The Promise of Sustainability Contest

If you have opted to write a paper for the final class assignment, please do consider submitting it to the “Promise of Sustainability” essay contest.

There are three $300 prizes, and certainly any essay from this class would be highly competitive for the “most persuasive” prize, since our efforts all quarter have been on increasing the clarity and strength of our arguments. In addition to the cash prizes, some additional essays will be chosen for the final publication, and this in itself is a prize worth aiming for!


Argument Outline 4



Due Wednesday, November 5.

Don Brown, an environmental ethicist and specialist in environmental law, argues that climate change has moral and ethical dimensions, and he claims that the American public and policy-makers are not taking these dimensions seriously. Brown identifies eight ethical issues related to climate change.

Watch the video or read the transcript of his speech here.

Evaluate one of these issues or the overall question of whether climate change presents a moral problem according to any of the ethical frameworks we’ve developed. You are certainly not required to agree with Don Brown, but you are expected to offer an argument (and a response) supporting your view. You may perform additional internet research, if you wish, but please cite your sources.

Considering the ethical implications of climate change is a new philosophical problem, and one that I think is important to take up. You can read some of my earlier thoughts here.

Hint: narrower problems usually make for more successful arguments because there is less confusion about what the issue is.

If you wish, you can read more about each of these issues in the “White Paper on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change”:

Here is an associated blog:

UPDATE: The primary link above stopped working on Tuesday, Nov. 14. Here are some alternatives:

My recommendation is that you watch the video on YouTube.

Other options provide more information and argument than the video and include the white paper linked above, a PowerPoint presentation that you can download at the bottom of this page, and the ClimateEthics blog. Let me suggest the first post as an introduction to the issues that would be suitable background for writing the outline, but more ideas are found throughout the blog’s posts.

If you use one of these written sources, you may find it difficult to put the technical language in your own words. But copying without attribution is plagiarism. So always try to put the ideas in your own words, and when you cannot, use quotation marks and an attribution, like this:

“I agree (or disagree) with Dr. Konrad Ott, who has argued that we have a moral duty to “Consider ‘clean coal’ options carefully so that this technology is not adopted before its ability to reduce emissions is demonstrated.” (

An interesting lecture

This lecture/panel discussion is eligible to count as a replacement grade, if you write up a summary and critically engage with one of the arguments (about 1.5 pages of writing). One reason it should be especially interesting is that Bill Johnson is black and is the former mayor of Rochester, so I’m sure he has very personal insights about race and being a public figure.


Department of Sociology and Anthropology

Departments of STS/Public Policy, and Sociology and Anthropology

Department of Sociology and Anthropology

Department of Sociology and Anthropology

     TIME:  7-8:30 P.M.
     PLACE:  ROOM 1125, CARLSON (Bldg. 76)

The Qatsi Trilogy

You had some questions about the film clips we watched in class yesterday, so I looked them up. And of course Wikipedia had some of the best information.

The first clip was the trailer for Koyaanisqatsi, which was released in 1982.

The film consists primarily of slow motion and time-lapse photography of cities and many natural landscapes across the United States. In the Hopi language, the word Koyaanisqatsi means ‘crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living’, and the film implies that modern humanity is living in such a way.

The second clip was the Introduction to Powaqqatsi, released in 1988.

Powaqqatsi is a Hopi word meaning “parasitic way of life” or “life in transition”. While Koyaanisqatsi focused on modern life in industrial countries, Powaqqatsi, which similarly has no dialogue, focuses more on the conflict in third world countries between traditional ways of life and the new ways of life introduced with industrialization.

The first scene is of a gold mine in Brazil, called Serra Pelada, in which the miners carry sacks of dirt for processing. Towards the end of a scene, we see some workers carrying another who has been struck by a falling rock.

Sustainability and Carbon Footprints

Our next reading for course is this New Yorker article about carbon footprints. One thing we’ll discuss in class is the subtitle about “confusing morality and science.”

In addition, see the course schedule for instructions about completing two carbon footprint models.

The footprint models show what percentage of the Earth’s resources would be required if everyone on the planet lived a lifestyle just like yours. If everyone were to use equal amounts of the earth’s resources at a renewable level, and if we set aside just 12% of those resources for all the other species, about 39 acres would be available per person. Currently the global population uses abotu 58 acres per person. That is clearly not sustainable in the long run! Many scientists believe that we should set aside about 33% of the earth’s resources for other species, which reduces the human share and makes our current consumption look even more harmful.

Thanks to Environmental Science professor Karl Korfmacher for collecting the carbon footprint model resources.


This is a reminder that the Ethical Experience Project is due on Monday. It is worth 20% of the final course grade.

In grading the project, I’ll be looking for several things:

1. the quality of your activity. Did you have an original idea? How much time and effort did the activity require? How challenging was it to you, or how far out of your comfort zone? Does it open up ideas or opportunities for future ethical actions?

2. the quality of your written description of the activity. Is your story interesting to read? Do you provide enough background information so that I understand the context of your activity? Do I get a clear picture of what you did, why you did it, and how it affected your thoughts and actions? Was the activity what you expected, or did it present unexpected challenges or surprises? Does your narrative give a vivid picture while excluding unnecessary or irrelevant detail?

3. the depth of your reflections. Have you made the relevance to the course topic (or to Deep Economy) apparent? Do you make use of the experience to examine a difficult question? Did you learn something or expand your horizons, and have you reflected critically on what you learned? Can you relate something about your experience to one of our ethical frameworks or to one of the ethical problems that we’ve discussed?  Do you use it to highlight some particular conception of “the good life” or of “right action”? What impact did your activity have on other people, now or in the future? Were your attitudes transformed as a result of the experience, and if not, what were the obstacles to transformation? Is there something you wish you had done differently, or do you have advice to pass on to future students about this activity?

Finally, let me remind you that the reading for Monday is the essay by Garrett Hardin in our Moral Philosophy textbook.

John Rawls and McKibben’s Deep Economy

My longish piece evaluating McKibben’s ideas about local economies was placed in the latest Philosopher’s Carnival. My analysis was informed by some of our class discussion, so thanks to you all for talking about your ideas.

Here is what I presented in class yesterday:

John Rawls was concerned with what we call distributive justice and the question of what we should do about inequalities in society. Should goods be distributed equally to everyone? Should we permit vast differences in social and economic status? How are justice and socioeconomic opportunity tied to each other?

This is relevant to the book Deep Economy in two ways.

1. First, we can use the justice framework to make the case that our social system (that is, our system of social policy, ethics, and economic exchange) is conventional. We have a certain social/political/economic system and it produces certain results. But we don’t have to have that system. It might be the most just system, or it might undermine justice. If it does not produce the maximum degree of justice, then we should try to change it so that it is more just. In particular, we should always be working to try to improve the status of those that have the least, and we should always try to give people equality of opportunity.

This observation supports McKibben in his attempt to rethink economics, and in particular in his attempt to replace some market trends with a deeper concern for community. He argues very much like someone in the justice framework would: he argues that deeper and more robust communities will make people happier and will be more economically stable. This last point is important, because in the justice framework, people are risk-averse.

2. A second way that Rawls’s justice framework can be linked to the book is McKibben’s recognition that for people who are living at a subsistence level, access to global markets makes more sense than pursuing deeper, local economies. That’s because McKibben, like Rawls, knows that the concerns of people who have the least social status and economic goods will be different than those who have plenty.

How Green Is Our Campus?

The College Sustainability Report Card was issued this week, and RIT scored a C-.

Oh, but don’t feel too bad, because at least our score is up from last year! Also, even the leaders only scored an A-. Read about other area campuses here.

But surely, as a technological institute, we can make larger efforts to improve our sustainability score, especially since such strong reasons have been given for the role that technology can play in finding ways to improve sustainability without devolving to a 19th century lifestyle.

Philosophy Club

Two students interested in philosophy have decided to hold a first/preliminary meeting of a philosophy club on Friday the 24th (next Friday).

    It will be:

          Date: 10/24
          When: 2:30pm
          Where: In the Idea Factory of the library.

They ask people who come to have read the first chapter of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. They are looking for people who would like to read and discuss philosophical texts on their free time. They have other plans and ideas for the club as well, but the focus is on a student-run reading group as opposed to a faculty-led discussion. 

Experiential Learning

I’ve heard about a few more out-of-class and organized activities that might be relevant. You don’t have to do something organized at the community or university level. You might think of another way to try to expand your range of experiences in a way that relates to Deep Economy or our other ethics topics. Creativity is encouraged!

Remember that RIT is sponsoring an outing to the Public Market tomorrow. Sign up using the link here:

Sunday, Oct. 19: NYPIRG Clean Energy Tour at 10am in Genesee Valley Park.

Wed., Oct. 22: a lecture on sustainable urbanism, “Planning and Designing Healthy Environments for Healthy People”. Note that tickets for students are $8 in advance or $10 at the door.

The same person is giving a different lecture at the U of R on Tuesday evening. Info here.

Update: Another lecture/discussion event–

The Genesee Valley Audubon Society invites you to a presentation and discussion of
 Lester Brown’s book Plan B 3.0  Mobilizing to Save Civilization
 on Wednesday, October 22, 2008 at 7:30 PM
 at Brighton Town Hall, 2300 Elmwood Ave.

Instructor Feedback

It’s the time of the quarter when I’m ordering books and starting my plans for next quarter. I’ll be teaching this course again, and I’d love to get some feedback from you. What is working? What is not?

Specifically, what do you think of the Being Good textbook? I required it this quarter. Should I require it again? Make it optional?

The central part of any ethics class is ethical frameworks. Some other sections of this course, in fact, read only ethical theory and only in the original (Aristotle, Hobbes, Mill, Kant). In contrast, we do a broad survey, including contemporary theorists like Rawls, and we spend a lot of time on application. I could increase the amount of traditional philosophy we do, or I could shift the emphasis if you have ideas about that.

What about methods? I’ve used a lot of lecture recently. And on days when the reading is from Deep Economy, we use mostly discussion. Are you reading Deep Economy? Do you have ideas about how participation could be raised? Would you suggest I use quizzes next quarter? And how do you like the blog supplement (when the platform is not down)?

I appreciate any feedback you give, so long as it is respectful. The more specific you can be, and the more you can suggest alternatives rather than just give criticism, the better I can put your ideas into practice. You can leave feedback anonymously if you wish. We will do official RIT evaluations in the 10th week.

Local Economies

McKibben doesn’t so much offer a clear and cohesive argument in Ch. 4, as he does give a long list of ways in which returning to doing things in smaller communities would help us to lead better lives. One thing we discussed in class is that what makes local “better” is not the same for each of the endeavors he mentions.

RADIO, MEDIA: In the brief book, Cass Sunstein laid out an argument for why the Internet has the potential to polarize our political views because we are more likely to be ignorant of other people’s viewpoints. Likewise, mass media contribute to our ignorance of local issues and regional values. I strongly recommend Sunstein’s book, and you might be interested in Free Press, an organization that promotes media reform to strengthen democracy.

McKibben talks about the value of locally-owned and operated radio stations. Ours include:

88.5 WRUR

89.7 WITR

90.1 WGMC

90.5 WBER

91.5 WXXI

103.9 WDKX

DISTRIBUTED POWER GENERATION: As we discussed in class, distributed power generation might contribute to increasing the efficiency of our infrastructure and overall energy sustainability. There are many limitations working against it: some are physical and some technological; others are political, commercial, and cultural. This is certainly a problem that the engineers, technologists, and businesspeople that RIT graduates can contribute their creativity to.

COHOUSING: These are communities that are usually designed for increased environmental sustainability, but McKibben’s appraisal centered on the benefits of living in close-knit supportive communities. The EcoVillage in Ithaca is an example.

LOCAL CURRENCY: McKibben’s example was Burlington Bread, but again, the People’s Republic of Ithaca can be our example, with the first modern-day local currency in the US, the Ithaca HOURS. The support for local currencies seems to be primarily that it is in communities’ interests to keep money inside the community.

As a class, you developed the insight that what is missing from McKibben’s book is an analysis of how communities interact, and specifically how this advocacy for local communities and local decision-making and creative endeavors affects (and is affected by) globalization and global poverty.

I’ve written more about what I think the ethical implications of this chapter are here.

More experiential activities

I learned today of two more outings that RIT is sponsoring to accompany Deep Economy.

One is a field trip to the Public Market next Saturday, Oct. 18. I believe that buses are leaving from outside Gracie’s at 9:30 or 10 and will return in the early afternoon. Although I don’t have all the details, I think the only cost will be whatever you opt to buy there. You can sign up by clicking the link at the top of the library’s Deep Economy page.


The second is a field trip to Ithaca’s Eco-Village. The tentative date is Sat., Nov. 1, and I imagine it will be an all-day outing, since Ithaca is two hours away (and a beautiful drive for most of it). For anyone who takes advantage of this option, I will delay the date your paper is due so that you can make use of the RIT-sponsored field trip.]