Greening of Chicago Starts at the Top Floor

The Washington Post describes Chicago’s leadership in planting flowers and trees and greening rooftops. Excerpts below.

Link: Greening of Chicago Starts at the Top Floor

Atop the scalding eighth-floor roof of the Chicago Cultural Center, workers dripped sweat as they planted row upon tidy row of hardy plants, the latest signal of one big-city government’s determination to be green.

On other downtown rooftops, tall corkscrew-shaped turbines will bridle the winds that race across the plains. A new roof on Chicago’s vast convention center will channel 55 million gallons of rainwater a year into Lake Michigan instead of overburdened storm drains.

Skeptics snickered 17 years ago when Mayor Richard M. Daley added flowers and trees to the city’s honey-do list.

Since Daley began investing tax dollars in greening the city, Chicago has planted as many as 400,000 trees, according to city spokesmen. It employs more arborists than any city in the country. There are 2.5 million square feet of green roofs completed or under construction, boosted by expedited permitting and density bonuses for developers who embrace the concept.

Daley is an especially big fan of green roofs. The City Hall roof, planted with more than 150 varieties of plants, is often 50 degrees cooler in summer than nearby asphalt roofs, whose temperatures can reach 170 degrees. It also houses beehives.

Earlier this year, the city issued $1 million in grants for solar thermal panels that generate hot water. Staffers focused on high-volume water users, including laundromats and health clubs. For the past year, the city has waived a service fee — typically $5,000 to $50,000 — for developers willing to install a green roof. The projects are assigned to reviewers empowered to expedite approval.

Radical Thinking

Rebecca Goldstein describes the influence of philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who was excommunicated from community in which he had been raised 350 years ago. Excerpts below.

Link: Edge 189

The exact reasons for the excommunication of the 23-year-old Spinoza remain murky, but the reasons he came to be vilified throughout all of Europe are not. Spinoza argued that no group or religion could rightly claim infallible knowledge of the Creator’s partiality to its beliefs and ways. After the excommunication, he spent the rest of his life — he died in 1677 at the age of 44 — studying the varieties of religious intolerance. The conclusions he drew are still of dismaying relevance.The Jews who banished Spinoza had themselves been victims of intolerance, refugees from the Spanish-Portuguese Inquisition.

Spinoza’s reaction to the religious intolerance he saw around him was to try to think his way out of all sectarian thinking. He understood the powerful tendency in each of us toward developing a view of the truth that favors the circumstances into which we happened to have been born. Self-aggrandizement can be the invisible scaffolding of religion, politics or ideology.

Against this tendency we have no defense but the relentless application of reason. Reason must stand guard against the self-serving false entailments that creep into our thinking, inducing us to believe that we are more cosmically important than we truly are, that we have had bestowed upon us — whether Jew or Christian or Muslim — a privileged position in the narrative of the world’s unfolding.Spinoza’s system is a long deductive argument for a conclusion as radical in our day as it was in his, namely that to the extent that we are rational, we each partake in exactly the same identity.

Spinoza’s faith in reason as our only hope and redemption is the core of his system, and its consequences reach out in many directions, including the political. Each of us has been endowed with reason, and it is our right, as well as our responsibility, to exercise it. Ceding this faculty to others, to the authorities of either the church or the state, is neither a rational nor an ethical option.

Which is why, for Spinoza, democracy was the most superior form of government — only democracy can preserve and augment the rights of individuals. The state, in helping each person to preserve his life and well-being, can legitimately demand sacrifices from us, but it can never relieve us of our responsibility to strive to justify our beliefs in the light of evidence.

It is for this reason that he argued that a government that impedes the development of the sciences subverts the very grounds for state legitimacy, which is to provide us physical safety so that we can realize our full potential. And this, too, is why he argued so adamantly against the influence of clerics in government. Statecraft infused with religion not only dissolves the justification for the state but is intrinsically unstable, since it must insist on its version of the truth against all others.

…The Declaration of Independence, that extraordinary document first drafted by Thomas Jefferson, softly echoes Spinoza. John Locke, Spinoza’s contemporary — both were born in 1632 — is a more obvious influence on Jefferson than Spinoza was. But Locke had himself been influenced by Spinoza’s ideas on tolerance, freedom and democracy. In fact, Locke spent five formative years in Amsterdam, in exile because of the political troubles of his patron, the Earl of Shaftesbury.

If we can hear Locke’s influence in the phrase "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," (a variation on Adam Smith’s Locke-inspired "life, liberty and pursuit of property"), we can also catch the sound of Spinoza addressing us in Jefferson’s appeal to the "laws of nature and of nature’s God." This is the language of Spinoza’s universalist religion, which makes no reference to revelation, but rather to ethical truths that can be discovered through human reason.

Spinoza had argued that our capacity for reason is what makes each of us a thing of inestimable worth, demonstrably deserving of dignity and compassion. That each individual is worthy of ethical consideration is itself a discoverable law of nature, obviating the appeal to divine revelation. An idea that had caused outrage when Spinoza first proposed it in the 17th century, adding fire to the denunciation of him as a godless immoralist, had found its way into the minds of men who set out to create a government the likes of which had never before been seen on this earth.

Spinoza’s dream of making us susceptible to the voice of reason might seem hopelessly quixotic at this moment, with religion-infested politics on the march. But imagine how much more impossible a dream it would have seemed on that day 350 years ago. And imagine, too, how much even sorrier our sorry world would have been without it.

Trusting Our Leaders

From the Thomas Jefferson Blog, an observation on government and trust.

Link: Thomas Jefferson Blog » On the people’s need to monitor the government:

Unless the mass retains sufficient control over those entrusted with the powers of their government, these will be perverted to their own oppression, and to the perpetuation of wealth and power in the individuals and their families selected for the trust. Whether our Constitution has hit on the exact degree of control necessary, is yet under experiment.

Thomas Jefferson

A Moral Hazard Danger

Charles Wheelan, the Naked Economist at Yahoo! Finance, asks some tough questions about US military service.

Link: A Moral Hazard of Global Proportions: The Naked Economist – Yahoo! Finance

…has our extraordinary all-volunteer military created a moral hazard problem?

…moral hazard is the idea that individuals behave differently — and sometimes badly, from society’s standpoint — when they don’t have to bear the full cost of their actions.

Americans can vote to send troops to without facing any risk of fighting themselves.

For all the bombast surrounding Iraq, to my mind the most subtle question gets too little attention: Would the same Americans who were originally for the war — both the politicians and the electorate who strongly supported them — have made the same decision if they, or their children, actually faced some risk? In other words, has our extraordinary all-volunteer military created a moral hazard problem?

While this may seem like heaping criticism on an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, the question is equally applicable to humanitarian interventions around the globe, particularly in places where U.S. interests aren’t directly threatened.

Patriotism is cheap right now. And so, too, is humanitarianism. All it takes for most of us to demand that America "do something" is a comfortable chair and a remote control. But there is nothing cheap about "doing something" for the men and woman who actually have to do it.