First Nations Women Speak about the Tar Sands

Last night I attended an event which included three first nations women speaking on the topic of the Albertan Tar Sands. I did not expect to learn anything new, or for the event to be particularly ground-breaking, but I wanted to attend to show solidarity with the organizers, speakers, and because such events are often good places to meet other people with similar ethical concerns (which in this case are concerns in the realms of climate justice and indigenous land rights). I was taken aback, therefore, when I learned important novel things about the tar sands and the kind of problems they are producing – and also when the talks gave the issue a moral weight I had not felt before.

While there were in fact many new things I learned about the tar sands, I’m going to concentrate on three: the new in situ mining method, the leakage from tailings ponds into the Athabasca river system, and the impact of tar sands on food sovereignty for northern communities. “In Situ” extraction occurs in places where the bitumen is more than 100 meters below the surface – where removing the “overburden” (a geological term for “the boreal forest and marshlands”, which sounds more than a little newspeak to my ears) is considered too difficult. Instead, hot steam is pumped underground, which melts the bitumen in place (“in situ“), and the bitumen is then pumped back up to the surface.

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Global Warming, Global Justice

A new video released by Greenpeace’s executive director, Kumi Naidoo, proposes:

Our movement must be as global as the problems we seek to address. We need people organizing where these crimes are taking place. It will take an unprecedented alliance of people of all walks of life, from environmentalists to those who have never considered our natural words effects in their lives. Those in the movement for justice need to work together to force fundamental changes in the institutions that are holding us back. We must strengthen our willingness to engage in civil disobedience and push back against the forces that are making activism a crime.

Such a call demands that we again reflect on the nature of the relationship between climate change and other injustices. I have discussed such questions before in many posts on, originally in the article “Setting Priorities in Social Activism” (which was also published in a campus newspaper), and more recently in posts on care and imperialism (and ultimately this issue was central in my decision to leave the blog). There is no obvious end in sight, no simple solution to this problem, so I will likely continue to reflect on it. Below, somewhat edited, are my most recent and belligerent thoughts about those who would divide off environmental causes from all other causes of justice and treat them not only as important, but as a cause to dismiss other issues:

One can have an approach to global warming which ignores international justice issues. I don’t think it’s particularly respectable, but it’s something one can do. One can argue that Western states don’t owe a debt due to colonialism, due to the way they have used up the ability of the atmosphere to allow us to emit carbon. Or, one could make the arguement that these claims of “justice” are pipe dreams, and that we should be “realistic” and pursue “serious” development (neo-colonialist) policies which implement the market-style reality of the future which serves, which always serves, the interests of the powerful. In fact, it is possible to have an entire climate-politics analysis that remains totally orthogonal to issues of global justice, oppression, racism, genocide. No one needs to say this is impossible.

Just don’t expect it to make you friends in the broad activist community – or for such an analysis to serve as the basis of the larger alliances that Greenpeace is calling on us to build. Those alliances are already being built – and they are being built by groups like Climate Justice Montreal, Environmental Action Toronto, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and by events like Cochabamba, the climate camps which have happened in the UK and Canada, and even events like the G20 People’s Summit which happened the week before Harper pushed a neo-liberal agenda during now famous instances of police brutality and criminalization of dissent (which continues for some unfortunate organizers).

The alliances are not being built by liberals who are more interested in convincing (necessarily) corrupt politiciens of an argument than they are in the crimes being perpetrated by their state and their state’s strategic military and economic allies. The alliances are being built largely by those who experience no cognitive dissonance at statements like, “Our prime minister ought be hanged for war crimes and crimes against the planet”. Most importantly – the alliances are being built by those who do not dismiss other social justice campaigns in the name of the transcendental nature of climate change – they rather take climate change as the lens through which we see other struggles.

This is not a question of “standing on principles”, but of looking at the problems before us, and the people around us, and seeing what kind of orientation it makes sense to take as we move through the world. Moral principles are not so much “starting points” within us, but perspectives, bearings by which we see the world around us – and they make it show up in this or that way. The question about principles is of course about effectivity (“what works”) – but not simply about what brings about a desired end, because the end is also posited, partially, as a result of the principle. It is about, then, not only achieving ends, but aiming at ends that one can live with – that are adequate to the moral foundation we’ve undergone, such that we can work towards a world whose existence we could/can affirm.

In other news, I am currently in search of a climate-justice oriented blog to contribute to. I have several leads, but any suggestions would be welcome.

Chomsky on Veganism

Still being quite distraught after seeing Earthlings on Wednesday, I’ve been trying hard to put the ongoing catastrophe of violence against animals into a larger moral context. It is easy to emphasize violence against animals because it is so highly cruel, and because we are so immediately present to what it produces – one can hardly walk around a city without seeing meat, dairy, leather, etc… But, perhaps I am simply fetishizing a certain kind of immediacy, as citizens of a US client state, am I not immediately related to numerous wars, to the support for brutal dictators, and to economic imperialism which threatens to impoverish any nation which does not abide by Washington‘s orders? And anyway, doesn’t Zizek call vegetarians “degenerates”? Well, perhaps he is not the best moral authority on account of claiming to be a monster. So, I went to google and searched “Chomsky +Vegan” – a series of correspondances turned up, this being the most relevant response: (I can’t guarantee the authenticity of this correspondance).

Chomsky: I’ve discussed animal rights here and there, mostly in response to questions. It’s true that it’s not a huge effort — though it is a considerable one — to live a vegan lifestyle. It’s even easier to give up a lot of what we do to contribute to saving 1 billion people who are dying from hunger, or to stave off the serious threat to species survival that will destroy animal life too, or to try to prevent the destruction of biodiversity, or…. Your arguments hold just as well for these and innumerable other morally obligatory commitments, many of them I think ranking higher than using animals for human use. Should we, for example, buy commercial products from (and thus help fund) corporations that are contributing to global destruction? Try to avoid them.

But time and energy are finite, and each of us sets priorities, inevitably.

I’m not teaching grad courses on ethics, or on these issues. I have taught undergrad courses for many years (on my own time) on matters that seem urgent to me, the kind I write and speak about.

To be clear, I’m not challenging our priorities. Merely trying to indicate my own.

Noam Chomsky

These priorities correspond with how I felt about the treatment of animals before I saw earthlings. “It is a horrible violence, out there”, I thought, but my distance from it allowed me to categorize it as only one violence among many. When you expose yourself to the content of the violence directly, however, you recognize that it is violence not because it is suffering but because it is callously imposed suffering. When I first became vegetarian (temporarily) back in undergrad, my reason was “the callous treatment of animals is a force of degeneration to the human moral character”. I have never believed this statement to the extent that I now believe it now – the disaster of the treatment of animals can not be measured in the suffering of animals, but in our lack of concern for that suffering, and in the immediacy of our complicity in it – in our food, our clothes. Heck, according to this TED talk, pork pretty much everything from roads to toothpaste.

But, what I disagree with him Chomsky’s response to veganism is not so much his priorities, but the way he characterizes obligation: “Your arguments hold just as well for these and innumerable other morally obligatory commitments”. In fact, veganism is not the taking up of a morally obligatory commitment, it is a strategic adherence to an ideal shared by many, directed towards an end. It is a project shared, participated in by many people together – it is a cause of coming together (at Toad Lane’s vegan-pot lucks, for instance), and it is – in my eyes at least – in need of constant re-evaluation to increase its prospects for expanding, becoming mainstream, and being an important part of moral revolution.

In other words, I disagree with Chomsky on veganism in the same way that I disagree with his charge the BDS against Israel is hypocritical. Actions done in common are not hypocritical if they apply a standard in a tactically useful manner – standards can only come into being in the world if applied in tactically considered manners anyway. The question of becoming vegan, or of taking a stand against global warming or Israeli apartheid is not about what moral demands are abstractly placed on us by the totality of chaos in the world – but rather are choices we can take, from the particular situations we find ourselves, to ally with others and strive together for a fairer world.


What do you have a right not to know?

What do you have a right not to know? Well, certainly you have a right not to know about the things you don’t know about – right? Well, I don’t think it’s as simple as that – because one of the things we know about is our own ignorance. In short: we know about a lot of issues insomuch as we fear that if we looked into them, what happens there would create moral demands on us.

This thought burned itself into my mind last night while seeing Earthlings, the documentary, for the first time. People who have not seen this film have some sense of it – I certainly had feelings about what I thought it would be about, and those feelings motivated me for a long time not to see it. Not because I’ve never seen films about the maltreatment of animals before, but because this film as reputation for being ruthless, and for converting omnivores and vegetarians to veganism. As someone who already eats vegan, I tried to justify to myself not seeing in on the basis that it would not motivate further dietary or political action from me. But after seeing it, I think that avoidance was wrong. Nothing gives someone the right to choose to remain ignorant of atrocities which one is directly involved in, and which one can do something about.

[An aside – don’t just go to Google video and search “Earthlings” and watch it because I’ve said so. The film is extremely disturbing, so begin by reading about it, and if when watching it you can’t cope with the severity or quantity of cruelty pause it and go back to it later. Do not watch this film if you are seriously depressed or if you are questioning whether life is worth living.]

The treatment of animals is a powerful example of something about which we might not have a right to remain ignorant, but I think there are others. There is the genocide against first nations people which was perpetuated by North American governments in many different ways over the 19th and 20th centuries. There is the conflict in the middle-east, which is particularly important since it is the ignorance of the North American populous which largely allows the conflict to persevere. But, dont’ take my words on any of these issues – go educate yourselves. The claim I am making is not meant to be “you have to educate yourself on these issues because I think they are important”, but rather, I think these are examples of the kind of thing which, having learned a little about, can place a moral demand on you to learn more. And, ignoring that demand is dangerous both for your own moral integrity, and for those who you otherwise might have helped if you had educated yourself and others about the issue.

The Wage Share: Why is Labour such a lousy investment?

This data from the NY times does a good job of showing how the wage share has not increased as productivity has increased.

If you think labour is like any other commodity, you should wonder why the return on labour has not appreciated as it has increased in productivity. If I invested in the development of any other commodity, like say software or a machine, and its productivity increased at the rate labour’s productivity has increased – I would expect the returns on investment to increase accordingly – because, I would have had to invest into that piece of capital in order to increase its productivity.

This data shows how workers have been forced to invest in themselves in training they pay for, but then the corresponding increases in productivity are not in fact being paid back to them in higher wages.

Scientism and Positive Law

The failure of positive and natural law to recognize the validity of the other, or to grasp the essential differences between them with regards to the social reality of moral life, is a product of the 20th century obsession with utopia. Of course, not with literal “utopia”, i.e. an “ideal place” – which our modern “pragmatic” view of life rejects – but with utopianism with respect to description: Scientism. Scientism is characterized with an obsession with finding the correct answer, the true proposition, the most appropriate single unified theory of anything. Scientism is the rejection of Hegel not only because he is too difficult, but because the idea that different sets of explanations might exist in tension with each other which does not resolve in one idea “beating” the other idea, is not comprehensible within scientific logic.


Science is falsification within a context. A hypothesis either succeeds or fails, given a research paradigm, a set of experiments, a set of explanatory demands etc… We find it extremely difficult to understand how a Scientific hypothesis might be true and false – and to the extent that we do grasp this duality of truth valence we do so only insofar as one proposition might be a “simplification” of another. I.e. we believe Newtonian dynamics are a simplification of Relativity. And, we believe relativity and quantum mechanics are simplifications of some unknown unified field theory, which would be the “true reality”.

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Natural vs Positive law and the Endurance of Social Values

The Natural/Positive law debate appears to be about the connection between law and morality. It is often phrased “is there a necessary connection between the notion of law and morality”? The debate often appears extremely inane, partially because the terms used by both sides literally don’t mean the same thing: a traditional “natural law” theorist might refuse to call an unjust law a law, and therefore declare we should not obey it – whereas a positive law theorist would say it is indeed a law, but the question of whether you should obey it is a moral question you must decide. In some sense, it comes down to what we mean when we say “it is the law” – do we mean you must obey it, or do we merely mean that you will be sanctioned if you do not? Or, does it mean something else entirely?

In my understanding, the Natural law versus Positive law debate is really a debate about the value of endurance of social values, or of the status quo. The endurance of the status quo can clearly not be held to be an absolute value, because that could produce social relations which are anachronistic and inappropriate. This is the problem of utopianism. This fallacy is expressed in the positive law side’s characterization of natural law: natural law affirms that you should follow the law because it is the now, the law is in itself moral. The same fallacy is expressed in natural law’s condemnation of positive law: obey the law because it is the law, do not have moral concerns that a law may be not a genuine law because it is immoral.

In effect, both sides agree on the substantial question: there is some value in obeying the law simply because it is the law. And at the same time, there is some value in considering the possible difference between what you should do, and what the law tells you to do. If people over-value personal conscience, the danger is anarchy and revolt. If people over-value the status quo, the danger is fascism or other utopian nightmares.

Natural law has the advantage of holding the paradox in tension, however, because it holds a realist position with respect to the law’s need to adhere to a basic standard of rightness – and this standard is not perfect rightness, but an aversion from complete injustice – no one invokes natural law to say a law which isn’t completely perfect is no law at all, only laws which are highly injustice. Natural law, due to its moral realism, encourages you to think that the question of whether you should adhere to law is the same question as whether everyone should adhere to law.

Positive law has the disadvantage of obscuring the normative character of the law which derives from our intuitive moral realism about social forms. Because we intuitively believe that following the rules is fair, and only question it if the rules are demonstrably unfair (because with no rules, coordination dilemmas reduce overall welfare) that natural law can be a basis for denouncing a law. Positive law does not account for the normative force rules derive not from the force that stands behind them, but by the social complicitness, acquiescence to the rules. No political power can rule long by force alone – public acceptance of the rightness of the rules is required.  Positive law allows us to say “the fact it is a law does not give me a reason, morally, to follow it” – however, this obscures the basic fact that the mere existence of a law does give us some moral obligation, though not a perfect one.

Standard interpretations of both natural and positive law interpretations of the connection between law and morality suffer from a poverty of subtlety – they both assume that if law and morals are connected, they must be connected by way of an identity. But, an identity need not be a perfect identity, and the question of a relation need not be clear. And, this seems to be the case here: the connection between law and morality is neither one of “law creates duty” nor “law, on its own, never creates duty”. In essence, both make the mistake of radical individualism – that law is a relation between the sovereign and myself. In fact, law is a relation between myself and my peers, as well as between myself and the sovereign, and between my peers and the sovereign. Social movements or their absence is required for the maintenance of existing laws, and can be the cause of legal transformations.

A Plea: Replace “Grace” with “Justice”



It is a common religious tradition to “say Grace” before a meal. In Abrahamic religions “saying Grace” refers to thanking the supreme deity for the food, and for the dominion he has granted humans over this earth. This meaning seems outdated, however, in a time when the idea of “human dominion over the earth” is ridiculed by the widespread disregard for the externalities of capital accumulation. The status quo of mere “business as usual” carbon emissions point our history towards a non trivial chance of human extinction, and yet there are no signs of a world agreement which might prevent all fossil fuels from being combusted. Humans are failing to show their ability to take up the responsibility which any “dominion” they might hold over the planet would bestow upon them.

In other words, the idea of “dominion”, palpable enough in the middle ages, has in late modernist society become an anachronistic joke.


And yet, it seems foolhardy to throw out the idea of engaging in a reflective practice before taking a meal. Eating is perhaps the most universal practice engaged in by humans – is it wrong to see it as a place of potential communion between individuals of disparate cultures, political and class interests, etc…? Some might suggest that we turn “Grace” around: rather than thank God for the dominion humans have been granted over the world – why not follow a commonly perceived trend in indigenous traditions to thank the animal or plant for its gift of life, and recognize that we too will be returned to the earth in time to allow for further rebirth and re-generation?


It seems a nice enough idea, but this simple reversal of “Grace” is not enough – it fails to recognize the reality of ecological devastation which has followed from the false dominion humans in fact do, through industrialization, hold over the earth. This “dominion” must be recognized to be a product not of God but of human history. To the extent that we fail to live up to the obligations that this event in human history places on us humans, we must be redeemed by redeeming ourselves inside that same history.


In contrast to either “Grace” or its reversal, I therefore suggest we say “Justice”. “Justice” refers to a human desire for the recognition and instantiation of certain moral principles beyond the extent to which they currently are manifested in current institutions and practices. In other words, the norm or ideal of “justice” is always beyond the reality of shared human experience. And this is a good thing – it expresses the positive aspect of the human ideal of progress.


So, what does “Justice” sound like? Whereas “Grace” thanks God for the dominion of humans over the earth, “Justice” demands that we recognize our privilege, and the expression of that privilege in our easy access to good, healthy food. Justice demands we recognize the inequality, tyranny and oppression involved in the production and transportation of that food, and the struggles of the oppressed for better working conditions and access to justice. One such struggle is the march that took place this thanksgiving, in which 125 migrant workers and allies walked the 50 kilometres from Leamington to Windsor to protest the precarious situation of migrant workers working on farms and as live in caregivers in Canada. Another is the Lubicon first nation, who having had much their traditional hunting territory destroyed by oil and gas development, and who desire the settlement of land claims and restitution for violations committed against them by the Canadian state and corporations.


Justice demands that we support such actions, and the reform which would make our privilege, or at least the environmentally sustainable portion of it, available to all humans. And what better place to start than with the demand for universal access to good healthy food, along with the demand that this food be harvested ethically, with an eye to future generations, and without barbaric labour practices such as the ongoing war against the unionization of farm labour.


So, why not say “Justice” tonight, before thanksgiving dinner? Or better, say it before every meal. And, if you are caught in a particular religious tradition which forces you to think transcendentally about human dominion – why not supplement your “Grace” with some “Justice”. After all, Jesus was a communist.


Beyond Charity: Zizek and the satisfaction of moral impulses in general

Zizek’s critique of Starbucks is cutting: capitalism sells us, alongside the products destroying the world, products which claim to include in their consumption its repair and redemption. The truth to extract from this is deep and wide-spreading: the unjust society you live in sells you its own repair as a libidinal supplement, to subvert desires for political change into individualistic tokenistic capitalist actions. The way of formulating this principle in terms of capitalism consumption, however, is unduly narrow; ideological displacement of activity with the goal of resistance or reform is possible, perhaps common, in all facets of modern political and moral life.  We must consider the implications of this critique not only on the topics of charity and eco-friendly consumption, but also for political activity more broadly.

Zizek’s critique of charity is based on an essentially simple idea: a genuine moral impulse to combat a real problem can be displaced towards an action which, although carefully constructed (or simply by happenstance) satisfies the impulse, fails to combat the problem which gave rise to the impulse. Thereby, the initial moral problem which gave rise to the impulse is rendered impotent – unable to engender motivational capacity which might have otherwise led to legitimate remedies. I do not mean, however, that every moral impulse is initially genuine and only thereafter becomes ideologically displaced – certainly some moral impulses are in the first instance highly ideologically motivated in their production (take, for instance, selective news coverage of a military conflict that portrays the crimes of the enemy and the heroic actions of “our side” – this might produce a moral impulse to give to a veterans charity). However, even highly moral impulses highly partisan in their creation can, as far as I understand, still be motivated by a genuine human value, i.e. helping a fellow countryman who has made a noble sacrifice in pursuit of a just cause.

They key is therefore the relation between the moral impulse’s creation and satisfaction and the real problem in relation to which it exists. That relation is one of understanding: desires are literally ways of emotionally understanding a situation. It is in terms of understanding that we should grasp the success or failure of moral motivation to deal with a situation – when an impulse is ideologically displaced, this both is an emotional way of misunderstanding a situation (e.g. liberal guilt), and at the same time an intellectual, or implicit intellectual mis understanding (i.e. “every little bit helps”). We should therefore consider education, both intellectual and emotional, to be the primary weapon against moral displacement.

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Stratfor and the neutrality of Imperialism

This is from a recent STRATFOR intelligence report:

The world is a dangerous place, and violence and threats of violence have always been a part of the human condition. Hadrian’s Wall was built for a reason, and there is a reason we all have to take our shoes off at the airport today. While there is danger in the world, that does not mean people have to hide under their beds and wait for something tragic to happen. Nor should people count on the government to save them from every potential threat.

The problem with statements like this is that they assume imperial agression (in this case, the Roman conquest of England) to be part of “the human condition”. It is only against the “neutral” backdrop of imperial violence that counter-imperial terrorism appears as something from which “the government” must save us.

In fact, we should recognize that “the [imperial] government” is in fact the cause of anti-imperial terrorism – both in the case of resistance against Rome, and in the case of violent Islamic resistance against the United State’s (and before that, the British Empire’s) domination of the middle east.

We should not take “imperial agression” to be a neutral part of the human condition. The state is, after all, quite a new phenomena in human history. We might take seriously the possibility that how long the human species last might be related to our ability to overcome this expansionistic, and structurally exclusionary form of social organization.