Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Paradox of Plenty I

Let's explore the "paradox of plenty," of which there are many, in the next few days. I hope you'll find the concept as fascinating as I do. Interestingly, there are three different books with this title, and all address entirely different paradoxes of plenty.

The first, The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States , is an academic look at the extremely tragic paradox known as "the oil curse:" the citizens of nations "blessed" with oil resources seem to end up poorer, not wealthier, as their nation's resources are extracted to depletion. The reasons are many, including poor governance (kleptocracies, dictatorships, oligarchies, "dictatorships of the proletariat" etc.) and human nature ("we're rich, it's unlimited, let's hire other people to take care of us").

The next two address paradoxes inherent in food. Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America looks at abundance, social trends, dieting and hunger in America. To quote from Library Journal's review:

Levenstein explores the disturbing existence of hunger in the midst of agricultural abundance. Describing the economic, political, and cultural factors that have influenced the American diet, he exposes the role that major food processors, the medical establishment, and the American government have played in modifying the taste buds and nutritional ideas of its citizens while ignoring the plight of its increasing numbers of malnourished poor. He also examines the national obsession with dieting and the impact on eating habits of married women entering the work force in record numbers.

The third title looks at the apparent abundance of food in our world and the equally apparent misery of hunger: The Paradox of Plenty: Hunger in a Bountiful World This book was produced by the Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, whose research has shown that though there is enough food for every human on the planet, the poor do not have access to it (unsurprisingly).

Is there a common thread linking these works? How about the interplay of markets, government and marketing? In the first, a global market for energy offers up great wealth to those with the resources, but the wealth is squandered by mismanagement, greed, corruption and a host of other human ills.

In the second, the abundance of food in free-market America creates the paradox that those without enough money (or money/nutrition management) can be malnourished even as the food industry's marketing machine cranks out new "taste treats," dining and diet fads to stimulate demand for needless/unhealthy products with vastly greater profit margins than (unprocessed/unpackaged) "real food."

In the third, the world's inability to equitably distribute the planet's food resources is highlighted. Stepping back a bit, here is my take on "resource extraction in a free market" a model which applies to any resource, any market, any place, any time:

please go to www.oftwominds.com/blog.html to see chart

My own favorite example of this process which has been well-documented (and largely ignored) is the over-fishing/stripping of the world's oceans for seafood. Study Spotlights Overfishing In Collapse Of Marine Ecosystems (Science daily) Overfishing Could Take Seafood Off the Menu by 2048 (Scientific American)

In 1994, seafood may have peaked. According to an analysis of 64 large marine ecosystems, which provide 83 percent of the world's seafood catch, global fishing yields have declined by 10.6 million metric tons since that year. And if that trend is not reversed, total collapse of all world fisheries should hit around 2048. "Unless we fundamentally change the way we manage all the oceans species together, as working ecosystems, then this century is the last century of wild seafood," notes marine biologist Stephen Palumbi of Stanford University.

Marine biologist Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, gathered a team of 14 ecologists and economists, including Palumbi, to analyze global trends in fisheries. In addition to data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization stretching back to 1950, the researchers examined 32 controlled experiments in various marine ecosystems, observations from 48 marine protected areas, and historical data on 12 coastal fisheries for the last 1,000 years. The latter study shows that among commercially important species alone, 91 percent have seen their abundance halved, 38 percent have nearly disappeared and 7 percent have gone extinct.

Although the trend is grim, the study of protected areas offers some hope that marine ecosystems can rebound, according to the paper presenting the analysis in the November 3 issue of Science. The 48 studied showed an overall increase of 23 percent in species diversity and a fourfold increase in available catch. "It's not a miracle. It's something that is do-able, it's just something that requires a big chunk of political will to do it," Worm observes. "We have a 1,000-, probably 10,000-year habit of taking the oceans for granted and moving from one species to the next, or replacing it with a technological fix like aquaculture. To me, the major roadblock is we have to change our perception of what the ocean is." Should we fail, we may lose the ocean's bounty entirely.

In other words: when resources appear limitless, we squander them because the price is so "cheap" that conservation "pays no dividend"/isn't worth the effort. Then as depletion begins, prices rise, but the damage is already done. As prices rise further, it drives extractors to harvest the last fish/tusk/drop of oil, etc.

Now maybe the fish stocks will recover, but if they do, it's only because the market was limited by government restrictions (establishing protected areas). Where no government intervention occurs, then the fishing stocks are driven to near-zero or extinction. Examples abound (see above); do your own research on the collapse of sea bass off Chile, cod off the Atlantic seaboard, and falling catches in the Caribbean.

It would be nice to believe (as in Santa Claus) that the global fishing fleets will magically lay themselves off, reduce their fleets and all agree to protected areas. But the actual facts are that the fleets are just roaming further and dragging bigger and deeper nets to catch what few (marketable) fish remain. (The "unmarketable fish"--some 70% at times--are tossed overboard as chum. That's how you lose an entire ecology and food chain.)

Various apologists will instantly stand up to say, "acquaculture will save the day," but but it's not that simple. If you'd like to see "market acquaculture" at work, go to Ko Chang or other coastal areas of Thailand, and look at the huge holes dug to raise prawns. They're dead zones now, breeding pools for mosquitos, because it made market sense to boost the crop with biocides which quickly poison the water and the surrounding soil. And why bother filling in the bomb craters? (that's what they look like) Nobody's paying me to do that, buddy; that's not my job.

We also get unforeseen delights like monoculture farm-raised salmon escaping into the wild (there's no market forces restricting that) where they infect the wild gene pool with resistent diseases. None of these after-effects are punished or inhibited by the market whatsoever; as my chart shows, as waste leads inevitably to scarcity, prices skyrocket which drives the increasingly desperate miners/fishermen/elephant hunters/oil extractors to seek out and extract the last resources, as these now command exorbidant prices in the marketplace. (see the market for ivory as an example.)

Another excuse is "a substitute will be found as prices climb." There is no substitute for the world's oceans and their complex foodchains and ecologies. A fish farm does not replace the ocean. The market drives right to the bitter end of depletion and extinction, time and again, unless restrained by force--consensual or otherwise.

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