of economics and sharks

Last night I met up with a couple of friends for beers, and through several turns of conversation, environmental issues came up. Given that this is what I study and work on, and that I’m interested in the interaction between society, government, and social justice issues that relate to the environment, my interest was piqued. My friend was concerned with the over politicization of science, and the intense faith in government funded anything, since it all has an agenda. I’d argue that a lot of business sector science is also bought, and the only thing to help is to refer to intensely peer-reviewed sources.  He also doesn’t buy into global warming, and is convinced that everything will be brought under control by a return to more strict notions of private property and a move away from pricing control.

I’m with him on the pricing issue. We live in a heavily subsidized world, and I don’t think it’s possible to look at anything and evaluate whether or not to purchase based on the cost of the item. The price tag that we see for anything (I’m talking anything from a paper clip to a health care system) has intensely subsidized and hidden costs, ranging from resources to social costs. The cheap cost of things like water and oil directly impact the costs of everything. It also impacts how we use things. If more real costs were reflected in the world we would be hesitant to throw away as much trash as we do.

So we had some basis of agreement, but the fact that he would never advocate for policy changes to make moves on climate change topics, and the fact that he doesn’t believe in coming up with practices that reach out to the developing world other than in business ventures leaves a very sour taste in my mouth. Never mind the thought, in my mind, that the kind of consensus built through the IPCC is in no way a government bought venture. The IPCC’s agenda puts them in direct conflict with pretty much everyone, but the need for action on climate change issues warrants that challenge, and I’m very happy that some businesses and governments in the world find climate change an issue worth tackling.

It doesn’t mean I’m very hopeful for the amount of success we’re going to have. Most days of the week I still think that human beings will crash the planet into a mass extinction event that will likely take “us” out as well, with the cockroaches left to reign supreme. I still think that the way to show intelligent thought and value is to try to tackle the issues. I’m not saying we’re going to end up on Star Trek, in a world where poverty is done away with and everything is fairly exploratory and happy. Doing something, and trying to go about it intelligently, is the best way I can see to spend my life. I like engineering, I like the problem solving approach, I like putting things together in a way that works, and this is pretty much the biggest most exciting set of problems ever. Normally if any species takes over and ruins an ecosystem, the system swings back into balance and a lot of things (usually including the culprits) die. That’s the way ecosystems work. I’d rather work back towards some semblance of balance before things happen where mass quantities of everything die off.

I suppose in a sense this brings me to Shark Water. I mentioned that the movie was good and made me cry. I have a hard time watching waste, especially when that waste is tied to something with a circulatory system. Call me crazy, but I feel some sort of sympathy for living matter, plant or animal. I’m the chick who walks home and pauses to check out the slugs around my house, marveling at the respiratory system of the critters, and their ability to sense their surroundings. The movie, to be sure, had a very big documentary slant. It had an agenda and a message. I think Rob Stewart oversold some parts of the story, and didn’t make the connection for other parts of the story (so climate change was mentioned twice, but the links to sharks and the oceans of the world was a little sketchy for a viewer who doesn’t spend their time immersed in the science of this stuff). It was really interesting to hear about the Sea Shepards and how that organization functions as a sort of rogue enforcer (as much as they are allowed) while people take from the ocean.

This is where economics and science work towards some of this stuff in a vacuum because we can’t get the values straight. Why do we protect environmental resources? Most often we protect the resources in order to help some subset of people. We protect environmental resources for the interest of “better” use, usually meaning business. There is no sense of value for things being here because they are here and something else may depend on them. People do not value ecosystems, and I think it is partly because we have obviated the need for them. We build and change and morph our environment. This has an impact on everything else out there. We change the plant life around us, we change the immediate climate so that we’re comfortable, and none of this is totally unusual, we just manage to do it in a way that modifies entire landscapes. Cities are a whole new ecosystem that removes people from nature, and hallmarks of the natural world become quaint. In that context, nature is neat, and is pretty.

The oceans are such a big issue, in my mind, because we don’t see it, and we don’t see what’s in it in the same way that we “see” forests, or anything charismatic and terrestrial. It’s hard to care about something that is a big unseen box. It’s hard to care about carnivores that aren’t fuzzy. I hate that. As one top predator in a chain that causes massive amounts of damage to all kinds of ecosystems, I believe it’s our responsibility to think about what humans do. It’s frustrating to watch ridiculous ocean catches on screen, to watch longline operations pull in catch after catch from their 60 mile lines that pick up anything and everything possible. It’s hard to watch people catch a shark, cut off all its fins, and throw it wriggling and bleeding back into the water. They either bleed to death or suffocate from inability to move. From what i’ve heard about limb loss, it cannot be a good way to go.

Unfortunately, to go back to my argument Sunday night, this is the free market in action on a non-government controlled resource. There can’t be control because there’s no property laws for the oceans. No one gets to own the oceans (aside from a few miles out from a nation’s coast). There are attempts to regulate catches through various permit and quota systems, but the efficacy of ocean conservation is evident in the receding coral reefs and closed fisheries of the world. My trust in the “free market” to actually take care of things is very slim. My trust in government is also slim because governments are, in my estimation, bought. It’s about publicity opportunities, support from sponsors, and ability to create economic upturns (which result in higher taxes and then pay the folks in government anyhow).

While i love sharks, and I am sad to be alive during their demise, I’m not very hopeful for turning things around because the financial interest in exploitation is too high, and it’s coupled with a general fear and animosity of the animals in the first place. That amounts to a lukewarm push to act. My hope in the free market is diminished by the fallout in the fishing industry. While some might argue that this is the Tragedy of the Commons playing itself out, and that privatization is the answer, then I would say that you’re ending up in a huge definition and equity issue. Who owns the oceans? Who could own the oceans? It’s a ridiculous discussion because with ownership comes the desire to modify.

Ever checked out The World in Dubai? That’s what I imagine if there is ocean “ownership.” The greater issue to me, for climate change, for biodiversity conservation, for social change, is how to change people’s values, how to get people to think about the world in a sense that goes beyond the walls we live behind to the collective impact humans have and react to?

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