The Moral Funscape February 4, 2012

The Moral Funscape

Reading Sam Harrislatest blog post is forcing me to reevaluate my holiday plans.


Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I know.  So glad we have gas logs.  

    Love the Sketch!!!

  • pepe

    Ouch

  • MG

    So…don’t burn logs, ride them?

  • Well, it’s not the first thing I’ve given up- religion, party affiliation, pork, and now bonfires. Here I was so proud to be the one friend who could build awesome bonfires 🙁

  • The Thinking Activist

    haha

  • Inferno

    Given with the low frequency that most people burn wood though, I think it wouldn’t be as bad once in a while. Completely stopping brings up the argument of longevity of life vs enjoyment, yea?

  • Anonymous

    My fireplace is gas. Does that make me a Unitarian?

  • Unfortunately the article is behind a pay wall.  But from what I gathered in the abstract they only studied third world countries where wood is a significant source of energy.  From this he gets “Oh noes, your monthly barbecue and annual Christmas fireplace lighting killing us all.”. 

    Show me a study (and make the full text and raw data available) that shows that their are significant measurable negative externalities from the occasional recreational fire and I might take his post seriously.

    I also have little respect for the use of scare quotes to dismiss arguments about the over reaching of the nanny state without actually addressing them.

  • More responsible to just occasionally huff markers, or something else that doesn’t affect those around you.

  • littlejohn

    It was strongly implied that I would find the information about wood fire emissions so disturbing I would argue against them. I don’t. I believe it is a bad idea, based on available information, to habitually sit around wood fires. I’d never given it much thought before. I had assumed the article was going to be about the fact that more heat goes up the chimney, pulling cold air into the house, than is generated by the fire. I’m a country boy and I’ve relied on logs for heat for extended periods, and I’m aware of that. Ho hum.

  • Greg

    I think you may have misread the abstract. It looks like it was focused on developed countries, with a short summary of health affects in developing countries “as an additional line of evidence.”

    Unless I’m the one misreading it?

  • The Woodsmoke paper is a survey. It refers to many UN studies in developing countries, but also a lot of studies on Air pollution in general.

    We don’t need another study detailing the effects of recreational fires. We already have many studies about the effects of the same toxins in similar quantities from other sources.

    Harris’ reference is to pubmed, but the article is available elsewhere.

    That aside, it’s obvious you don’t take Harris’ post seriously. His post wasn’t about the health dangers of wood smoke.

  • Anonymous

    I can’t help but think that the fuel burned to generate the electricity to run that roller coaster have to have a bigger impact that a one-weekend campfire.
    Also, I am genetically engineered to appreciate a wood fire….Like, seriously, when I go camping, I will completely zone out and stare mesmerized at the fire for ridiculously long periods of time without any other thoughts in my head (as science nerds, we all know how hard it is to have a blank mind). I think evolution has geared human beings to be overly appreciative of a nice campfire. I’ll save the environment in other ways.

  • Scifisyko

    While it’s not good to cling to discredited beliefs, Harris is going to have to do way better than one source to be convincing about anything.  I’m unmoved.

  • Duo

    I hadn’t actually given this position much thought, as the general comfort and beauty of a fire have always been hugely hypnotic for me, but it does make sense and is an interesting analogy to present to describe the difficulty with religious people.

    I suppose a great alternative to a fireplace on cold nights would be copious amounts of sex.

  • Bryan Elliott

    Anyway, I don’t care that much; the harm imposed by burning a campfire in a low-population area on top of a mountain once or twice a year is so much less than by driving to work through a residential neighborhood, or living in the shadow of a coal plant (and therefore, encouraging them, as a ratepayer, to burn coal), that I think as far as the moral landscape goes, Sam’s making a mountain from a mole-hill.

  • guest

    His source is extremely good. Its easy to find a bunch of people making a claim, its a lot harder to find peer reviewed articles from a group of people who work in relevant fields.

    http://ehs.sph.berkeley.edu/krsmith/publications/2006%20pubs/JIT%20Woodsmoke2.pdf

  • Warren B.

    I don’t care I my campfire kills me, you, and your damned toy poodle.  I’m still going to kindle it, and I’m going to keep it burning all night, too.

  • Nope, I was the one misreading it. 

    However the paper did concentrate on people who use wood for a significant amount of heating and cooking.  It didn’t address whether rare and small recreational fires pose a significant risk to anything.

  • Seladora

    (from the article)
    “Of course, if you are anything like my friends, you will refuse to believe this. And that should give you some sense of what we are up against whenever we confront religion.”
    That really surprises me. I could see doubt or questioning, but straight out refusal to believe it? I knew about the pollution effect of wood-burning, and the other facts seem logical. It’s a sad truth to accept, but I wouldn’t outright deny it… I would ask for numerous sources if I was that doubtful.

    I can see Sam Harris’ point, but I still don’t think it’s very accurate in its comparison to a devout believer being confronted on their religion. I certainly don’t feel any more enlightened to the pious mind.

  •  That isn’t Sam Harris’ case. Even if you want to light a campfire out in the wilderness, you’d still do better to use a gas lamp or other heating device.

    The harm is less because less people are affected in a low-population area? Spreading pollutants to thousands of people is a bad thing, but a dozen or so is fine? Does this change when there is no longer a coal plant to do worse than you?

  •  The paper focuses on studies of long-term trends. When you are trying to identify correlations, you find stronger evidence of them in cases where the activity is more concentrated.

    This doesn’t mean the implications are restricted to rural areas. Will an occasional campfire ruin your health? Unless you have a severe asthma attack, probably not. Is it unnecessary and bad for you? Probably yes.

    Let’s say the risk of a rare and single recreational fire is “insignificant,” however you choose to define significance. How many people near you need to have one to create a significant risk?

  •  lol Warren Buffet isn’t supposed to be an asshole fundy.

  •  I’m sorry. Making fires is fun, too, amirite?

  • Anonymous

    The problem I see with that angle is that forest fires happen naturally, and they’re necessary to keep the ecosystem healthy.  The wide-area pollution of an occasional camp fire pales in comparison to square miles of burning forest.

    I realize it’s just an illustration, but I wonder if it was really as well-considered as it purports to be.

  • Griffox

    I know the point of the article is to put us on the defensive about our beliefs and I think he has made his point well considering the discussion that has been drummed up. With that said, I’m going to take the bait and add my two cents. I heat with propane. Aren’t the fumes from gas heat just as noxious as woodsmoke? Also, a little nitpicking: A properly run wood stove is not the same as a fire in the fireplace. It does not emit smoke, but clear fumes (still laden with carcinogens, I’m sure). Living in a rural area with lots of invasive trees like Cedar and honey locust, I don’t feel bad about using them as fuel for my wood stove when the power goes out.

  • Anonymous

    That’s all interesting and useful to read and examine, but how do I incorporate this information with a fact that in my grandparents village EVERYONE spends their entire lives next to a wood stove/heater with, honestly, not even close to good exhaust systems and yet my grandparents are 80+ and still work tirelessly by taking care of many animals and plants?

  • Anonymous

    Judging from a few of the comments on here, Sam’s point has been clearly made.

  • Around here we burn mesquite when we go camping, load the fireplace, or cook out. Considering that for every branch you cut, twenty more spring up in it’s place, I’ll take the wood fire over the many tons of trash that amusement park sends to the landfill, or the massive amount of energy it uses every day.

  • Steve

    Harris’ moral calculus is far from complete on the issue of burn wood vs. don’t burn wood. In my town and neighborhood, the population density is low and wood is cheap and abundant (often from harmful invasive species). Wood also represents a contemporary source of converted sunlight (cellulose grown and sequestered within the past few decades) rather than an ancient source of converted sunlight (coal or gas from forests that lived 300 million years ago). In the absence of heating with my EPA certified high efficiency wood stove, I would be forced to heat using electricity (generated from carbon and mercury emitting coal) and natural gas (much cleaner in terms of particulate matter, but still carbon emitting). My area is also plagued with an antiquated utility infrastructure prone to outages during storms.

    So in my case, I use wood both to offset some of the ancient carbon I would otherwise be liberating, and as a backup source of heat to protect against power interruptions. And yes, I enjoy the comfort, warmth, and ambiance. Now of course, if everyone in my neighborhood or town decided to install a stove, the calculus would change considerably, as the level of pollutants would become unhealthy, along with a corresponding strain on the forest resources. A classic tragedy of the commons problem would ensue. Harris makes excellent points about the hazards of burning wood, but in this case, a systems approach is the better kind of analysis, and where you happen to live (i.e. your ecological context) is an important consideration.

  • Michael

    I recently had to move due to a new neighbor’s insistence on burning wood in his fireplace nearly every evening this winter. The smoke makes its way into my apartment and aggravates my asthma. I went from 0 hospital visits in 5 years to 3 ER trips in 2 months. Tried reasoning with my neighbor, asking him to please consider burning wood less frequently, but in response he started building his fires earlier and kept them burning longer. He did, however, offer to pray for me, and invited me to a healing service at this church. Gee, thanks.

    My asthma is well-controlled most of the time — but wood smoke always gets to me. At least with other major irritants like cigarette smoke, I can keep those out of my home.

  • Erik Cameron

    I knew X and X who smoked and was healthy and lived to be 80 and didn’t have asthma etc

  • Anonymous

     a) Not the same thing since we have many cases of smoking victims, name one log burning smoke victim? And also not the same thing since I am not talking about X and Y but entire villages of hundreds of thousands of people, all depending on wood burning for cooking throughout the year and its their heating solution for winter (on that note, it’s -22 celsius over there right now) their entire lives.

    And b) I never said this report is not true, I asked how to incorporate these conflicting data. Maybe after so many generations breathing that stuff they became immune, maybe there are other factors which reduce the negative effects and so on. Or maybe people were dying of it the whole time and no one noticed the real cause.

    Jumping the gun as soon as someone ASKS a freaking question is how bullshit spreads. Incorporate all the info and then get the correct and entire answer.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    but the rigorous research I’ve conducted at dinner parties suggests that it is worth thinking about

    Dear Bengie: please stick to more reliable sources of news, such as The Onion.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    The paper focuses on studies of long-term trends. When you are trying to
    identify correlations, you find stronger evidence of them in cases
    where the activity is more concentrated.

    .
    Oh. I get it. Like that piece I read about the dangers of dihydrogen oxide.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Aren’t the fumes from gas heat just as noxious as woodsmoke?

    No. Gas burns cleaner. Mostly you just get carbon dioxide.

  • Brian Macker

    One of the numerous errors Harris makes is to assume we are 100% risk adverse. I’m not. I’m also certainly not choosing 100% risk aversion in my acts that effect others. I’m not worried in the least of the risk caused by chimney smoke. Second error is to assume that there are not tradeoffs. For example, with regard to the risk CO2 presents for sea level rise we could abolish fossil fuels tomorrow and watch 5.9 billion people die, or we can adapt to the tiny rise in sea level each year. He acts like his argument against occasional use of wood fires was reasonable. It wasn’t.

  • Brian Macker

    The other alternative for some people some cases is to freeze to death. I’ll take the risk of dying because of the risks inherent to fire over freezing every time. Heck I choose to have a fire just for entertainment purposes and I was always aware of a slight risk of burning the house down with me in it.

  • Brian Macker

    What point? He predicts people are going to object when he says something stupid? Childbirth is inherently risky, as is abortion, as are contraceptives. I predict that if on this basis I suggest every woman go celibate that someone will object.

    Women stop having sex, and whatever you do don’t go outside and if you do wear a burka and be escorted by a male relative, no, make that two male relatives and several females. Because there is the ever present risk of rape, which could lead to ….

  • Call me buzzkill, but I don’t get it. When I read Harris’ article, I didn’t feel provoked at all. Or impressed. It seemed rather like a joke, especially when I read the last few lines. We need to “break the spell” and burn gas?

    Not having read his recent work on morals, I won’t comment further except to say that if my comprehension skills are intact, and this article is any indication of his thinking, it seems to me he’s on shaky (or maybe flaky) ground w/respect to his harm vs. well-being model.

  • I live in an area where fireplace wood burning is often restricted during the winter months by the local air-quality management district.    Although the restrictions are widely ignored (my neighbor is a frequent violator, and I think he’s burning garbage in it some nights) it has reportedly resulted in cleaner wintertime air. 

    Of course, my area has the nation’s worst air quality to start with, so it’s a marginal improvement. 

    I’ve sometimes clashed with the folks who say “you can’t regulate what I choose to do in my own living room.”  And I tell them they’re right–but once they open the flue, it’s a matter of public interest.

    I have a fireplace, haven’t fired it up in four years.  Bought the gas log but have been stalling installing.

  • Old news.  That’s why my green retirement house doesn’t have a fireplace.

  • Anonymous

     I was wondering if anybody would get the point! You’re correct, BinaryStar, Sam’s point is proven right here.

  • Noel Ang

    Harris builds a reason-able case for individuals to choose not to burn wood, and then preempts rationality and throws morality out the window by suggesting we back it up with force (legislation).

    Morality proceeds from Man’s ability to to think, to judge, to recognize the good — to value. Force negates judgment, and nullifies morality. Compelling individuals to do good, is a contradiction.

  • Placibo Domingo

    The point? The point is when people like something, and evidence is brought up to show that the thing is not so good for them, and/or others, people tend to react emotionally and discredit the evidence, or the author, to defend the thing they like.  It’s not really news, but Sam chooses a nice example for people who have at least some capacity for self reflection to use to help them empathize with people who’s religious beliefs are attacked with reason and evidence.

  • You want “hundreds of thousands” of X and Y? The paper Harris cites contains many surveys of hundreds of villages where adverse effects of smoke are recorded.

  •  http://ehs.sph.berkeley.edu/krsmith/?p=109

    Many details summarized about woodsmoke emissions.

  •  Read more

  •  Yeah, Harris’ source mentions forest fires as well. Sure, a single human fire pit pales in comparison.  That doesn’t make them negligible.

  • amyc

    Anecdotal evidence is anecdotal… 🙂

  • amyc

    lol, I think Harris’ tongue was firmly planted in his cheek with this line, but I liked your response to it too.

  • Anonymous

    Does it?  The article doesn’t contain a reference to a forest that I can tell.

    I don’t know about you, but I consider one negligible compared to a million.

  •  I hope you sold your home to a Satanic rock band.

  • So, yeah. Living in the middle of a city, we have a gas log, not a wood fireplace. In any case, being in a city makes the idea of burning wood fires kind of silly, and at best more dangerous for other reasons. 

    Still, while I don’t regularly burn wood on a practical basis, and don’t see myself as doing so anytime in the near future, I’m probably not going to avoid it entirely in the rest of my years. 

    Just like with cigarettes, the option is still open to me. And I actually like cigarettes! I just don’t smoke them because, you know, breathing in large amounts of smoke seems like a bad idea. (Same reason I don’t plan on burning wood fires regularly in the future! Go figure!)