No Suspenders

April 9, 2010

Following in Revkin’s fingersteps, I’ll comment a bit on the comments that he’s cribbed and clipped for his column today. As he rightly notes, his commentators have made some really fantastic points. What’s interesting about these points is the evident balance, but also the deficiency, in the arc of reasoning. That deficiency is really only evident when all three comments are taken together — one is left without much support for any given course of action.

Namely, all three comments seem to emphasize the apparent virtues or vices of energy. So, for instance, we get Hugh Whalan’s nice comment on energy poverty, Mike Barrett’s important observation about energy gluttony, and Rohit Parikh’s refreshing anecdote about the irrelevance of energy to the flourishing life. It all fits neatly in a tidy Aristotelian package.

All three of these comments don’t actually contradict one another, even though it may appear that they do. Instead they point out how difficult it is to guide our actions according to strikes for or against a given set of actions or things in the world. It can obviously be the case that energy is essential in some instances, but that use of it in others is manifestly unjustified. Plainly, the fact that there are people in dire need of heat in one part of the world doesn’t authorize me to festoon my house with 100 gigawatt lightbulbs simply because I am afraid of the dark or because I like the blistering feel of sunbeams on my skin.

From the Aristotelian vantage, we ought to cut a middle path, avoiding mama bear’s and papa bear’s beds in favor of baby bear’s bed. That’s not the view I favor, frankly, precisely because I don’t know what any of those beds are like until I’ve napped in them. Also, beds are too “lumpy.” What’s good for a little girl isn’t good for a grown man. Far better to deliberate and justify our individual decisions and policies by way of appeals to the reasons for their deployment — in terms of the things we need and can use, as well as things we don’t need and can’t use.

To be sure, there’s some room for such deliberation even in the Aristotelian bedroom — baby bear’s bed was “just right” for Goldilocks — but it can get mighty confusing if one thinks that one is well advised to set policy according to whether something is too hard, too soft, or just right. Better, instead, to emphasize what the beds will be used for and to focus on the reasons, on the purposes. Sometimes a hard bed is required. Sometimes a soft bed. Sometimes no bed.

To decryptify my silly Goldilocks example, the use of energy is neither a virtue nor a vice, and it’s not clear that it helps to think of it in terms of gluttony, deprivation, or the good life. Rather, we need to have a serious discussion about how to direct and steer our resources — resources with uses that can sometimes be justified and sometimes cannot. All of this will depend on the purposes to which the resources are put. Yes, it is reasonable to steer our resources toward the impoverished and needy, and at the same time, we can do some of this steering by finding methods within our own lives to cut back on inefficiencies and the satisfaction of ridiculous desires. Moreover, it is not clear that in order to enrich the lives of the needy, we need to create the conditions that make possible their future purchase of a new iPad.

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