The March 2014 issue of National Geographic featured Kenneth Brower’s article on Bluefin tuna. While the article has the usual National Geographic balance, it certainly led me to consider the issues raised by the handling of the tuna harvest.
Like many species, the Bluefin is in decline. This is, obviously enough, due to human activity—primarily overfishing. While the dangerous decline of the tuna population is well-established, the powers-that-be are handling it in the usual way and are following the usual template that leads to resource depletion and perhaps extinction.
Like most industries, the tuna industry has a regulatory organization, the International Commission for the Conservation of Tuna (ICCAT). Given the name, one might suspect that it aims at conserving tuna. However, critics jokingly claim that ICCAT stands for “International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna.” While this might not be completely accurate, ICCAT does seem to act in ways that ignore scientific data and in favor of keeping the catch limits high.
For example, in tracking catch volume ICCAT divides the North Atlantic into western and eastern zones. The problem is that the management data is not accurate—the fish are treated as two distinct stocks that do not mix, but they actually do so. As such, fish caught in the western zone could very well be from the eastern zone and vice versa. As another example, the ICCAT models also fail to consider illegally caught fish—although this is apparently significant.
Like many regulatory entities, the ICCAT often elects to simply ignore its own scientific panel. In the case of ICCAT, catch limits are set considerably higher than the recommended levels for sustainability and it seems to ignore the fact that the actual catch levels are at least double the limits it sets. Scientists have recommended that the catch limits be reduced and that fishing be suspended during most of the spawning time for the fish. These recommendations have been ignored so far.
While some might claim that these recommendations are the result of the alleged liberal agenda to destroy the fishing industry and from a hatred of all that is good and holy in capitalism, the recommendations are actually aimed at achieving sustainable fishing. That is, the recommendation is aimed at preserving the industry rather than destroying it.
It might be contended that the fishing companies would not engage in behavior that would destroy their industry. However, this is clearly not true. One reason is that there is a “strip mining” mentality in regards to handling resources. The basic idea is to get as much short-term profit as fast as possible and to not be concerned too much about the long term consequences. This approach is also fueled by the usual human tendency to discount the future and to focus on the short term at the expense of the long term. For example, people often buy things they want (but do not need) on credit and end up suffering financially later. The same sort of mentality also applies to handling resources such as tuna. Or, as some might prefer, living creatures like tuna.
This also ties into the “move on” attitude which is the view that once something has been stripped of its value, the thing to do is simply move on to another area in which to gain fast and maximum profit. That these attitudes are prevalent is clearly shown by the way that other resources are often managed, such as fossil fuels and forests.
As such, it is certainly reasonable to believe that fishing companies and their regulators would engage in the seemingly irrational activity of destroying their own industry by overfishing. After all, this has been done before. At one time Monterey Bay had a thriving sardine industry and then in the 1950s this industry crashed in part due to overfishing. What has been already occurred can surely occur again, only this time with a different species. While the big financial fish can easily move on to new profits, there is always a terrible price paid by the little fish—that is, all the people who depended on the resources for their livelihood and now find them exhausted.
It might be contended that it is possible to keep moving on—that is, to shift to a new species once one species is eliminated. This is, of course, possible—but there is clearly a finite limit to how often this can be done since there are a finite number of species. It is also worth pointing out that human activity tends to hit many species at once, which will also reduce the ability to switch species.
It might also be contended that a solution will be found that does not require engaging in sustainable fishing—people like to point to past forecasts of doom that did not come true because of some innovation or invention. While human ingenuity is impressive, to simply assume that we will be able to solve every such problem would be mere wishful thinking. Naturally, if there is a clear and plausible plan for solving the problem, that would be another matter.
In addition to ignoring scientific data, there is also the standard tactic of “massaging” science. A common method is to make an appeal to uncertainty. The idea is that uncertainty in the data warrants simply sticking with business as usual. In the case of tuna, the claim is that there is uncertainty about the stock assessments in terms of numbers and the impact of human activity. This uncertainty is then exploited to warrant expanding or at least maintaining quotas. The reasoning seems to be this: since the exact numbers and effects is are not known with certainty, the new limits suggested by scientists are not warranted—so stick with the old ones or set them higher. This same approach is taken with the environment in general, as has been the case with climate change. A general pattern is also to deny that humans are having the alleged effect and attributing it to other causes—and claiming that thus there is nothing we can do (other than staying the course).
In an interesting parallel with fossil fuels, biologists who are funded by the tuna industry have claimed that there might be as-of-yet undiscovered tuna spawning grounds so the fishing can continue at the current rate (or increase). While this is possible, there is no actual evidence for this claim. However, this sort of wishful thinking (to be generous) allows business to go on fueled by false hope unsupported by facts.
Given the growing world population, effective management of resources is critical not only for the profits of the few, but the survival of the many. As such, action should be taken to ensure a sustainable harvest of tuna. However, it is most likely that business as usual will continue and the tuna population will crash as other fish populations have crashed before them.
While various predictions about when we will run out of fossil fuels have proven to be erroneous, it is obvious that the reserves are finite. As such, if human civilization continues to use these fuels long enough, we will exhaust them. Assuming that we will continue to need an energy source that is comparable to fossil fuels, then we will need to find a suitable replacement as a matter of practicality.
Some people are also concerned with the moral aspects of fossil fuels, specifically regarding the various harms associated with them. These typically include environmental harms which range from the pollution generated by lawn mowers to the impact of huge oil spills.
One proposed solution to both the practical problem (getting more fuel) and the moral problem is biofuel. Put rather simplistically, biofuels are created from biological sources (hence the name). These sources are typically plants (such as the corn used for ethanol) but other sources (such as animal waste) can be used.
Like many people, I sort of vaguely favor biofuel development—after all, we will probably need a renewable fuel source and “biofuel” sounds vaguely environmentally friendly. However, it is well worth considering the matter critically.
While I am not an expert on biofuel, one does not need to be an expert to grasp one of the basic requirements for a successful biofuel, namely a viable energy cost. In general, the creation of a usable biofuel is analogous to converting oil to gasoline in that the process involves changing the starting material into a usable form. To use a specific example, we obviously cannot burn corn (even creamed corn) in our vehicles. To be used as fuel, it has to be processed and distilled into ethanol. This process takes energy and so does growing the corn crop in the first place. Intuitively, to be a viable source of energy the creation of the biofuel needs to cost us less energy than the biofuel provides. In the case of corn, we get some of the energy for “free” from the sun. However, corn is now typically processed into ethanol using fossil fuels and this process is not very efficient. Adding to the matter is the fact that ethanol (and other biofuels) provide less energy than fossil fuels. This efficiency problem is a significant hurdle for the development of biofuels.
As might be suspected, people have proposed using other renewable sources of energy to provide the energy needed to create biofuels. For example, solar power could be used to provide the heat needed to distill a biofuel.
Provided that the renewable sources are adequately efficient in terms of their own energy costs, this could be a viable option. However, one rather obvious concern is that it might make more sense to just use the alternative energy source directly rather than adding in the extra step of creating biofuel. For example, instead of using solar power to turn corn into ethanol to fuel cars, use the solar power to charge the batteries of electric cars. That said, for applications that require actual fuel (such as running the millions of existing internal combustion engines), then the alternative energy would not be a viable option.
Another basic requirement is simply the matter of cost in terms of dollars (or whatever). After all, even if the energy cost of a biofuel makes it viable (that is, the process is efficient enough) it could be the case that the overall cost is too high. Calculating this cost is not a simple matter of considering the direct cost of the fuel, but also the indirect costs. For example, some biofuels are based on food crops, such as corn. Using food crops in this manner will tend to drive up the cost of the foods based on the crop, thus adding to the cost of the fuel. This specific cost can be offset or even eliminated by using non-food crops grown in areas that are not used to grow food crops or by using the “waste” from food crops. However, these options would also have costs as well.
As another example, replacing older vehicles with those that can burn certain biofuels could be costly. This could be offset by gradually replacement as older vehicles are phased out normally due to age and damage.
In regards to cost, it is worth noting that energy sources have traditionally had high start-up costs. In many cases, such as with fossil fuels, this cost was shifted to the taxpayers in the form of subsidies for the energy companies (a practice that still continues). While this fact does not diminish the cost of developing biofuels, it does show that the high startup cost is not unusual. Of course, there is the concern that the subsidies of biofuels will continue past the startup time, just as the needless subsidies for the fossil fuel industry continues to this day.
As a final point, biofuel will need buy in from those with political influence, especially fossil fuel corporations. While it might be tempting to think that the fossil fuel corporations would want to prevent the development of biofuels, they can have excellent reasons to want to get into the business themselves. After all, there is an existing network for fossil fuels that could be partially converted to biofuels and the fossil fuel companies know that their main product will eventually run out, so they will need something else to sell (and get subsidies for). In fact, I suspect that biofuels will only become really viable when the fossil fuel companies start selling them.
While alternative energy has been hyped for quite some time, one of the more recently hyped alternatives is biofuel. The idea is appealing enough: instead of drilling for hydrocarbon fuels, we will make our own from biological sources. One of the best known biofuels is, of course, corn-based ethanol. While on my way home from work, I bought gasoline that was 10% ethanol—not because I wanted to, but because that was the only option. Most likely you have also bought gasoline blended with ethanol.
The fact that ethanol is now blended with normal gasoline might suggest that corn-based ethanol has been a success. However, this is not the case. Rather, corn-based ethanol has been a failure.
The first matter of concern is in regards to how efficiently an alternative fuel can be created in regards to the cost. This cost, obviously enough, includes the cost of the energy used to create the fuel. In the case of corn-based ethanol, the process of growing corn and then converting it to a usable fuel is rather costly. In 2010 the ethanol industry received $5.68 billion in subsidies and it is only this that allowed ethanol to have the illusion of being commercially viable. While energy industries do typically require subsidies (fossil fuels were and are heavily subsidized), ethanol seems to be a rather poor choice in terms of what is received for the cost.
Ironically, the distillation part of the process of making ethanol typically involves using fossil fuels and this process results in a fuel that has only about two thirds of the energy of conventional gasoline. In fact, ethanol production is so inefficient that experts have estimated it would take farmland equal to three times the size of the continental United States to grow enough corn to replace the fuels used in transportation in the United States. This is, obvious, not an option.
The second matter of concern is the fact that a food crop, corn, is being converted into a fairly inefficient fuel. This has the effect of increasing the prices of foods that make use of corn (ranging from corn on the cob to corn fed beef). As such, the public is getting hit twice by the cost of ethanol: first in subsidizing it and second in paying more for food. The obvious reply to this is that corn is still relatively cheap—thanks, in part, to subsidies. In any case, it would seem to make more sense to use a non-food crop based alternative fuel, preferably one that could be grown where food crops would grow poorly.
The third matter is that when added to gasoline, ethanol reduces the gas mileage of vehicles (it provides less energy than gasoline) and also damages many small motors (such as outboard motors for boats).
As might be imagined, the folks benefiting from the billions in subsidies probably see ethanol as a success. However, it is a clear failure for the rest of us.
I rather like technology and, as I have noted in other posts, I have sometimes shown poor judgment in my attempts to enhance my computers. Back in the day, squeezing out extra performance, drive space and so on was actually rather important-computers were so slow and storage so small that every increase really mattered. After all, if the hard drive is 20 MB, then saving 1 MB by compressing stuff was a big deal. These days when hard drives are 1TB or larger and processors scream with speed, such efforts are less essential-though some folks still like to get out on the bleeding edge. For example, DIY overclocking is still popular and still melting the occasional processor.
Thanks to being a professor, I’ve generally not been on the bleeding edge of technology. This is not from lack of desire, but a combination of reason and limited finances. Because of my budget, I cannot afford to spend the thousands it would take to be on the bleeding edge. Being rational, I do not endeavor to do this. Instead, I live way back on the plateau, watching the blood spray up into the sky.
As might be suspected, I tend to take a philosophical approach to this matter (or perhaps I am just rationalizing). While I have bought a few new computers, I generally have either built my PCs or acquired somewhat obsolete tech. Building a PC matches my view that a person should have the skill to repair anything he owns and depends on as well as a basic comprehension of how it works. This allows me to handle my own problems without having to impose on others. As might be guessed, I believe that people have a moral obligation to have a basic level of competence with their key technology. After all, they otherwise become burdens on others and waste time that could be better spent.
Using somewhat obsolete tech also matches my values. First, I’m from New England and hence have those famous frugal tendencies. I do not like to waste money and staying away from the bleeding edge helps a great deal. One reason is, obviously, that older tech is much cheaper than newer tech (in general) although the difference in performance need not be that great. To use the obvious example, the high end modern processors can cost well over $1,000. While they are very fast, they tend to be far more than the vast majority of folks would need. Since I have been working with computers for a while, I remember when people spoke of the blazing speed of the 486 chip relative to the 286, then spoke the same way about the Pentium. The same was true for the Mac: the 68000 was slow compared to the blazing 68040 and then there was the G3 and then the G4 chips. While this power can be useful for things like video editing and gaming, I obviously do not write any faster on my i7 920 than I did on my 68000 Mac Classic.
In practical terms, except for folks who need the speed (like folks rendering video, doing graphics work and hardcore gaming) a PC that is five or even ten years old would probably do the trick. It is, of course, possible to get last year’s models at a modest discount and even older ones for far less. Of course, old machines might have problems-which is why it is important to have the right skills if you decide to go with the older tech.
I also scavenge and rebuild fairly often-when I help people with their new machine, they will often give (or dump) their old or dead tech to me or sell it for a modest price. I’ve gotten laptops, desktops, iPods and such that way. In some cases I had to create a Frankenputer, but the price was right.
Second, I hate to waste stuff. Old tech that is not in use tends to end up in the landfill. By keeping old tech in use, I am able to keep some stuff out of the landfill. I also give away what I do not use-there is always a student who needs a laptop or a parent who needs a PC for the kids. This enables people to have a usable computer without having to spend what little money they might have. This Monday, I gave away my 2004 iBook G4. While I got in back when Office 2004 was brand new, after a restore of the OS it was actually quite snappy, what with its 1 GHz processor, 30GB hard drive and 768 MB of RAM. While Office 2004 is way out of date, it still works quite well-in fact, for most of what folks do, office 2004 is more than enough.
Of course, I do hope that some folks keep buying on the bleeding edge-the blood eventually trickles down to me and folks like me. Hmm, I guess that trickle down thing sort of works.
While we consider ourselves to be the dominant species on the planet, we do face dangers from other species. While some of these species are large animals such as lions, tigers and bears our greatest foes tend to be tiny. These include insects, bacteria and viruses.
While we have struggled, with some success, to eliminate various tiny threats advances in technology and science have given us some new options. One of these is genetically modifying species so they cannot reproduce, thus resulting in their extermination. As might be suspected, insects such as disease carrying mosquitoes are a prime target. One approach to wiping out mosquitoes is to genetically modify mosquito eggs so that the adults carry “extermination” genes. The adult males are released into the wild and reproduce with native females in the target area. The offspring then bear the modified gene which causes the female mosquitos to be unable to fly (they lack flight muscles). The males can operate normally and they continue to “infect” the local population until (in theory) it is exterminated. As might be imagined, this approach raises various ethical concerns.
One obvious point of concern is the matter of intentionally exterminating a species. On the face of it, such an action seems to be morally dubious. However, it does seem easy enough to counter this on utilitarian grounds. After all, if an organism (such as a mosquito) is harmful to humans and does not have an important role to play in the ecosystem, then its extermination would seem to be morally justified on the grounds that doing so would create more good than harm. Naturally, if a harmful species were also beneficial in other ways, then the matter would be rather more complicated and such extermination could be wrong on the grounds that it would do more harm than good.
The utilitarian approach can be countered by appealing to an alternative approach to ethics. For example, it could be argued that such extermination is simply wrong regardless of the beneficial consequences to humans. It can, however, be pointed out that species go extinct naturally and, as such, perhaps a case could be made that such exterminations are not inherently wrong. The obvious counter would be to point out that there is a significant moral difference between a species dying of natural causes and being destroyed. The distinction between killing and letting die comes to mind here.
I am inclined to accept that the extermination of a harmful species can be acceptable, provided that the benefits do, in fact, outweigh the damage done by exterminating the species. Getting rid of, for example, the HIV virus would seem to be morally acceptable. In the case of mosquitoes, the main concern would be the role of the mosquito in the ecosystem and the impact that its extermination would have. If, for example, the disease carrying mosquito was an invasive species and its elimination would not impact the ecosystem in a negative way, then it would seem to be acceptable to exterminate it. Naturally, if the extermination is local and the species remains elsewhere, then the ethics of the situation become far less problematic. After all, I have no moral objection to the extermination of the roaches, termites, fleas and other bugs that attempt to reside in my house—there are plenty that remain in the wild and they would pose a threat to the well-being of myself and my husky. Naturally, I would only accept the extermination of a species on very serious grounds, such as a clear danger presented to my species. Even then, it would be preferable to see if the extermination could be avoided.
A second point of concern involves the methodology. While humans have attempted to wipe out species by killing them the old fashioned ways (like poisons), the use of genetic modification could be morally significant.
There is, of course, the usual concern with “playing God” or tampering with nature. However, as is always pointed out, we routinely accept such tampering as morally acceptable in other areas. For example, by using artificial light, vaccines, surgery and such we are “playing God” and tampering with nature. As such, the idea that “playing God” is inherently wrong seems rather dubious. Rather, what is needed is to show that specific acts of “playing God” or tampering are wrong.
There is also the reasonable concern about unintended consequences, something that is not unknown in the attempts to exterminate species. For example, DDT had a host of undesirable effects. I do not, of course, think that modifying mosquitoes will create some sort of 1950s style mega-mosquitoes that will rampage across the land. However, there are reasonable grounds to be concerned that genetic modification might have unexpected and unpleasant results and this possibility should be seriously considered.
A final point I will address is a practical one, namely that even if a species is exterminated by genetic modification another species might simply take its place. In the case of mosquitoes it seems likely that if one type of mosquito is wiped out, then another one will simply move into the niche vacated and the problem, such as a mosquito transmitted illness will return. The concern is, of course, that resources would have been expended and a species exterminated for nothing. Naturally, if there are good grounds to believe that the extermination would be effective and ethically acceptable, then this would be another matter.
Humans have always faced off against the impersonal power of the weather, sometimes winning and sometimes not. In many ways, humans are at war with the weather of our world and the damage inflicted by weather can be comparable to that which we inflict on each other. But, while some might attribute an intelligent design behind the ravages of the weather, it seems most reasonable to hold that the climate does not wage intentional war against us. Rather, the world simply does as it does and sometimes this kills us and destroys our cities. However, destructive weather, as it has historically done, does raise questions about the alleged benevolence of our alleged creator.
Sticking with the war metaphor, there are clearly times in which the conflict is more damaging than others. In recent years, the damage has stepped up considerably. The September 2012 edition of National Geographic featured “Extreme Weather” by Peter Miller discussed, as might be imagined, the recent extreme weather that has impacted the world. The article was, obviously, written before Sandy hit the United States. However, Sandy was, in some ways, just another example of extreme weather.
While there are some who are skeptical about climate change, it is possible to discuss the matter by ignoring the alleged causes of the extreme weather and focusing on the damage done by weather incidents.
Weather disasters have been rather costly financially in the United States and the damage done has increased significantly. From 1980-1995 there were 46 disasters causing $1 billion or more damage. In 1996-2011 there were 87 disasters causing that amount of damage. Insurance companies reported insured losses of $36 billion in 2011, which is 50% greater than the average for the past decade.
Part of this can be attributed to the fact that Americans increasingly live in areas that are subject to destructive weather, such as the coastal regions of the United States. Part of this can also be attributed to the greater value of the structures being built, especially in risky areas. After all, the destruction of a beach mansion costs more than the sweeping away of a beach cabin. However, even taking into account such factors (and the obvious factor of inflation) the damage being done has increased.
There is also the cost human life. The 2003 heat wave in Europe killed about 35,000. In 1970 Tropical storms killed 500,000 in Bangladesh. There are, of course, many other sad examples of humans being killed in large numbers by weather events.
While the exact costs in deaths, suffering, property loss and economic damage can be debated, it is clear that weather events cost us dearly. If the damage inflicted by the weather was done by a human attacker, there would be screams for war, defense and retaliation. Look, for example, how the United States responded to 9/11.
Naturally, retaliation against the weather would be absurd—there is no intelligent agent to seek vengeance against (except, perhaps, God) or deter. However, it does make sense to establish a developed defense against the damage of weather.
People are, of course, establishing defenses against weather events. For example, France took steps, such as building air conditioned shelters, and cut the heat deaths in 2006 by two thirds. While storms still tear through Bangladesh, the construction of shelters and warning systems has reduced the death toll from hundreds of thousands to thousands. These are still heavy losses for humanity, but an improvement over the old system.
While these defenses have shown some effectiveness, our response has been largely reactive (we tend to slap together a response to the last disaster rather than preparing for the next one properly) and piecemeal.
So what I propose is a worldwide weather defense initiative (WDI—yes, this is blatantly stolen from SDI) to address the damagers presented by our planet. Many steps, such as large scale tsunami warning systems, are in place. However, most of our cities are woefully underprepared and our defenses are very limited. Meanwhile, we waste and squander resources making war on each other. I contend that at least some of these resources would be better spent (morally and practically) on defense against the weather rather than against each other. Such spending would, of course, allow for the profits and political dealings that defense spending now involves. However, at least the results would probably be more positive in terms of lives saved. I am not, of course, proposing that military defense be neglected—after all, I know us and I know that we are obviously not to be trusted unless guns are pointing at us. Even then we should probably not be trusted.
Living in the south has made me as accustomed to hurricanes as growing up in Maine accustomed me to blizzards. However, Sandy was a new sort of thing: a massive storm that slammed into essentially the entire east coast of the United States and flooded vast areas of land.
It is, of course, tempting to dismiss Sandy as an aberration and to ignore the doomsayers who speak of global climate change. After all, doubts can always be raised about what might happen and scientific theories about the world are always subject to philosophical doubt (the problem of induction). Also, the mind deadening and emotion enhancing powers of political ideology make it easy to dismiss any claims, even when backed up with solid (or soaking wet) evidence.
However, it seems far more rational to consider that while the massive Sandy might be unusual, lesser storms of this sort could occur with greater frequency. That is, the east coast might start experiencing the sort of routine poundings that the folks down south have been suffering through for quite some time. It is also well worth considering that flooding might become a recurring problem. At the very least, since Sandy happened once, we can be reasonable confident that it can happen again. After all, we know for sure that such storms are possible.
Sandy’s onslaught showed us once again how vulnerable and poorly prepared we are to face natural disasters. New Jersey was devastated by flood, wind and fire. Much of New York City looked like the set of some science fiction disaster movie with its flooded subways and streets. This incident shows how easy it is for the most powerful and advanced country in known history to be devastated by a storm. For all our iPads and military might, we still cannot keep water out of the subways or combat flooding. In short, we are woefully unprepared for the likely future.
Naturally, we can simply continue to live in denial-to insist that climate change is a conspiracy being put forth by mad scientists and liberals who hate capitalism, success and God. However, the flooding and devastation of Sandy seems to suggest that denial will not be an effective response.
Now, I would not suggest that the skeptics actually accept the idea that the climate is changing and that humans have had a role in this. Rather, I am just suggesting that we need to expend the resources and efforts needed to help mitigate the damage that is sure to come. Naturally, preparing for natural disasters is expensive and there is the natural tendency to simply forget about the danger once the current disaster has passed. Nature does have a way of reminding us, however, and perhaps the disasters will strike frequently enough that our minds will not be able to slide into soothing forgetfulness.
I would, of course, not suggest that we change our lifestyles in terms of the behavior that is alleged to cause climate change. That would meet mainly with derision and rage from those who have the most power to enact change and their loyal minions. However, I will suggest that we need to defend our cities, homes and lives against an enemy that is growing ever more violent: our own environment. As such, the east coast will need to build defenses against flooding such as sea walls. We will also need to develop defenses for our transportation systems-ways to flood proof the subways of the cities and to ensure that the airports remain above water. We will also probably need to relocate communities away from coastal areas that can be flooded. Obviously, we will also need to pour billions into disaster response capabilities, insurance funds and rebuilding supplies.
This massive undertaking will be on par with operating the military and the analogy is apt: we are, in effect, at war. We always have been-the war is just heating up. Naturally, just as the military requires the federal government, this disaster management cannot be fully handled by the states and the private sector. As such, responding to the weather threat will be a federal task.
Obviously, doing all this is far more sensible than even thinking about addressing the causes of climate change.
Because I am a philosopher, I am sometimes accused of “not getting” the “real world.” That is, people who disagree with me sometimes like to take the intellectual shortcut of accusing me of not getting it rather than actually presenting developed arguments showing that I am in error.
Despite being accused of being detached from the “real world”, I actually consider reality to be an excellent source of evidence for discussing philosophical concerns, such as the legitimate role of the state.
Not surprisingly, the legitimate role of the state is often an issue in presidential elections and the 2012 election was no exception. The Republicans put forth the general idea that government is not the solution. There was also the stock tactic of presenting government as both ineffective and undesirable. One interesting addition was the explicit Tea Party twist of an Ayn Rand attack on the demon of collectivism. In sum, the Republican Party presented the government as an evil to be reduced and collective action as undesirable. Then Sandy hit the east coast of the United States.
Despite the political ideology expressed by the Republicans, there has been no opposition to the government stepping in to take collectivist actions. Republican Governor Chris Christie (who spoke passionately against Obama at the RNC) praised Obama’s leadership in bringing the state into the rescue and recovery operations. Christie himself made it clear that the state has a clear role to play in the recovery. Christie and Obama are right about the importance of the state in such disasters. After all, it requires collective action to address a problem of this magnitude and the private sector alone cannot handle the problems. On the face of it, disasters like Sandy provide considerable evidence against the Republican attacks on the state and collective action.
An obvious reply is that while the Republicans have been critical of the state and collectivism, they can claim that they believe the state has a legitimate role to play in disasters while still being able to hold to their criticisms of the state and collectivism. That is, they can take the collective response by the state to Sandy as legitimate government activity while still painting other activities, such as student loans and welfare, as socialism.
While this reply has some appeal, it is reasonable to dig a bit deeper and look at the underlying principle at work.
In the case of a natural disaster, many people are put in danger and are in need through no fault of their own. Of course, people sometimes are partially responsible—by staying when an evacuation order has been given, for example. This can be taken as justifying the collective action of the state. To be specific, the scale of the disaster and its nature requires a collective response by the state because it is beyond the capabilities of individuals acting on their own and even beyond the capabilities of the private sector to handle. Also, the fact that the disaster has struck people through (in general) no fault of their own also serves to justify state intervention even for those who might otherwise be opposed to the state assisting people. After all, one might contend, it is one thing for a person to simply expect the state to give them free stuff and another for them to be given aid in the context of a disaster like Sandy—even if this includes “free stuff.”
As such, a reasonable principle to justify state intervention in a disaster would be that the state has a legitimate role in addressing large scale disasters that arise through no (or perhaps even partial) fault of those who are harmed by the disaster. This principle would thus justify the collective action taken by the state in response to Sandy.
However, the principle would also seem to justify collective action by the state in other cases as well. For example, the economic “storm” that damaged the economy was a man-made disaster, but it was widespread and hurt many people through no (or at most partial) fault of their own. That is, millions of people were victims of an economic disaster that is ongoing. As such, the collective response by the state can be justified in general by this same principle. Interestingly, the general harms caused by the economic system (such as unemployment, low wages, environmental costs and other endemic harms) could also justify collective intervention by the state to mitigate them. After all, people who are homeless because the economy tanked are no less homeless than people who lost their homes to Sandy or other storm.
The obvious objection is, of course, that there is a difference between man-made disasters and natural disasters. As such, it could be argued that the state can legitimately intervene in the case of a natural disaster like Sandy but to intervene in man-made disasters would be unjustified.
The obvious problem with this objection is that it would entail that the state would have no legitimate role in defending citizens from enemies foreign or domestic. That is, the state would have no justification in regards to the military or police functions. After all, they exist to respond to man-made harms on both the small and the large scale.
It could be objected that the state has a legitimate role in responding to harms caused by people using force, violence, fraud (or other criminal means) but no legitimate role in responding to harms caused by people acting within the existing laws. So, if someone blows up your house, then the state has a legitimate role in addressing the problem. If the economy is wrecked by other people via legal means and you lose your home, then you are on your own.
While this distinction might have some appeal, it also seems rather absurd. After all, the legality of the actions that cost you your house seem to be outweighed by the fact that you lost your house due to harms inflicted by others. As such, whether a natural disaster or financial shenanigans beyond your control cost you your house you would still be a victim who deserves aid. Naturally, it would be rather another matter when the disaster is self-inflicted. If I lose my house because I quit my job out of laziness, then the fault is my own and the state owes me nothing beyond what I have earned.
In sum, if the state has a legitimate role to play in addressing natural disasters like Sandy, it also has a role in addressing man-made disasters, such as the current economic system.
Since most of the earth’s surface is covered in water it no doubt seems odd to be worried about the availability of water. Of course, this seems less odd when one considers that much of this liquid bounty is too salty for humans to drink or use in most forms of agriculture. When pollution and distribution (people have an irrational propensity to build cities where water is scarce) are taken into account, then the grounds for worry become clear.
While people normally think of water in terms of something we drink, 92% of our water usage as a species is due to agriculture. Plants and animals need water directly, but water is also used for other purposes in the industry. For example, the feed given to animals requires water. In addition to the direct use of water, water is also “consumed” (that is, removed from being useful to humans) by contamination from agriculture. The chemicals and waste of agriculture often ends up in rivers and other bodies of water, rendering it unusable or at least harmful.
Looking just at the direct water costs, the creation of animal “products” imposes the highest water costs per kilo-calorie (kcal). Growing edible roots and cereals requires .5 quarts per kcal, making these foods very water efficient. Fruits are rather more costly, requiring 2.2 quarts per kcal. For meat product, pork is relatively efficient, requiring 2.3 quarts per kcal. Beef is by far the least efficient, using 10.8 quarts per kcal. As might be imagined, the use of water raises both practical and moral concerns.
One obvious practical concern is working out how to efficiently handle water resources as the population increases. Adding to the difficulty of this matter is the fact that economic improvements in developing countries will most likely lead to a significant increase in the desire for meat, especially beef. Given the water cost of meat the agriculture industry will be hard pressed to meet such increased demand especially if the water supply is under even greater strain.
As might be imagined, there are various practical solutions to the technical problems of water. For example, more efficient agriculture would enable more food to be grown using less water. As another example, the development of cheaper means of purifying water of salt or pollutants would help. Obviously enough if the world eschewed meat in favor of plants, then that would have a significant impact on water usage.
The main moral concern is one of distribution. That is, using moral values to determine how the available water will be used and who will benefit from its use. As noted above, the growing of meat and other animal products is water intensive relative to growing plants. While there are practical grounds to moving away from animal agriculture, the decision to do so (or not do so) is a matter of ethics. After all, decisions about who is entitled to the water resources and how these resources should be distributed are moral decisions. If, for example, it is decided that water resources will be allocated to the beef industry, then this means that less water will be available to grow more water efficient foods, thus potentially reducing the food supply while also creating food that is relatively expensive for the consumer.
As the population grows, the moral concerns will become even more serious. After all, it is certainly worth considering that the demand on water resources will eventually be high enough that choosing between growing beef and raising more water efficient crops will be a choice between providing the more affluent few with a luxury food and providing the less affluent many with the food they need to survive.
An obvious counter to this is that we have always managed to find a solution to such problems in the past and hence we will surely find one (or more) in the future. After all, the population doomsdays predicted in the past all turned out to be in error.
While this response has considerable appeal, it is worth noting that there must be a point at which our ability to solve the water problem reaches its limit. After all, the supply of water on the earth is finite and even if we were to use the water with incredible efficiency there would be a point at which the available fresh water could not support a population of a certain size. Naturally, this can be countered by reducing population size—but determining whether we should do this or not and the details of the reduction would involve moral choices.
It is also worth noting that there are many practical (rather than theoretical) problems that could prevent us from adequately solving the water problem. The droughts that affected the United States in 2012 had an impact on food production and if these droughts become more common, then the matter of distributing water resources will become even more pressing. There are also the political considerations, such as political entities controlling the distribution of water to serve their own ends. Even the United States has political conflicts over water distribution and these will probably only worsen as the population increase and water distribution changes as the climate changes.
As a final point, it is worth noting that water is a resource that is almost endlessly reusable. Unlike oil, our use of water generally does not destroy the water. For example, when we drink water we are not digesting it into hydrogen and oxygen to provide energy—rather we use it to hydrate our tissues, remove waste and so on. Roughly put, the water that goes in eventually comes back out. Of course, the water that we use does become contaminated and this contamination can render the water useless to us. For example, while urine is mostly water it is rather unsuitable for drinking. As another example, water that is contaminated with chemicals, feces or radiation is useless for many purposes. Fortunately, we can purify water (although this can be rather costly) and purification also occurs naturally. Unfortunately, we have been rather busy damaging many of the natural purification systems and even more busy contaminating water. Also unfortunate is the fact that being “pro-environment” (favoring the preservation of natural purification systems and being in favor of limiting water pollution) is often cast in a negative light and dismissed by mockery and hyperbole. However, there are very practical economic reasons for preserving and restoring the natural purification systems, not the least of which is that nature does for free what would cost a fortune to do artificially. These same reasons apply to avoiding water contamination as much as possible. After all, cleaning water is generally more costly than avoiding polluting it. For example, keeping feces contaminated runoff from agriculture out of the water supply is certainly cheaper than removing the contamination.