The Environmental Legal guidelines Hindering Clear Power

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

Dysfunction is all around us, in public and private institutions, in large and small businesses, in systems and in personal relationships. What is an example you’ve observed of striking dysfunction—or, if you prefer, of something that works strikingly well?

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Conversations of Note

Mid-August greetings from Europe, a continent presently suffering from a historic drought––and from Norway where the fjords are multifarious and low water levels in many reservoirs may soon limit hydroelectric power exports. That’s a bit of news I probably wouldn’t have noticed if I wasn’t in Oslo when it broke. It’s adding to my growing alarm about the coming winter and the ways that energy and food shortages caused by the war in Ukraine will ripple across this continent and the world. Few things are likelier to stoke wider conflicts or unrest than cold, hungry people.

Closer to home, this week’s news is better: Although the United States may continue to suffer from inflationary pressures this winter, we enjoy more energy and food security than most places do. And a longer-term threat, climate change, may be a step closer to a non-catastrophic outcome, thanks to new legislation that appropriates significant federal money to address the problem. “Compared with Congress’s desultory approach to the issue in the past, the numbers are striking,” my colleague Robinson Meyer contends. “The legislation will spend roughly $374 billion on decarbonization and climate resilience over the next 10 years, getting us two-thirds of the way to America’s Paris Agreement goals.” He adds that from a political perspective, the law is striking in that zero Republicans in Congress voted for it.

Yet another piece of legislation he wrote about, the CHIPS and Science Act, is a different story. Sold as an effort to revitalize the American semiconductor industry, “the law also invests tens of billions of dollars in technologies and new research that matter in the fight against climate change.”

Meyer continues:

The CHIPS Act could direct an estimated $67 billion, or roughly a quarter of its total funding, toward accelerating the growth of zero-carbon industries and conducting climate-relevant research … one of the largest climate bills ever passed … [something that is] all the more remarkable because the CHIPS Act was passed by large bipartisan majorities.

Of course, appropriating money is one thing, and spending it efficiently and effectively is another. At RealClearEnergy, Christopher Barnard argues that antiquated environmental laws are perversely among the most significant obstacles to building new clean-energy infrastructure:

While environmentalists clamor for trillions of dollars in public investment in clean energy infrastructure … we’ve made it nearly impossible to build in America. Strict regulation sounds like a good thing for the environment … Unfortunately, however, our regulatory framework goes far beyond basic protection of the environment. Take, for example, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which is the environmental review process for major infrastructure projects. Introduced over half a century ago in 1970, its goal is to ensure that these kinds of projects cause minimal environmental harm.

In reality, NEPA is a labyrinthine process that severely hamstrings important infrastructure projects. On average, it takes 4.5 years and $4.2 million to complete the review process … This is a huge deterrence to potential projects that could modernize our country’s infrastructure and reduce emissions. It’s not a coincidence that NEPA is the most litigated environmental statute in the United States. Consider that 42% of all energy projects currently backlogged under NEPA are clean energy projects. Only 15% are fossil fuel projects. Yet several months ago, President Biden rolled back Trump-era reforms to NEPA that would’ve expedited the review process. Manchin recently sided with Senate Republicans to nullify the move, though it is unlikely to pass the House. We’re arbitrarily holding back clean energy projects that could reduce emissions.

To Fight Infectious Disease, ‘Fire Xavier Becerra’

After reporting closely on the monkeypox epidemic, the journalist Josh Barro has come to the conclusion that the Biden Administration needs to “fire” Xavier Becerra, the secretary of health and human services. Barro cites detailed accounts of Becerra’s poor job performance in The Washington Post and Politico––and argues that his failures are due to a clear lack of proper qualifications. “Prior to being named HHS secretary, Becerra had been the attorney general of California. Before that, he had a long tenure in the House of Representatives, where he sat on the Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax laws,” Barro writes. “His health policy experience had consisted primarily of filing lawsuits to advance Democratic objectives related to the Affordable Care Act. He did not have relevant experience for overseeing agencies with public-health related missions like the CDC and the FDA, which is unfortunate, since that’s now his job.”

When the Personal Is Not Political

In a reflection on young people who feel unable to cope with modern life, Clare Coffey empathizes with being overwhelmed but questions an ascendant understanding of what’s gone wrong:

The inability to cope in one domain or another is part of being human, and attempts to eliminate it are for people who enjoy living in San Francisco. But there is a strain of discourse that insists an inability to cope in one’s day-to-day life is in almost all cases a political problem. By volume, the most examples are on social media. Sometimes it’s an elaborate hypothetical in which asking a disabled person to make alternate arrangements and forgo ordering Instacart groceries for one day of a strike is tantamount to a genocidal program. Sometimes it’s a prompt tweet inviting you into a post-revolutionary fantasy world where, instead of collecting municipal garbage, you will be “doing art.”

In the right-wing version, it’s a yearning for the bronze age civilization in which you would have been a feared warrior king rather than a software engineer answering to female product managers. Somehow, being born into a historical moment when moderate clerical abilities can lead to impressive status and resource acquisition is still to be crippled by fate, NPCs, or Soros agents. What binds these pleas together is an application of “the personal is political” so expanded in scope that, for a certain kind of person, personal problems, anxieties, and dissatisfactions are illegible or illegitimate unless described as political problems … The complete identification of human foible with structural failure excuses you from identifying and dealing with personal problems as such.

Army Values

In an informative post on upsides and downsides of joining the U.S. military, Molly, writing at Effective Altruism Forum, argues that serving helps a certain kind of person expand their moral outlook:

When I first joined the Army … I basically had to play-act to get through my day. Whenever I used the words “sir” or “ma’am” I felt like I was secretly mocking people. Lifting my hand to my hat to salute felt so unnatural, I actually started humming a patriotic little horn ditty under my breath to try to convince my brain that saluting was the proper thing to do. But if you do anything long enough it begins to feel natural.

This happened to me with a million little habits of military life: blousing my boots, doing push-ups (even lawyers do push-ups), standing at attention when a general enters the room, putting my hair in a bun, saying “roger” as an acknowledgement. After a while, my memories morphed in adaptation. I found myself recalling a pre-military conversation with my beloved political theory professor, an aged Gandhi scholar, and in my memory I called him “sir.” In reality he would’ve physically recoiled had I ever done such a thing.

These microdoses of cultural conditioning were related to and symbolic of a greater underlying shift that occurred in me over the years. I internalized a culture and an ethic very different from my native one. I began to see the beauty in things that had once been an anathema to me: traditional gender roles, hierarchy, nationalism. I didn’t lose my original values; I expanded on them. I became more humble about them, and related better to people who didn’t hold them.

Free Expression Under Attack

The stabbing of Salman Rushdie has provoked a lot of commentary, including a piece by my colleague Graeme Wood, who laments that over the last two decades, “We have conceded moral authority to howling mobs, and the louder the howls, the more we have agreed that the howls were worth heeding.” Among those resisting that trend are Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, who wrote a brave post about how his nonprofit is responding to the Rushdie attack.

An excerpt:

A few hours after Rushdie was stabbed, I called our publishing partners in the Middle East and authorized the print and distribution of more than 5,000 copies of Rushdie’s books. I did this with the knowledge that it would put my life and my loved one’s lives in danger.

As I write this I am quite shaken. Not just by fear for my own life, but fear for many of the people with whom I associate who might lose their lives merely because of words and ideas. I am someone who is very openly critical of extremism and attacks on those whose ideas frighten the regime. It is agonizing knowing that neither my organization nor I have the power to defend those who might be put on a death list or even killed for being associated with the “wrong” sorts of ideas. One publisher who refused to collaborate in the distribution of Rushdie’s books told me that he is not only afraid that his store might be attacked, but that his children might be killed. A group in Lebanon mentioned that they would like to help anonymously without attaching their name to the books. They are afraid their organization will be denied registration by the authorities for being associated with an author with a fatwa on his head like Rushdie. Even with all the risk I and those I hold dear are shouldering, I refuse to let this go or stop our work. It is more important now than ever.

I wish I was exaggerating or overstating the potentially deadly consequences for those who engage in this work. By standing firmly in opposition to ideological terrorists we all have a target on our backs … What scares me the most is that even in the West the room for freedom of expression is constantly shrinking. My initiative to End Banned Books has been chronicling the encroaching censorship of authoritarians around the world, they’re gaining territory almost everywhere. Both the attacks on Rushdie and [Iranian women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad] happened in my home state of New York, and I expect that other states and countries are not much safer. The United States, once a beacon for free speech, is becoming increasingly hostile to those who wish to speak without self-censorship and in some cases physical security. Where will writers and dissidents go if even the United States is no longer a safe haven for freedom of expression?

S’all Good, Man

The series finale of Better Call Saul is an occasion for reflection on the whole six-season run of AMC’s Breaking Bad prequel. Among the most thoughtful views is Alan Jacobs’s, who offers a spoiler-free argument about both shows that may be of interest to fans and prospective viewers alike:

Breaking Bad is a story about ressentiment; about a man who feels himself marginalized and neglected, powerless and ineffectual, who, therefore, cannot resist the temptation to establish himself as a Power—as a man who says, and means it: “I am the one who knocks.”

Better Call Saul dramatizes a radically different form of human frailty: the temptation of the con. The person so tempted may be socially marginal or socially dominant or something in between—though the marginal will have a few more incentives pushing them towards scamming. What’s at work here is not ressentiment but rather (a) a desire to dominate people, a desire to know what they don’t know and act on that knowledge in a way that enables you to triumph over them, and (a) the intellectual challenge of building a successful scam: the meticulous planning, the anticipation of the responses of your marks, the ability to improvise when things go wrong. What you see in Better Call Saul is, first, how the power of these two motives—the desire to dominate and the love of intellectual challenge—vary from person to person, and within a person from moment to moment; and also the crack-like addictiveness that follows upon the running of a successful scam.

Both shows then are about extremes of human frailty—frailty become perversity, perversity become wickedness—and how inescapable the associated habits of thought and action can be.

Provocation of the Week

Here in Oslo, where I was taking a walk on Monday near the port, a few English-language signs posted conspicuously on a utility pole caught my eye. “Cruise-Tourist?” one said. “Please come back as a proper tourist.” Thankfully, I’d arrived in the city by plane, so I stuck around and kept reading. “Cruise-tourist?” another sign stated. “Most Norwegians don’t like you.” A third sign with smaller print offered this explanation:

You have just arrived in my hometown on a floating block of flats that burn asphalt for propulsion and electricity. The ship is registered in some far away bandit state or in an offshore secondary register to exempt them from all our laws about tax, environmental protection and workers rights. You have paid for your trip to a company that does not pay taxes to my home country or at all. What you consume onboard is exempt from value added tax and the workers on board don’t pay taxes to Norway. The workers are exempt from all relevant labor laws and are treated in a way you would never accept. The cruise industry is a parasite on Norway and so are you. So please fuck off back to your boat and tell all your friends that cruise tourists are not welcome in Norway. Kind regards #CruiseNotWelcome

Imagine explaining that sign to a Viking magically transported to modern times! With that, I bid you farewell until next week, with high hopes for your emails about dysfunction. Also, feel free to continue emailing “Ask Me Anything” questions on any subject.

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