Tuesday, March 28, 2017 Blog

The unEnlightenment. Echo chambers. Manipulating voters. Mt. Pleasant’s mistake. The value of corner stores. Chicken threats. Magnificent dolphins!

by Andy Hollis


A couple of weeks ago I included an article by David Brooks on the perils of abandoning the principles and processes of the Enlightenment – skeptical inquiry based on reason and empirical evidence.  But I also included a piece from an English sheep farmer that seemed to provide a counterpoint to the cold rationality of, say, Francis Bacon.  I thought the (sometimes) countervailing forces of reason and sentiment would help us navigate the environmental challenges we face today.  (David Hume made this point, as best I can tell, 300 years ago.)

Here is a different perspective on that subject.  This article from the Financial Times entitled “What we think we know” reviews three new books on knowledge and judgment.  The first, called “The Knowledge Illusion,” argues that civilization operates more like a giant cognitive organism than a collection of individual, self-reliant brains, (which seems obvious), and that we should understand and respect the division of intellectual labor that allows us to discover simultaneously how to send a man to the moon and map the human genome (or, from the article, invent a flush toilet).

(The strange thing about the Financial Times is that if you go to this website it will ask you to subscribe.  But if you Google “Financial Times What we think we know” you can read the article…)

Financial Times: The age of unEnlightenment

Why is this important?  The author says we have embraced a degraded interpretation of the Enlightenment, in which authority is called into question and the individual is the final arbiter of truth in every arena, but there is no respect for scientific knowledge and the people who possess it.  The bottom line, for the author, is that experts are worth listening to.  According to the article, “The general public, sad to say, have taken the individualistic bias of the Enlightenment on board, while jettisoning its commitment to learning.”

The second book, “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters,” sounds a similar note.  The book’s author fears that “technology has encouraged us to confuse access to information with knowledge.”  This underpins “a crazed egocentricity brought about by self-satisfied egalitarianism and know-nothing libertarianism… The result is aggressive distain for anyone who would presume to know more than anyone else.”

This pretty much sums up the current debate about climate change (and a lot of other important issues) with economists, classicists (seriously), mechanical engineers, dentists and veterinarians “debunking” the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Why do people believe this stuff?  Cass Sunstein, in his new book “#republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media,” argues that our ability to “customize our information environment,” by selecting the news (including the fake variety) sources that reinforce our political beliefs, has produced a society that is less exposed to countervailing opinions than ever.  This produces “digital communities” that are more isolated and more extreme in their points of view, all of which spells big trouble for democracy.  In the words of our wise third president, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

The worst case is not simply confusion, although that abounds, but unscrupulous politicians taking advantage of these errors of judgement.  For a fascinating (and exhaustingly long) look at how this can happen, this next article from the New Yorker profiles one of the financiers of the Trump campaign, and explains how “big data” can be used to influence and mobilize these self-reinforcing digital communities (aka “echo chambers”).  From the article:

Alexander Nix, the C.E.O. of the firm (Strategic Communications Laboratories), says that it has created “profiles”—consisting of several thousand data points—for two hundred and twenty million Americans. In promotional materials, S.C.L. has claimed to know how to use such data to wage both psychological and political warfare. 

New Yorker: The reclusive hedge-fund tycoon behind the Trump presidency

Let me quickly say that this type of manipulative electioneering is by no means limited to Republicans.  The fields of cognitive psychology and big data now permeate the marketing world, whether the product is pet food or presidential candidates.  The alarming thing is not so much the electoral outcomes it has produced, but the underlying cultural mindset that seems increasingly impregnable to facts and logic.

Given all of this, what can and should we do? This fact-rich article from the New York Times reports citizens can have a transformative effect on the health of the planet, and it’s (almost) all about transportation.

New York Times: What you can do about climate change

The article lists a dozen steps we can take to reduce greenhouse gasses, not to mention producing enormous collateral benefits, like eating less meat and reducing the time you drive above 70 mph (which is, by the way, illegal).  But the single most effective action you can take is to drive a more fuel-efficient car. According to the Times:

If vehicles averaged 31 miles per gallon, according to our research, the United States could reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 5 percent…

If every American household drove a vehicle getting 56 miles per gallon, it would reduce U.S. emissions by 10 percent.

The transportation sector is one of the 800 pound gorillas of climate change.  Says the Times, “Transportation accounts for 27 percent of (greenhouse) emissions. And 60 percent result from driving personal vehicles.”

The point of the article is not only to motivate us individually to take the modest steps available to reduce our carbon footprints, but also to point out what a bad decision it is on the part of the Trump Administration to weaken national fuel efficiency standards.

An encouraging postscript to this story is that California has vowed to go to court to maintain its higher state efficiency standards.  Since automakers are unlikely to manufacture two fleets of cars, one for California and one for the rest of the country, this is good news for America.  Fortunately, as California goes, so goes the nation!

Even better than driving a fuel-efficient car is not driving at all, at least when you don’t have to. But most American cities make it virtually impossible to walk, bike or take a bus anywhere – to work, to school, to (ironically) the gym, or to the store.

The pattern of development we have exclusively embraced – low density single family houses, rigidly separated from offices and stores, on branching streets that connect to a few massive, and always congested highways – has created a nation entirely dependent on automobiles, and on petroleum, and on the Middle East.  We couldn’t have done a more thorough job of eliminating other transportation options and maximizing gas consumption if we had planned it this way. And now we ARE planning it this way!

This editorial from the Post and Courier explains that Mt. Pleasant, ostensibly to control growth, is doing exactly the wrong thing by placing a moratorium on new apartments.

Post and Courier: Apartments not the enemy

Forget for a minute the issue of housing affordability.  Apartments generate a fraction of the number of vehicle trips single family houses do.  They occur at densities that make transit possible.  When they are built in proximity to stores, offices and schools, as the Boulevard on Coleman was, they allow residents to walk and bike.  In short, if Mt. Pleasant were serious about relieving congestion, they would put a moratorium on single family houses and welcome apartments in the right places.

The editorial does a superb job of explaining the phenomenon and the perversity of the town’s decision.

Downtown Charleston is the best possible example of mixing houses with stores and offices, except for every other downtown that was built prior to 1950.  Steve Bailey, writing in the Post and Courier, makes a compelling case for the importance of, and misguided threats to, Charleston’s corner stores, the icon of which is Burbage’s at the corner of Savage and Broad.

Post and Courier: In praise of downtown Charleston’s struggling corner stores

It is hard to opine about corner stores without appearing to be nostalgic.  And for good reason. They are manifestations of another, better era, where children had charge accounts and could become consumers at an early age, under the watchful eye of, in the case of Burbage’s, Mr. Burbage. We could call this paternal, or maternal, capitalism.  Unlike the Circle K, more than half of the customers arrive on foot or bicycle. (And maybe a few on tricycles…)

There is no reason we can’t re-embrace these patterns, functions and relationships.  For better or worse, the coast is growing at a breathtaking rate and the cities we build today will be the legacy we leave for future generations.  It’s too important not to get things right.

There are some things that don’t mix well with their neighbors.  Chicken farms are a good example. Setbacks from rivers, streams and property lines are important to protecting the environment and keeping the peace.  Citizens should have the right, legally and practically, to challenge projects that threaten their homes and communities.

South Carolina is one of the biggest producers of chickens in the country.  This growth has transpired under the existing regulations, which are fine, but not extraordinarily protective.  There has been relatively little conflict with neighbors and, as far as I know, minimal environmental damage.

Under the theme of not leaving well enough alone, this article by Sammy Fretwell with The State reports that the SC Farm Bureau is pushing legislation that weakens the current chicken farm safeguards. Their bill, which was sponsored by Rep. David Hiott, imposes a $5,000 fee on anyone who wants to appeal a chicken farm permit.  It was reportedly inspired by a neighborhood near Laurens that objected to a new operation.

The State: Don’t want a chicken farm near your house? Opposing it may get harder.

The ridiculous fee is probably a violation of due process, but there is no reason for the bill to move forward and require a court battle to test it.  Now would be a good time to call your state representative and senator to let them know you feel the current chicken farm regulations are fine (or, in the words of the SC Supreme Court, “minimally adequate”) and that making it financially impossible for residents to challenge permits would threaten the relative harmony of our rural areas.

Envy is not a good thing, but it is inevitable for photographers reading National Geographic or watching Nat Geo videos.  How do they get those shots?!

This video is no exception. It features stunning footage of dolphin strand feeding – learned behavior that occurs only in Georgia and South Carolina. One of the most popular spots is at Captain Sam’s Spit, exactly where the Kiawah developers want to build a quarter-mile-long wall in the marsh.

YouTube: Untamed with Filipe DeAndrade: Dolphins will feast and fish will fly

The video is a great reminder of the extraordinary, exotic beauty of the South Carolina coast, and how fortunate we are to be among the multitude of species who occupy it.

Have a great week!


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