Sunday, October 11, 2009

On "there being enough to go around..."

This exchange with Fraser Stern follows my exposition on the idea of a probligo utopia (resulting in confirmation of my strong feeling that any utopia is an impossibility because there will always be some idiot turn up to spoil the party)...

...I would like to add a comment to your line, "To reach my dream, I need to face that my standard of living will be lower; that others will benefit in far greater measure than I. Of even greater measure, I have to persuade the richest 20% of the world's population to join me in giving up what they have."

I’d have to disagree on this point. Your belief system is based on the premise that there is only so much to go around, by extension, there can be no increase; but such limits are burst by innovation and productivity incentives which would make the natural resources more useful and go farther. The false warning which I continue to hear is that the earth is too populated, that its natural resources cannot sustain the quality of life which we would all desire or prefer; that simply isn’t true. I refuse to buy into the idea that in order for me to improve my life’s quality that somebody else must reduce their quality of life.

The probligo said...

So the availability of such resources as arable land, potable water, and quality air are infinite TF?

Not in my book.

You often speak of "God-given rights". Is the right for a person living in Somalia to have sufficient food to sustain life "God-given"? If so, why are so many people living there on the verge of starvation? Do you have a "God-given right" to consume (and don't worry, I am no different) far more food than you actually need?

T. F. Stern said...

Probligo, I didn't say these resources were infinite, only that there was sufficient to go around. I continue to believe that there is enough so that my increase does not mean someone else must decrease.

The idea of God given rights is not the same as consumption of natural resources being spread evenly, I would have thought you understood that concept after the many times we've gone head to head.

Now I started this with the intention of a rather ascerbic scrute at the idea of "god-given rights" but, as TF points out we have traversed that ground before without any consensus ad idem.

No, it is the thought that "there is sufficient to go around" that draws the eye this time. It is a thought that has exercised economists, sociologists and others far more learned than I. It still bugs me though, on a number of levels.

First is the idea of "sufficient". At one level, there is "sufficient" as measured by the fact that both TF and I, along with about 20% of the global population, can "exist" on high carb, high fat, high protein diets compared with the subsistence-and-less diets of perhaps the lower 50%. There is "sufficient" in that we both are able to expend significantly excessive amounts of energy in our daily living, compared with the energy sources available to many who have just sufficient to cook a daily meal. There is "sufficient" in that we are able to live in permanent housing having significant economic value compared with the very large numbers who have no prospect of owning land (a concept that might even be foreign to their culture) let alone erecting permanent structures on it. There is sufficient water that we both can use what might be equivalent to a days supply from the community well for all of the family just to wash the family car.

The counter argument of "effort", "earning", "saving", and "value" mean little to people whose lives are essentially subsistence. For many at this level the idea of "subsistence" can be seen as a reasonably comfortable standard of living if you leave out essentials such as education, functioning health services, effective law enforcement, or the trappings of what TF and I might see as "civilisation". I have in mind those such as Samoans, ni-Vanuatu, and Tongans who because of the climate in which they live have better than adequate food supplies, adequate shelter, and not much more. There is a second generalisation that can be applied here; self-sufficiency. Does that mean that these people are happy to live as they do? No!, for the simple reason that they have the same desires for better and more that we all have. No tv? It becomes a desire, then a want, then a need. Minimal education? The same.

The second is the "what" that "has to go around". I would list as examples land and specifically arable land, water and specifically potable water, and mineral resources.

To that extent TF is quite right when he says -

" Your belief system is based on the premise that there is only so much to go around, by extension, there can be no increase; but such limits are burst by innovation and productivity incentives which would make the natural resources more useful and go farther."

This particular line of logic is based upon the same line of thought that gives rise to this -

TF's statement that "...such limits are burst by innovation..." is also "true". However, there are also an increasing number of instances and some within the past year or two which illustrate the first cracks in that argument.

First to come to mind is the "alternative fuels" debate. The conversion and diversion of food-producing land and crops to "fuel-producing" has impacted on (just one instance) global food prices. Suddenly, it was "better business" to produce crops for alternative fuels than it was for food. Prices for cattle-feed grain went through the roof leading to higher beef prices. Why is that? It is the simple, direct application of Economics 102.

On the same line, does it matter if Indonesia or Brazil burns and clears "unproductive" land of the overlying jungle and wild animals? Better to have "productive" land than not, surely? Well truth is that we know as much about the possible impacts of rain forest clearance as we do about the causes of global warming. In other words, not a lot.

Only one example? No.

Go look for a description of the "Sinai Aquifer". This is one of the largest freshwater reservoirs on the globe. It stretches from the north Sinai Peninsula to Cairo and further south. [About 20 years back there was major concern that the water being taken for Cairo was becoming brackish (increasing salt levels). Investigation indicated that the level of the water in the aquifer had dropped to the point where it had gone from "positive pressure" at its outlets under the Mediterranean (giving rise to outflow in the Med) to "negative pressure". The result? Not only was Mediterranean salt water "leaking back into the aquifer, but the salinity of the Mediterranean itself was increasing to the point where fish stocks were potentially under threat.]

Want another example?

Pelargic tuna stocks in the Pacific forty years back were at a level estimated to be equivalent to roughly ten years fishing, "just under sustainable levels" at the rate of fishing in the 1970's. The most recent census (taken by MAF NZ and several Pacific nations) is indicating that the predominant species of bluefin and yellowfin tuna are endangered, and possibly close to extinction. Remember that with the next can of tuna you add to a sandwich or salad.

Want another example, closer to home?

Check out the Newfoundland cod fisheries. That was about 40 years back. It is recovering, slowly, but Britain and Europe will not see cod and chips on the menu for some while for sure.

Or how is about the Lower Colorado irrigation area where the demands on land and water supply are so great that the farms are getting "saltified" as the water evaporates and the river itself is struggling to make the sea.

OK, so "technology" will solve all of these problems? Innovation and production incentives will increase the numbers of bluefin tuna? How much would it cost to provide Cairo with desalinators and then to run them so that that city had "sufficient" (not the amount we use) fresh water.

TF, I suspect that I can explain the difference between your statement that " increase does not mean someone else must decrease..." and "... there is only so much to go around, by extension, there can be no increase...".

That difference comes from what best fits with "a different point of view". My up-bringing, my culture, the nature of my community is such that we have very narrow physical boundaries. Nowhere is more than 50 mile from the sea. Beyond that is more than 1000 miles of water to the next major habitations. Those boundaries have, for better or worse, made NZers generally far more conscious of the "outside world".

I had a word in mind when I proposed my challenge. I was reticent to use it at that time as it could be mis-taken as insult rather than descriptive.

"insular a ... 2. of or like islanders, esp. ignorant of or indifferent to other countries and their culture, narrow minded. [Concise Oxford Dictionary]

It started as a suspicion, but these more recent comments confirm, that for so many Americans (observation again, TF, and generalisation) the problems of "the outside world" just do not exist. Well, not at least until they impinge themselves directly upon the US. Hence, until such time as the lack of a resource does impinge upon "my" ability to obtain it, there is no shortage; there is plenty for all; any deficiencies must be the fault of those who can not afford to buy what they need. Of course, at the time that the last tuna is taken it will be the fault of the UN, of "big government", of faceless bureaucrats et al that more was not done to ensure that there would be tuna for dinner next year...


Sometimes I should read my own advice. I based my commentary on the Sinai Aquifer on memory of a series of articles in SciAm, Nature, and the news of the time. As is so often the case my memory is faulty. Sorry to those who went chasing geese as a result of my error.

1 comment:

T. F. Stern said...

I'm enjoying your thoughts; even so, the limitations you have mentioned by no means negate my original consideration of there being enough and then some for everyone.

I heard a wise person explain, "You have exactly what you want". The idea being that if you wanted more, you'd have more because you would learn the required skills or obtain the necessary tools to acquire that which you wanted. The same holds true for those living in less than ideal habitats.

Those without natural resources are there by choice and for no other reason. Throw away the idea of being anchored to a particular spot of land by birth because if anyone really wants to move, regardless of the restraints, the human will to get things done wins when applied to most any challenge.

The energy available to mankind is limitless whether you want to call it oil related, wind, solar, nuclear or "other". We need only use the inventive and creative minds God gave us to figure out the mechanics of it.

The idea of not having enough food is also not real. There is the idea of "fishing to excess" and destroying one breed of fish; that is true. Then again, the oceans are able to sustain many life forms which have yet to be harvested for food; what are we able to do when we get creative is limitless.

We better learn what is acceptable under Muslim Law because the way things are going we all are going to be subjected to the barbaric system they use the way things are going. Aside from the fact they intend to do away with any and all infidels, removing all non Muslims from the equation, we might not have to worry about running out of food, energy or a comfortable sofa upon which to enjoy the A/C.