Sunday, September 3, 2017

The answer is listening

In this post, I intend to address a divisive issue. I chose this issue because I think it is important and because I think there are some ideas that need to be part of our conversation on the topic. I also chose it because it serves as an illustration of sort of war I wrote about as part of my New Year's resolution.

In the case of this particular issue, I believe that there are important concerns on both sides of the argument. I imagine that most of my friends will have an opinion already; in most cases, a strong opinion. As such, I imagine that most of my readers will disagree with at least some of the things I write here. I invite you to pause whenever you come across something you don't agree with and consider carefully what about it you do and don't agree with. Are there truths in the argument? Are there elements of it with which you agree?

My predicament

Exercise is important to me. I like pushing myself. I work better and sleep better when I stay in shape. I like being able to do hard things. Like many people, I prefer to exercise outside. However, I am also sensitive to air quality problems.

I'm not entirely sure if I actually suffer more from air quality problems than other people do or if I just notice them more. I sing quite a bit, so a little irritation can lead to considerable pain. Also, my work requires fairly extreme concentration much of the time and even a little sniffle makes an enormous difference in my productivity.

The area where I live is surrounded by mountains, which means that local air pollution doesn't leave easily. Even though traffic here doesn't compare to that of the world's major metropolitan areas, the air gets pretty bad during rush hour every day. It's worse in the winter, when a temperature inversion traps the smog.

On a personal level, there really isn't much I can do about it. I try to find ways of reducing my negative impact on the environment: I chain trips together and go to considerable effort to arrange carpools. I work from home on some days to further reduce pollution (and to save time). I pay a small fee to my power company to purchase energy from renewable sources. However, the air pollution problem happens because lots of people pollute a little bit (and a few pollute a lot). I believe that my efforts are the morally correct choice for me to take but I also recognize that they won't solve the problem.

I also worry that I might not be doing enough; I don't even own a bike, although I'd like to. One of the principal factors that has held me back is that I don't want to breathe the smog and make my respiratory issues worse. I don't love that I contribute to the problem by driving instead but the alternative doesn't seem reasonable to me.

Why people pollute

I think that most pollution happens because people are just doing the best they can. It's easy to miss it; we don't see the emissions from our cars or our homes (unless they're truly awful). We do, however, see how much time we save by driving instead of walking or taking public transit.

Most of us who have time to debate about the environment have enough income that we can choose to do things in an environmentally friendly way; for example, we can afford to buy cars that run efficiently. This saves us money on operating and saves us from the hassle of shopping around for a place that will let us squeak by on an emissions inspection. We might even be able to work while riding public transit. If that is our experience, we probably don't know what it's like to be living paycheck to paycheck and needing that car to get to a job that's across town but that at least pays the bills. We make the decisions we do largely because that's what our parents or society taught us is normal or acceptable.

The issue of air pollution is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons; each person acting reasonably in his or her own frame of reference results in everyone being poorly served. Crucially, unregulated capitalism will not (and cannot) solve this particular dilemma when the people concerned cannot or will not self-regulate.

Proposed solutions

In an attempt to solve the real problem of air pollution, many people favor laws or other regulations that would prohibit certain behaviors or that would make them more costly. Some examples of these efforts are state-mandated emissions tests and gas taxes. They also include public transportation, which is principally paid for by taxes in most systems in the USA. It is worth noting that the ratios in the linked article include operating costs but not construction costs, so they are higher than they would be if fares were compared with total costs.

Another approach is environmentalism by morality; when we discover that a behavior causes problems en masse, we determine that that behavior is not morally or socially acceptable. The hope is that this moral onus will discourage people from behaving in an environmentally irresponsible manner and that air quality (or the environmental concern in question) will improve.

Problems with proposed solutions

Environmentalism as we know it is a question of outcomes, not of methods. The end goal is a healthy environment. While this is certainly an important goal, it is worth asking what means we are willing to use to achieve it. Because environmental goals tend to require action (or inaction) on the part of the majority of people in a society, achieving these goals usually requires measures that make some people uncomfortable.

One common criticism of environmentalist policies is that they tend to violate the principle of the federal system of government: decisions should be left to individuals where possible, then to local governments, then to state governments, and only to the federal government in the last resort. In general, environmentalists are very concerned about the environment – and rightfully so. In many cases, they are either unconcerned by or in favor of a strong central government. In many other cases, their concern for the environment is stronger than their concern for decentralized government. Any of these positions is reasonable and can be defended; unfortunately, many people are unwilling to engage in a healthy debate on the point. The typical argument is that we can either toe the environmentalist line or we will all die. Even if this argument is correct, it is dismissive of and disdainful to real concerns that people have about the way we govern ourselves.

Similarly, there is a tendency for environmentalists to want stricter measures than some other people believe are necessary. Even simple regulations like requiring compliance with emissions standards adds a cost in time and money to each person who drives. In the case of people living in poverty, these costs can be crippling. In a more general sense, laws and regulations proscribe freedoms. They may do more good than harm; we have laws for a reason. However, an unwillingness to debate the point serves no one.

On the other hand

People who oppose environmentalist policy also tend to take a hard line. Some people oppose every tax on principle; others simply oppose taxes that cost them money. Some oppose government overreach; others have personal reasons for wanting to do certain things. I have a close friend who really likes tinkering with and driving automobiles; although he's concerned about the environment, I'm sure he would be very bent out of shape if we were to outlaw the internal combustion engine. There are, of course, people who just want to make easy money by exploiting resources in environmentally unfriendly ways.

In many cases, these objections to environmental policies completely ignore the valid concerns about the world in which we live. There is more carbon in the atmosphere than there was ten years ago and the polar ice caps are melting. On a more personal and immediate level, I have to be careful about when I run to avoid permanent lung damage. However principled our stance on government is, the fact remains that the invisible hand is not guiding us wisely in some cases. Those of us who ignore environmentalism for their ideological hobbyhorses are just as wrong as the extremists who oppose them.


Happily, there is a better way. I believe that there are solutions to be found. Some of them will come from research: we can discover better sources of renewable energy and improve our batteries. We may even be able to improve carbon sequestration techniques, which could help us to remove the atmospheric carbon dioxide that has been accumulating. Other solutions may come from more efficient city design, autonomous vehicles. It may (or may not) require us as a society to decide that some luxuries, like owning our own vehicles, are not worth the price.

Whatever the solutions are, they will not be found in vitriol or extremism. They will be found in a spirit of cooperation. We are one human family, living in a world whose size seems to be decreasing constantly. We breathe each other's air and we impact each other's lives. If we all work together to do so wisely and responsibly, we can enjoy a marvelous existence on this beautiful planet.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

All People That On Earth Do Dwell

All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice.
Him serve with mirth, his praise forth tell
Come ye before him and rejoice.

Know that the Lord is God indeed;
Without our aid He did us make;
We are His flock; He doth us feed,
and for His sheep He doth us take.

O, enter then His gates with praise;
Approach with joy His courts unto;
Praise, laud, and bless His name always,
For it is seemly so to do.

For why? The Lord our God is good;
His mercy is forever sure;
His truth at all times firmly stood,
And shall from age to age endure.

Sunday before last, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang All People That On Earth Do Dwell, a setting of William Kethe's adaptation of the 100th Psalm. Many hymns of praise feel saccharine to me, so I especially enjoyed singing a song of praise that speaks to my heart.

This text stands out to me because instead of praising by attempting to create an impressive concatenation of superlatives, it teaches specifics about God's goodness. In particular, the second verse teaches us that "Without our aid He did us make." He created each one of us and this marvelous world in which we live. It continues, "We are His flock; He doth us feed, and for His sheep He doth us take." Sheep are terrible at taking care of themselves, so caring for them is a tremendous responsibility. And yet He chooses to feed us, day by day.

The second verse gives us ample reason to praise the Lord, but the third and fourth verses are what leave me in a state of awe: "Enter then His gates with praise; Approach with joy His courts unto." We are invited to pass through His gates and enter into His courts on high. Almighty God has invited us to live with Him forever! In fact, "His mercy is forever sure." He gave us His Son, who lived a perfect life, died, and rose again so that He could bring us back to His Father's presence.

I also take comfort in the fact that "His truth at all times firmly stood, and shall from age to age endure." In a world of good but fallible people with ever-changing understanding of the world and the complexities of life, I take great comfort in knowing that I can rely on God to teach unchanging, perfect truth.

"The Lord our God is good." And I am grateful for it.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

My new year's resolution

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Martin Luther King Jr. (1967). Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?. p. 67. Accessed from

I tend to get a little cranky when certain topics come up, as everyone knows who has discussed internet service in the USA or copyright law with me.

I'm not proud of all of the conversations I've had on these topics, as I've often been carried away. I have sometimes looked back on conversations that have just ended and felt more frustrated than before. Worse, I feel like the Holy Spirit is further away because of my anger: "He that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who ... stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another" (3 Nephi 11:29).

This past year has made it abundantly clear that I am not alone in this failure. The election in the USA was spectacularly divisive and cynical. Fear has led to speculation, which has led in turn to more fear. These fears have resulted in a proliferation of anger. People on both sides of every political debate have decided that certain outcomes (for example, securing certain rights) are so important that they are worth every sacrifice. I applaud dedication, but dedication does not require that we abandon respect for our opponents, the rule of law, honesty, integrity, and other principles. These principles are not just nice things to have when times are easy; society cannot exist without them.

Throwing aside rules essential to the existence of society is a reasonable definition of war. In that light, deciding that there can be no compromise on any issue is either a willingness to wage war or an outright declaration of war.

A prophecy given in 1831 describes these conditions in surprising detail:

66 And it shall be called the New Jerusalem, a land of peace, a city of refuge, a place of safety for the saints of the Most High God;

68 And it shall come to pass among the wicked, that every man that will not take his sword against his neighbor must needs flee unto Zion for safety.

69 And there shall be gathered unto it out of every nation under heaven; and it shall be the only people that shall not be at war one with another.

71 And it shall come to pass that the righteous shall be gathered out from among all nations, and shall come to Zion, singing with songs of everlasting joy.

D&C 45:66, 68-69, 71

A willingness to take up our swords might mean a willingness to do physical violence but it also might mean a willingness to discard the principles that hold society together: to lie, to disregard the rule of law, etc. As far as I can see, the only requirement for residence in Zion is a lack of willingness to take up our swords against our neighbors. There is peace to be had, but it is up to each of us to accept that peace for ourselves by choosing it over warfare, literal or verbal.

And so I have resolved to change this year: I'm going to stop taking up my sword. When I feel myself getting too worked up, I will stop. I'll ask myself if it's worth it. I'll remind myself that I believe in a God who looks out for me and for everyone else and in His Son who died for all of us. I'll either find ways to address the issues in a way that invites the Holy Spirit or I'll table them until I can address them in a healthy manner.

Whether or not you share my faith, I invite you to join me in taking a step back and determining that we will be reasonable and respectful in the ways that we think, speak, and act towards each other. In other words, come to Zion. Let's live together in peace.