Friday, May 25, 2007

The Logic In Ecological Economics

In my early years there were several things about the world and its people that puzzled me. I was a highly curious kid and could not contain my questions till I found some answers. As I grew older I came to understand how things worked, and came to an understanding about the things that I could not understand. As an adult, a few things do puzzle me even now, but there aren't too many things that leave me totally bewildered. One of the few things in the latter category is this whole fuss over saving the world by saving endangered species from extinction, when what we should be panicking about is population explosion. Let me elaborate ...

The fuss over endangered species manifests itself in various missions and movements, has many names, has world-wide reach, and leaps at you in various forms and forums, all aimed at making you feel guilty. The problems they talk about are numerous, but a closer look at each of those problems, and at all of them collectively, reveals that they all essentially point to two things we humans are doing too much of: (a) consuming (in many cases permanently depleting) planet earth's natural resources, and (b) dumping (in many cases non-biodegradable) waste matter, back on to planet earth. Wildlife activists, who campaign with missionary zeal, pull out all kinds of statistics to show you how Man's greed has been pushing many species into extinction. Man should learn to take only what he needs, in small quantities, and when done, recycle the waste matter so as to not disturb the natural scheme of things too much. (I saw a bumper sticker in California that said "Ignore the environment long enough and it will go away".) Operative words - preserve, conserve, save, protect.

In principle I am in agreement with this PoV. I'm a softie at heart. It hurts me to watch a cheetah kill a gazelle on Natural Geographic, to hear its desperate bleats as sharp fangs sink into its throat. It makes me want to jump into the TV set, shoo the bad cheetah away and save Bambi. When I was a kid (who was puzzled by a lot of things he didn't understand) I tried to rescue a rat which was being attacked by a crow in our building compound. I managed to drive the crow away but the rat bit me when I tried to pick it up to nurse its wounds. (This was one of the things that puzzled me, by the way -- I was a dumb kid.) So quite often I wonder why people go into the jungles of Africa and film these splendid animals, but don't save prey from predator. After all, these film-makers are sensitive -- which is why they take so much trouble to go to these inhospitable areas, live under hostile conditions and film animals in their natural habitat. Then it dawns on me that gazelles need to die so that cheetahs can live, and the food chain can continue and the cycle of life and death can perpetuate. I also realize then that people who film a kill don't want to disturb the natural order of things, and that this is a mature form of caring: observe, don't participate. However, on the drive back home if they came upon an injured baby wildebeest they would pick it up and take it to a vet. Right? I think so, but am not so sure (wouldn't that disturb the natural order of things?) But I digress.

As I was saying, I'm a softie at heart and I definitely would not want more rhinos or tigers or pandas or whales dead than need to die. But I have trouble when I start thinking about the nitty-gritty. Like -- in the previous sentence -- how many "need to die"? Assuming we could save endangered species from extinction ... would we then allow (or even facilitate) those species to go forth and multiply arbitrarily? ad infinitum? No, we would want to stop their rampant reproduction before their population exceeds ours (and well before that, really). And I believe hunting is permitted in some parts of the civilized world simply because hunting helps in controlling the growth in population of certain species. So, here's my question: do we have the magic number for each species which represents what the 'correct' population of that species should be? In fact, what does this mean? What is meant by the 'correct' number and according to whom? In other words, who are we to save any species from extinction? Isn't any attempt to do so also an attempt to disturb the natural order of things?

Another dilemma -- paper or plastic? There are as many arguments in favor of one over the other as there are in favor of the other over one. I won't go into any of them here. What I will say is that I have a different take on this: NEITHER! Don't buy stuff that requires you to decide between paper and plastic. Start from this statement and go back up the causal chain, till you come to your own existence. Well? Where did it get you? Consider this: Indiscriminate consumption and over-consumption could, with some education, be controlled. But consumption cannot be stopped as long as there are consumers. For consumption to be controlled we need to control the number of consumers. As long as humans exist and have wants and needs, and the means to satisfy them, they will consume (voraciously) and dump (copiously). And that is the natural order of things. What Man is doing to the planet today is as much a part of natural evolution as anything else. In fact changing it ... or reversing it, would be challenging "God".

What does this mean? It means that the humans will eventually destroy the environment, but they have a choice to be smart and let it happen slowly. We can slow down the pace of self-destruction through smart consumption and smart disposal (assuming we can find answers to some of the questions I've posed earlier that continue to confound me, such as 'paper or plastic?'). However, the best way to slow down the pace of self-destruction is to slow down the growth of population. We're talking root cause here. There's this whole body of over 6 billion free agents, expanding in size by the minute, which eats whole forests, sucks out the ozone layer, farts noxious gases into the air and craps tonnes of non-degradable garbage all over land and sea. How much permanent damage to the environment can we avert when we produce more and more of the very same free agents that cause the very same permanent damage, every day of their lives?

It's the people, stupid! Not the fluorocarbons! Save whales if you're fond of them, but if you want to save the world, it would be more effective to spend that same time, energy and money on stopping the next 10 humans from being born. That's what the fuss should be about.

(P.S. I am tempted to shout "Soylent Green is people!" to every wildlife conservationist I meet. That movie makes so much sense to me now.)


sxrayh said...

Am reading all your posts because I have time on my hands. Hope you don't mind moderating all these comments.

But with respect to the ecology, isn't there a coupled system of difference equations (the Lotka-Volterra equations) that give a dynamic solution to the population of rabbits and foxes in a two species system. I think, IIRC, you get fluctuating or cyclical time paths for the two populations (rabbits and foxes) for many values of the parameters. Of course for some values of the parameters, and some initial conditions, you may get chaos or utter destruction.

HyperActiveX said...

And am responding because I happen to have time on my hands too, right now :) Its a pleasure to receive your comments and to be able to respond to them.

As regards your question, I must confess I have absolutely no knowledge whatsoever, about (what appears to my mind to be) the mathematics behind a predator / prey system. But I am intrigued and would love to learn more, and so will do some research on the subject so that we could have a meaningful conversation on this at some future time.

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