• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Norms, standards and metrics

Be careful what you measure, and what you base measurement on, and what you attempt to enforce.

September 5, 2013

The top story of the hour, obviously, is Obama's initiative to do something (bomb?  debilitate?  degrade?  invade, but only with trainers and logisticians?  invade with combat forces?) to the nation of Syria.  The ostensible reason is to punish the current Syrian regime for its deviation from "international norms".  That phrase, which has been uttered by every administration official, every military-industrial-complex-funded member of Congress, and almost every apologist in the corporate media, is telling.  Not "international law".  Not any particular international treaty.  "International norms."

The reason for this particular weasel-wording is simple.  There is an international treaty (actually, an international convention) against production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons.  It has been signed and ratified by 189 countries and so, arguably, constitutes an "international norm".  But it has not been signed by Syria, and so even if the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own citizens, no international treaty has been broken.  Apart from the convention, there is no international law on chemical weapons used within a nation's boundaries, so no international law has been broken.  "Norms" seems the strongest characterization technically applicable, and "norms" is the current term of discourse., 

The obvious question is how many signatories it takes to make a treaty an "international norm" enforceable even against non-signatories.  (The follow-up question, equally obvious, is who makes that determination.)  The magic number is clearly greater than 112, since that many nations have signed the international convention on cluster munitions, which the US continues to use.  In fact, it must be more than 162, since 162 countries have signed a treaty outlawing land mines, the use of which the USA declines to forsake.  So the dividing line would seem to fall somewhere north of 162, but south of 189.  Except . . .

Except that 192 nation-states signed on to the Kyoto Protocol.  The USA, infamously, did not.  192 is more than 189, and I can make a pretty clear case that refusal to deal honestly with climate change has already (already!) killed more than the 1400 men, women and children the Assad regime is alleged to have gassed in the salient incident.  Yet no other country is claiming the right to mount a limited aerial attack on the USA.  It seems that the follow-up question may be even more significant than the initial one, and that the tertiary question (just which cat are we talking about belling?) may be more significant yet.

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A less widely-covered story has it that certain states have legislated, or introduced legislating, that state funds cannot be spent to make public buildings conform to LEED standards, ostensibly on the basis that LEED isn't an ANSI-approved standard.  The profound illogic of this comes from the fact that these laws have the practical effect of increasing the power of ANSI -- an arm of the US Department of Commerce, a civilian unit of the Executive Branch of the Federal Government -- yet the folks who are pushing them are, in almost every other instance, opposed to expansion or empowerment of Washington.  A less obvious irony is that much of the coordination among these folks and their financial backers takes place using the technology you and I are currently making use of -- the World Wide Web.  The Web depends for its operation on a constantly-expanding multitude of constantly-evolving standards, most of which aren't ANSI-certified.  Indeed, by the time most Web standards achieve ANSI certification (if, indeed, that ever happens), they're obsolescing or worse.  

So prohibiting the expenditure of state funds to enforcement of out-of-date standards would seem an exercise in proving the disutility of state government.  On the other hand, if a state elects legislators who campaign on a platform of " government doesn't work" and then set out to prove themselves right, I guess that's what you should expect.

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Finally, I was struck by a recent article proclaiming a new recycling record-holder.  It seems that Sprint has established a new record for the number of cell phones recycled in a single week.   Which sounds like a good thing, until you realize that most of those cell phones probably worked just fine.  I mean, how is it that Spring ends up with disused cell phones?  By accepting them as trade-ins, right?  Sprint has a buy-back program -- you buy a new cell phone from us, we give you a bit of money for the phone you were using when you walked in the door.  Planned obsolescence is no longer sufficient.  Even artificially stimulated subjectively defined obsolescence apparently isn't getting the job done.  Sprint's current business model seems to depend on financially subsidized obsolescence.  

Recycling is better than landfilling, but continuing to use a perfectly good product is far better than either.  This recycling record is nothing to celebrate.  (Whether cell phones are, in a theological sense, ever a "good product" I'll leave for later discussion.)


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