Sunday, January 14, 2018

Protagoras and the Anthropocene: Can man still be the measure of all things?

The ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras is famous for his saying that man is the measure of all things. Though we don't know much about Protagoras or his written work except for quotations appearing in other ancient works, the general view is that Protagoras was the father of moral relativism in philosophy.

The Protagoras's complete statement has been translated as follows: "Of all things the measure is man, of the things that are, that [or "how"] they are, and of things that are not, that [or "how"] they are not." It is unlikely that Protagoras believed that physical truths about the natural world such as the freezing point of water depended on one's personal standpoint.

But under Protagoras's tutelage in matters of values, we are left only with the measuring instrument called "man" (or more inclusively "humans"). In the age of the Anthropocene—that still-not-official geologic age in which humans are designated as the most potent geologic force on the planet—those issues thought to relate solely to the lives of humans do NOT, it turns outs, relate simply to humans.

While we may choose to celebrate the material progress of humankind, we do so heedless of the wider costs to the stability of the biosphere. Those who focus only on measures that exclusively relate to what we regard as human well-being miss the broader picture and mislead their audience. (They often say "the world" is getting better when they mean certain measures of human well-being are moving in a direction we regard as good.)

But, human civilization thrives under very specific environmental conditions, namely the ones experienced since the end of the last ice age. That age, the Holocene, has been marked by a moderately warm and stable climate which made possible agriculture and the concomitant rise of cities.

General advances for humans such as rising incomes (and thus consumption) and better access to health services are unalloyed positives only if the continuously degrading indices of biospheric stability are ignored. Two concepts, planetary boundaries and tipping points, inform us about the risks.

Planetary boundaries identified by the Stockholm Resilience Centre number nine and include such things as climate change, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, and biodiversity, called "biosphere integrity." The Centre reports that humans have passed four of the nine boundaries: "climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen)."

The word "boundaries" implies that with the right actions we could cross back over them and thus return to a safe zone. (In practical terms this would mean moving back into a zone of lower risk.)

Tipping points, however, imply a journey to the land of no return. Researchers reporting on the planetary boundaries believe that in the areas of climate and biosphere integrity, the planet is in danger of moving toward a new irreversible state, "a much less hospitable state, damaging efforts to reduce poverty and leading to a deterioration of human well-being in many parts of the world, including wealthy countries."

I am reminded of the man falling from a 100-story building who, when asked at the 50th floor by someone near a window how he's doing, replies, "Fine so far." Tipping points seem unimportant or even nonexistent until you reach them. Conceivably, human well-being could on average continue to increase for many indicators for years to come, only to be dramatically reversed when planetary tipping points kick in.

The mathematical way of talking about this is that tipping points can represent a kind of step function or nonlinear response on a graph. Much of the sanguine talk of continued human progress is premised on the absence of sudden nonlinear turns or step functions in the graphs of the key indicators of planetary health. The data to date give us little reason to expect gradual change for all indicators or to believe that we can adapt successfully to all the changes we face if we don't alter our current course.

It is not surprising that humans look to themselves as arbiters of what's important in the life and processes of the biosphere. Humans, like every other species, seek their own survival and well-being first. But our overreliance on humans as the measure of all things is the very posture which has put us on the road to potentially catastrophic changes in climate and other planetary systems, changes that threaten our very survival.

The time has come to put away man as the measure of all things and look to much broader measures for an assessment of our well-being and the well-being of all those systems upon which ours depends.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Hawaii's existential choice: Tourism, food and survival

Hawaiians used to feed themselves quite easily on this island paradise. With the arrival of Europeans and Americans came European and American ideas about plantation agriculture. Hawaii became a producer of coffee, sugar, pineapple, papaya, rice and other plantation crops.

While destroying Hawaii's diverse food system, the growers created a prosperous agricultural trading economy with mainland markets as customers. But competition from low-cost producers elsewhere has more recently devastated that economy. The last remaining sugar plantation closed in 2016.

The decline of the previously large sugar and pineapple industries now make Hawaii much more dependent on tourism as a source of income. Tourists are Hawaii's largest industry. They spent $15.6 billion in 2016 on vacations there representing about 18.5 percent of the total economy. That certainly underestimates their importance as many additional support services are needed to maintain the businesses that service the tourists.

As tourism has grown, land used for agriculture has declined by 68 percent since 1980. Some of the former plantation operators have turned themselves into land development companies to take advantage of the tourism and real estate boom.

The result is that Hawaii—a lush, fertile group of islands with the ability to grow crops year round—now imports 90 percent of its food.

Importing food is not a problem in and of itself. It turns out that some of the world's top food importing nations such as China, the United States and Germany are also top food exporters. They choose to specialize in what they grow most efficiently and export some of it, while importing foodstuffs which other countries are more efficient at growing by reason of climate, soil, water availability, labor costs and other factors. For countries such as China, the United States and Germany, disruptions in food imports might represent a mere inconvenience. Americans might feel deprived without bananas at their morning table, but they would have the option  of choosing apples, pears or other fruit instead.

Hawaii could make policy that would encourage more food growing. But such policies are likely to raise the cost of government through agricultural subsidies. If Hawaii were an independent country, it could impose import duties on certain agricultural products in order to encourage local production of them.

But subsidies and other available measures—unless they are focused on building a diverse agriculture—might simply bring Hawaii back toward a plantation economy, not an economy that could actually feed the people of Hawaii. Here Hawaii faces two problems. A census done by Hawaii's still then independent government in 1850 put the population at around 84,000. The 2010 census showed a population of more than 1.3 million according to Hawaiian state census information.

Using current agricultural lands, it would be difficult to feed a population that has grown more than 10 times (let alone the tourists who add another 220,000 people daily to the population)—even if crops were broadly diversified. In all likelihood much more land would have to be put under cultivation and many more people would have to be engaged in growing food in residential vegetable gardens, truck farms and large polyculture farm operations.

The second problem is that so long as the tourists keep coming, there is little impetus to reverse the trend in Hawaiian agriculture. The assumption is that the tourists will simply keep coming and coming forever. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States and the deep recession of 2008 and 2009 taught Hawaiians that there will be significant disruptions in tourist traffic, but that that traffic will always come back. Have they learned the right lesson?

Other importers of food aren't so fortunate as Hawaii which even in the worst situation would receive aid from the U.S. federal government. Countries such as Afghanistan, Myanmar, Niger, and Yemen, in fact, 34 countries in all "are unable to produce their own food due to water and land limitations."

For many in these countries getting their daily sustenance is a life and death struggle. The modern global economy has forced countries to specialize. This works well for those properly positioned with the appropriate infrastructure and skilled workforce. Without these many countries simply become sources of raw commodities for the factories and mills of advanced countries—and that's if those developing countries are lucky enough to have such an endowment.

Some day Hawaii may have to contemplate what it will do without tourism or at least less of it. For that matter, it may have to contemplate what it will do without the heavy U.S. military presence which represents the second largest part of the Hawaiian economy.

Specialization has its advantages. But it can also bring frightening vulnerabilities. A whole city of beautiful hotel rooms means little if few people come to stay in them. Hedging against such a day may just be too painful for Hawaiians to contemplate—which is the very reason they should start thinking about it right now.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.