What Exactly Do You Do?

October 3, 2009

UPDATE: I’ve written a follow-up post.  Better to read the below first for context.

Joe Romm offers up a pretty nasty award to environmental ethicist David Henderson, who has just written this opinion piece for the Washington Post.  First, I’d like to offer props to David (whom I’m never met), a recent PhD from Texas A&M, for getting out of the academy and putting a bit of the ethics discussion to wider application.  I’m pleased to see that my colleagues are bringing their work to a broader audience. I disagree with David, but that’s a mild point that I’m happy to take up with him later.  It does, however, bear on my thinking about Romm’s award.

I think Romm is way over the top here, but first let me dispense with the obvious: I’ve read many, many worse pieces of environmental ethics.  I think Romm is flat wrong about who should win this award.  Nevermind.  That’s an ugly gripe I’ll take up over beers with those who’ve read the same pointless drivel that I have.

More than that, however, I find Romm’s assumptions about my discipline somewhat disheartening.  Check out this gem:

But a true environmental ethicist would be shouting from the mountaintop — or at least from his blog — that we have grievously violated every principle of intergenerational ethics in creating this global Ponzi scheme, whereby current generations have figured out how to live off the wealth of future generations.  We have been stealing from our children and grandchildren an ever greater fraction of nonrenewable energy resources (especially hydrocarbons) and natural capital (fresh water, arable land, forests, fisheries), and, the most important nonrenewable natural capital of all — a livable climate.

I teach environmental ethics.  I write environmental ethics.  I’m also co-editor of a  journal in environmental ethics: Ethics, Place & Environment.  I do environmental ethics all day long, every day of the year, and I speak to several hundred students per year about many complex theoretical issues.

What do environmental ethicists do?

We disagree, just as I might disagree with Henderson.

That sounds mighty empty, unless you consider that philosophy is a discipline centered around argumentation.  Philosophers argue like bitchy little banshees.  We raise problems.  We note difficulties.  We present new arguments.  We construct hypotheticals, run cockamamie counterfactuals, tell stories about zombies and robots, and lean heavily on things that have little connection to the real world at all.  Our faculty meetings are hell.  But we love this.  We value disagreement.  It makes us stronger.  We try to inculcate such a love of argumentation in our students too.

Henderson is doing exactly this in his piece.  He’s using an argument about CFLs to explore a question about proportionality (see the McMahan piece below re: war).  He’s also offering a pragmatic political argument that, effectively, this ban may result in an ugly political backlash, thereby undermining further environmental efforts.  So Henderson is actually doing more than philosophers often do (by delving into the political), and he is in fact doing what Romm wants him to do above (by suggesting that a ban on incandescents may be counterproductive to environmental progress).

All this disagreement means that there’s plenty of room for us to disagree about what it is to be an environmentalist, for us to disagree about what is environmentally right or good.

Which raises a second point.

Another thing we don’t all do is focus on questions of a “livable climate.”  Until recently, most of us didn’t focus on climate at all.  We have people working on questions of wilderness, restoration, pollution, animals, endangered species, natural value, definitions of nature, future generations, and on and on.  We have people working on the very principles of intergenerational justice that Romm seems to think are so well established.  It’s a pretty wide field.

Further, let’s attend to Romm’s argument.  Romm says this:

His muddled piece, “Let There Be (Incandescent) Light,” perpetuates one enormous myth — that somehow clean energy generation alone without energy efficiency can solve our energy and environmental problems — and a bunch of smaller ones.

Henderson’s claim isn’t this at all, and it’s not clear to me how it perpetuates this myth.  If I argue that one shouldn’t tax transfats, I’m not at all saying that people shouldn’t cut transfats out of their diets.  That’s silly.  I’m just saying that a tax is maybe not the best way to get people to cut transfats out of their diets.  Henderson’s argument works like this.

I really, really want to respond to more of Romm’s argument, but I can’t do so until later this evening.  (Sigh.  I have a three year old.  He wants to color.)

More here…


  1. If Joe keeps pissing off his potential allies the echo chamber is going to have just a few acolytes left. How stupid is Joe?

    • Amazing. Joe’s Doppelgänger is attacking his Einzelgänger.

      I want to be perfectly clear that I’m not pissed off at Romm, just defending my discipline, which I think he conceives of incorrectly. I’ll explain more when I come back to this topic later tonight.

  2. […] Hale, a philosopher who teaches environmental ethics at the University of Colorado, is “disheartened” by Joe Romm’s body slam of a fellow environmental ethicist. Presumably Hale is well […]

  3. I’m sorry Dr. Hale but I just don’t see your point. Your response to Romm just seems like a complicated expression of hurt feelings. Yes, you made some points but they seem, to me at least, petty compared to the thorough evisceration of Henderson’s argument by Joe Romm.

    Yes, Romm was harsh but was it inappropriate? It seemed to me that Romm would fit right in with, “Philosophers (who) argue like bitchy little banshees.”

    I would expect you to have a thicker skin.

    I respect and enjoy a philosophical argument but Henderson stepped out of the arena of academic philosophy and into the world of politics and action. In the political world his words have direct consequences onne of which is the perpetuation of the myth that “that somehow clean energy generation alone without energy efficiency can solve our energy and environmental problems” even though Henderson did not directly support that myth.

    Sincerely and respectfully,
    David B Freeman

    • Trust me. My feelings aren’t hurt. I’ll say more later. Right now, it’s family time, so I’m not in a position to respond at length. The short answer is this: It’s exceptionally important (to me, at least), that environmental ethics not be characterized as a discipline oriented around “shouting from the mountaintops.” That view reinforces crap about liberal university professors said by people like David Horowitz and Bill O’Reilly that frame Universities as indoctrination factories.

      I have no investment in David Henderson, and as I mention in the above post, I disagree with him.

  4. Henderson seems hung up on not hurting the feelings of the big flushers (you know the folk who love their 4 gallon toilets and resisted the introduction of low flush units) to compact fluorescents (CFL). This, as they say is a distraction, not an argument, certainly not an ethical one. If the price of getting rid of crap is low to you and high to all of us in aggregate, ethics has dealt with that, you lose, let’s move on.

    Romm is over the top, but he, and Henderson have missed the elephant in the room.

    Lighting takes a significant fraction of energy usage (BTW there is a great NASA blue marble of the Earth at night out there showing all the lighting). It is the place where we can make the fastest reduction of energy use at no cost to utility or total price.

    Since generating units are continually being built anew or replaced, lower usage means that fewer generators will be needed. Henderson is wrong if he claims that introducing CFLs will increase the amount of energy available to be wasted. It will simply not grow as fast or actually decline.

  5. Ben-

    I’m not sure I understand your complaint here. Environmental ethics aside, Henderson is making a policy argument in the Wash Post. He is not providing an example of argumentation independent of context.

    On the policy questions he is either right or he is wrong. It appears that you and I and Romm all agree that Henderson is wrong on aspects the policy question. (Though the notion of a backlash is worth exploring, but Henderson did so only cursorily and speculatively).

    So while we might debate the merits of Romm’s approach to argumentation (and here Kloor is spot on: http://www.collide-a-scape.com/2009/10/03/the-romm-treatment/), if Henderson is wrong about his policy arguments, the folks like Romm will say so. But such arguments can and should be resolved empirically. Henderson’s argument is not about the discipline of environmental ethics and what is right or good, is it?

    • While I’m interested in the substantive policy question, of course, I’m more interested in what Romm says environmental ethicists should be doing. It’s a tangential point in Romm’s post, but it matters to me, since I care about how my discipline is perceived.

      Moreover, as I’ve read a lot of terrible environmental ethics papers in my time, I also want to disagree with him that Henderson’s is the worst.

  6. […] want to return to some points I made earlier about Joe Romm’s attack on environmental ethicist David Henderson.  You can read those […]

  7. Ben, how about stating that neither is actually entirely appropriate. Both arguments stem from fundamentally flawed logic. Both arguments assume that the environment (in the developed world) is in bad shape. Sure, there are some issues, but environmental problems have improved GREATLY as the economy developed and standards of living increased.

    Both arguments assume that SOMETHING must be done. They seem to differ in exactly what that SOMETHING ought to be. Poppycock!

    How about these REAL environmental-ethical problems: blocking development in (relatively) poor countries like Gabon

    Or blocking mine development in (relatively poor countries) like Romania:

    Numerous other examples of poor countries being dictated to by first world NGOs. Folks in these poor countries are suffering and dieing NOW as a result of some other folks in the developed world preventing them from developing!

    So how about this question instead: Is it ethical to block economic development programs in poor countries?


    • Bruce, that’s a perfectly reasonable objection, it seems to me. I disagree that nothing out to be done re: climate change, but I suspect that Henderson is objecting partly to the proliferation of coal, which can be a very destructive industry. So, as with your Gabon case, it’s not clear that coal or mountain top removal is particularly good for the mining communities it affects. Though you may disagree on some fine points, the two of you may be on some of the same pages.

      • Ben, step away from climate for a moment and think about what’s happened in the developed world vs. the third world. Yes, coal as an industry can be destructive, just as all industry CAN be destructive. Yet, in this country (and in the rest of the developed world), that level of destruction has gone down dramatically over time. We still have coal as an industry AND we have raised the standard of living at the same time.

        They are NOT mutually exclusive.

        The reality is that denying the developing world the ability to develop harms them directly, immediately and objectively. It is not a theory, it is reality. In fact, preventing development harms the environment (and the people) MORE than development. That’s why the developed world is now much “cleaner” than it has been in the past and is “cleaner” than most of the third world.

        People that have clean water, abundant food, ready access to affordable power, education, and the ability to self-govern have demonstrated repeatedly that they will produce better overall environmental conditions over time… and do so while improving all other measures of human success (longevity, GDP, educational levels, birth rates, etc). See North Korea vs. South Korea; see East Germany vs. West Germany for concrete examples.

        Outsiders deciding for different people what they can or cannot develop is true environmental injustice.


      • Or, thinking about it in traditional ethical terms, it’s paternalism.

  8. Thanks for this defense of Henderson, who I thought was rather unjustly attacked. I found Romm’s article containing much aggression and bombastic rhetoric but very little substance. I tried posting some facts, but my comment is “still awaiting moderation” and will probably be left hanging in cyberspace forever. This sort of censorship explains why Romm only has yes-sayers in the comment section…

    Instead I’ll post a slightly expanded version here, in the hope of presenting a bigger picture:

    Everyone from your President to the European Commission, even the UN, and every green journalist and blogger who takes their word for it without checking for themselves, keeps claiming that “lighting is one of the biggest energy consumers ” and similar statements to that effect. But rarely does anyone present any sources upon which these statements are based. When actually checking available statistics, it turns out that the potential gains from squeezing incandescent lamps off the market is truly negligible and quite a far cry from the inflated figures thrown around:

    1. Statements about lighting usually refer to ALL types of lighting in ALL sectors.

    2a. Most of the lighting in the world is used by the commercial/industrial/public sector, including office and street lighting. In the U.S., lighting in the commercial sector consumes 7.22% of total sector energy use and just 1.35% of national energy use (Source: EIA Energy Outlook 2008).

    2b. However, in this sector most lights are already fluorescent or HID! Raising energy standards for incandescent lights will only affect that VERY small percentage used for mood-lighting restaurants etc.

    2c. The greatest savings in the commercial sector would come from replacing halophosphate linear FL tubes with T8 tri-phosphor tubes and electronic ballasts or with metal halide or LED spots/downlights, adapting to computer use by using less light overall, turning lights off at night unless that affects AC systems and lamp life, switching to LED traffic signals, and replacing mercury vapor street lights with ceramic metal halide.

    3a. In the U.S. residential sector (private households) lighting is less than 2% of total household energy consumption, or 042% of national energy use. (Source: EIA)

    3b. In private households, it is true that incandescent light is more popular, but “90% incandescent” is likely an old figure. EIA estimates incandescent use in U.S. homes at around 70% now and CFLs at 20%. (In Europe incandescent lighting was estimated by EU consultants at 54% in 2007 and decreasing even without a mandated phase-out.)


    3c. The ‘new’ halogen energy saver which Romm refers to has been available here in Europe for a year, is only sold at Amazon and costs more. These energy savers produce a very nice incandescent light that could be a great alternative for incandescent lovers but these too will be phased out gradually: by 2014 you can use max 29W – 749 lm! The only currently existing incandescent lamp that passes these requirements is the $20+ 20W IR halogen with integrated transformer. This is as close to a ban as you get, even if you call this particular rose by any other name.


    3d. Even if CFLs saved the nominal 75% (which in reality is often less due to poor power factor, light deprecation, sensitivity to heat & frequent switching, plus the huge quality variation between models and brands), setting energy standards so tight that only a one expensive and hard-to-find 20W special halogen can pass, would still save less than 1% of residential energy use (which sector in turn uses only about a quarter of national energy use).

    3e. And that’s not even counting the heat replacement effect in cooler regions, Jevon’s Paradox, light bulb hoarding, or the fact that many already use dimmers & sensors or have learned to turn lights off etc., or that not every luminaire or application is even suitable for CFL or LED retrofiting.

    4. Creating markedly duller light environments in our homes by changing our top quality bulbs to mediocre quality CFLs will NOT save the planet, quite the opposite. Increased Western CFL demand is already creating an environmental disaster in China, and this will keep spreading over the globe until CFLs for private use are replaced by mercury-free alternatives.


    Of course we all want to save energy and reduce emissions, but focusing on those measly few per cent that is used for lighting – and deliberately making it sound like much more than it is – when most energy goes towards transport, heating & cooling, doesn’t that strike anyone as somewhat misguided?

    Why not just keep using information campaigns and incentives to make people save? It worked very well in the 70s. If stronger measures are needed, then it must be done in a way that is fair to consumers and does not adversely affect for example those who are elderly or vision impaired and NEED bright incandescent light to see well, or those of us who just appreciate optimal light quality before quantity and are willing to save on other things.

    • Thanks for your contribution, Halogenica. I’m a super fan of unmoderated comment threads. I like how dynamic and vitriolic they can get. I may change my mind later, as some have assured me I will, but I really don’t like visiting blogs where comments are moderated. I’d prefer to just keep this whole thing open.

    • The numbers look a lot different if you look at electrical energy use from US EIA.

      Since we don’t use coal for heating houses, but do for electrical generation, the electrical usage is more relevant to the argument about replacing carbon in electrical generation.

      Almost missed that one. Good try

      • Ben, thanks for the opportunity to debate openly.

        Eli, of course the figures look different if you only look at the electricity split and not the bigger energy picture, in which electricity is only a part.

        That’s why those who want lighting to seem like a bigger part than it is, usually mention or focus only electricity. And often ‘energy’ and ‘electricity’ is used interchangeably as if they were the same thing, even by politicians and well educated persons.

        Surely I can’t be the only person on the planet who understands the difference? That you have to combine statistics for overall energy consumption with detailed splits to get the right numbers?

        As for coal, you are correct of course, that coal is used mainly for electricity production (48,5% in the U.S. 2008 and 29% in Europe 2006) but is the discussion about coal only? I thought the objective was to reduce energy consumption and emissions from ANY non-renewable energy source.

        And wouldn’t it be more effective to phase out coal use, or mandate that no harmful emissions may come from coal plants than to chase individual consumer products which are among the smallest energy consumers while still not setting a limit to how MANY of those people can use?

        In Germany and Spain there have been a very successful programs to make it profitable both for cities and private persons to invest in renewable energy.

        I hope the new Energy Bill will have this effect in U.S.A. too, but this bizarre focus on the lightbulb is worrying. It is the easiest, but unfortunately also the most ineffective and even counterproductive, way out:

        1. It happens to coincide with manufacturers’ long held wish to get rid of a product that is no longer profitable to them so they can close down their local factories and move all production to China.

        2. It makes people think they’ve done their bit for the planet so they can go back to sleep and keep buying ever more electrical gadgets for their homes, drive energy-guzzling cars and eat more junk food that consumes frightening amounts of energy in production, transport and refrigeration in shops and at home.

        3. Best of all: it doesn’t upset anyone in the oil, coal, auto or electronics business. Everyone is happy.

        4. As Romm correctly pointed out, tightening standards for other electronic products as well may also be desired by some producers. (This will however, make these products emit less heat, which I hope everyone has taken into calculation when it comes to using them in colder regions.)

        I think we do need to save energy, in conjunction with investing in more renewable energy sources and phasing out the ones that harm the planet.

        I’m also not against energy standards, but those standards must be reasonable and include an overall picture of each product group and not be separated from QUALITY standards.

        I’m fine with banning the most inefficient models of each product group, but I do not find it acceptable to phase out an entire product group or technology which has a higher quality (in this case light quality), and force the use of another product group which has markedly lower quality.

        If a better quality product comes on the market at a decent price which also saves energy, people would automatically buy that one instead and the older product be phased out by regular market forces, as has been the case all through history. People usually LOVE new technology, so if the general public is not thrilled with a particular item, it may be that it is simply an inferior product, in which case governments should quit twisting anyone’s arm to buy it, or use tax money to force it for free on unwilling buyers.

        Either you have a free market or you don’t. Persuading governments all over the world to give a particular product unfair advantage over other products and to effectively ban the more popular unprofitable product under a green guise, while the unpopular product causes mercury poisoned workers in China and Chinese mercury mines to be reopened, just doesn’t make sense.

        President Obama clearly declared his strict policy on lobbyists, but with the green halo in place it seems anyone can lobby away freely, no matter how detrimental to the environment the effect of their lobbying turns out to be, and even brag about their ‘consultancy’.

        Based on the extensive research I’ve done on this issue (see my website and the figures in my above post for example) I believe this measure will first of all only have a marginal effect at best, and secondly that it may backlash rather severely on the environmentalist and energy saving movement when people start seeing through this charade. Which would be not just a pity but possibly a disaster for all of us.

        Much kudos to Henderson for having the guts to try and point this out, for I believe the risk is very real and one true believers would do well to consider.

    • I agree with pretty well all that Halogenica
      (must find out what Jevon’s paradox is!)

      – see comment on the next day follow-up to this post

      As seen, I don’t believe it is right to ban any
      product just on the grounds of efficiency,
      and that energy-emission problems can and should be addressed directly.

  9. […] of reasoning, please do challenge my reasoning.  Philosophers love that sort of thing.  (Oh, and we disagree, a lot, so I invite you to disagree with […]

  10. An added note:

    Given the philosophical background to this blog,
    notice the interesting point by Halogenica:

    “3b. In private households, it is true that incandescent light is more popular, but “90% incandescent” is likely an old figure. EIA estimates incandescent use in U.S. homes at around 70% now and CFLs at 20%….”

    If people still prefer ordinary incandescents =
    Greater energy savings from banning them, but it’s savings of what people clearly want to buy.

    If people increasingly prefer CFLs =
    Less energy savings, as Halogenica says,
    and questions the need of bans when people are buying a product anyway.

    This is similar to a point I make in the comment to the follow-on post in this blog, as linked above.

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