Friday, January 29, 2016

When are numbers bad?

Two years ago, I wrote a post about SMART goals, wondering whether society had developed a predilection to dismiss any goals or efforts that are not measurable.  I defended such immeasurable goals as being perfectly valid.  Then last week, a participant in our chapter-by-chapter exploration of The Value Crisis, asked if we should actually avoid SMART goals because they were number-based.  This is a common musing among readers: Is the book saying that numbers are bad?

The question highlights a distinction that cannot be over-emphasized:

Numbers are great.  It is our reliance on Number-Based Values that I question.

To answer the query that was raised at the meeting, there is nothing wrong with SMART goals.  If you can define a goal numerically, then it makes total sense to measure (and celebrate) your progress towards that goal.  If you choose to save $5,000 for a two-month vacation next year, I don't find any fault with that particular example of value-based decision-making.  Such a goal is not a demonstration of number-based values.  Why not?  Because we have not defined a situation in which more is always worth more.

On the contrary, the ultimate goal is quite specific: taking a two-month vacation.  The money is simply a means to an end.  Furthermore, the very nature of a properly formulated SMART goal is that it should incorporate a specific target, which can (and should) be interpreted as a definition of sufficiency.

Contrast this with a SMART goal that sets an objective of saving $10,000 more every year.  Now we are beginning to cross over the line.  A goal phrased in this way has milestones but no specific endpoint.  The money is no longer the means to an end - it has become the end in itself.  And we have made the tacit assumption that more money is always worth more.  That's true in a monetary (number-based) value system, but is it true when it comes to our quality of life?  Well, that's the $64,000 question, isn't it?

This is not an easy distinction to make.  As the discussion progressed, another participant asked if it was therefore more acceptable to set a specific dollar goal for money to be saved for your retirement (say $1,000,000) as opposed to setting a goal of a specific level of annual growth for your retirement investments (like 4%, for example).  Yes, there are probably subtle differences between the two goals, but I prefer to look at the bigger picture.  Is your overall goal really to have a certain amount of money when you retire, or should you be trying to define a certain quality of life that you hope to be enjoying when that day comes?

Better yet, perhaps you should be looking at the overall concepts of work and retirement.  That inquiry might involve examining your quality of life before your 65th birthday.  How many of us devote decades of our lives struggling at jobs that we consider onerous, with the major aim of better enjoying life when (and if) we reach a retirement age?  How many youth make life-altering career decisions solely on the basis of how much money they might make for the next four or five decades?

In The Value Crisis, I tell the story of how I observed folks in the previous generation 'retiring' but still working, and I asked them to define what retirement really meant for them.  It meant that they didn't have to work the same hours, but could choose to.  They stopped doing work that didn't interest them, and created understandings where they could take time off to enjoy a new project if an opportunity came up.  They avoided long-term work commitments and gave greater respect to their lives away from work  Why would anyone wait until they were in their 60's to take that approach to life?

So, working from that definition, I declared myself 'retired' before I was 40.  It doesn't mean I don't have to earn money any more - of course I do.  But it gave me a whole new outlook on how much I need (or don't), and what I am willing to do to get it.  My standard of living has gone down since then, but my quality of life has gone up.  A smart goal?  Well, for the most part, it's worked for me.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Moral Case for Alex Epstein

A Review of The Moral Case for FossilFuels, Alex Epstein (2014, 256 pages), as published in Alternatives Journal, December, 2015, by Andrew Welch.

Alex Epstein wants to shake up the way that we think about fossil fuels and challenge what behaviours we consider moral and immoral.  In his book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, he proposes reframing the conflict of environmentalists versus the hydrocarbon industry.  It’s not a question of fossil fuel usage being good or bad – it’s a question of what standard of value we are using to judge it.  I agree.

The author is a self-labeled humanist – a term he uses to describe someone who “treats the rest of nature as something to use for his benefit; the nonhumanist treats the rest of nature as something that must be served.”  What may at first appear to be conceit actually makes sense if we look deep enough inside the value system of most humans.  He argues that we should all hold human life as our one and only standard of value.

I believe this is a must-read book for environmentalists and climate change activists, but it won’t be an easy read.  Firstly, it’s hard to read anything that contradicts your strongly-held beliefs; however, questioning those beliefs is essential to gaining a truly balanced perspective.  Secondly, Epstein clearly targets an audience on the totally opposite end of the spectrum, opening with ‘proving’ that all the so-called ‘experts’ preaching the supposed detrimental impacts of rampant fossil fuel consumption are dead wrong and always have been.  (The ironic single-quotes and sneering italics are his frequent literary devices, not mine.)  Thirdly, although he conveniently lists the most common logical fallacies that surface in this debate, he happily (and frustratingly) employs each one in his own arguments.

Epstein is a practical philosopher and that’s where he shines.  He’s not a scientist, and when he attempts to take on science, his misuse and misrepresentation of statistics and data is unmistakable and shoddy.  Like every other non-scientist (and, sadly, some scientists) he chooses policy-based evidence over evidence-based policy.  To be fair, it’s a habit all humans have: being blind to evidence that contradicts our beliefs.  Furthermore, he does also present facts that many activists choose not to see.  However, he’s also happy to make up his own, such as “if there is no equal or superior alternative, then any government action against fossil fuels … is a guaranteed early death sentence for billions.”

The book is highly critical of mainstream thought leaders because they’re always preaching the costs of fossil fuels and never the benefits.  This is quite true, and while the reason might be not so much a bias as a tacit acceptance that such benefits go without saying, if we don’t consciously consider them, it may well skew our perspective.  Fossil fuels have made near-miraculous contributions to our standard of living in the last two centuries, and anyone who says we should stop using them needs to have their arguments seriously questioned.  Fair enough.

Accepting that there are errors and bias on both sides, I’d rather review the essence of his argument – that being, in his words:  “Mankind’s use of fossil fuels is supremely virtuous – because human life is the standard of value, and because using fossil fuels transforms our environment to make it wonderful for human life.”  And consequently, we should burn more, not less.

The problem is the standard he has chosen to judge our morality as a species.  He may be a humanist, but his goodness indicators are entirely quantitative measures:  More people, living more years, earning more money, to buy more stuff – all good.  For example, the only scale he uses (repeatedly) to measure safety is number of deaths (including life expectancy and infant mortality) – never health.  Happiness?  Quality of life versus standard of living?  Those he avoids entirely.  By his singular measure of success, a planet with 120 billion extravagant consumers, living 150 years each should be a stunningly better place for all (all humans, that is).  It’s a deeply-flawed more-is-always-better approach for an author who claims to be writing about morality.

In The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Alex Epstein reframes the fossil fuel debate correctly (as a value question), but, with Ayn Rand as his muse, he employs a highly questionable perspective for his big picture: ethical egoism.  Still, I think this book should be on every environmentalist’s bookshelf, if for no other reason than Stephen Covey’s "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Exploring The Value Crisis Chapter-by-Chapter

This post is a bit of a departure from the blog theme.  Consider it an introduction to the next series of postings (I hope).

I was very excited to see that The ValueCrisis is quite popular with book clubs – even clubs that normally only do fiction.  It seems that readers want to talk about this book with their peers.  That was definitely one of my hoped-for outcomes when writing it.

However, it turns out that some readers wanted to go even further.  A few months ago, two different book clubs (who had already done The Value Crisis as part of their regular gatherings) approached me in the very same week and asked if it might be possible to create a special club that explored the book as one chapter per meeting.

I was ecstatic!  Not only did this indicate an obvious interest in the subject matter, but I had sat in on a few gathering nights when clubs were discussing my book, and they often talked about the same things.  I wanted to know what they thought about other chapters, but I was also determined to shut up, listen carefully, and take notes on whatever they chose to talk about.  Here, at last, might be an opportunity to explore every nook and cranny.

The Caledon Public Library was quite receptive to this very novel idea (no pun intended), and announced The ValueCrisis discussion series as a new program, exploring a different chapter every two weeks.

Our first meeting was on January 12, 2016.  The weather was a bit dicey and I got calls from four people who had intended to come but were not going to be able to attend the first gathering.  Consequently, I was expecting a small crowd, but the big table ended up with 20 people sitting around it.  We never set a maximum for the series, but if we had, that would probably have been it.  We had a great introductory discussion, and some excellent refreshments!  I hope to have the same at every meeting.

So, the next few blog postings will be inspired by these chapter-by-chapter meetings.  Who knows, I may also get enough detailed feedback that I might attempt a second edition of the book, with clarifications, a stronger message, and updated anecdotes.

Please feel free to join us for any meeting, or contact me about starting a group in your area.