A Philosopher's Blog

Flint’s Water

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 20, 2016

Like all too many American cities and towns, the Michigan city of Flint faces dire financial woes. To address these woes, the state stepped in and bypassed local officials with the goal of cutting the budget of the city. One aspect of the solution was to switch Flint’s water supply to a cheaper source, specifically a polluted river. Another aspect seems to have been to decline to pay the $100 per day cost of treating the water in accord with federal regulations. The result was that the corrosive water started dissolving the pipes. Since many of the pipes in the city are made of lead, this resulted in citizens getting lead poisoning. This includes children, who are especially vulnerable to the damage caused by this toxin.

More troubling, it has been claimed that the state was aware of the problem and officials decided to cover it up. The state also apparently tried to discredit the research conducted by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha before finally admitting to the truth.

There have been various attempts to explain why this occurred, with filmmaker Michael Moore presenting the hypothesis that it was an attempt at “racist genocide.” This claim does have a certain appeal, given that the poor and minorities have been impacted by the corrosive water. Apparently the corrosive water has far less effect on newer infrastructure, which tends to be in areas that are better off economically. It is also appealing in that it is consistent with the fact of institutional racism that still plagues America. However, before rushing to accept the genocide hypothesis, it is worth considering alternative explanations.

One alternative is that the initial problem arose from political ideology. There is the view that the most important objective is reducing the spending of the state (typically to also lower taxes). Going along with this is also an opposition to federal regulations. Switching to the corrosive water and not treating it was initially cheaper and certainly evaded the regulations governing drinking water treatment. That said, the approach taken by the state did go against some professed conservative values, namely favoring local control and being opposed to government overreach. However, these values have been shown to be extremely flexible. For example, many state legislatures have passed laws forbidden local governments from banning fracking. As such, the initial action was consistent with the ideology.

In regards to the fact that the impact has been heaviest on the poor and minorities, this need not be driven by racism. An alternative explanation is that the policy was aimed not on the basis of race, but on the basis of power and influence. It is, of course, the case that the poor lack power and minorities are often poor. Since the poor lack the resources to resist harm and to buy influence, they are the most common target of budget cuts. Because of this, racism might not be the main factor.

In regards to the ensuing cover up, it might have begun with wishful thinking: the state officials did not want to believe that there was a problem. As such, they refused to accept that it existed. People are very good at denial, even when doing so is harmful to themselves. For example, many who do not take good care of themselves engage in wishful thinking in regards to the consequences their unhealthy behavior. It is, obviously, even easier to engage in wishful thinking when the harm is being suffered by others. Once the cover up progressed, the explanation is rather easy: people engage in a cover-up in the hopes of avoiding the consequences of their actions. However, as is so often the case, the cover-up has resulted in far more damage than a quick and honest admission.

This ongoing incident in Flint does show some important things. First, it does indicate that some traditional conservative claims are true: government can be the problem and local authorities can be better at decision making. Of course, government was the problem in this case because the focus was on saving a little money rather than ensuring the safety of the citizens.

Second, it serves as yet another example of poor assessment of consequences resulting from a shortsighted commitment to savings. This attempt at saving has done irreparable harm to many citizens (including children) and will cost millions of dollars to address. As such, this ill-considered attempt to save money has instead resulted in massive costs.

Third, it serves as yet another lesson in the fact that government regulations can be good. If the state had spent the $100 a day to treat the water in accord with federal regulations, then this problem would have not occurred. This is certainly something that people should consider when politicians condemn and call for eliminating regulations. This is not to claim that all regulations are good—but it is to claim that a blanket opposition to regulations is shortsighted and unwise.

I would like to say that the Flint disaster will result in significant changes. I do think it will have some impact—cities and towns are, no doubt, checking their water and assessing their infrastructure. However, the lessons will soon fade until it is time for a new disaster.


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Water & Food

Posted in Business, Environment, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 15, 2012
Česky: Pitná voda - kohoutek Español: Agua potable

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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Working in the Rain

Posted in Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on September 25, 2011
Rain, Rainy weather

Image via Wikipedia

While Florida is the sunshine state, it rains here fairly often. It seems to rain most often when I have outside chores I need to do. For example, I needed to do a bit more painting because of my new siding and awoke to the sound of rain. Fortunately, some of what I had to paint is completely protected by the overhang in the back. So, I got on my painting clothes and got it done. I had some non-painting tasks to do (repairing a gutter drain, replacing some mulch, weeding and so on), so I went and did those as well.

I do this sort of thing fairly often, as long as the temperature is such that I won’t get hypothermia and as long as the lightning is not dropping in for a visit. Naturally, I do get some odd looks and some commentary from folks driving by. After all, sensible people stay inside when it rains.

Some folks will ask me how I can be comfortable in wet clothes. This is a fair question and I, like most people, do not enjoy sitting around in wet clothes. However, years of running have conditioned me to simply ignore wet clothing as long as I am active-it does not bother me at all. In fact, being soaking wet is actually nice in the Florida heat-I’m cooler and I’m not losing as much water due to perspiration. I even find the rain pleasant, especially the sound. There is even a certain beauty to a rainy day-one that seems lost on many people. I do, of course, have to carefully clean, dry and oil any metal tools I use in the rain. But, this is only a minor inconvenience.

One person did ask me, some time ago, if I did it as sort of a “man over nature” thing. I suppose that might be a factor. After all, I do like to overcome difficulties-even something as minor as dealing with rain.  Then again, I also like it because being in the rain makes me feel more a part of the natural world. In fact, I don’t quite get why some people are so rain averse. We are, after all, a fairly waterproof species (other than any wicked witches among us, of course).

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The Future of Water

Posted in Business, Environment, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 24, 2010
Clean drinking water...not self-evident for ev...
Image via Wikipedia

Recently certain folks have expressed concern about water and have warned us of shortages and the commercialization of water resources. The idea of water being a scarce and precious resource seems like science fiction. In fact, this idea was the basis of Tank Girl and Ice Pirates. However, even a cursory glance at history and around the world will reveal that water has been and is just such a resource. Obvious examples include the Dust Bowl and the places on earth that are routinely hit with drought. Even now, parts of the United States face severe problems with having enough water. Of course, part of the problem in the United States is that we tend to use far more water than we actually need. We soak our lawns and literally flush away our waste with it.

Even in the face of such facts, it is still very tempting to dismiss any worries about water. After all, as we learned in school, the water is mostly covered in water. There are vast oceans, huge lakes, long rivers and rain falls regularly. While this is true, there are a few problems.

First, the distribution of water does not match the distribution of human populations. As such, some low population areas have vast reserves of water while high population areas sometimes have to engage in rationing. Also, people sometimes have the rather absurd tendency to want to build cities in deserts and this tends to create water problems. While the sensible solution would be to live near water, people pipe and even transport (via tankers) water fairly long distances. This uses resources and makes water more expensive. Also, of course, it moves water around from where it is naturally to other places and this can impact the ecosystem. As the human population grows and we continue to expand into low water areas, the transport of water will increase as will the cost and the environmental impact.

Second, while there is a great deal of water, most of it is in the oceans. While salt water creatures can drink the water just fine, humans cannot use it for irrigation or consumption without removing the salt. While this can be done, the current processes are relatively expensive. There is also the concern about the environmental impact of the process (including the production of the energy needed for the plants). However, the future should see improvements in desalinization as the need for water increases.

Third, the human population is growing and societies are changing. To be specific, as developing nations develop, they will tend to use more water per person as diets, hygiene practices, and consumer consumption changes. For example, if a person in China goes from living in a village to living in a city and starts eating more meat and buying more consumer goods, then that person’s water use (direct and indirect) will increase. After all, water consumption is not just about what we drink or flush. It also includes what is needed to grow our food, make our stuff, and so on.

While we will not see a Tank Girl style future, we can expect water to be increasingly more expensive. This will lead to the usual negative consequences: increased conflict, exploitation of the resources based on the profit model, and so on.

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Rush & Oil

Posted in Environment, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 6, 2010
Rush Limbaugh booking photo from his arrest on...

Image via Wikipedia

Commenting on the oil spill, Rush Limbaugh said ““The ocean will take care of this on its own if it was left alone and left out there. It’s natural. It’s as natural as the ocean water is.”

Rush is actually right.

First, oil will eventually break down through natural processes. However, this will take a rather long time and the oil will do considerable damage in the meantime. Given Rush’s logic, we should say the same thing about things like dirty dishes and garbage in our houses. After all, natural processes will eventually take care of the food on the dishes and the garbage in the house. So, why bother with those things? Also, natural processes will eventually take care of any illness (this might involve death, of course), so why mess around with medicine?

Second, oil is natural and is as natural as the water. After all, we do not make the oil that we drill for-we simply find it after it has been produced by natural processes. Of course, being natural does not mean that something is not dangerous. Cyanide, rattlesnake venom, red tide, earthquakes, volcanoes, and gamma rays are all natural. Yet they are rather dangerous. The fact that something is natural does not mean that we should not be concerned about it showing up on our beaches.

You know, Rush, it doesn’t make you a tree hugger if you accept that an oil spill is bad. Even the folks in the oil companies are willing to admit this.

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Cleaning Up After Others

Posted in Environment by Michael LaBossiere on June 20, 2009

I’m not a neat freak, as my friends will attest. However, I feel compelled to pick up trash and junk I see in public areas. At my university, I’ll often get strange looks as a walk to the nearest trash can carrying various bits of trash. I used to get even stranger looks when I would be seen running through the park, carrying bottles, cans and the occasional blender (really). I suspect that people either thought I was crazy (“that guy is nuts…I think it is that trash-madness that we studied in my psychology class”) or homeless (“that poor man, running around gathering bottles so he can buy pants and a shirt”).

One area I end up cleaning up fairly often is the pool in my home owners’ association. Although I do pay dues to take care of it, I also feel an extra bit of ownership because I spent days last summer pressure washing the deck and patching cracks in the concrete. In the past, I’ve cleaned up the usual stuff-bottles, cans, cigarette butts and such. Today, however, I had a new experience. When I went to the pool, I saw a soaked diaper lying on the deck. Fortunately, it had not been “used”, so cleaning it up was not as bad as it could have been. Someone had also thrown the life savers in the pool, so I fished those out-along with some shredded rope.

As I was cleaning up the pool, I wondered a bit about why people make such messes and do not clean then up.

In areas open to the general public, I suspect that people often treat the areas poorly because they figure that they won’t be back to that area anytime soon. But, the pool is only accessible to the people in my association (or folks who come here and climb the fence) and people will presumably return to use it.

I’ve got three main hypotheses as to why people make a mess of areas like the pool. The first is that some people are just accustomed to having someone else clean up after them. While this is generally seen as a kid’s trait, adults also exhibit this-especially when it comes to shared areas. People who leave stuff no doubt often think that someone else will take care of it. Of course, I suppose that I contribute to this-I don’t want to be walking on butts and cans when going to the pool, so I clean up after these people. I could leave it there in the hopes that the people who make the messes would eventually clean up, but I don’t think I could endure it longer than they can.

My second hypothesis is that some people are just oblivious to messes and filth. I’ve seen people who live in what could be described as filth pits. Oddly enough, these have often been educated, intelligent people who lived that way out of choice rather than because they were too poor to afford repairs or too overworked to have time to clean. So, perhaps some folks just treat the world the way they treat their own homes. Along these lines, I have also noticed that a lot of trash consists of beer cans/bottles and cigarette butts. My guess is that someone who treats her own body like a trash can will treat the rest of the world the same way.

My third hypothesis is that some folks simply do not think about what they do-they just do it. So, when someone finishes a beer, he throws the can down. When the cigarette is done, she just flicks it to the deck. When the diaper is removed, he just tosses it to the ground. There is no thought about the consequences.

People can change their behavior. For example, after some folks started leaving beer bottles around the pool, the treasurer of the association had a little talk with them and the bottle count dropped significantly. Of course, anyone with even a tiny bit of sense should have realized that a concrete deck by a pool is not the place to have glass bottles.

While leaving trash and junk around a pool is a small thing, it does reflect a damaging attitude towards the world in general. It shows a lack of concern for others and that is a fundamental cause of problems in the world.

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Formula “J” (“J” is for “Jesus”)

Posted in Metaphysics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on December 15, 2007

I saw in the 12/17/2007 issue of Newsweek (page 16) that several companies are marketing blessed water. Now, this is not the classic holy water (“take that, you undead monster!”) but water that one buys to drink. One company, Liquid OM, sells water that has supposedly been energized by striking a big gong (perhaps a relic from the Gong Show) and Tibetian bowls. The “inventor”, Kenny Mazursky, claims that the water provides “good energy.” Other companies sell filtered tap water that has been given a Christian label.

While I agree that people should drink water, the idea that water can be energized or blessed is an absurd idea. Such claims have been made in the past and, when subject to verification, have all turned out to be false. Water can, of course, be transformed into an energy granting elixir-just add sugar and caffeine and there you go.

Obviously, some people do believe in the power of such “magic” water. But, I offer the standard challenge-show, in a proper, independently run controlled experiment, that 1) the water has qualities distinct from that of normal water and 2) that the qualities stem from the blessing or similar “treatment.” If that can be shown, I’ll buy the water and drink that instead of Gatorade.

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