Throwaway culture

We live in a disposable society.

What do mean by that? Everything is designed to be thrown away. And why wouldn’t it? Our economic growth is fueled by blind and increasing consumption. In order for people to continue consuming, they must dispose of things eventually. And so things aren’t designed to be reused, and they certainly aren’t designed to last.

In fact, have you heard, dear reader, of something called “planned obsolescence” (to use the business parlance)? It’s the practice of designing and engineering things to fail after a certain period of time. Why build something that can last a lifetime if that only means that someone will ever only buy one? Businesses make way more money if they sell you a product repeatedly.

And so things are designed to fail. Cell phones, computers, clothing–you name it and it has a poor shelf life. Part of the reason is because they’re built poorly to cut cost. But the other part is that their obsolescence has been planned so that you toss out the old and buy the newer model.

That’s the economic paradigm we live in. And all for the sake of growth.

And growth for the sake of what, exactly?

That’s the question anyone hardly ever asks. We’re told economic growth is great! More growth = more wealth, and that’s a great thing! But why?

Is the quality of life in a country that generates $6 trillion dollars a year really that much better than the quality of life in a  country that “only” generates $4 trillion? Probably not. We’ve seen studies that show that happiness has a ceiling in terms of dollars; after an individual makes a certain amount of money, their amount of self-reported happiness plateaus and additional income does not raise it. You can read all about that study here and here.

If that’s true, then what’s the point of continuing to push for ever-increasing growth? It would literally be pointless.


But more to the point, this behavior of casual disposal might even be harmful to us.

We throw out food while others go hungry. We destroy entire ecosystems with our trash and cause extinctions of entire species. “Oh well,” we say, “there are plenty of other animals.” We view life as disposable! A dog bites a human (a completely natural reaction for a dog). Do we bother to re-train it? No, we just kill it. Human being commits a crime. Do we rehabilitate them? No, we just throw them away–to jail or prison.

This push for constant economic growth and accumulation and consumption of things to fuel it has created a rather cavalier or flippant attitude toward other forms of life and the planet itself that simply isn’t sustainable, and is in fact causing harm. At some point, enough is enough, literally and figuratively.

The wonderful thing about this type of problem is that it doesn’t require a miracle invention or anything of the sort. It’s completely behavior driven–change the behavior and you change the outcome. And changing the behavior is super easy–just don’t buy stupid shit you don’t need. If you don’t need it, don’t buy it. Don’t buy something just to own it. I don’t really know how many other ways a person can say the same thing. Don’t let other people tell you what you need to be happy, and always be skeptical of someone who tells you that giving them your money will somehow increase your happiness.


The plight of using economics to guide actions

Regular readers know that I’m not a big fan of economics. But before now, I couldn’t really put my finger on why I disliked economics so much. It was a rather squishy feeling that was hard for me to pin down, but I had an epiphany the other day that I believe I’m ready to articulate now. Basically, it boils down to this: economics has shifted from a way of dividing resources to the science of maximizing profits, which has profound and troubling implications.

This all started because I’ve been reading a book called Plastic Ocean which–spoiler alert!–is about how mankind is filling the ocean with life-choking levels of trash. The author, Charles Moore, does a pretty good job chronicling the rise of plastic in our society, which is now ubiquitous and ever increasing. What got me thinking about all of this is this passage:

Trend lists and corporation websites never fail to invoke sustainability’s buzzword twin: innovation. […] We stake the health of our economy on “innovation,” assuming that it is always good. But when innovation leads to 26,893 new packaged foods and products–often in or of plastic–in one year, 2009, it’s time to slow down and consider the Pandora’s box of cultivating innovation for it’s own sake and start thinking morally and ecologically about the innovations we embrace. (150-151)

There are many other passages in the book about how the fishing industry is a big culprit in this game because they simply just toss all their netting into the ocean once they’re done with it. The reason? Because jettisoning the nets means they could hold more fish, and since plastic makes the netting and other equipment so cheap and replaceable, they earn more money by polluting and taking in the extra bit of haul.

But hey, according to economics, that’s just good business, right? Anything to drive up profit or to cut costs. That’s all anyone can ever talk about. The problem with that, though, is that financial capital is not the only resource out there. And if economics is at its core simply a system for figuring out how to use resources, then a paradigm shift toward focusing solely on money is moving away from a system that focuses on wisely using all resources.

And that gets back to what Moore was saying, and what I was alluding to at the beginning of this post: you cannot use that lens when making moral decisions, yet this is exactly what we do. 

It’s what the fishermen in Moore’s book do. Pollution was a bigger problem before the advent of government regular because throwing industrial waste into the river is always going to be cheaper than properly disposing of it. And yes, the environment is a moral or ethical issue because we all share the same environment, and the actions of one or a handful of companies directly impact the rest of us. Does the right of a corporation to make money supersede my right to enjoy clean or or water without toxins?

That’s a perfectly legitimate question, and it gets to the crux of the issue here: economics often attempts place a price tag on things that are intrinsically invaluable. 

I don’t think there’s a person alive right now who would agree that killing the ocean is okay. You don’t have to be a scientist to know that “destroying ocean = bad idea.” The ocean is what supports all life on the planet, so killing it or damaging it is kind of a big deal. And I don’t think that anyone would want to live in that world. In other words, preventing that or fixing that is a rational idea.

And yet, if you introduce that idea, the first thing you often hear from politicians, people in businesses, and economists is, “But how many jobs will that eliminate? How much tax revenue will be lost?” As if the health of the very ecosystem we depend on for everything could somehow be measured by job loss or the employment rate. The idea is quite striking: economics makes us reject perfectly rational ideas and courses of action. As if somehow losing 10,000 jobs in the coal sector outweighs everyone breather cleaner air.

But we don’t need to focus on solely the environment to see how using economics to guide action can be morally disastrous. Indeed, we need only look at the insurance industry.

Did you know that your life has a dollar amount affixed to it? You may think you yourself or your loved ones, spouses and children, are invaluable, but the insurance company certainly has different ideas. To them, you and your family are metrics that can be quantified in dollars and cents. Prior to recent healthcare reform, people with serious illnesses could be denied coverage or dropped unceremoniously from their plans because it was deemed, somewhere in an accounting office, that it was “too expensive” to care for them. Put another way, there was some magic dollar amount the insurance company used as a barometer of sorts: if caring for you would cost less than X, great, you get to live! But if it costs more than X…well, too bad.

Now, these decisions were not made for want of resources. There are plenty of medical resources in America. No, this was simply about the bottom line of the insurance company. Think about that: decisions that affect the health of your children are often made based on how much money the insurance company will have to dole out. I don’t really feel comfortable trying to attach a price tag to human life, and I suspect that the majority of people out there don’t.

Too often, economics makes taking the morally or ethically correct action “cost prohibitive,” to use the business parlance. In reality, the stakes of many of these issues go beyond money, beyond resource use. If the ecosystem we live in dies, so do we. In such a case, there’s no such thing as “too expensive” or “too many jobs lost” because none of that will matter if the ocean dies. Profit margins and stock markets are going to mean less than nothing when rising sea levels kill millions of people and forever alter our lives.

And perhaps, if I could use this conclusion to make one last plea, please stop thinking about life–all life–in terms of economics. It’s irrational and counterproductive, it stagnates our advancement and our health, and it doesn’t have to be that way.


The hopelessness of religion

Consider this an extension of my post from yesterday about hopelessness and atheism. I’d like to explore this idea and even be so bold as to suggest that the opposite is in fact true: the hopelessness lies in religion (at least certain interpretations of it).

Let’s start with the familiar claims. I’m sure that we atheists, at one point or another, have heard something similar to this: “If there is no God, there is no purpose, everything is meaningless, and atheism is devoid of hope and joy.” You can find this kind of statement in many places:

  • “If atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we’re alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free — all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic.”  (David Link)
  • “If God does not exist, then we must ultimately live without hope. If there is no God, then there is ultimately no hope for deliverance from the shortcomings of our finite existence.” (William Craig)
  • And this slide from what I can only assume is the most fire and brimstone PowerPoint ever conceived:


Well that’s one way of looking at it, I guess. But is it accurate? No, of course not.

The true hopelessness in this argument is to be found on the religious side. You control nothing. Your actions in this life amount to nothing. You’re incapable of being anything but a wicked sinner. You cannot create solutions to any of your problems, but must rely upon god to solve them for you. With religion, you’re essentially an invalid subject to a path that God has created for you without a say in anything. That seems pretty hopeless to me.

Now contrast that with the atheist position. There is a solution to every problem (science) and YOU are capable of creating it. There are random events that occur in the universe, but YOU are capable of reacting to them. You’re in control of your life, of what happens to you. With atheism you have unlimited potential. Atheism acknowledges and highlights the good in human beings: our ability to reason, to imagine, to be curious, to explore, to cherish our limited time and by logical extension to make the most and best of it. To be an atheist is to be filled with hope: hope that we can clear any obstacle, that we have the power to make a difference, that we can be better than we are.

With religion, you’re always a wretch in need of saving. Where is the hope in that?

The hope is essentially, as the quotes from Link and Craig allude to, justice. Craig talks about “the shortcomings of finite existence” being made up for in the eternal afterlife, and Link talks about “sufferings [being] ultimately pointless” and dignity, among other things. It gets back to the age old question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

To hear some Christians talk, one answer to that is that there is no such thing as a good person. We were all created in sin, and therefore we’re all bad. So then wouldn’t it make sense that bad things happen to “good” people, or rather people who are trying to be good? Suffering and shortcoming are just the lot of your very existence in that case, so why lament it?

It’s the idea that everything has to be made up for, that everything has to be fair in the end. That we’re subjected to suffering and torture as a punishment, and it is to be endured in order to be rewarded later on. God is often portrayed in a paternal context, “God the heavenly father,” or “the father, son, and holy spirit.” Just imagine for a moment if a human parent behaved as God does.

Imagine if a child committed some transgression because it didn’t know any better, and so that parent inflicted some kind of suffering on that child–let’s say starved them–in order to instill character and values. And once that character and those values were instilled, they’d be free to go and eat whatever they want. That parent would be locked up faster than you can say “Adam and Eve” and the key immediately thrown away. We humans don’t tolerate such behavior toward our own children–yet we tolerate it in a supreme being that created morality, apparently.

Because that’s essentially what God’s done, isn’t it? God, the father, creates mankind in Adam and Eve. He creates them innocent and naive of evil and wrong, and then punishes them for committing a transgression that requires knowing what wrong and evil are in order to avoid committing it. And then going a step further, God decides to commit infanticide by killing everyone on the planet (except Noah and his family)–all because he’s a creator with strong morals. Or so it’s claimed. Christians love to talk about how without God there is no morality. Seems to me that God loves to straight up murder people if they don’t please him, which doesn’t exactly seem moral.

It’s the ultimate abusive relationship. God does something heinous and hideous to essentially helpless human beings, and then says, “Oh, come on baby, you know it ain’t like that. Come back and I promise I’ll make it up you and it’ll never happen again.” Such an abusive relationship seems utterly devoid of hope to me.

Then why bother?

Captured this meme from that same Christian Scientist group on Facebook that I wrote about a little while back:


And Christians call atheists bleak and hopeless? Jesus H. Christ…

So that’s it then? Everyone is a failure, always and forever? Then why even bother doing anything? That’s a common claim you always hear leveled at atheists: “Well if there’s no purpose to anything, what’s the point of it all? Why not just kill yourself and end it?”

Well I might ask the same of Christianity. If you’re a flawed, imperfect being who will always fail at everything, then what’s the point? If people are doomed to fail at any endeavor, as this lovely meme would seem to suggest, then what’s the point in trying?

This is just more of the warped propaganda that religions like Christianity need to survive: if there isn’t anything wrong with you, you don’t need God, ergo they have to find some way to make you think you need Him. It’s all that ‘salvation’ bullshit they peddle, but this time it’s wrapped up in a warm looking platitude. Telling people they’re miserable failures and wretches in need of some good saving probably goes over a lot better a la “Hang in there, kitty” posters.

It’s a lovely repackaging or rebranding of that same rhetoric of old: you’re a sinner, you’re a horrible person, you’re wicked, etc. All you need is God. If you love God hard enough then all that failure and wickedness won’t matter!

Well if that’s the case, why not just spend literally every minute of your life sitting silently in a church loving God until you starve to death and fly off into heaven on a white stallion while angels play trumpets in the background? Because apparently there’s no point in doing anything else: it won’t make you less wicked, and now apparently it won’t even succeed.

So just stop trying.


I was thinking about probability the other day. Why? I heard a rather remarkable story. A man who was struck by lightning won the lottery…and his daughter was also struck by lightning. The odds of such a thing occurring? 1 in 2.6 trillion. Let me put that in perspective for you:

1 in 2,600,000,000,000.

Now why is this relevant? Because he beat the odds. Incredibly long odds. Odds that are so long it’s really hard to compare it to anything else. Which made me think about what it really means for something to be “improbable.”

A lot of people take improbable to be the equivalent of impossible when we’re talking about 1 in 2.6 trillion. Clearly, though, something being improbable–even incredibly, remotely improbable–doesn’t preclude its possibility. It seemed, as I pondered this, that improbability might not even make something more unlikely.

Given a system as large as the universe and a large enough span of time, one would think that incredibly “rare” events, like this man and his daughter both being struck by lightning and then winning the lottery, wouldn’t really be that rare. That given a large enough stage and enough time, even very unlikely things would play out.

Imagine that you and your daughter have both survived being struck by lightning (let’s hope this doesn’t really happen). To celebrate the fact, you decide to buy a lottery ticket because, hey, you’re feeling lucky after surviving that! Now imagine that you’re about to buy the ticket, and your friend who accompanied you (who apparently is a master statistician) points out, “Hey, do you realize that if you bought that ticket your odds of winning would be 1 in 2.6 trillion?” What would you think? It might not stop you from buying the ticket on a whim, but you’d probably think you have less than a snowball’s chance in hell of winning.

And yet, someone did exactly that.

And it didn’t take a billion years. He didn’t need to buy 2.6 trillion lottery tickets to make it happen. It took a very very very short amount of time on a cosmic scale to occur. So I asked myself, well does improbability even mean anything, then? Can amazing, mind-boggling things that seem to happen against all odds actually be commonplace throughout the universe? What if rare events and amazing coincidences happen all the time? To take this to a level worthy of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, there’s nothing that says very improbable things can’t happen often–they just probably won’t. In other words, the odds of the everything being favorable for rare things to happen frequently are slim, but not nil. It could very well be that things have happened to have occurred in a way as to allow improbable things to occur frequently.

Of course it could also very well be that I don’t understand math that well, and that these random thoughts I’ve had are totally wrong. In fact, that seems highly probable.



Meme of the gaps


I lifted this meme from a Facebook group for Christian scientists and science enthusiasts–yes, such things do exist. It’s funny because when atheists can’t explain something using science, that’s the same thing as using God to explain something without a known answer, get it?! Except that it’s not the same thing at all, and it’s a ridiculous meme for a variety of reasons.

First and foremost (and as I pointed out to them) all scientific inquiry begins with ignorance. That’s not fallacious–that’s what spurs people to look for answers in the first place. Virtually every single scientific principle we take for granted today started out basically like that cartoon chalkboard: someone observes a phenomenon, makes a hypothesis, tests said hypothesis, and either accepts or rejects the hypothesis based on the outcome of the test. The example I gave in my FB reply involved heredity.

Most people are familiar with Mendel and his pea plants. At some point, Mendel noticed that breeding a pea plant with a purple flower with one that had a white flower yielded another purple flower instead of some mixture of the two. So essentially Mendel was saying or thinking at some point, “I have a white and purple flower and breed the two, something something something in the middle, and then I get a purple flower instead of a cross between the two.” At this point, there’s no fallacy, contrary to what the meme claims.

And, spoiler alert, it was only through careful scientific observation and measurement that Mendel arrived at his now famous theory of inheritance.

So I find it somewhat comical that a group of Christians who profess to love science and be friendly with the scientific community would post a meme that essentially mocks the entire scientific process. I did not point this out to them because I don’t want to be a dick.

But this also brought up something that I thought was funny: many Christians, including ones in this Facebook group, complain that atheists are arrogant and selfish. Well what the hell is so arrogant about admitting ignorance?! But hey, at least they appear to be admitting that using God as a fill-in explanation is a fallacy.

I’ll give this group credit: they aren’t all YECs and they do a good job of actually highlighting and exploring scientific principles and discoveries…they just always find a God angle in there somewhere. Which is fine, whatever, as long as you don’t think that the world is 6,000 years old and some invisible man in the sky made us out of dust so that a talking snake could trick us into knowing evil. I can coexist with people who just take the Christian teachings and a belief in God, but view the rest as metaphor and allegory. And I’m all for people attempting to lead more scientific lives, even if that reason is to justify a belief in God.

Anyone can be a scientist

After a somewhat lengthy absence from blogging (I just didn’t have anything to say–sue me :P), I thought I would return by talking about a subject that is near and dear to me: science.

I love science. That’s not exactly a secret on this blog. Science is a way to learn about the world and universe around us, about ourselves, about where we came from and how we got here–all kinds of wonderful things. And one of the greatest things about science is its uniformity. Anyone, anywhere can “do” science.

But increasingly it seems to me that in the modern world we don’t treat science that way. We don’t treat it as something that anyone can do. All human beings are naturally curious, and hard-wired to ask questions and seek answers. But the system has shifted now to one of academics, which in my opinion doesn’t benefit anyone and may even be detrimental to science.

What exactly am I talking about? I’m glad you asked. The way modern science has been set up is that you aren’t really a scientist unless you have a PhD, and only those with a PhD do “real” research and experimentation.

Certainly, those with a PhD have a better chance of securing funding. But does pigeonholing science into this ivory tower sort of thing ignore that basic tenant of science–it’s uniformity? I would argue that it does.

These thoughts were born after reading some recent news stories. There’s the high school student who created a new test for pancreatic cancer. And then there’s the undergraduate student who proved a 60 year old theory about the earth’s magnetosphere. You know who else didn’t have a degree? Michael Faraday. James Clerk Maxwell wrote his first scientific paper at age 14, and although he received a formal education, by all accounts did a good chunk of his study and research at home. If you go back further in history, many of the greatest discoveries were made by people with little formal training, but keen minds. Astronomer William Herschel didn’t have a degree, and he discovered Uranus and that sunlight contained infrared radiation. Ben Franklin didn’t have any degrees. A more current example, Robert Evans is a minister in Australia with a degree in history and a passion for astronomy who has visually discovered 42 supernovae (which is a record).

And that’s what I think bugs me the most about the current system. Yes, people like the ones I mentioned above are probably exceptional minds. But it doesn’t take an exceptional mind to be a good scientist. I realize that may sound counter-intuitive, but you don’t need to be a genius to understand what science is, how it works, and how to apply it. You simply need to be curious and know how to apply logic and the scientific method to your endeavors.

I think that a lot of people have questions or ideas that, if pursued scientifically, could yield interesting and fruitful results. One of the greatest weapons of discovery and innovation is diversity–a wealth of different competing ideas is more likely to lead to the truth than a select few people pursing much narrower avenues. And by forcing people to travel down a lengthy and often expensive academic path in order to practice science, I can’t help but feel that we’re losing that diversity, and we’re turning a lot of people who would make contributions to science away from the field.

And I’m sure that the high school student and the undergraduate student in the previous examples are going to be strongly encouraged to pursue advanced degrees. But is that really necessary? Sure, they’ll receive some great mentoring, but do the extra letters after their name somehow make the things they’ve already discovered more real? No, of course not. Would it somehow make them more brilliant? Doubtful. They’re naturally curious and inventive. So beyond the mentoring, I have to wonder what forcing these people further into an academic system really accomplishes, especially in light of all that they’ve accomplished already.

I guess this is my rallying call to the masses. Don’t think that just because you didn’t get an advanced degree that science is beyond you, and that you can’t contribute to it. Don’t think that you need 10+ years of advanced postgraduate education and formal training and a fancy lab at Harvard to do a scientific experiment. Get a library card and start reading. Take classes at your local community college. Buy a telescope and set it up in your backyard. Create a little lab in your garage. Be a pioneer, like so many who have come before you.


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