is the echo of Pericles, Lincoln, and others’ utterances that the dead should not “die in vain.” With targeted violence, politicians often suggest that the best way to honor the dead is to prevent the next incident, but what if prevention is impossible? What if “it can happen here” and will happen again?

None of this is to say that politicians, law enforcement officials, or mental health professionals should stop trying. Finding partial solutions or mitigating factors is better than simply giving up. However, when politicians, community members, and law enforcement officials channel the majority of their energy into prevention, they make promises that are hard to keep and put the focus more on the perpetrators than their victims.

What if those concerned with targeted violence focused less on prevention and more on victims and their long-term needs? What might they learn about community building, coping mechanisms, and memory practices? Recognizing that “it can happen here” need not mean admitting defeat, burying heads in the sand, or succumbing to an all-consuming paranoia, but instead listening to the voices of those who have experienced violence firsthand, opening up difficult dialogues, and becoming aware of collective responsibilities.

Brad Serber is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication Arts & Sciences and a 2015-2016 Rock Ethics Humanities Initiative Dissertation Fellow. This post provides a brief overview of the first chapter of his dissertation, “Reaction Rhetorics: Targeted Violence and Public Security.”


[i] “24 Injured in Stabbing at Franklin Regional High School,” CBS Local, April 9, 2014,

[ii] Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, “Final Report of the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission” (Hartford, CT, February 13, 2015), 51,

[iii] Richard A. Friedman and Robert Michels, “How Should the Psychiatric Profession Respond to the Recent Mass Killings?,” American Journal of Psychiatry 170, no. 5 (2013): 455–58, doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2013.13010045.

[i] Squilla, Lynne, It Can Happen Here (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Applied Research Lab, Institute for Non-Lethal Defense Technologies, 2010),

What We Can Learn From a Kosher Slaughterhouse

Now, I know next to nothing about Judaism or even what the word kosher means. Some cursory research on the internet led me to Judaism 101: Kashrut: Jewish Dietary Laws. There I learned that kosher in fact does NOT mean a rabbi blesses food, but in fact IS a set of rules about what foods should and should not be eaten as well as how these foods should be kept and prepared. After reading through the site and seeing the lists and rules explained, I thought I would at least be prepared enough to go to Popper's talk and sort of understand it on an elementary level. Honestly, though, I was a little worried it would all be over my head

Nathaniel Popper, who is currently a senior writer for the Los Angeles Times, visited Penn State on Sunday, February 27th, as a part of the "Tend and Sustain It Forever" program series organized by the Jewish Studies department. His talk was about a story Popper reported on when he was still a writer for The Forward on AgriProcessors, which was previously one of the biggest kosher slaughterhouses in the United States.

Now, I know next to nothing about Judaism or even what the word kosher means. Some cursory research on the internet led me to Judaism 101: Kashrut: Jewish Dietary Laws. There I learned that kosher in fact does NOT mean a rabbi blesses food, but in fact IS a set of rules about what foods should and should not be eaten as well as how these foods should be kept and prepared. After reading through the site and seeing the lists and rules explained, I thought I would at least be prepared enough to go to Popper's talk and sort of understand it on an elementary level. Honestly, though, I was a little worried it would all be over my head.
The talk was held at the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center, and after a bried introduction about Popper and his background (this post from the L A TImes explains his background well), the man himself stood and started his talk. Here's an outline:
The kosher food industry is the largest religiously motivated industry in the world. More traditionally, the process to get kosher meat revolved around a process that happened in each town where people had a demand for kosher meat. The butcher would react to the needs of the townspeople, and the chief rabbi in the town would usually also be involved. There was a sense of "old world trust" because everyone knew the butcher, knew where the cattle or chicken or whatever came from, and could trust that the whole process was kosher. AgriProcessors changed this process when they grew to the point where they could provide grocers across the country with kosher meat. How did people know it was actually kosher? Popper visited the meat plant in Postville, Iowa to see if the plant followed kosher rules. Beyond seeing the plant's kill floor and witnessing the process the plant followed to kill their animals, Popper also saw that there was a huge population of assumed (and later confirmed) illegal immigrants working at the plant. He went around with a Guatemalan baker that lived in the town and met people that he been injured and lost limbs from working in the plant, and heard about the inconsistent pay practices. Then, in May 2008, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided the plant and rounded up about 400 illegal immigrants. What was different about this raid was that some of the people that were caught were sent to jail before finally being deported. And Sholom Rubashkin, the slaughterhouse executive, went to trial for charges of bank fraud and harboring undocumented immigrants. He eventually received a sentence of 27 years of jail time. (NOTE: many of Popper's articles on the subject were written while he was a writer at The Forward, like articles about the payRubashkin's trial, and about Rubashkin's past, amongst all the other articles Popper wrote that can also be found.)
That's a lot to chew through, and there are a ton of questions this entire story raises about many different things. Even though this post is hyperlink happy, if you only look at one, I urge you to read this post Popper wrote about the fundamental problems he found through all of his investigating, because it outlines things very well. But I had some questions of my own that got me thinking. Popper talked a lot in the talk about how Jewish establishments, like AgriProcessors, have a different set of laws beyond the laws set by the US government they must follow - mainly, Jewish law. And that determines not only the kosher rules in the kashrut, but also rules about how employers should treat employees. My question is: why should Jewish establishments be so much "better"? Why shouldn't all establishments be held to such high standards? Should there be changes to the US laws? And what about the whole issue of the immigrants that worked there? Not to keep clubbing this poor dead horse, but immigration is still a huge issue, and this story only reminds us of that. Why were these people sent to jail? Beyond the legality of their citizenship or their right to live here, what about access to health care? What about the people that are losing limbs and are afraid to go to a hospital? Is there a line between legal issues and humanity? And what about the intersect between religion and law in a country that supposedly is trying to separate church and state? There are Orthodox rabbis trying to get Rubashkin released from jail, as there is an ancient religious obligation to free fellow Jews from "gentile captivity".  
Popper addresses the problems within the Jewish community in that last post I linked to, but there are so many more questions that arise out of the story of AgriProcessors that reach far beyond the religious community. Many questions that have yet to be answered.

What Needs To Be Done To Assure That Ethical Principles Guide Climate Change Policy Making: A Look At The Bridge at The End OF The World

Although this new book examines the causes of an unfolding failure to protect the environment on a matter of a number of global environmental issues, this book makes a major contribution to many issues that have been of interest to ClimateEthics. It is a provocative book, but in the best sense of the word. It is a compelling exhortation to look deeper and more critically at the institutions, dominant discourses, and reigning ideas structuring and defining global environmental controversies-matters that for the most part have gone unchallenged by civil society including environmental groups.

I. Introduction.

Every once in a while a book is published that goes to heart of issues examined in ClimateEthics This is a review of such a book. This post reviews The Bridge At The End Of The World, Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing From Crisis To Sustainability by James Gustave Speth. (Speth 2008)

Although this new book examines the causes of an unfolding failure to protect the environment on a matter of a number of global environmental issues, this book makes a major contribution to many issues that have been of interest to ClimateEthics. It is a provocative book, but in the best sense of the word. It is a compelling exhortation to look deeper and more critically at the institutions, dominant discourses, and reigning ideas structuring and defining global environmental controversies-matters that for the most part have gone unchallenged by civil society including environmental groups.

According to Speth, it is the current form of capitalism and its influence on governing institutions that it has that is most responsible for global environmental deterioration. If Speth is right, the dominant ideas shaping our environmental discourses must be confronted if there is any hope of moving away from the approaching environmental abyss.

Speth's new book is a clearly written, exhaustively researched, courageous, and compelling description of why the global environment has continued to deteriorate despite forty years during which the modern environmental movement has risen. Seeing a huge failure to make progress on protecting the global environment after almost four decades, Speth explains that in this book he is attempting to go deeper than he has before to examine the root causes of the growing global environmental crisis.

Speth's conclusions are remarkable coming from someone who has been called an "insider's insider." Speth was a co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, member and chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality in the Executive Office of the President during the Carter administration, Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, founder of the World Resources Institute, a senior adviser to President-elect Bill Clinton's transition team, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme; dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and now a professor at Vermont Law School. There are few people in the United States that have been in a better position to diagnose the worlds environmental problems and their causes.

Because Speth so forcibly attributes the causes of the daunting global environmental crises to an out-of-control global capitalism, given his background as a very well connected Washington insider, the books conclusions are an astonishing lightening bolt that illuminates both the nature and causes of the environmental abyss the world is facing. That this book has come from the dean of the prestigious Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies with high-level ties to some of the most respected environmental institutions is astonishing.

The main idea of this book is that there is no hope of solving the world's major growing environmental and social problems unless there is much more robust government intervention in global economic markets. Although Speth in the end is not completely anti-market-he is very strongly critical of market failures and the hegemony of market ideas. Speth wants to keep a place for markets, but believes governments must keep markets in their place.

Speth concludes that lack of progress on menacing global environmental problems stems from global markets' inability to get prices right, produce public goods, exclusive focus on economic growth at all costs, sheer lobbying and political power, and their tendency to commodify everything including things that should be held sacred.

II. Global Environmental Crisis and the Inadequate Current Response. .

Speth begins the book by looking into the abyss of unfolding global environmental deterioration. In addition to climate change, he examines global loss of forests, biodiversity, freshwater, and marine fisheries, as well as dangerous increases in toxic substances, nutrient loading, and land degradation.

On climate change, Speth points to increases in malnutrition and deaths disease and injury due to heat waves, floods, storms and droughts. Climate change's harsh impacts on human health include increased diarrheal disease, increased frequency of cardio respiratory diseases due to higher concentrations of ground-level ozone, and changes in the spatial distribution of infectious diseases. Speth is worried about climate change's growing threats to forests, rising sea level rise impacts on Egypt, Bangladesh, Louisiana and other places. If this weren't bad enough, Speth worries that the world is facing the potential of abrupt climate change and as a result believes the world is now dangerously near several tipping points. Speth believes that the planet is facing a dire emergency from climate change and other global environmental problems.

Yet since 1980 the environmental movement has analyzed, debated, and negotiated environmental policies, but failed to reduce these serious environmental threats. In fact, according to Speth, these dangers have become more serious and intractable during this time.

Speth attributes the emerging disasters to the form that modern capitalism has taken, a capitalism that makes economic growth a secular religion in all advancing industrial societies. As a result, whenever anyone wants to stop a proposal to protect the environment, the most effective argument is that the proposal will hurt the economy.

The book criticizes today's environmentalists for assuming that the growing global environmental problems can be solved within the current economic system. Today's environmental organizations, according to Speth, tend to be pragmatic and incremental and taks what they can get. For reasons explained by Speth, this approach will not work to solve the urgent environmental problems threatening the world

Today's environmentalists also act as if great global environmental problems can be solved at an acceptable economic cost, and often with a net economic benefit, without significant lifestyle changes or threats to economic growth. Speth believes that environmental groups have not focused strongly enough on political activity or organizing at a grassroots movement.

To understand the current feebleness of environmental groups, according to Speth one must understand the rise of organizations that have supported market fundamentalism. As the environment organizations were gaining some traction in the 1960s and 70s, the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage foundation, the Cato Institute, the Pacific Legal Foundation and other right-wing leaning groups worked with market fundamentalists and gained strength that effectively neutralized the environmental agenda Yet the drive for profits and economic growth has kept the environmental problems coming at society at the same time as environmental problems were becoming increasingly complex and scientifically difficult.

According to Speth, during the last forty years there has been less willingness to regulate environmental problems as environmental groups have failed to realize that their pragmatic compromising approach only works to protect the low hanging fruit, that is problems that can be solved without disrupting the economic juggernaut. Speth believes that environmental groups have not come to terms with the fact that the system of modern capitalism, as it operates today, will generate ever larger environment consequences outstripping efforts to manage them. Working only within the system as it is currently constituted will in the end not succeed. According to Speth what is needed is transformative change in the system itself.

The solution according to Speth is not to destroy markets but more significant government market intervention that demands that markets protect the global environment and solve other social problems. Among other things, needed to facilitate the needed market intervention, the international community must begin by facing the limits of the analytical tools that are frequently used to frame and structure solutions to social and environmental problems.

III-Analytical Tools-And Ethics

It is when Speth turns to the need to transform the policy tools that currently frame environmental problems that their emerges a clear connection between his analysis and some of the interests of ClimateEthics. Speth claims that the there are major flaws with the analytical tools that are used to assess social and environmental problems under the influence of reigning economic powers. These tools obstruct the kind of government intervention in markets that is needed.

Current economic analyses of environmental and social issues reduce all entities to money terms yet human life, health and nature cannot be described meaningful in monetary terms; they are priceless. According to Speth, when the question is whether to allow people to destroy human life, health, and nature itself, then market values tell us little about the social values at stake . Speth implicitly argues that analysis of environmental problems must consider how to think about the need to protect human health and the environment in regard to their ultimate values, an issue ultimately different than maximizing economic efficiency which has been often the ultimate goal of the analytical tools currently framing environmental controversies.

Of particular concern is the common use of formal cost-benefit analysis (CBA), an analytical tool that according to Speth often hurts more than it helps. In essence, the economist's position in supporting CBA is that everything has a price and price is the major determinant of human flourishing. Yet most people recognize that matters of rights and principles are beyond economic calculation. In fact setting the boundaries of the market helps to define who we are, how we want to live in what we believe in. There are many activities that were not allowed at any price and markets must operate within the framework constructed initially on shared values, ethics, justice, and common visions of the good life. Market rationality has colonized political rationality driven by ethical considerations. There is an important place for markets in public life, but markets are only a means to achieving some of societies most noble goals.

Although Speth does not expressly mention this, those who justify reducing all value to market value are usually understood to support an ethical theory often called "preference utilitarianism". "Preference utilitarianism" holds that governments should choose options which maximize humanity's ability to fulfill its desires where the values of human desires are determined by the market value of the objects chosen by individual preferences. CBA is justified on the basis of "preference utilitarianism" a position to be distinguished from mainstream utilitarianism because it is peoples' preferences expressed in market transactions that are maximized according to this theory. On the other hand, mainstream utilitarianism is concerned with maximizing happiness not simply human desires measured by preferences.

"Preference utilitarianism" is a much more ethically controversial theory when applied to problems like climate change than mainstream utilitarianism because the latter encourages exploration of what actually makes people happy, not just the preferences people express in market transactions. (Sagoff, 1982) That is, utilitarians urge decision makers to choose alternatives that will produce the greatest happiness- not simply to assume that happiness is equal to what people are willing to pay for something. For this reason, utilitarians advise careful thinking about which options under consideration will create the most happiness while "preference utilitarianism" is often exclusively interested in which options will produce the greatest economic value. For instance, a utilitarian may approve of spending money for such economically low payback activities as schools or parks because a case can be made that these investments produce greater happiness than other investments with higher economic returns. Moreover, utilitarians do not necessarily believe that all human choices made in market transactions lead to happiness. In fact, utilitarians urge that people reflect upon their desires and that people sometimes select behavior that is contrary to desires. As Ernest Partridge points out, happiness may require that people not act according to preferences.

A recovering drug addict desires not to have the desires that he does. Which economic transaction is responsive to his wants, and to his interests: with his therapist or with his dealer? (Partridge, 1995)

In addition to these problems with "preference utilitarianism." since the very idea of morality requires that people reflect upon their preferences and not act in response to them particularly if they are destructive of other peoples' rights or interests, preference utilitarianism can be criticized for failing to consider whether the preferences of people are justifiable on ethical grounds. That is preference utilitarianism assumes that any preference satisfaction is good no matter if it is a preference to buy a rapist's knife or a serial killer's gun. For this reason a preference to buy a gas guzzling sports utility vehicle is as good as a preference to buy a hybrid fuel cell powered Honda or Toyota. If the United States were to tighten fuel mileage standards for SUVs this would be a cost according to preference utilitarianism.

Philosopher Mark Sagoff has argued that preference utilitarianism makes a mistake by confusing a person's action as a consumer with an action as a citizen. 
As a citizen, I am concerned with the public interest, rather than my own interest, with the good of the community, rather than simply the well being of my family. (Sagoff, 1988: 8)

Acting as a citizen, according to Sagoff, I may take actions that are inconsistent with actions I might take as a consumer. As a citizen, I may support policies that harm my economic interests. For instance, as a citizen I might support policies that reduce global warming that might threaten people living on islands through rising sea levels even though I may not be personally threatened by rising seas because I live in Nebraska. I might support these policies even though the policies might drive up the cost of my electricity in my home. Yet preference utilitarianism would not acknowledge my vote for responsible global warming policies as a preference satisfaction while assuming the increased costs of the global warming program are limiting my individual preference satisfaction and therefore should be categorized as a cost.

Sagoff gives additional examples of conflicts between peoples' roles as consumer and citizen, and thereby demonstrates why individuals often have a greater commitment to their role as a citizen over their role as a consumer. One such example given by Sagoff is as follows:

Last year, I bribed a judge to fix a couple of traffic tickets, and I was glad to so because I saved my license. Yet at election time, I helped vote the corrupt judge out of office. I speed on the highway, yet I want the police to enforce laws against speeding....I love my car: I hate the bus. Yet I vote for candidates who promise to tax gasoline for public transportation. ..The political causes I support seem to have little or no basis in my interests as a consumer.. because I take different points of view when I vote and when I shop..I have an "Ecology Now" sticker on a car that drips oil everywhere it is parked. (Sagoff, 1988::52-53)

Even though I may prefer to take action as a citizen that might work against my personal economic interest, preference utilitarianism assumes that people only act selfishly or that acting selfishly is morally acceptable.

Preference utilitarianism also does not usually count the beauty of a sunset or poem or the intelligence of public debate For this reason, preference utilitarianism often fails to measure things that make life worthwhile or sustainable unless they have substantial market force. For these reasons, preference utilitarianism, the philosophical underpinning of CBAs for many economists that have often been relied upon in arguments made in opposition to government programs to reduce the threat of climate change is often ethically dubious or at least raised ethical questions which remain hidden behind the apparent clarity of calculation.

Preference utilitarianism also conflicts with human rights , and procedural and distributive justice-considerations that most climate ethicist should be considered in examining climate change options, a subject frequently considered in ClimateEthics. See for example.Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Programs.

According to Speth, assigning monetary values to everything also buries government in a blizzard of hypothetical valuations, obscuring rather than clarifying our collective priorities. It also forces analysts to numerically value things about which people disagree. For instance, is the existence value of abortion clinics a positive or negative number? It depends on who you ask. It is, according to Speth, likely that no one would be happy about making a decision based on society's average monetary valuation of the right to get to choose abortion.

According to Speth, the valuation controversy is only one of several that swirl about in an effort to reconcile the reigning paradigm of neoclassical economics so that it is sync with other values controversies.

IV. Speth's Solution

Speth makes many recommendations about how to fight the current dominance of narrow economic ways of looking at the world's problems. Included are the following recommendations. Governments should:
• Base environmental policy on the "polluter-pays principle" not economic efficiency alone. This would require those causing environmental degradation to pay the full costs of their behaviors.. 
• Eliminate the perverse subsidies in agriculture, energy, transportation or fisheries and forestry that have been enacted at the behest of the powerful interests. 
• Recognize the limits and boundaries of market commodification 
• Recognize that there is no quantitative methodology for making hard decisions and trade-offs. This recommendation is an implicit recommendation for framing environmental conflicts as ethical questions. Ethical questions, by their nature, cannot be reduced to an algorthim but must be supported by arguments about what is the good life and how to get their, what are our responsibilities and obligations to others including future generation, and what should be treated as sacred.

These recommendations will require citizens to see that environmental policy is ultimately a political and ethical issue and not simply about economics. According to Speth, we must realize that the faster market transformation is pursued, the better off our children and grandchildren will be

Speth is not completely against markets but he says we must get to a place where markets and the government are partners. We must, however, be anti-capitalists in the sense that argues that society and governments no longer concede special significance to the objectives or moral claims of the owners of capital. Speth argues that we must work for something new to be born from the need of markets and capitalism to work together to achieve morally acceptable goals. We must, however, recognize that today's system of modern capitalism is destructive of many things that we should value, not in a minor way, but in a way that profoundly threatens a planet

Finally Speth calls for a change in human consciousness. It's not enough to invent new machines, regulations, or institutions. He claims we must develop a new understanding of the true purpose of our existence on this earth and only a fundamental change in human character can save us

As we said at the beginning of this post, The Bridge At the End of the World is truly a provocative book. That is provocative in the best sense of the word-a calling to look deeper and more critically at the economic institutions, dominant discourses, and reigning ideas that for the most part go unchallenged and have been largely responsible for failure to protect the global environment..

Donald A. Brown
Associate Professor, Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law
Penn State University,


Partridge, Earnest 1995. An Askance Glance at Environmental Policy Making, An unpublished paper presented at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratories, Crested Butte, Colorado.

Sagoff, Mark, 1982. At The Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima or Why Political Questions Are Not All Economic, Arizona Law Review, Vol. 23, 1281-1298.

Sagoff, Mark, 1988. The Economy of the Earth, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Speth, Jame Gustave, 2008, The Bridge At The End of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing From Crisis to Sustainability. , Yale University Press, New Haven and London

What is it like to be a PIKSI Graduate Assistant?

This is a guest post by Asia Ferrin. Asia was a PIKSI Graduate Assistant during PIKSI 2012.

Asia FerrinThis is a guest post by Asia Ferrin.  Asia was a PIKSI Graduate Assistant during PIKSI 2012.

Serving as a Graduate Assistant for the 2012 Philosophy in an Inclusive Key Summer Institute (PIKSI) was one of the best experiences I had in graduate school.

I participated in my fourth summer as a graduate student, shortly after I had started my dissertation. Looking down the barrel of a dissertation, I remember feeling overwhelmed by graduate school before attending PIKSI. Yet, by the end of my PIKSI experience, I was chomping at the bit to get started on my work and felt a deepened commitment to philosophy.

Everything about the experience was revitalizing. The speakers and session leaders were fantastic. Working with Ellen Feder was great; she was supportive, energetic, kind, and funny. And I came to adore the students instantly. They were sharp, curious, and enthusiastic. I felt like I learned as much from them as they from me, given their diverse social and educational backgrounds. My co-graduate assistants were also amazing. We worked well together as a team, and I appreciated the chance to commiserate over the challenges of grad school with outside peers who had unique perspectives and insights. Even though PIKSI meant long hours and hard work, I felt fresh and motivated by the end of the week. Years later I still try to tap into that excitement as I’m finishing my dissertation.

Ferrin with her cohort of undergraduate students
Ferrin with her cohort of undergraduate students

PIKSI not only energized me, but also inspired new teaching ideas. Taking cues from Ellen Feder’s session on social contract theory and Charles Mills’ session on political liberalism, I incorporated sections of Mills’ The Racial Contract, and Moller Okin’s Justice, Gender, and the Family into my Introduction to Philosophy Course. This upcoming Fall, I will be teaching a course on Oppression, Privilege, and Resistance, which I likely would not have imagined as a course topic if not for PIKSI.

In addition to influencing the content I choose for courses, PIKSI affected my methodology for teaching philosophy. Shannon Sullivan’s session at the beginning of PIKSI on “Experience,” in which we focused on excerpts from Dewey’s Experience and Nature and Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk highlighted the relationship between our experiences and philosophy. One of the central tenets of my teaching now is that philosophy ought to be relevant to my students’ diverse experiences, which guides the tone of my class, the activities I choose, and how I engage my students. I like to think I share the spirit of PIKSI every time I teach.

Finally, PIKSI helped me shift from mentee to mentor. I was incredibly lucky as an undergraduate to have outstanding mentors encouraging me to pursue philosophy and graduate school. I have always been committed to paying that mentoring forward. PIKSI gave me that opportunity and helped me see myself as a mentor. Since the institute, I have continued mentoring some of the students from my PIKSI cohort, started a mentoring relationship with a McNair scholar at my undergraduate institution, and mentored incoming graduate students in my PhD program (one of which, was a participant at PIKSI 2012). Mentorship is now a central component of my service as an academic.

I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate in PIKSI. I hope it continues to serve undergraduate and graduate students for many years to come.

Asia Ferrin is a philosophy doctoral student at the University of Washington, Seattle. As an undergraduate, she participated in the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, a program designed to prepare first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students for graduate study. She works primarily in Ethics, Feminist Philosophy, and Philosophy of Implicit Bias. Her dissertation explores how automatic, intuitive, gut-reactions guide moral judgments and decisions. In 2014-2015, Asia will be a Faye Sawyier Predoctoral Teaching Fellow in the Humanities Department at Illinois Institute of Technology—a private, Ph.D.-granting institution with focus on science, technology, and design. 

What is Ethics?

How can you move from ethical awareness to ethical action? The Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State can help guide you and give you some tools to help in both your professional and personal lives.

But what is ethics? There are many answers to this question given that numerous ethical theories and conceptions of ethics exist. At the Rock we often discuss ethics in terms of moral literacy, the resources that encourage moral agency—by moving from ethical awareness to ethical action through cultivating ethical purpose—and help us to become ethical leaders in every aspect of our lives.

We offer the following guide to moral literacy to help faculty, students, staff, administrators, and other members of our community to sort through the complex ethical issues we face together. 

Moral Literacy

We are often faced with unexpected and complicated situations that require that we speak up and take appropriate action. The best way we can prepare ourselves for these situations is to develop the skills involved in moral literacy.

Moral literacy involves several important abilities:

Ethics Spotting: the ability to recognize that a situation involves ethical issues and to appreciate the ethical values underlying that issue. Questions to consider in working to spot ethical issues include:

      • Are we proud or ashamed of the action? Does it “feel wrong”?
      • Is such an action compatible with our basic ethical values such as integrity, trustworthiness, honesty, responsibility, and accountability?

Ethical Salience: awareness of the ethical intensity of the issue or situation. Not all violations of ethical values and principles are of comparable magnitude. Being able to judge the ethical intensity includes:

      • Recognition of the centrality of underlying values to the individual or community.
      • An appreciation of the seriousness of the resulting harms.
      • An awareness of the likelihood that harm will result.
      • An understanding of the numbers of people adversely affected.

Ethical Reasoning Skills: these are skills that we each need to develop and refine throughout our lifetime and which enable us to appreciate more fully the specific principles and values that guide our judgment in making ethical decisions. Ethical reasoning skills involve assessing ethical considerations by reflecting on the following:

      • What are the relevant ethical duties in this instance?
      • Who and what will be impacted by an action? (Who are the stakeholders?)
      • What consequences might result from acting in a particular way?
      • Is this action based on values that we fully endorse?
      • What would a caring person do in this instance?

Moral Imagination: the moral imagination is a blend of cognitive and affective factors that help us develop a sensitivity for how our actions affect others and enable us to think creatively about solutions. These factors include:

      • The ability to imagine ourselves in the situation of others
      • The capacity to “think outside the box” and come up with creative alternatives to habitual action
      • The development of sensitive attunement to the complexities of the situation

To produce real results, ethical literacy must be paired with moral agency. Individuals will choose a particular moral action only if they are convinced both of its importance and of their own capability to act in this way. The role of ethics education is not to stipulate behavior but to stimulate purpose.

Moral Agency is cultivated and encouraged through:

Ethical Purpose: developing a sense of one’s role in the moral domain.

Personal “ownership” and habituation of ethical behavior through:

    • Taking responsibility for ones actions,
    • Cultivating virtuous habits, and
    • Developing a passion for justice.

Moral Courage: the ability to act ethically even in the face of adversity and cost to one’s self.
Moral Hope: the belief that we can make a difference.
Moral Responsibility: the commitment to acting ethically.

Ethical Leadership includes:

  • Leading by example through being a role model for ethical behavior.
  • Taking the initiative to help others appreciate ethical issues, embrace moral purpose, and encourage moral agency.
  • Participating in the creation of an ethical culture that encourages and supports those who speak up in defense of the integrity of the community and those who stand up to the pressures capable of tempting any one of us to act in ways that undermine the pursuit of our common goals.

We at the Rock appreciate that:

  • Ethical decisions are often difficult decisions.
  • The ethical choice sometimes comes with a cost or a risk to one’s self or others.
  • We often have to act without sureness that our actions are the right ones, but we must do our best to act ethically and to take responsibility for our actions should we make a mistake.
  • Being an ethical person or an ethical leader sometimes means admitting to one’s own errors, taking responsibility for mistakes, doing what we can to rectify the situation, and learning from our errors.

For additional moral literacy resources, see our “What is Moral Literacy?” module. In addition, the Rock Ethics Institute "Everyday Ethics" webpage provides an informal online forum for community-wide ethical deliberation concerning issues and challenges faced at Penn State and beyond.