Tag Archive | environment

Thoughts on Environmentalism and an Anthrocentric World

Elephants in Laikipia

Elephants in Laikipia

My friend recently asked me if I thought that “humans were more important than other species.” I sent him back a rambling reply, the question was thought provoking to an extent that I turned it into a blog post, which, unfortunately, still rambles.

I think that rather than ask whether humans are “more important than other species,” we have to explore the human-nature dichotomy itself. Unfortunateley, discussions on environmental issues seem to start from an assumption that one exists. These discussions, which put humans at odds with nature, generally lose me on three points (though, again, this is not my field of expertise):

1) The intense focus on large mammals. If we are going to convince ourselves that “nature’s” needs are more important than our own (or simply worth considering) we have to eliminate the idea of a hierarchy of species and consider all living things as equally important. It often seems that conversations become less holistic and more mammal-centric. Given that we are mammals and hard wired to like cute and furry things (particularly those small and weak), this is to be expected. However, the urge to protect things like ourselves makes it impossible for humans to objectively rank the importance of living things.

How often do you hear about people screaming to save snakes? Perhaps it happens and I just don’t hear about it. Clearly, big furry animals are an easy sell.

2) The idea that “species” are distinct entities, the number of which needs to be maximized at any cost. Preserving more species is seen as a goal, when in fact, the word itself is not uncontroversial. “Species” is a rough and artificial concept created by humans to assist in our understanding of the world. Even scientists can’t agree on what a species is, given that the situation that determines how a species is defined differs by type of animal and context (and history).

Take the Zebra, which comes in three main flavors, though I’ll focus on two. The Grevy zebra is Equus grevyi and the plains zebra is Equus quagga, different “species” by classification, but able to breed with one another and create offspring which are able to reproduce. The two “species” are distinct from one another only in superficial morphological features (stripes and size) and behavior.

Gravy’s, though genetically indistinct from plains zebras, are listed as endangered, which gives them certain benefits and allows Kenya (for example) to legally restrict grazing for Maasai goat herders, with the support of international groups. It’s a simplistic example, but it makes little sense to me to ask that humans make sacrifices based on a flawed concept of what makes a “species.” It also makes little sense to create policy which impacts the lives of Africans based on a false paradigm created by 19th century Europeans (“Gravy” was a French President). Yet, here we are.

An aside, but I often think that people really believe that “species,” particularly large mammals, are individuals with distinct personalities and collective thought patterns. From the animals’ standpoint, extinction isn’t an issue. Rhinos don’t hold regular meetings and worry collectively about extinction. Individual rhinos are merely concerned with eating enough grass and mating when necessary.

3) The concept that nature is a fragile and static entity which would be ultimately benefit from our non-existence. This stems from traditional dichotomies of “man” and “nature” where man operates in his (male) world and nature operates in an entirely separate and unchanged sphere. In the West, this goes all the way back to Genesis. It is a simplistic and useless concept and does more harm than good.

Nature is a dynamic and constantly changing system of which we are one part. We create nature “reserves” which are thought to “preserve” the “natural” state of “nature” but even these are artificial, human constructed spaces, as we have dictated the location and killed all our large wildlife. We approach them are “preserves”, but forget that we have altered the system (by, for example killing the wolves or cutting all the pine trees in Michigan). Thus, arguing for the “preservation” of nature is somewhat disingenuous, since even by advocating for what part of nature needs to be preserved, we are writing its rules.

The question of whether the world would be better or worse off without us is fairly moot since humans are defining the terms of “better” and “worse.” Moreover, from the German cockroach’s (Blattella germanica) standpoint or the Black rat (Rattus rattus), humans could be considered a great thing as we tend to migrate and take our pests with us. If it could, Plasmodium falciparum should worship us like a God, since it wouldn’t exist without us.

I don’t see man as separate from nature. For better or for worse, we are a part of it. But after we have run our course, the world will go on without us. “Nature,” however it may be defined, has shown itself to be a tough beast in the past. Even if the entire planet became desertized (is that a word?), life would continue to exist. One day, with or without us, all life on Earth will cease to exist.

The most salient questions should revolve around how our environmental impacts affect our long term survival for humans. Focusing on our own needs is the only sustainable strategy (though I despise the word).

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Steve Irwin’s Daughter and the “Threat” of Overpopulation

Steve Irwin's family launches Goulburn Valley Fresh - SydneyA few days ago, a friend posted a link to an article about a thought piece written by 14 year old Bindi Irwin, daughter of the late television personality Steve Irwin.

Bindi was tasked with writing on why she chose to pursue wildlife conservation as her life’s work. Instead, she went on a rant on what she believes the most pressing problem facing humanity today: overpopulation.

Here’s what she wrote:

An average of 150 people is born. Every. One. Minute. This means, every day approximately 489,600 people are born.

How can the poor have any improved lifestyles with more people to share fewer resources?

These are alarming figures as earth only has so many resources and cannot keep up with our ever growing population.

Now, I’m not saying that there is any one answer. This is an extremely delicate topic and one certainly not to be taken lightly. I’m just suggesting that perhaps this is an issue we should start discussing as a society.

Maybe family planning is one solution. Some women don’t get the freedom of choosing whether they want many children or not. Surely when these women are living on $1.00 a day it would be easier to feed 5 children than 10.

Now, I’m inclined to forgive her, as she was only 14 at the time of writing, but as a public figure, she’s fair game to be raked through the coals like anyone else.

Moreover, her basic view is not uncommon in any political circle: The world is facing a crisis because poor people are having too many kids and we need to stop it. A view that I find incredibly reprehensible. Here’s why:

1. The irony is incredible

It is true that population growth is highest among the poorest of the poor of the world. It is also true that extremely wealthy regions like Japan and Europe are facing the spectre of population shrinkage, and that population growth in North American is flattening.

It is also true that wealthy regions like Europe, Japan and the USA are consuming the lion’s share of resources and belching out copious amounts of pollution. The rural poor in Africa subsist on domestically produced corn grown on their own land often without pesticides, fertilizers and machinery (since they can’t afford it).

Moreover, they are good recyclers. They are reusing the first world’s trash. They wear our clothes, use our electronics and drive our cars and recycle all three when they reach the true point of no return (which is a long, long road).

Though I question whether the archaic agricultural methods in Africa are truly environmentally friendly, we do need to ask ourselves, who is really threatening the health and welfare of the earth here?

2. Bindi, like many people, displays an incredible ignorance as to what the true problems of developing countries are.

Poor people in developing countries (yes, the one’s who make all the kids) often eat what they produce. Developing countries themselves, lacking trade linkages and cash, often subsist only on what they can produce domestically. Thus, rather than being a drain on the world’s resources, as Bindi would suggest, they are most self-sufficient (though lacking as a result).

Environmental degradation usually occurs because, since households are producing their own food, agricultural practices are inefficient. They don’t rotate their crops. They don’t irrigate properly so that they have to over plant crops and take up more space. Inefficient regulating bodies and weak governments fail to manage water resources properly.

Most salient, is that poor countries (at least in Africa) are caught in a trap where they have trouble selling agricultural products between regions and across borders.

If Kenya experiences a drought, it can’t just import food from Zimbabwe because 1) there is no history of trade between Zimbabwe and Kenya and 2) the transportation infrastructure doesn’t exist. In the States (and Europe) we have solved the problem of trade linkages and the movement of goods which, in large part, explains why we are so wealthy. We are able to diversify our risks and there is no more risky venture than growing crops.

The problem isn’t too many kids, but a failure of development.

3. Bindi fails to recognize the agency of Africa and Africans

In another news story, she was quoted as saying that 7 year birth control implants should be provided for 11 year old children in developing countries.

“There’s such a thing as seven-year-implants, so if you had a girl that was 11 years old and gave her the seven-year implant she wouldn’t be able to have kids until she was 18.”

Of course, I am all for expanding access to birth control, family planning and women’s health resources in developing countries. Actually, I support expanding access to these things all over the world. Women, being in charge of birthing children, should be allowed to choose whatever path is right for them without interference.

I feel that what Bindi is suggesting (assuming she has any idea what she is suggesting) is that women not be given a choice at all. She’s suggesting state interference in reproductive affairs in countries. It’s always been interesting to me that, in conversation, China’s one child policy (which, minus the loss of a public sector job, really amounts to a tax on children) gets maligned so heavily in the States, but people have no qualms at all about forced sterilization and forced birth control for Africans. (Note: Bindi did not suggest forced sterilizations.)

Of course, forced sterilizations do happen in America, Kenya and Namibia.

To me (and seemingly me only), the message behind Bindi’s suggestion that 11 year olds be given seven year implants seems to be that Africans can’t take care of their own affairs. Even in development and public health circles, many people are of the opinion that Africans are incapable of taking care of themselves. I disagree. After colonization, independence, civil wars, decades of crushing structural adjustment failures, prolonged negative economic growth and failure after political failure, African countries are zooming back.

Kenya’s government restructuring and ratification of a new constitution following one of the worst and most violent elections the world has ever seen should be proof that Africans can take care of their own affairs.

Of course, it turns out that Bindi Irwin is loosely aligned with the nationalist and anti-immigration group, the Stable Population Party. A faux environmentalist group, their intro speaks for itself:

INTRODUCTION: BETTER, NOT BIGGER

The Population Party is a sustainability party with a major focus on the everything issue – population. A stable and sustainable population will help create a better quality of life for all Australians, present and future, and provide a positive example for the rest of the world.

Australia’s population is currently growing by over 1000 people per day. That adds up to over one million people every three years – the size of Adelaide! It’s no wonder Australia’s quality of life is being degraded.

From a population of 23 million today, under Liberal/Labor/Greens policies we are on target for 40 million by 2050 – and rising! We say let’s slow down and stabilise at around 26 million by 2050.

In a finite world, more people means fewer resources per person, leading to poverty and conflict. Australia’s finite natural resource base is the true source of our wealth – not our rapid population growth that both dilutes and erodes it. To meet the huge costs of population growth, Australia is using finite and non-renewable resources that should be saved for our children and grandchildren.

Climbing on Things and Other Evolutionary Pursuits

KenyaRunnerI had one of those odd old man moments today where I’m watching a squirrel run up a tree. It goes half way up the tree in a split second, stops, then decides there’s nothing to run from after all. It then spends the next 10 seconds trying to get down. In short, the squirrel can climb a tree in a tenth the time it takes to get down. I realize this is a pretty silly observation.

Humans, too, are really good at running up hills, but terrible at getting down them. I remember climbing Mt. Mulanje in Malawi once. Going up was no problem at all. Getting down was dangerous as hell.

We pull better than we push, see right in front of ourselves better than beside ourselves, and have an easier time thinking of the concerns of a few proximal people, than a vast numbers of people who live far away. The latter, obviously, has important implications for global policy.

All of these things, though, are remnants of our evolutionary past and make complete sense when put in the context of our humble, though dangerous, beginnings. Arising in the savannahs of Kenya, humans would have been easy prey for all sorts of predators. When faced with a lion or hyena, a reasonable strategy is to run up the nearest tree and wait for the threat to pass. Thus, getting up the tree is critical for survival, particularly for children. Importantly, if they are eaten before they reproduce, the survival of the species is in question. Better climbers are survivors who are able to pass their climbing abilities on to their own children.

Getting down from the tree, of course, is not critical to survival. Thus, we can take our sweet time clumsily trying to get down, live and be able to pass our clumsy genes on to our children. So threats create effective adaptations and the lack of threat creates useless ones. The same is true for eyesight. Humans, as predatory omnivores, benefit from being able to focus on their prey while hunting, especially when they have the unique ability to run long distances while they wait for their prey (which likely has a serious head start) to tire out.

The Kericho region of Kenya is famous for producing long distance runners. I wonder if they maintained a particular hunting strategy that the Europeans or Asians no longer required.

Of interest to me is why humans might be so clan centric. It has been shown that humans are able to feel empathy for individuals close to them, but have a hard time imagining the sufferings of millions of unfamiliar people. This limitation, of course, allows us to wage wars far from home, and maintain indifference toward the millions living in poverty around the world.

Again, there are evolutionary roots here. Humans, being pack animals are adapted to be concerned about their immediately family and pack members, particularly children. This is important to survival. When any member of the group is threatened, all must be ready to ward off the threat, and protect children, who pass on similar traits to their children. A group of people indifferent to those aorund them would die out quickly. We are poor fighters on our own.

We have lived only in small groups until very recently. Thus, we never formed a need to be concerned with anyone else besides those closest to us. This state of having to care about the welfare of millions (or billions) is entirely new. We haven’t yet adjusted to it, though we make noble attempts. It is possible that we may never fully develop the ability to feel the pain of billions, unless something comes along and starts wiping out those who don’t. If that happened, we’d probably all be dead, though.

I had never thought of the problems of global policy in terms of evolutionary behavior. I guess, I have the squirrel to thank.

“Monsanto Protection Act”: Liberal Outrage or Herd Behavior?

Liberals gone wild

Liberals gone wild

I’ve been seeing a number of fiery comments from my liberal bretheren regarding the recent “Monsanto Protection Act.” Normally, I try to be sympathetic to liberal politics, but sometimes I can’t help but shake my head in disgust. I expect ignorance from the listeners of Rush Limbaugh. It’s disappointing when the supposedly better educated fall prey to the same gimmicks. It’s worth pointing out that even conpiracy nut Alex Jones has taken on the same position liberals have.

First, there is no such thing as a “Monsanto Protection Act” anymore than there is any such thing as “Obamacare.” This is a term created by the item’s opponents to rile up opposition, rather than foster critical analysis. I think that Liberals should be well aware of the political problems associated with demonizing and reductionist labeling of things they don’t like.

Second, though Presidents can veto any bill that comes across his desk, the veto of appropriations bills are rare, and have often been overridden by Congress in the past. It may be a shock to liberals, but Presidents aren’t kings. Conservatives often don’t seem to understand the three branches of Government. Liberals often appear to understand it even less.

Third, there was hardly “no debate.” A Google search will reveal that discussions of this particular item go back at least to June of 2012 and the “Famer’s Assurance Provision” as it is correctly known is part of another Ag Appropriations bill which passed last year. Anyone who tells you this is new, is either lying, or doesn’t know what they are talking about. (Even Snopes took this on.)

Fourth, there is no evidence (that I’m aware of) that GMO’s, which are already in our food supply, are having deleterious effects on human health or the environment. There have been some studies on mouse models that I know of, but it appears that no one can really agree on what a “GMO” really is. Until we can nail that down, and have more informed discussion of which GMOs are “bad” and which are “good”, I don’t think that screaming about GMO’s is any more productive than poorly informed discussion of complex issues such as climate change.

I’m not trying to suggest that there are no effects of “GMOs” whatever they may be. I am saying that lefties are accepting that there are broad effects without question and are relying on less-than-scientific and politically motivated sources such as Salon and the Huffington Post to inform them. That’s a very, very dangerous position to take.

Fifth, I think we should all know by now that rightists use issues like this to weaken Democratic Presidencies. I was of the opinion that much of the furor over controversial portions of the 2012 NDAA bill was stoked by right wingers hoping for a Achilles heel in the 2012 Obama campaign. When we buy into this type of sensationalist reporting without examining the evidence, we play right into their hands.

Sixth, well, I had a sixth, but lost it. But back to GMO’s: It’s interesting that discussions of GMO’s in Sub-Saharan Africa are opposite of what we hear in the US. People view the American and European opposition to GMOs, some of which have the potential to increase food yield while minimizing inputs, as an infringement on developing countries’ rights of self determination. It’s easy to dismiss their concerns as uninformed. However, people and policy makers in developing countries face competing issues of immediate economic needs and broad environmental concerns. Lots of things seem obvious to us, but then we have most of our basic needs already met.

I mean this not as a defense of the Farmer’s Assurance Provision or anything else having to do with GMO’s (so chill out). The endless (and perhaps deserved) vilification of Monsanto has reached a point where examination of the facts is secondary to screaming like a blithering idiot. To me, this is dangerous. When we reduce ourselves to merely accepting positions without criticism, we allow ourselves to be manipulated by just about anything. Not everyone has the time to read all that is required to create a truly informed and reasoned opinion on all subjects, I realize. Striving toward obtaining as much information as is reasonable, however, and acting critically should be a priority for everyone, however.

Liberals are the smart ones. We can do better.

Food Prices and Conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa

African Conflict and Worldwide Food Prices, 1997-2013

African Conflict and Worldwide Food Prices, 1997-2013

I decided I’d continue on this theme of African conflict for a bit after noticing some interesting trends in the data.

I’ve written before on the link between unrest in South Africa and the problem of rising food prices. Looking at the plot of the right, it’s not hard to notice the similarities in the series of conflict events post 2005 to food prices as estimated by the FAO’s Food Price Index (FPI).

I began to wonder whether some of the recent rise in conflict events is somehow related to rising food commodity prices. Having found a correlation in South Africa, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

I calculated the cross correlations between the FPI and conflict events and found that the FPI was predictive of conflict, but that conflict was not predictive of FPI. This was similar to what I found in South Africa.

Plotting the FPI against the number of monthly conflict events, I found something interesting. It appears that the two are mostly unrelated until the FPI reaches a threshold of approximately 200, then the number of monthly events shoots up. It is interesting to note that in other research, 210 was the assumed maximum price that households would absorb before taking to the streets.

I’ve repeatedly written on the problem of stock market speculation in food commodities as a cause for rising volatility in world food prices. I won’t beat this into the ground again. However, results such as these indicate that the problem of rising and volatile food prices is not just an economic problem, but also a problem of human health and welfare.

FPI and Monthly Events with Threshold

FPI and Monthly Events with Threshold

Cross correlations of FPI and monthly conflict events

Cross correlations of FPI and monthly conflict events

Kenya Day 4: Reflections on fish and global capitalism

FIsherman along Lake Victoria

Fisherman along Lake Victoria

Lake Victoria is a rich source of Nile Perch and Tilapia. Both fish are recent introductions to the lake. The Nile Perch, as a top predator, is associated with extensive ecological damage to the Lake’s ecosystem. Extensive fishing of the Nile Perch has led to a decrease in size, and the comeback of several types of local fish fauna.

Local fisherman on hand made boats use crudely fabricated nets to pull a few fish out of the water, they then sell either whole fish or smoked chunks to dealers. Dealers in turn sell the fish to processors, who then sell the fish to European, American and Japanese distributors. The distributors sell the fish to large supermarkets, who, of course, sell the fish to you and me.

Where the fish may bring as much as $20 a kilo in giants such as Whole Foods, a local fisherman can expect approximately $1.00, but the price is set by the world market and also subject to the whims of dealers. Without a union, fishermen have little means to negotiate prices.

As the lure of quick and plentiful cash is hard to resist, local fisherman have abandoned traditional fishing practices to enter the cash economy. This, of course, in itself is not a bad thing, but the money often gets spent on alcohol and prostitutes, rather than school and health fees for children. The nutritional profile of Lake communities suffers, and children are malnourished in an area that brings nearly $500 million dollars in revenue to Kenya.

Worse yet, ready cash creates a new market for sex work and positions are easily filled by poor women from the rural areas with no other options. The result is that the fish trade, and its destabilizing effect on families, is fueling HIV transmission here. Up 40% of people in any community along Lake Victoria may be HIV positive.

The trade has brought people from the inland areas to Lake Victoria, which has led to displacement of indigenous populations. Displacement has serious implications for security and livelihoods but in this area of intense malaria transmission, displacement and encroachment both impacts human health. The movement of populations has changed the genetic profile of local communities. Millennia of interactions between locals and parasite had led to at least some minimal level of genetic balance, which may have been disrupted by the introduction of new humans not acclimated to local strains of the parasite which causes malaria. This present added risks of serious disease.

Now, anyone who reads this blog knows that I am pro-economic development, pro-market and see no merit in suggesting that developing countries uselessly stick to old, antiquated and oppressive ways. No matter how nostalgic we may be for an idyllic past that may or may not have ever existed, the reality is that economic development in many cultural contexts has extended human life expectancy, reduced infant mortality, freed women to not be treated as cattle and reduced the subjugation of social minorities. But being pro-development means that one must support, err, development, which is only occurring slowly here.

The fishing communities suffer for a number of macro level factors.

  1. The nature of global economic disparities means that the government cannot step in and help negotiate fair prices for fish. The producers live entirely at the mercy of the market. The government would probably not be successful in artificially raising prices, but could help reduce price volatility by negotiating a yearly floor.
  2. There is no reliable means of taxing earnings to make sure that money is invested in schools and infrastructure (instead of alcohol). Say what one will about taxation, but the truth is that without it, power lines and roads don’t get built.
  3. The economy here is insufficiently diversified. The entire economy relies on fish, that developed countries may or may not buy. There is sadly little agriculture here, almost no tourism and, like just about all African countries, no manufacturing. A concentrated economy like that along Lake Victoria, could easily bust overnight.

All of these things, however, are challenges that all developing countries are facing. The economy along Lake Victoria is hardly an exception, but the mechanism are at least somewhat more obvious.

Today’s Readings 1/18/2013

Happy Friday all! Ten readings for today. What are y’all checking out?

  1. Japan is likely so addicted to deflation that their economy will depressed for the long haul. Inflation is a necessity, particularly in a country that relies on exports. The Japanese, both the government and its overly careful populace, have to finally move out of the managed, fixed currency economy of the past and enter the developed world. (Bloomberg)
  2. Brazilian waxing has had the unexpected, though logical, benefit of reducing incidence of pubic lice. (Bloomberg
  3. Climate change is kicking us in the ass. Congress members may be earning political points (and exposing their own ignorance) by denying it, but the US Global Change Research Program isn’t. (Mother Jones) and here’s the portal for the 170 page report.
  4. The climate change debate isn’t a debate at all. A list of groups on both “sides” (reality vs. fantasy). The disbelievers are, of course, mostly made up of petroleum and coal producers, construction companies and “The Astroturfing Consortium”. (Big Picture)
  5. With the attacks in Mali and Algeria, the situation on the African continent gets worse and worse, and will do future economic growth no favors. (Bloomberg)
  6. Why I should sever my internet connection. Even 3 seconds of interruption at work significantly increases the likelihood of mistakes. (Fiscal Times)
  7. The deficit is NOT our biggest problem, but screaming calamity 24/7 scores political points for right wingers hell bent on eliminating social and entitlement programs. (Krugman NYT)
  8. The IMF’s Christine Lagarde lectures the Americans and the Europeans to get their political houses together or the world economic growth will remain stagnant. (NYT)
  9. Ideology as cognitive bias. It doesn’t pay to be an optimist. (Stumbling and Mumbling)
  10. Ethiopian kids on the way to becoming autodidacts (self taught), through a healthy dose of free tablet computers, but no teachers. (Africa Report)
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