Taoist mythology, Lanna history, mythology, the nature of time and other considered ramblings

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Location: Chiangrai, Chiangrai, Thailand

Author of many self-published books, including several about Thailand and Chiang Rai, Joel Barlow lived in Bangkok 1964-65, attending 6th grade with the International School of Bangkok's only Thai teacher. He first visited ChiangRai in 1988, and moved there in 1998.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ethical Ecological Economics

©2009, by Joel J. Barlow, with thanks to Eric Rosenblum; included in my novel "Watching Little Sister"

Ethical Ecological Economics

Ethics, systems for determining our responsibilities and ruling conduct, must challenge “value-free” economic theories which result in degraded environment and a limited future.
The Greek word oikos (house) is the root of both economics (“household laws”) and ecology (“household science”), while the word ethics derives from the Greek ethos (“custom” or “habit”). When ethical judgments derive from awareness of inter-relatedness in the biosphere, we have environmental ethics, with principles including biotic integrity, inter-generational equity and the precautionary principle. As environmental ethics constrains use of resources, ecological economics must acknowledge society’s dependence on the natural world.
The term ecology, coined in 1866 by German scientist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), was fashioned from the Greek word for household and the suffix logos (“word” or “study”). Haeckel proposed to study “the economy of nature,” i.e. each animal in relation to its inorganic and organic environment, so as to better understand “all those complex interrelations referred to by Darwin as the conditions of the struggle for its existence.” John Muir (1838-1914) urged the federal government to adopt a forest conservation policy as of 1876, and bemoaned overgrazing and environmental depletion. Biologist Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring (1962), revealed that causal effects of human actions were more complex and less predictable than had been thought: not only did DDT kill insects, but also birds which ate them (thus, “Silent” Springtime). This shattered faith that damage we cause our Earthly nest is insignificant. Educated people had to accept that “rule” of Earth entails responsibility. Carson stimulated worldwide awareness of the dangers of pollution and thus began an environmental protection movement.
But awareness of the importance of unintended consequences has been slow to grow, especially among economists. That many more consequences to our decisions are unintended than intended should come as a surprise to no-one; we simply cannot take enough into consideration. This doesn’t help encourage responsibility. There are many difficult truths people find themselves inclined to ignore.
Vast amounts of evidence show how our natural environment has been degraded through technology, by over-population and over-consumption. Many now realize there’s much we need do to reduce our impact on the environment, mostly by using resources more effectively, but pervasive public resistance to innovations that require even slight changes in behavior remains. And politicians are so focused on their support base(s) they’re unwilling to invest in long-term solutions to pressing problems.

In 1971, John Rawls (1921-2002) formulated a principle of justice, stating: “Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all.” He wrote, “Each person possess an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.”
Religious ethics may or may not be utilitarian, but “Do not do to another that which is hateful to yourself” and “Judge not lest ye be judged” present goals which can be seen as practical, depending on one’s focus, goals and sense of what actually works. Whether or not monotheistic (and anthropocentric) religions value the environment as an aspect of creation, and allow certain rights to nature and animals, pantheistic animism reveres nature, casting important light on the notion of progress.
The importance of ethics as the foundation of good governance is widely recognized, but awareness of the political significance, and necessity, of ethics, is clearly in decline. Today ethics is taken as a personal matter, a standard of publicly acceptable behavior, akin to politeness. This overlooks a serious purpose of ethics - the achievement of individual well-being and social welfare, to which end it engages in the systematic evaluation of goals, rights and responsibilities.
The term economics, formed from two Greek words - oikos (house) and nomos (law) - early on meant the art of managing the household. Many ancients knew economic practices concerned not only household, or family, duties and benefits, but involved power and prestige, and also sometimes, wealth (an unworthy goal described as “unlimited acquisition”). Economic choices, like other choices, reveal our values and ideals about our rights, our responsibility to others, and our expectations.

Modern economics began with Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). It described a free market steering business owners and laborers, each acting out of self-interest, to manufacture goods providing the greatest national revenue – with no monarch or trade associations required. Smith claimed that a free market brings maximal welfare to society, as though each buyer and seller were “led by an invisible hand… without knowing it, without intending it, [to] advance the interest of the society” and “promote an end which was no part of his intention.” He thus gave rise to a phrase still in common use, “the invisible hand of the market-place.” By equating the supply of goods in the marketplace with the welfare of society, Smith adopted utilitarian values (“the greatest good for the greatest number”), and called laissez-faire capitalism the system of perfect liberty. Competition, being a protective mechanism similar to conscience or superego, he posited, helps one to better one’s condition – through “a desire that comes with us from the womb, and never leaves us until we go into the grave”.
For a century, economics was consumed with the search for a general theory of equilibrium describing how wages, prices, rent and interest balance in the marketplace. Others refined Smith’s concepts, and much later, Alfred Marshall (1842-1924) explained how an equilibrium price is fixed by that enduring concept, supply and demand, at precisely the point of marginal utility, ensuring optimum efficiency and full employment. But as macroeconomic models became more precise, they also became increasingly unreal. Dissenters (notably Karl Marx and Thorstein Veblen) accurately observed some disturbing market trends (towards overproduction, monopoly and unemployment), but these criticisms were generally ignored. The Russian Revolution and the stock market crash of 1929 began to change this. Whatever might be said of the merits of classical economics, it should also be admitted that its practitioners not only failed to predict the Great Depression, but were helpless to aid in its recovery. In 1879, American economist Francis Walker blamed economists’ “bad odor amongst real people” on economists’ inability to understand human behavior. People just don’t act the way economists think they should! They’re not only less selfish and less rational, but resent economists’ egotistic interest in self-interest; as economists give up on trusting others, others give up on trusting economists (perhaps to their advantage).

In late 1919 John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) made himself unpopular with very important and powerful people, by pointing out that the stringent reparations forced on Germany after WWI made for a corresponding unlikelihood that payments would be made. He advocated public works to reduce unemployment and create useful jobs. “Respectable” economists expected automatic adjustments by the free-market to solve all problems, and saw public works as useless as increases in government deficits would cause equal declines in private investment – quite contrary to the British experience since the incorporation of the Bank of England in 1694. Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money described how governments could shore up economies during downturns, by borrowing money to create jobs; as he explained it, since wage earners are consumers, borrowed money would circulate until impact of the “multiplier effect” was sufficient to stimulate private investment. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s government took Keynes’ advice, intervened in the market, economic conditions improved and the Great Depression eased (somewhat).
Subsequent governments have used Keynesian policies to promote economic growth, manage employment, and control inflation. Unfortunately, these policies discourage savings, depend on perpetually enlarging markets (economic growth), and operate not unlike a Ponzi pyramid scheme, to the benefit mostly of people NOT in need (the political and social elites). Savings, which the Keynesians don’t much like, may slow the rate of spending, or velocity of money, but so does flow of money into the hands of the already rich. A non-productive segment of society supported solely by growth-dependent investment profit, and another whose parasitical “work” consists entirely of gambling with derivatives, short-selling, futures speculation and currency trading (unfortunately now virtually insured by the US government), promise another bubble-burst, through the very (Keynesian) mechanism used to fix the current (2009) market collapse - the bail-out. The cure is but temporary, a slight-of-hand tactic the ancient sophists were familiar with: using regression in place of explanation or solution (much as ‘foot-note’ textual references seem to, but don’t actually, verify a claim, or as positing the origins of life on Earth as having arrived from outer-space may briefly seem to provide (but not actually provide) an answer to the question of life’s origins).
Prominent Quaker professor of economics Kenneth Boulding (1910-1993) put it, “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world, is either a madman or an economist.” Boulding also quite wisely claimed, “There is no such thing as economics, only social science applied to economic problems.” Many an academic discipline means but little, in isolation from understandings available from other academic disciplines. Social ‘sciences’ cannot involve the testing of physics or chemistry; much is but conjecture.

Keynes’ student John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) described a symbiotic relationship between government and industry, with industry able to increase wages by raising prices, and corporate growth becoming “inseparable from the goal of national economic growth”. But he also criticized the assumption that continually increased material production is a sign of economic and societal health. His 1954 The Great Crash, 1929 describes the infamous Wall Street melt-down, how markets progressively become unhinged from reality in speculative booms, and how people behave when their wealth is threatened. Although considered a Keynesian, he followed Veblin (evolutionary economist, author of 1899’s The Theory of the Leisure Class and coiner of the phrase “conspicuous consumption”), in believing economic activity can’t be distilled into inviolable laws. Arguing that speculative bubbles are inherent in the economic system because of “mass psychology” and the “vested interest in error that accompanies speculative euphoria”, he cautioned: “The world in finance hails the invention of the wheel over and over again, often in a slightly more unstable version.” Although a key adviser to President Kennedy, Galbraith has been denigrated as a “policy entrepreneur” writing solely for the public, as opposed to writing for other professors, and for making unwarranted diagnoses and over-simplistic answers to complex economic issues. Some academics dismissed him as a mere media personality. Regardless, economists can’t present theories without money and prestige that usually come to them only through acceptability to the active financial system. One almost never hears an economist challenging the absurdly less-than-questionable corporate status as both juristic “person” and property – like slaves of old. Even less does one hear economists espousing anything like a sufficiency economy, or “living simply that others may simply live” – so the accusations reek of the pot calling the kettle black!
Jospeh Stiglitz (1943-) won the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics for work in asymmetries of information showing that “whenever information is imperfect and markets incomplete, which is to say always… the invisible hand works most imperfectly.” While micro-economics has been providing increasingly useful specifics, macroeconomics involves no ‘unified field theory’ and economists mostly continue to describe and predict market activity that doesn’t really exist outside of theory. Economics has attained a dangerous degree of unreality – unreality unfortunately matched in politics, in theories of social science, in “string-theory” and in many other areas of study and endeavor. Problems of bureaucracy, quality control, patent and copyright law, power centralization, the corporate legal entity and its responsibilities, education and training, recycling, cleanliness, maturity and expectations – these just don’t sufficiently enough enter into our markedly delineated and overspecialized current academic disciplines, to gain the analysis and inspection necessary. Generalized, cross-spectrum, studies were what the liberal arts were organized to provide, but academia seems to have lost sight of that.
Economists have cultivated a kind of sophisticated fatalism that portrays negative social and environmental consequences as inevitable results of the marketplace, rather than as the product of their own erroneous policies. Unfortunately, environmental or economic collapse may be needed to reform our economic models.

Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (1912-2009, father-in-law of Diana Ross) produced ‘deep ecology’ theory (1990), with tenets that reject the artificial distinction between individual and environment, and oppose pollution while supporting democracy, diversity and decentralization. Focus on the inter-connectedness of all things got ecology nick-named “the subversive science” as its findings, perspectives and principles are often used to challenge political, economic, and religious perspectives. Ecology could give rise to an ethic based on holistic values, and eventually successfully subdue economic theories based on individual consumption. According to Næss, every living being has an equal right to live and to flower – an ethical attitude hardly amenable to big business!
In the 1972 report to the Club of Rome, The Limits to Growth, ecologists predicted shortages of oil and other resources unless population growth slows or consumption decreases. A bio-centric principle of interconnectedness, developed by British environmentalist James Lovelock in Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979), describes our planet as a complex interacting system, self-regulating and capable of reestablishing ecological equilibrium, with or without human life. Despite emphasis on spirituality, some extreme forms of deep-ecology have been criticized as anti-humanist, as they entail opposition to famine relief and immigration, and also accept large-scale loss of life through AIDS and other pandemics. Lovelock claims evidence to support his view in the co-evolution of earth’s atmosphere with that of plants and animals; the Gaia hypothesis proposes that living and non-living parts of the earth form a single organism. Lovelock argued that, as a result of global warming, “billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable” - by the end of the 21st century, and that 80% of humans will perish by the end of this century.

Farmer and writer Wendell Berry (1934-), an advocate of sustainability, also writes of the interconnectedness of life. He characterized topsoil as “ceaselessly transforming death into life, ceaselessly supplying food and water to all that lives in it and from it.” From the farmer’s perspective, Berry (1987) claims: “Our life and livelihood are the gift of the topsoil and of our willingness and ability to care for it, to grow good wheat, to make good bread; they do not derive from stockpiles of raw materials or accumulations of purchasing power.”
But global-corps and politicians they own don’t care. Viable electric cars are among the oldest of automobiles, but despite viable Chrysler, Ford, GM, Honda and Nissan models, few are on the market (‘though since 2001, India’s had one, it now has a very cheap one). Although problems with electricity production mean electric vehicles are little more ecologically sound than internal-combustion ones, solar, wind and geo-thermal production (among other available processes) can greatly reduce our fouling of our nest.
Atmospheric science casts doubt on the earth’s ability to absorb waste products of human activity. Chlorofluorocarbons reduce ozone in the upper atmosphere, reducing filtration of ultraviolet light hazardous to human health. Carbon dioxide traps infrared radiation and increases global temperatures (the “greenhouse effect”); other pollutants and urban areas warm the earth, and our cows produce lots of dangerous methane. Discovery of these facts has alerted us that consequences of human activity are global in scope, hazardous, and not readily reversed. As Jared Diamond showed in Collapse (2005), many societies have died from failure to deal with ecological impacts they incurred.
All processes of releasing energy from oil and gasses cause pollution. Some claim that mankind is insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and that the planet’s chemical makeup has changed only naturally, as usual over long periods of time. Ocean covers 80% of the planet and releases carbon dioxide. There’s precious little we can do about climate; about sun spot activity, we can’t do anything at all. But, as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and better safe than sorry. Whether one believes in a deity or deities or not, there is truth to the proverb, “God helps those who help themselves.” These aren’t just hackneyed slogans, but have much to do with our respect for our collective selves – respect which is a two-way street. It can only be gained by exerting the strength of will to address pressing problems.

Externalities, large-scale effects of production and use which distinguish between private costs and social costs, are “spillover effects” - effects which spill over onto parties who may suffer or benefit, without participating in an associated transaction. Arthur Pigou (1877-1959), founder of behavioral economics, developed the externalities concept in The Economics of Welfare (1920). He’d studied with Alfred Marshall of King’s College, Cambridge, whose Principles of Economics (1890) introduced the concept of elasticity of demand, emphasizing that price and output are determined by supply and demand, which act like “blades of the scissors” in determining price. Pigou, among the first to recognize the importance of externalities in the marketplace, explained that production and distribution costs or benefits (conferred on others) often aren’t accounted for by those creating these costs or benefits. Pigou argued that negative externalities (costs imposed) should be offset by tax, and positive externalities rewarded by subsidies. His theory was somewhat undercut by ‘public choice’ economists observing that governments can and do fail, sometimes more spectacularly than markets. A more recent idea is that companies could buy vouchers giving legal right to pollute. With vouchers costing enough, businesses would try to find cheap ways to stay within emission standards. But business interests in the USA spend multi-millions on lobbying and think-tanks to influence legislation… and neither governments nor money can always solve the problems people create.
Despite its problems, the “spillover effects” idea retains validity. Pigou distinguished between social and private welfare, noting that private value differs from social value when “costs are thrown upon people not directly concerned, through, say, uncompensated damage done to surrounding woods by sparks from railway engines” and that, “All such effects must be included… in reckoning up the social net product.” For example, when erosion from a clear-cut hillside silts up creeks, but the lumber’s sale-price fails to include costs for compensating affected fishermen, this “externalized” environmental cost is passed on to society at large - through fish becoming more rare, fishermen less rewarded for their time and effort, and a diminished economy. Logging companies lack enough incentive to use less destructive methods, so they do ecologically devastating clear-cuts; but also, timber-buyers wanting cheap prices don’t seek substitute materials. Similarly, costs of automotive pollution aren’t included in car prices. China has used up most locally available raw materials to produce cheap goods, without reckoning on the impending consequences of having done that. While markets (and consumers) may fail to distinguish between sustainably harvested wood and wood harvested from a clear-cut which destroyed habitat and future productivity, a tax to offset the value of lost resources might help redress the situation; otherwise, the market promotes annihilation of the ecosystem, enriching a few but diminishing quality of life and likelihood of a viable future. Some will say, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” But Gretchen Daily and Katherine Ellison counter this well, observing (2002), “A woman’s work is never done - nor fairly compensated - and this is nowhere truer than in the case of Mother Nature. Much of Nature’s labor is of enormous and obvious value, which has failed to win respect in the marketplace until recently.”
For survival of humanity, our natural capital (natural resources) must be preserved, enhanced, and fostered into as much revival as practicable; technology must be directed towards increasing productivity of natural capital, instead of human-made capital. If these things don’t happen, Pigou asserts, we’ve acted “uneconomically, in the most orthodox sense of the word.” Pigou’s suggested system of “bounties and taxes” to influence the price of goods might help markets to recognize the importance of externalities; ecological economists now devote considerable effort to determining the value of environmental externalities, to include in product price. But regulation by price is still regulation, and demands bureaucracy, itself a danger to humanity. The character of bureaucracy was systematically analyzed first by German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920). He failed to note many bureaucratic maladies: over-devotion by too many officials to precedent, inflexibility, reluctance to admit error, indifference to feelings and convenience of citizens, abuse of power, inaccessibility and ineffective organization, remoteness from the rest of the community, excessive self-important arrogance in dealing with the public, procrastination and waste of labor, and obsession with the binding authority of departmental decisions.
In finance as in bureaucracy, functionaries often cease to work for the public benefit, or even any tangible goal, but instead work only to improve their position within the system that dominates their days, indeed, whole lives. Means to ends become perverted into ends themselves. In what one must hope was unconscious parody of this monomania, Lawrence Summers, when president of Harvard, autographed dollar bills bearing an imprint of his signature (from his Treasury secretary days) to present to students – a far cry from a check signed by Picasso!
Max Weber did note, though, that bureaucracy is inefficient when a decision must be adopted to an individual case, and that bureaucratic officials form status groups which mould their personal orientation, with over-specialization making individual officials unaware of larger consequences of their actions, and also other problems, including the discarding of common sense and tendency to mold “Catch 22” road-blocks. Later, Michael Crozier, re-examining Weber in The Bureaucratic Phenomenon (1964), noted that a “bureaucratic organization is an organization that cannot correct its behavior by learning from its errors” (countering Weber’s view of bureaucracy as the ultimate expression of rationality and efficiency). In attempt to create rules to cover all possible events, bureaucracies inevitably fail, as has parallels in physics, philosophy, economics and many other areas of analytic endeavor. Crozier also showed how, as hierarchic strata need to be isolated from each other for efficiency, individuals operating within zones of uncertainty or un-clarity wield considerable, unaccountable, and dangerous power.
Others soon noted that those who work to preserve the organization as opposed to working towards achieving its goals will eventually gain control of it, and implement policies and regulations contrary to public interest. In 1968, Lawrence Peter introduced the concept that job promotion continues as long as work is performed competently, then stops - when it no longer is. Workers thus reach a “level of incompetence” – where they stay. So, “in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties,” with what little real work is accomplished done by “those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence” (The Peter Principle).
The ultimate dictum, though, is: The demand upon a resource tends to expand to match the supply of the resource. This derives from Parkinson’s Law (1955).
Bureaucratic malfunctions were best depicted by C. Northcote Parkinson, British naval historian who, only somewhat facetiously, explained that “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” Administrators make work for each other, he said, so as to multiply their number of subordinates and enhance their power and prestige. His second law, “Expenditure rises to meet income,” is detailed in The Law and the Profits (1960): government functionaries, he posited, are inclined to expand their own ranks as long as sufficient taxes can be raised to pay for them. Bureaucracy, like Keynes’ economy, must always enlarge (and thus defeat its original purpose) – or lose its power.
While for many Peter and Parkinson were but humorists, maybe a bit lighter than Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 but still merely playing on cynicism, an important message they all served to help transmit, that there’s too much human tendency to appreciate hierarchic posturings, remains important, indeed essential, to any realistic effort to address our present quandary and achieve a viable future.

It’s clear to all who sufficiently investigate our situation that days of ‘conspicuous consumption’ and ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, or expecting each subsequent generation to enjoy greater material plenty, are over. A sizable minority of individuals have come to view ecological integrity not just as a preference, but as an essentially ethical matter, quite distinct from money or government, neither of which can do enough to compensate for loses resultant from many kinds of production. Our future rests on personal decisions: laws to protect endangered species have little effect when people believe those species can provide them with aphrodisiacs! An extreme example of choice is provided by the Amazonian Kichwa and U’wa people in Colombia, who’ve threatened mass-suicide rather than to allow Occidental Petroleum to drill for oil on their land. The only price they were “willing to accept” was infinite (Barnum 1998).
During the last half of the 20th century, both ethics and economics have been challenged to address social and environmental degradation. Issues from deforestation and vastly diminished fish-catch numbers, to global warming and ozone depletion, and to growing income disparity, all demanded response. Ecology presents a paradigm for understanding the world based on the unity and interdependence of nature and human society, but only a fusion of ecological thinking with ethics and economics can bring sufficient rethinking of fundamental principles in line with new understandings, so that human society can proceed with anything like normalcy.
Environmental ethics means more than the application of ethical principles to environmental issues: awareness of the interdependence of all life on earth implies ethical consideration of the rights of future generations, and accepting responsibility for remote, long-term environmental impacts in a way that tests our understanding of consequences to our actions (a concept called the precautionary principle).
In A Sand County Almanac, American forester Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) proposed a ‘land ethic’: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Leopold held that the duty to preserve ‘biotic integrity’ was ethics in its most evolved form. Taking a Darwinian view of ethics, he saw its purpose as the expansion of human awareness to ever-widening circles of community, including the entire biosphere as “member[s] of a biotic team.” Obligations to preserve biotic integrity entail corollary duties, the foremost of which is to acknowledge the rights of other species. Biotic integrity prevents us from pursuing our own economic and political goals at the expense of the global ecosystem.
Principles of deep ecology state that, “The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman Life on Earth have value in themselves… Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.” (Devall 1985) With this view, we must resist converting rain-forests into cattle ranches and mountains into strip mines. Deep ecology principles require familiarity with one’s neighborhood environment, to ensure that development protects the local ecology, even at high cost. The gap between rich and poor (both people and countries) must be reduced, not only out of a sense of fairness (however much justified), but to prevent the irreversible destruction of essential ecosystems. To meet their financial obligations, ‘developing’ countries from Brazil to Malaysia have routinely depleted their mineral and biological resources, severely, and often under the direction of international agencies. At the same time, ‘first world’ nations, with a quarter of the world’s population, consume 60% of the world’s food, 70% of the world’s energy, 75% of its metals, and 85% of its wood. The ethical necessity of relaxing pressures on poorer nations, and constraining consumption in richer ones, is obvious, practical challenges notwithstanding.
While the principles of biotic integrity can be seen as utilitarian (ensuring the survival of our species), they seek to extend rights to the biosphere, a controversial viewpoint countered by fundamentalists who claim (based on Genesis 1:28) that humans have a prior right to “rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky and all living things.” Others contend that the very idea of granting rights to nature is fundamentally unnatural, as no other species will ever prioritize the needs of others over its own. This is specious, as, for instance, whether bees mean us well or not, we can’t get along without them (as we can’t without bacteria, trees, legumes and grains, among other things). As another for instance, when we deplete numbers of predators, we end up with uncontrollable numbers of scavenger pests (particularly, rodents and insects). In that we have any duty at all, we have duty toward all, as diminishing life diminishes our very selves, and not just metaphorically.
Another moral principle derived from ecology is an ‘expanded scale of responsibility’, both in space and in time. “We all live downstream”, a truism in the water industry, perfectly describes the expanded scope of environmental ethics. Ecology doesn’t respect arbitrary human boundaries, a point demonstrated when Canadian forests are wasted by acid rain from US factories, and when San Diego beaches are fouled by Mexican sewage.
Pollution is so bad that 2.5 billion people don’t have access to clean water. Air is even more polluted with the US producing 147 million metric tons of air pollution per year.
The herbicide Roundup (glyphosate, or glycophosphate), has been used for so long that weeds have developed resistance, with 249 species of weeds completely immune. These “super weeds” threaten farmland by chocking out crops. Tilling helps, but causes the soil to dry faster and kills off good bacteria, making its fertile life span significantly shorter. To replenish the depleted soil, fertilizer is used, which introduces a whole new set of problems to the environment. The rise in glyphosate use since the advent of GM crops may be responsible for the rapid deterioration of health in the US in the last 20 years. A study by former US Navy scientist Dr Nancy Swanson and co-authors charts the huge increase in 22 chronic diseases in the US over the last 20 years and plots it against the rise in the use of glyphosate and the percentage of GM corn and soy plantings. The correlations, portrayed graphically in super-clear charts, are striking. There’s a highly significant correlation between glyphosate use and the incidence of many of the diseases, including hypertension, stroke, diabetes, obesity, thyroid and liver cancer, kidney disease, and Alzheimer’s. There’s also a highly significant correlation between the percentage of GM corn and soy planted in the US and a similar list of diseases. Increases in these diseases are not due to people living longer; the authors adjusted for that in most cases. While it has not been proven that glyphosate causes these diseases, the authors argue that given the known biological effects of glyphosate herbicides, “it would be imprudent not to consider causation as a plausible explanation”. And while there are thousands of toxic substances and pathogens that could have contributed to the exponential rise in these diseases, the authors state, “No toxic substance has increased in ubiquity in the last 20 years as glyphosate has.”
Coal burning releases sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere, where they accumulate in clouds until released as acid rain, causing havoc on the ground beneath and accumulating in rivers and lakes, harming life in them. Ground soaks up the acid, depleting the soil of essential nutrients. Trees absorb the acid, which damages leaves and slowly kills forest. Acid rain has completely eliminated entire species of fish, causing a snowball effect of damage to the ecosystem that relies on diverse organisms to sustain the environment.
Lead can be released as particles into the air, and the airborne particles directly inhaled; they can also settle out of the air into water and food supplies. Lead can accumulate in the human body over extended periods, resulting in cumulative poisoning which impairs cognitive ability and causes high blood pressure and kidney dysfunction. Lead emissions come from cars, planes, and lawnmowers (60% of lead emissions in the U.S.); industrial processes (28%) and fuel burning in power plants and home heaters (10%). Lead concentrations peak near mines, busy roadways, and factories that melt or fuse lead. The population most susceptible to elevated lead concentrations is children; effects include behavioral disorders, learning deficits, and lowered IQ. Our sloppy pollution habits also result in a rise in ill-health and death from heart disease, obesity, diabetes, kidney failure, cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Multiple Sclerosis, celiac disease, asthma, and organ diseases effecting the liver, adrenal gland, and thyroid.
With global plastics production rising to over 250 million metric tons per year, marine plastic litter, and thereby micro-plastics, will also increase. Plastic accounts for 90% of ocean surface trash. In total, about 20 million tons of plastic enter the oceans yearly, says Megan Herzog, a fellow in environmental law and policy at UCLA. For myriad reasons, this is problematic. Plastic water bottles take hundreds of years to decompose, never really degrading completely, only breaking into smaller and smaller microplastic bits. In the ocean, the sun breaks down these plastics into tinier and tinier pieces, a process called photodegradation. Microplastics can’t always be seen by the naked eye. Even satellite imagery doesn’t show a giant patch of garbage.
Plastic gets eaten by animals, and can lead to starvation. Herzog points out that floating bags resemble jellyfish, which loggerhead sea turtles like to eat. Plastic is hard to excrete and so builds up internally, interfering not only with digestion but hunger. Not just garbage goes into the oceans, but also nitrogen fertilizer. It gets carried from lakes, rivers and seas into the largest producer of oxygen we have, our oceans. Red tides of red algae are only one of the many negative results. Research by Scrips Institution of Oceanography in California shows 5 to 10% of fish contains small pieces of plastic.
Marine debris becomes trapped by the circular ocean currents of the five gyres (large systems of moving ocean currents: Indian Ocean, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, & South Pacific), where it builds up to form giant garbage patches often ten feet deep. Another garbage patch, about 500 million tons of trash, is in the Mediterranean. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is too large for scientists to trawl; the vortex’s area is nearly impossible to measure.
Scientists have collected up to 750,000 bits of microplastic in a single square kilometer of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—that’s about 1.9 million bits per square mile. Most of it comes from plastic bags, bottle caps, water bottles and Styrofoam cups. The microplastics of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch make the water look like a cloudy soup. This soup is intermixed with larger items, like fishing gear (mostly nets) and even shoes, computer monitors and LEGOs . The seafloor beneath the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is also a trash heap. Oceanographers say that about 70% of marine debris sinks to the bottom.
While oceanographers and climatologists predicted the existence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; racing boat captain Charles Moore first located it in 1997, while sailing from Hawaii to California. Crossing the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, Moore and his crew noticed millions of pieces of plastic surrounding his ship – “plastic…as far as the eye could see”. During a 2014 expedition, Moore and his Algalita Marine Research Foundation team used aerial drones to assess the extent of trash, and found 100 times more plastic by weight than previously measured, some in permanent islands over 15 meters (50 feet) in length.
Marine debris is harmful to marine life. In another instance, Albatrosses mistake plastic resin pellets for fish eggs and feed them to chicks, which die of starvation or ruptured organs. Seals and other marine mammals get entangled in abandoned plastic fishing nets, which are of their low cost and often discarded. Seals often drown in these forgotten nets. Marine debris also disturbs marine food webs by blocking sunlight from reaching plankton and algae, the most common autotrophs, or producers, in the marine food web. When algae and plankton are harmed, the entire food web changes. Fish and turtles have less food, and so decrease in population, making less food for their predators. As a result , seafood becomes less available and more expensive for people.
These dangers are compounded by the fact that plastics both leach out and absorb harmful pollutants. As plastics break down through photodegradation, they leach out colorants and chemicals like bisphenol A, chemicals linked to environmental and health problems. Plastics can also absorb pollutants like PCBs, from seawater. These chemicals can then enter the food chain when consumed by marine life.
Cleaning up marine debris is a huge challenge. Many microplastics are the same size as small sea animals. Nets designed to scoop up trash catch these creatures as well. Even if nets would just catch garbage, the size of the oceans makes the job far too time-consuming. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program has estimated that it would take 67 ships a year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean. A transition from toxic, disposable plastics to biodegradable or reusable materials would be an important step in the right direction.
Beyond all that are radiation, oil spills and the effect on the planet of reducing the cooling system of water and oil between the hot interior and the crust, through massive extraction. Much remains controversial at best to some, boring at best to others, and difficult, at best, to deal with. Some would have us live for the minute and “be here now”… others, and not only those with children, find great benefit to planning ahead. Whatever the basis of one’s ethics, a garbage dump is hardly the most pleasant of places in which to pass time.
Environmental ethics require us to evaluate remote impacts of our activity, whether or not the studies are legally mandated, and to reduce the harm we cause. Since ecosystems persist for thousands of years, environmental ethics means responsibility to future generations, ‘intergenerational equity’ defined by the UN Commission on Sustainable Development as “the use of resources to meet the needs of today’s generation without inhibiting the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”
Intergenerational equity is particularly challenging as it raises questions of how much effort we should expend on behalf of our descendants. Biologist E. O. Wilson (1984) observed, “We want health, security, freedom, and pleasure for ourselves and our families. For distant generations we wish the same but not at any great personal cost.” In response to The Limits to Growth calling for strict conservation, some critics complained that the report failed to account for technological advances to come. Others have argued that conservation could deprive future generations of challenges which would stimulate their technical creativity. A more balanced solution proposed by John Rawls involves making intergenerational decisions from behind a “veil of ignorance,” as though we didn’t know which generation we were born into, thus avoiding excessive savings on the one hand and unsustainable consumption on the other (Rawls 1971).
The ecological ‘precautionary principle’ states, “when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” (Raffensperger 1999) This differs from risk analysis in its total aversion to risk, even of low probability or potential cost. We must ask, “What if we’re wrong?” and seek out alternatives with the least destructive consequences, and consider that our assumptions might turn out to be false, even though that will cause difficulties. We must better develop and implement non-carbon energy sources (solar, wind power, geo-thermal), since even if climate worries are unfounded, and these technologies unnecessary, global warming fears are real and the potential impact of not putting into place energy alternatives could be devastating. On a local level, the precautionary principle demands proper disposal of dental wastes, fluorescent bulbs and batteries - even while the receiving water’s capacity to absorb mercury and other toxins isn’t fully known. Better safe than sorry.
This approach is associated with ‘the soft path,’ as it prefers a diverse portfolio of low-impact projects with multiple benefits over large, capital-intensive solutions dependent upon a single resource (the ‘hard path’, i.e. nuclear energy). Recycling waste-water is better than building new dams and reservoirs, and investing in decentralized facilities, efficient technologies, and human capital is not really a choice. Among ‘soft’ techniques are conservation, reuse and providing water quality and quantity appropriate to the users’ needs instead of tapping new supplies. The soft path involves creating institutional policies to promote equitable access to water, proper application and use of economics, incentives for efficient use, social objectives for water quality and delivery reliability, public participation in decision making, and the education of youth for better understanding of ethical ecological economics.

Environmental ethics, under the precautionary principle, demand protection of the global ecosystem’s complexities, despite the difficulties of determining with precision what will result over extended periods of time. The underlying attitude is one of humility in the face of an interconnected world, one that is at the same time “known and unknown, visible and invisible, comprehensible and mysterious.” (Berry 1987) The approach points to the “ecological” nature of ethics itself, and requires consideration of events in a comprehensive manner, with the taking of responsibility for the consequences of our actions, even when they occur at second or third hand (as for instance, a drug dealer may be held liable for overdoses, or an arms dealer for terrorist deaths). While some have lauded this approach as evidence of our growing maturation as a species, environmental ethics adds a level of complexity to our decision making we’ve yet to come to terms with, as we must now balance ecosystem rights against individual and societal rights, including property rights.
Despite their common etymologies, ecology and economics have followed such divergent paths that they are often thought to oppose one another. WorldWatch founder Lester Brown (2001) noted, “The gap between economists and ecologists in their perception of the world as the new century begins could not be wider.” Economists see the environment as a subset to economy, ecologists see the economy as a subset to environment. One sees growth and progress, the other sees decline and depletion. Economists look at the global economy, international trade and investment to find a promising future with more of the same, while ecologists look ahead and see intense heat waves, more destructive storms, melting glaciers and ice caps, and a rising sea level that will shrink land areas, even as population continues to grow.
The explanation that some environmentally beneficial project is “not economically feasible” merely masks, but does not excuse, the fact that the decision maker, for whatever reason, doesn’t value the environment as highly as some other opportunity available at the same (monetary) cost. Here again we see the appropriateness of the original status of ethics and economics as branches of moral philosophy, for no matter how elegantly we analyze them, economic choices are like other choices, in that through them we reveal our values and our ideals about our rights, as well as our perceived responsibilities.
Cost-benefit analyses and similar tools can be useful, but should augment, rather than replace, group decisions based on shared values. To that end, a number of guidelines have been proposed to help stakeholder groups recognize the value of sustainability. Daly and Cobb (1994) offered three principles for resource use: 1) the rate of harvest should not exceed the rate of regeneration (sustainable yield); 2) the rate of waste generation should not exceed the environment’s assimilative capacity; and 3) the depletion of non-renewable resources (where permitted) should correspond to equivalent development of renewable resources. The Natural Step (Hawken 1995) has four tests:
1.Does the project decrease dependence on non-renewable metals, fuels or minerals?
2.Does it avoid the production of new and persistent substances?
3.Does it increase biodiversity?
4.Does it use relatively fewer natural resources to create human value?
A “no” answer means environmental costs will be passed on to future generations. Like the Ten Commandments, the Eightfold Path and other ethical templates, these guidelines aren’t intended to expedite decisions, but rather to focus attention on our essential duties.

When Rachel Carson gave birth to a movement, she faced a severe challenge. As she expressed it, we are living in an era “in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged.” If only the market is powerful enough to protect the environment, we may find that only the force of ethical argument is powerful enough to turn the market in the direction of sustainability.
In Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith warned against businessmen having too much influence over public policy, explaining that those who live by profit “have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public”, while cautioning, “any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order… ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined… with the most suspicious attention.” 200 years later, we find shrinking glaciers and ice-caps, spreading deserts and a hole in the ozone layer. We’ve gambled not only with the rent, but with our food money. We might possibly have the technical skills to live in equilibrium with our environment, but, do we have the ethical courage to overcome the obdurate fiscal and political obstacles?

Greek poet Hesiod told how Prometheus (‘Forethinker’), the supreme trickster and god of fire, gave fire to mortal man, ‘though Zeus preferred to keep it hidden. As the price of fire, and as punishment for mankind in general, Zeus created the first woman, Pandora (‘All-giving’), and sent her down to Epimetheus (‘Hindsight’), who, though warned by Prometheus, married her. Zeus commissioned Hephaestus (another god of fire, and patron of craftsmen) to fashion a jar or box into which he put all evils (particularly, hard work and disease). Pandora was warned not to open it, but curiosity got the better of her and she lifted its lid - out flew the evils to pester mankind. But Pandora shut the lid before Hope could escape, so Hope (an evil?) remains within, carried as woman’s, or household, burden.
Our degraded natural world results from a history of defective thought, a misplaced sense of the relation of human beings to Being (Life) itself, to other humans, and to what sustains us. We somehow decided life is a competition – that winners survive. And maybe some of their cells do, but we all, of course, die. Somehow the ancient gods of the hearth and hospitality lost out to other gods – jealous, even petty deities supportive of war and conquest. The followers of these new religions readily admit to having relinquished position as curator/caretakers of a wondrous Garden, and their history has been one of hypocritical imposition and assertion in the face of obvious contraries to all asserted. Supremacy has been its emblem.
Instead of being jovial part-time predators, many have found fulfillment as challenged participants in extermination. As the Crown of Creation or not, we can accept that we are limited, that we cannot “win” and that we cannot just dismiss others as wrong, or aspects of our world as completely undesirable. We can be less demanding, less self-centered, self-serving and critical, less mean-spirited and needy, and learn to laugh at slights real or imagined, which so many find cutting to the quick. We can be of bigger hearts than we have been, for millennia, and thereby reap great benefits. All we need do is but change our perception of challenge.
Crisis can be opportunity, and by renewing foundations of self-respect in allowing people to not only feel, but actually be, needed and useful, to gain prestige and feel important, we can reduce dependence on money, bureaucracy, production and theory. To accomplish this, we must come to see personal success as inextricably intertwined with the common good, and re-imagine not only other people as more important than possessions, but life in general as so.

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