Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Kevin C. Elliott

Kevin Elliott is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina.

His new book is Is a Little Pollution Good for You? Incorporating Societal Values in Environmental Research (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Last month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Perhaps the most engaging book that I am reading at the moment is Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man. I’ve just started it, so I cannot vouch for the book as a whole, but it appears to be quite inspiring. Beavan recounts the adventures of his family as they attempt to live for a year while having as little impact as possible on the environment—minimizing waste production, electricity use, impact on climate change, etc. As a philosopher, I have to admit that the framing of the book in terms of “no impact” seems a bit off-base. Beavan makes it sound like any change that we make to the environment is bad, or at least that we can easily categorize our impacts into good ones and bad ones so that we can calculate a single measure of our “net” impact. This seems a bit too simple to me. Nevertheless, Beavan’s overall point is important—we should be doing much more as individuals to lessen the ways in which we do obvious harm to our environment.

I also recently read an edited volume called Agnotology, by historians Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger. It argues for the fascinating thesis that we could learn a lot more about our knowledge by exploring what we don’t know and how we fail to know it. In his introduction to the volume, Proctor argues that we should be investigating at least three forms of non-knowledge: (1) ignorance as native state or starting point; (2) ignorance as lost realm or selective choice; and (3) ignorance as strategic ploy or active construct. I think that the first and third categories are often easier to recognize than the second one. It’s typically fairly obvious that we just haven’t studied something. We as a society are also becoming more cognizant of the ways that powerful interest groups foster the impression of ignorance about issues like acid rain or climate change in an effort to prevent government regulations. As an internal tobacco-industry document famously stated, “Doubt is our product.” I think that the second category of ignorance—lost realm or selective choice—deserves much more attention. Two other books that I have been reading illustrate the significance of choosing to study some phenomena in great detail while remaining largely ignorant of others.

A new report from the Worldwatch Institute, State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, explores ways that agricultural practices could be altered to become more environmentally friendly, especially in developing countries. A common worry about current agricultural research is that it tends to focus on high-tech practices (fertilizers, pesticides, GM seeds, global positioning systems) that are likely to yield a great deal of profit for agribusiness. By focusing on these strategies, however, we may be failing to explore other practices that are likely to be less profitable for the big agricultural companies but that could be more environmentally and socially beneficial. Especially in developing countries, it may be unrealistic to expect farmers to employ the sorts of expensive inputs characteristic of most agriculture in the United States or Europe. State of the World 2011 provides fascinating reports of alternative agricultural strategies—often involving mixed cropping of legumes, cereal crops, and trees—that can increase yields significantly while strengthening depleted soils and keeping input costs at a reasonable level. To my mind, it is unfortunate that we do not direct more research at making these creative approaches as effective as possible.

Carl Cranor’s Legally Poisoned explores our selective ignorance in the context of environmental pollution. While I haven’t read the whole book yet, his main thesis seems fairly straightforward (and important!). He highlights the fact that U.S. law typically requires manufacturers to obtain very little information about the potential toxic properties of the synthetic chemicals that they incorporate in their products. Nevertheless, there is growing evidence that many of these chemicals can have worrisome effects on human neurological, immune, and reproductive systems, especially when we are exposed prenatally or as young children. It might seem that Cranor’s book provides a better example of flat-out ignorance about the effects of synthetic chemicals rather than selective ignorance. However, as I note in my own book, Is a Little Pollution Good for You?, both industry groups and government agencies fund a great deal of research designed to pinpoint the precise dose levels at which known toxins are harmful. Thus, we are making selective and socially significant choices to wrangle endlessly over how aggressively to regulate known toxins rather than choosing to perform more screening studies to identify unknown hazards.
Learn more about Kevin Elliott's Is a Little Pollution Good for You?.

--Marshal Zeringue