An Open Letter to Steve Novick: You Kant Be Serious.

Nicholas Caleb

At first, I thought you were joking since the reasoning is almost too bizarre to be believed. Soon, it became obvious that yes, you intend to punt on coal trains...

By Nicholas Caleb of Portland, Oregon. Nicholas is a local attorney and professor of government, cultural geography, and public speaking at Concordia University. Previously he contributed "Can Portland beat King Coal?"

Almost-Councilperson Novick,

I saw your coal article while checking my email on a camping trip in the Olympic National Forest. It made me spit my coffee out all over the campfire. I couldn’t wait to get back to Portland to write a response.

So, let me get this straight. You have the political support to oppose a harmful and "evil" (your word) energy source that is also a major contributor to climate change -- “the overriding issue of our time” -- and you instead propose to risk the immediate health of the people of Portland, that of their existing and yet unborn children, gamble the integrity of the regional environment, and allow further climate instability, all in order to save us from hypocrisy? And then, you invoke a dead moral philosopher and his influence on your moral code to justify it?

At first, I thought you were joking since the reasoning is almost too bizarre to be believed. Soon, it became obvious that yes, you intend to punt on coal trains, where you might actually have some authority, and instead run into the land of wouldn’t-it-be-nice-istan.

Ok, whatever. If we’ve elected someone who retreats into the world of abstract philosophy when pressed on issues that have real-life consequences, let’s play on your field.

Regarding Kant, you’ve completely misread the categorical imperative. The type of reasoning that says “if I don’t do it, someone else will” is the complete opposite of what Kant said, which is essentially that: you should never do a thing unless it would be unproblematic for everyone else to do it as well. In other words, we do not lie because, if we did, there would be no truth in the world. We do not murder because we do not want to be murdered. It doesn’t work to say “if I didn’t lie to you, someone else would!” This is the race-to-the-bottom mentality that creates the collective action problem, and is precisely the mindset that is responsible for global warming in the first place. If no one starts to take responsibility, no one else will join them. Worrying that you shouldn’t do the right thing, because then maybe you don’t get the devil’s benefits (as you imagine others do), and that maybe, then, you’re the sucker isn't moral reasoning. It's cowardly thinking.

Furthermore, if you continue to read past the categorical imperative, you’ll eventually come upon the second formulation, which has even more relevance for what we should do about the coal trains. It reads:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

In other words, don’t use people to achieve your ends because we all have intrinsic value and dignity. If you treat people with dignity up front, their interests will be better served, and you’ll be better off in the ethics category. Means-to-ends behavior causes you to devalue and objectify the things that are truly important in life. A modern, secular version of Kant’s second formulation, with all we now know about ecology, public health, and systems sciences, would almost certainly expand the field of justice to the natural environment.

So, how can we apply the second formulation to the coal train issue? Well, consider your desired end: not being hypocrites (don’t even try to stop coal trains if some of your energy comes from other coal sources). To achieve this end, you’re obviously willing to risk the health and safety of flesh and blood human beings. To be sure, taking no action to prevent coal trains from coming through our community, when you actually have the means to fight, in order to avoid hypocrisy is not only means-to-ends strategizing, but an absurd notion in its own right. (It’s almost as silly as pushing the false dichotomy we must either reduce coal demand or interrupt its supply. One has to wonder: why not do both?) The logic of Kant points to your approach as unethical; perhaps even more so because of your position of power and unwillingness to treat people and the environment as ends in themselves.

Personally, I think that Kant was scratching the surface of a much deeper issue, the problem of abstraction versus what we can actually know and possibly have any control over. This problem is even more pronounced now than it was in Kant’s time since we are more acutely aware of the world’s complexity and of our complete inability to predict the future (read Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan to catch up on the cutting edge of uncertainty studies). This complexity is why the second formulation, unlike the categorical imperative, is actually a relevant and important guiding principle in a complex world. We observe a world where people with influence continually assert the morality and necessity of using people & using the environment as means to the end of “progress”, despite our awareness of the destruction this has caused, and the nightmarish future that awaits us if we continue to do so. We knowingly risk unprecedented harm as we fail to take necessary, direct action. If we flip our approach and actually deal with issues directly, rather than creating artificial barriers to responsibility and action, we prefigure the type of world we want to live in. You can’t abuse people and the environment and expect some hero or miracle technology to come provide us with a solution to all of our ills. Simply put, we must do justice if we want a just world.

So, on coal, what is abstract and what is real?

It seems to me that all of your proposed actions are very convenient in that they all fall safely in the realm of the abstract -- proposing plans that completely liberate you from any direct responsibility. Instead of going after coal directly, you concern yourself with the actions of others to whom your office’s jurisdiction does not extend, and a national climate policy that may never materialize, especially without considerable pressure from the bottom-up. While a national climate policy or more responsible corporations would be great, they are irrelevant to the coal discussion, and divert attention and energy away from the most direct strategy: stopping the coal trains.

Conversely, this is what we know is real:

We (and the growing number of us who bother to investigate the laws of our state) also know that municipalities and counties have home rule authority in Oregon: a Constitutional guarantee of power for municipalities and counties (Article XI, section 2 & Article VI, section 10, respectively) that “enable[s] local governments to serve as “proving grounds” for policies that have yet to win acceptance at the state and national levels.” (pdf) Exercises of home rule authority are presumed legitimate as long as they don’t contradict existing state laws. I know of no existing state laws that prevent cities from asserting health and safety requirements that demand the equivalent of the precautionary principle. In fact, we’ve got very strong environmental laws in the State of Oregon (largely unenforced), including a climate plan and a strong public trust doctrine. Locally, we could insist upon a comprehensive, region-wide, cumulative environmental impact assessment, or even push for an an all-out ban on the transfer of coal based on the fact that it will irreparably harm the people and the environment. Your informed and rabid electorate will support strong action all the way. As a local policy, it’s low-hanging fruit.

But when you write things like, “[...] I don't think that we're going to get anywhere asking the federal government to stop coal exports through the Northwest based on global warming concerns”, you’ve completely misunderstood the duties of your future office, and what your constituents expect of you. Of course you shouldn’t waste your time asking the federal government for favors when the damn thing is broken. No one expects that of you. We expect you to use the tools available to you: an electorate at your back (yay, democracy!), a Constitutional grant of authority, and regional alliances waiting to be forged. “[T]he overriding issue of our time” requires no less. Indeed, it demands more.

Yes, there could be battles with the federal government over the trains, but these are battles worth fighting. If we are to enter into a new paradigm and open up the niche for those renewables you seem so fond of, we’re going to have to take on the fossil fuel industries and the federal policies they’ve so clearly purchased and captured. There’s a reason why Germany just passed the 25% renewable energy mark and we’re still blowing up mountains and obliterating landscapes to export coal; it’s the broken system, silly! We’ve got to fight where we can and win where we can. The most environmentally-conscious municipality in the country seems like a good place to make a stand.

Even if we lose in a long, drawn out battle, our struggle would be an inspiration to others and a sign that government isn’t completely broken. On the other hand, the upside of beating King Coal is immense. It could ignite our country’s next environmental movement.

So, please, let’s get out of the abstract, out of the minds of philosophers long dead, and do what we can do here and now to make a better future. I love the 25% bike transport idea, and of course we should also work to reduce demand for fossil fuels. But the fact that we are still on coal energy is no reason to permit more of it. You are looking at an active movement wanting direct measures to create a world worth living in, and yet you seem content to look away and call them hypocrites. Portland has already taken steps to reduce our carbon footprint: it’s called the Climate Action plan. We should expand such efforts, and as we do so, other localities should do the same. Saying “if we don’t, someone else will” is not the kind of approach that got us such a forward-thinking policy. That’s a race-to-the-bottom logic that will take us wherever the big polluters want us.

One can forgive an attorney for misapplying freshman-year philosophy to justify bad policies. What isn’t forgivable is a city commissioner willing to risk (actually, to guarantee) real world harm for the sake of abstractions and simplistic moralizing. Real lives and the real future of the planet are at risk and YES, you can do something about it! Rise to the occasion.

Respectfully, Nicholas Caleb

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    Steve Novick has solid progressive credentials and commitments. He is for the working class and not the extreme left chattering class. He doesn't have to justify himself to the self -marginalized about the reality of our present energy position and the choices that need to be made going forward to improve our energy position.

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      Huh? I think this straight-faced string of disconnected abstractions is a kind of satire on the reader in the vein of Swift's "Modest Proposal," and if it isn't, it should be.

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    Nicholas, like Steve, I think if there are public health or transportation congestion issues related to the transportation of coal through Oregon then we should regulate or stop the coal trains. But beyond those aspects, the issues of stopping, reducing or cleaning the burning of coal by its end users in Asia are complex. My own view is that the impact of stopping coal train passing through Oregon, or the NW more generally, on the generation of coal power in China, India, and elsewhere in Asia would be minimal. I don’t agree with the setting a good example argument, as in “If no one starts to take responsibility, no one else will join them” The Asian countries already have their own strong incentives to reduce carbon emissions. What we do in Oregon will have little influence, and might even be misinterpreted as an effort to keep them poor.

    I’ve suggested sending 100 high school students to China as “Global Climate Change Ambassadors” (here). These students are likely to have about as much effect on reducing coal power generation as stopping the coal train here. If you think climate change is important enough to stop coal trains (it is very important), then you should support other actions that might help. Do not let teachers’ union, who would rather not see education dollars spent on sending our high school students abroad, have the last say. Yes, our future climate is at stake.

    Keep your eyes on the goal: reducing carbon emissions. Don’t get too attached to the “stop the coal trains” strategy.

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      Perhaps off topic, and for those who might like to wander off on the philosophical aspects of these issues, I recommend the lecture on Kant by Harvard Professor Michael Sandel in his online course “Justice.” See here. It is a good example of the types of high quality online lectures (and courses) that are reshaping higher ed today. Why should Oregonian pay for its public higher ed system to offer similar lecture courses when these lectures are available for free?

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        Nicholas, I think you are in some kind of fantasy land on this.

        China does have other potential sources of coal (see here, for example).

        Yes, some studies have shown that stopping coal shipments across the NW could raise the price of coal in China (see here) and reduce its use. I think China already has significant incentives (urban air pollution, the melting the glaciers at the sources of their rivers) to reduce their carbon emissions. Slightly raising the cost of coal, IMHO, won't make much additional difference.

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      I agree that long-term ethical, environmental, and practical arguments for making the effort (to reduce carbon emissions) are right. But I worry, as I think Steve does, about a strategy that empowers regions, states, and local jurisdiction to determine very broadly (and specifically) which products they will permit to be transshipped. I do not see how we could have a modern economy under such rules.

      I do worry a lot about “misinterpretations” between China and the US. In my peace activist mode, it is why I push for more Mandarin and study abroad in China programs They now have nuclear weapons. One is probably targeted at all times at Portland. They have a very touchy nationalist streak, today flaring up in large protests in Chinese cities over small island issues with Japan (here). And I worry, as we discuss denying them coal for economic development, as Berkeley Professor of Economics Brad DeLong has said in general that (here): “There is a good chance that China is now on the same path to world preeminence that America walked 130 years ago. Come 2047 and again in 2071 and in the years after 2075, America is going to need China. There is nothing more dangerous for America's future national security, nothing more destructive to America's future prosperity, than for Chinese schoolchildren to be taught in 2047 and 2071 and in the years after 2075 that America tried to keep the Chinese as poor as possible for as long as possible.”

      In a choice between moderate climate change and a nuclear war with China, I’ll take the climate change.

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        This post could give the impression that your vigorous campaign to have Mandarin taught in our schools is based on your fear of a nuclear attack by China--? Say it ain't so. Our ally Israel's nuclear weapons are more likely to drag us into horrific destruction in the near future, let alone that the danger of the "big one" earthquake within the next 50 years is a more concrete threat to the NW than nuclear war. But I hope I'm misunderstanding you.

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          Patrick, sorry, you don't misunderstand me. I do think the danger of a future war, possibly nuclear, with China is significant. We should do what we can to lessen that risk.

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    All I know is that I don't think The Black Swan counts as cutting-edge any more.

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    David Porter:

    Remind me to never leave the fate of my home world in your hands.

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    Finally, someone who really understands philosophy!

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    Great post, Nicholas. Thank you.

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    I'm afraid I agree with the Steve that whatever we do here won't have any impact on China's coal burning. The US only constitutes a few % of what they burn and there are lots of greedy companies that will be happy to make the sale.

    The critical issues are: 1) Does a community have the right to limit or impose conditions on what goes through its borders? 2) If coal is such a valuable energy resource, then how come we're selling it to a nation that will use it to build cheaper products that compete against American-built products. Selling cheap energy is like selling arms to the enemy. And I predict in 100 years, our heirs will curse us for selling it.

    Local control is clearly a 2-edged sword. The same power that could prohibit coal trains, or nuclear shipments, or unlabeled GMO foods, could conceivably prohibit non-whites on the streets after dark. We really do need to find some new boundaries on federalism that prevent a bought Congress from imposing corporate rights over people, while preventing narrow-minded communities from reducing people's freedoms.

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      Note that I'm not proposing invalidating or even challenging individual rights regimes. Outside of some corporate personhood type rights argument, our consideration is whether we can protect health and safety of people or whether the government can impose harmful activities. The first step is us actually asserting the sovereign right to protect the health and safety of persons and the natural environment and to see whether this is challenged by private or federal interests. If so, to me, the legal question becomes "what is more important: efficient commerce or environmental safety?" That is a battle we should be willing to have.

      I'm happy to talk to you about the nuance here, John

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    well that didn't work right. Anyway

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Tuesday overturned a key Obama administration rule to reduce harmful emissions from coal-burning power plants, sparking a rally in coal company shares and relief among utility firms. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said in a 2-1 decision that the Environmental Protection Agency had exceeded its mandate with the rule, which was to limit sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants in 28 mostly Eastern states and Texas. In the latest setback for the EPA, the court sent the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule back for revision, telling the agency to administer its existing Clean Air Interstate Rule - the Bush-era regulation that it was updating - in the interim. The EPA said it was reviewing the ruling.

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    Just a couple of things about this. I agree with Jefferson Smith's position (and that of Seattle) AGAINST allowing coal trains through our City. Second, because we have a climate change plan in the City does not mean we are abiding by it, or making it happen. I would refer specifically to the Columbia River Crossing, which despite the political misrepresentations to the contrary, WILL increase congestion, air pollution, and global warming pollution in Portland. Yet four of five city commissioners (Adams, Leonard, Fish and Saltzman) voted to go full-speed (actually 12 lanes) ahead. Sam Adams paid $100,000 for a city study that proves congestion will not be reduced by the building of the CRC (which means that air pollution and carbon will be increased as the FEIS wrongly claims). It does no good for the City to have these wonderful "plans" for things like climate change and peak oil, if City Commissioners then ignore them when they are making important decisions, as they did on the CRC, under great political pressure from the Portland Business Alliance, the truckers, and the building trades, all organized by government-paid lobbyists like Tom Markgraf, David Parisi and Patricia McCaig. On this matter and the cleaning up of the Columbia, is Novick quietly telling us to expect him to go along to get along with his buddies in the unions and with the PBA? If so, I will be greatly disappointed. It also seems important to note that scientists are making progress on methodologies which can liquefy the carbon (and noxes and soxes) coming out of the flues of coal plants. This means, if we are willing to pay for sequestration of the liquid, we CAN have clean coal. Still, I see no reason to ignore the facts about coal use in China affecting our climate and our airshed. Steve, you can't point at Nike to distract us from your wrong-headed position. Nicholas Caleb makes a very fine argument.

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    Evidence of the coming downfall of globalization?:

    China Confronts Mounting Piles of Unsold Goods

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