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A philanthropic dilemma

By whazat in Op-Ed
Sun Feb 13, 2005 at 08:12:30 PM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)
Culture

There is a dissonance between two camps of modern liberal ideology, both of which have had a deep influence on my thinking. On the one hand there is the green ideology that advocates buying locally produced products or growing your own and the general reduction of energy usage. On the other there is the drop the debt coalition that is attempting to help the developing world drag itself up and become a richer place.

This article is my attempt to resolve their influence on my own beliefs, with regards to philanthropy.


Head space
A bit about my beliefs to start with. I am quite an old fashioned liberal, in that I believe that each of us should try and help the world to the best of our understanding. Due to the Hubbert Peak causing demand for oil to outstrip supply I believe that in 5-15 years demand for oil will vastly outstrip supply and this will cause a world wide economic depression. I do believe that civilisation will pull through, with the help of nuclear and renewables where possible, my primary concern is that it should be as painless as possible.

Death to poverty!
There has been social pressure building since the mid 90's for a different approach to helping the developing world. Rather than giving monetary aid we should cancel the debts owed to the developed world and removereduce farm subsidies. These acts would move towards creating a level playing field allowing the developing world to expand their industry and increase their wealth. This movement has found new impetus this year with the rallying cry from Oxfam of "Make poverty history".

In light of my beliefs that even the developed world may not be able to avoid a share of poverty in the future, this seems a little short sighted. It may give us a good feeling to help them out in the short term but will it actually help them in the long term? Like briefly flashing a light at a man in the dark, it may actually do more harm than good.

Crazy consumption
Every society that has significantly reduced poverty has increased its energy consumption enormously, good current day examples of societies on the way to this are China and India. Increasing energy consumption in this day and age means increasing oil consumption. So if we dropped our subsidies to our farms and this allowed Africa to get out of poverty it would be by reducing their subsistence farming and replacing it with agribusiness powered by petro-chemicals. This increases their petroleum consumption and obviously their reliance on petroleum. The very thing I think the west should try and decrease.

Now this increase in trade with the industrial world would be good for them in the short term as some money trickled down to the poorest as they were employed to provide the services the rich farmers desired. Also the income of the farmers could be taxed to provide better education and health care for all.

However when petrochemicals become scarce, unless significant other business had been built up, the nascent economies of these countries would likely crash as the western world would likely go back to producing and consuming their own food. With a crash in exports they couldn't import the energy to keep their farm machinery going. Which would mean the inhabitants would have to switch back to the subsistence farming methods as cheap petroleum subsidised food would no longer be available to them. This would cause massive social upheaval as large land-owners tried to protect their lands. So the question is: Is there a any long term benefit to encouraging economic growth of developing countries based primarily on petroleum energy sources? I would say no because any increase in the growth in petroleum usage would mean that demand would outstrip supply even more, making the depression and resultant chaos worse for all.

Nukes for all?
We should be trying to ration petroleum usage for all, rather than encouraging its increase. However it would be cruel and unfair to refuse any increase in energy usage, especially as it is unlikely that the developed world we do very well at reducing its petroleum consumption. So what can the developing world use? We will have a cursory look at the different energy possibilities, anything more is beyond the scope of this article.

Renewable energy comes in two flavours. One flavour very geography-sensitive but reliable, good examples being geo-thermal and large scale hydro. The other very weather dependent and unreliable such as solar and wind power. The first type is limited in its availability to a chosen few and the second does not make good base load energy unless it is combined with costly energy storage facilities. Also climate changes, that most environmental scientists believe likely to occur, could cause costly energy facilities to be built that then have the wrong weather. For example if the prevailing winds change due to ocean currents changing direction could cause wind farms to be in useless places. In short we cannot rely on renewables to be the basis of energy in the future.

Carbon based fuels have a definite life-span and should be considered merely a stepping stone to other fuels. The longest lasting and is coal and worth mentioning. Coal however is just horrible, it dumps more uranium into the environment than nuclear power. It also causes heavy air pollution. Now in my opinion the best thing that can be done with it is using it for transportation fuel by combining it with nuclear hydrogen to create synthetic hydro-carbon fuel. So that we can use it to power all the old necessary machinery we will have.

This leaves, of current energy technologies, nuclear power. Should we create facilities for all of the developing world? I would unreservedly advocate this if nuclear power was not a two edged sword.

The trouble is depressions are generally times of war and strife and it may not be the wisest course of action to place large amount of dangerous materials in the middle of it. Even if pebble bed reactors are more proliferation resistant you can still make a bucket load of dirty bombs with the waste to fling at people you don't like.

In the end
There maybe some places in the developing world that can be trusted to look after nuclear power and not use it in an irresponsible manner. I propose these places should be evaluated and the most stable should be given crash courses in nuclear power. Other countries should be given basic aid and help with renewable resources, but the farm subsidies in the developed world shouldn't be dropped and only the debts dropped where we do not think petroleum consumption will increase dramatically.

Shame there isn't a charity that thinks like this that I can support.

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Poll
What should I support?
o Leave 'em to rot, the skinnies. 23%
o Drop the debt! 15%
o Arm them with nuclear knowledge so they can attack the American infidels! 26%
o Think globally, act locally! 26%
o You fool, you should do what I say in a comment below. 7%

Votes: 26
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o green ideology
o drop the debt
o Hubbert Peak
o reduce farm subsidies
o impetus this year
o "Make poverty history"
o China and India
o the environment than nuclear power
o air pollution
o proliferat ion resistant
o Also by whazat


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A philanthropic dilemma | 75 comments (19 topical, 56 editorial, 0 hidden)
What does a crash course in nuclear power involve? (3.00 / 6) (#6)
by I Hate Yanks on Fri Feb 11, 2005 at 11:25:00 AM EST

A "go cart" track inside of the reactor hall at Chernobyl?

Wasn't there a demonstration in the US where an unmanned F1 fighter plane was crashed into the concrete wall of a nuclear power station to demonstrate the strength of the wall?


Reasons to hate Americans (No. 812): Circletimessquare lives there.

What the left needs to do (2.90 / 10) (#10)
by Psycho Dave on Fri Feb 11, 2005 at 02:21:46 PM EST

...is stop cowtowing to the elements of the enviornmental lobby that wants to ban bio-engineered  food. Bioengineered rice can be a great boon to areas of the world where vitamin A deficiency is a problem. Also, using bioengineering to expand crop yields will help societies make the switch from subistence farming to surplus farming. This has been the necessary leap throughout history to make societies that can support other industries.

There is a schism in the enviornmental lobby also, with those who support nuclear power on one side and those who oppose it expanding on the other. Nuclear power should be the way of the future, with sites for waste disposal carefully guarded so radiological materials cannot fall into the wrong hands. Nuclear security will be the major issue, but the consequences of consuming all of our oil is even greater.

Basically, the Luddites need to shut the fuck up and get down with technology. Things aren't going back to the way they once were. We need to make our world sustainable now.

High hopes (2.66 / 3) (#14)
by Znork on Fri Feb 11, 2005 at 03:45:02 PM EST

"Bioengineered rice can be a great boon to areas of the world where vitamin A deficiency is a problem."

Consider the following; there are many other sources of vitamin A that could be grown in those areas. What makes bioengineered rice the best choice?

Or is the reason for pushing bioengineered products simply that those products can be, and are, patented, and the interest in pushing them on vitamin-A deficient areas is merely yet another way of parting the poor, and charities, from their money?

I have nothing against bioengineering as such (that would be rediculous as we've been doing our best to 'bioengineer' for thousands of years). However, the policies of certain large agrobuisnesses makes me very suspicious about the origins and intents of many claims around bioengineered products. Using bioengineering to create surplus farming would be wonderful. Then taking away the surplus (and some more in the form of investment debt) in fees for everything from pesticides to seed is less desireable.

[ Parent ]

patents need not intrude (2.50 / 2) (#20)
by Polverone on Fri Feb 11, 2005 at 07:33:31 PM EST

People know that Africa could really benefit from AIDS drugs, but the newest and best drugs are under patent. The solution was to slash or eliminate patent fees on drugs made by the poorest countries for use in the poorest countries. This doesn't work perfectly because the poorest countries may not have the capability to make advanced pharmaceuticals even when patent fees don't intrude. Similar licensing could be applied to engineered crops that could benefit poor nations, and manufacturing wouldn't be a problem because you just farm plants to get more seeds and plants.

Or if you are uncomfortable with limited non-enforcement of patents, governments or nonprofit organizations interested in helping poorer nations can develop engineered crops and explicitly make them available without onerous fees or restrictions. Design goals might be different in these cases too (how many subsistence farmers need Roundup Ready plants?)

Finally, patents expire after 20 years, so even Big Bad Monsanto's creations can be freely shared and their seed reused after enough time has passed.
--
It's not a just, good idea; it's the law.
[ Parent ]

Indeed (2.66 / 3) (#24)
by Znork on Sat Feb 12, 2005 at 04:16:37 AM EST

I'm not claiming the problem is unsolvable, I'm suspicious of the motives and wether there is any desire to solve the problem.

Many of the problems that technically could be solved with engineered crops can already be solved with unencumbered crops and unencumbered methods. I mean, everything from mango through beans to sweet potato and carrots contain large amounts of vitamin A. The fact that many people there eat rice is misleading; they eat non-engineered rice, and distributing and teaching people to eat engineered rice would be as difficult and costly as teaching them to grow and eat mango.

As the only actual difference appears to be the potential intellectual property it sets my propaganda warning bells ringing. Is this really about a genuine interest in helping these people, or is it an attempt to get them hooked on something generating corporate profits, if not in the short term, at least in the long term.

[ Parent ]

Is there really no advantage? (none / 1) (#42)
by Polverone on Sat Feb 12, 2005 at 04:34:47 PM EST

I'm not much of a botanist or farmer, but does mango actually grow as well as rice under the same conditions as rice? Does it provide as many calories for a given amount of land and labor? Changing the rice rather than changing farming practices seems simpler because (at least in theory) the vitamin-enhanced rice can be raised the same and eaten the same as ordinary rice. All you need to do is give them enough engineered rice to get started.

I don't think offers of modified crops to especially poor nations/people are usually part of a scheme to control or profit from them. They're too poor for much of a profit to be extracted, and control is not possible unless farmers embrace the crops, restrictive licensing is applied, and the governments side with biotech firms against their own people (not to say it couldn't happen, but if a government is that far bought out, biotech licensing is just one concern among many for its citizens).

In the short term, I think offers of biotech products to the poor are motivated by a combination of humanitarian impulses with the desire to show humanitarian impulses to the whole world. Like many corporate humanitarian gestures, it's a plea to regulators and citizens in richer countries: "see how good we are, please don't try to regulate or fight against us."

In the very long term, it's in the interest of businesses to see dirt-poor people turn into people with significant income, so they can then sell products to the formerly poor. In that scenario, everyone wins.

There's no way to lock farmers in to engineered crops in the long term. Patents expire after a couple of decades, and if the benefits of newer-model crops don't outweigh the fees and restrictions, farmers will stick with non-engineered or older engineered crops whose patents have expired.
--
It's not a just, good idea; it's the law.
[ Parent ]

Perhaps (none / 0) (#68)
by Znork on Mon Feb 14, 2005 at 04:38:10 AM EST

I'm not much of a botanist, farmer or nutritionist either, but I do know that I've been taught that the key to a healthy diet is a varied diet. Even when we theoretically could eat beans and vitamin supplements.

That it seems easier does not necessarily mean it is actually better.

"I don't think offers of modified crops to especially poor nations/people are usually part of a scheme to control or profit from them."

With examples like everything from marketing breast-milk substitute and cigarettes to child and forced labor, one can get a very bleak view. And the governments in many of those countries are that far bought out. That doesnt mean we need to introduce even more problems.

I agree that some of the scientists are motivated by humanitarian impulses. So were the many of the scientists building the first nuclear bombs. They learned that the way the world works isnt always how we wish it did. Where we want desperately to see good is where we get the worst disappointments. It's not the many good people that corrupt good things, it's the few very powerful and successful sociopaths.

The corporate humanitarian gestures we see are too often post-facto, and two-faced. Media attention gets focused on a certain problem, and they vow to change and act hurt and outraged and spread blame, but as soon as it's gone the problem resumes.

They know there are only so many pages in the newspapers, and they know there are only so many things people can be outraged over in a day, and they know there are only so many days in a year. The media game of whack-an-evil-corp can be maintained perpetually.

"In the very long term, it's in the interest of businesses to see dirt-poor people turn into people with significant income, so they can then sell products to the formerly poor."

Mmm. Indeed. It's in the long-term interest of buisnesses not to poison their customers, and not to ruin the oceans, to move to sustainable, or at least more long-term energy sources, etc. Yet we do keep seeing the combination of quarterly profits and long-term market dominance and monopoly dreams to be the main driving factors for most corporations.

The fact that we market-oriented pro-competition capitalists see the bigger picture doesnt mean the sociopaths do, or that they're even interested in playing the long-term game of more profit for everyone rather than the short-term game of more profit for them now.

"There's no way to lock farmers in to engineered crops in the long term."

Isnt there?

"Patents expire after a couple of decades"

That's an assumption. The expiring of patents may be in the interest of humankind and inventors, but large corporations and their owners would be much better served by extending patents and securing long-term cashflow and monopoly power. Patents have not been weakened the last few decades, they have been extended to more areas and less inventive height. And with copyright extensions pushed through, can you see any reason the corporate lobbies will not attempt to push through patent term extensions once they manage their shift to thinking about intellectual property as physical property?

"and if the benefits of newer-model crops don't outweigh the fees and restrictions"

Breastmilk substitute? And the fact that they already are using suboptimal crops? Ignorance and controlled knowledge is a powerful tool for profiteers and it can overcome many efficiency correction attempts in the market.

"farmers will stick with non-engineered or older engineered crops whose patents have expired."

Unless the new engineered crops just happens to be combined with weedkillers and bioengineered fungus or something that just happens to kill the old crops.

I'm not saying that it's all bad.

I'm saying I think the product is morphine, you, I, the scientists and the aid organizations want to be the doctor, while the corporations often tend to be the drugpusher who always gives the first dose free.

The recommended treatment may or may not be the same, but in one case the doctor will try to determine the optimum cure before prescribing the treatment, and in the other, well...

I think that before we let the drugpushers deal our cures we'd better make sure to regulate them into a pharmacy.

[ Parent ]

or... rice (none / 0) (#73)
by flimflam on Wed Feb 16, 2005 at 04:20:12 PM EST

Actually, just plain rice has plenty of Vitamin A in it -- as long as it isn't hulled first. The problem is that there is a strong cultural value placed on white rice. People would probably be just as unwilling to eat golden rice as they would be to eat brown rice. Really, the problem is that they can't afford to eat anything but rice. It's really a poverty problem, not a rice problem.


-- I am always optimistic, but frankly there is no hope. --Hosni Mubarek
[ Parent ]
Bio-engineered food (none / 0) (#75)
by daigu on Sat Feb 19, 2005 at 11:47:28 AM EST

Besides the personal attack, can you think of why bio-engineered food might be bad? Why has the whole EU closed ranks and rejected bio-engineered food? Because they are all Luddites? Cause they aren't down with technology? You need a better line of argumentation my friend.



[ Parent ]
Reactor designs and proliferation (3.00 / 3) (#28)
by porkchop_d_clown on Sat Feb 12, 2005 at 09:05:45 AM EST

The biggest problem with nuke power is that many countries lack the technical background needed to support such a thing - but there may be an alternative.

Years ago (decades?) I read an article proposing a reactor design that was a completely sealed unit about the size that would fit on a tractor-trailer. The idea was that the reactor would be a pluggable module that would heat local water to turn turbines, running for a few years without being opened and then replaced, with the original being returned to the factory for disposal.

Each module would produce a smallish amount of power, but they could be chained together for larger output.

While this wouldn't prevent terrorists from trying to steal an entire module, it eliminates the risk of "losing" fuel or waste between the factory and the plant.

I never said that.

I remember that too (3.00 / 2) (#34)
by army of phred on Sat Feb 12, 2005 at 11:38:25 AM EST

this is either the article I read or similar.

"Republicans are evil." lildebbie
"I have no fucking clue what I'm talking about." motormachinemercenary
"my wife is getting a blowjob" ghostoft1ber
[ Parent ]
Exactly. (none / 1) (#37)
by porkchop_d_clown on Sat Feb 12, 2005 at 12:44:20 PM EST

It's good to see they're still taking the idea seriously. If these things were made right, they could be their own disposal containers although that would probably be wasteful of space and materials.

I never said that.
[ Parent ]
Synthetic Hydrocarbon (3.00 / 5) (#39)
by jonnyd on Sat Feb 12, 2005 at 01:58:27 PM EST

Problem with producing synthetic hydrocarbons is that they any known process wastes as much energy (or more) than it stores in the hydrocarbons. The very best such techniques only retain 60-70% of the original Coal's heating value, while requiring at least that much in electrical energy to produce. Add to that the fact that electrical energy is MUCH more valuable per Joule than chemical energy (you lose AT THE VERY LEAST another 35%-40% going from chemical to electrical again), and it begins to seem very wasteful. A much better solution is to simply use the electricity produced in other ways (nuclear, bio-mass, wind, hydro - solar is not nearly practical) to supplant hydrocarbon based electricty generation and then continue to use the traditional oil supplies for things like transportation sources. A slow shift to a vehicle fleet that uses energy storage systems other than hydrocarbons (hydrocarbons are really just energy storage, not producers, but I won't go into that here) would be necessary to complete the move away from fossil fuels. It is hard to imagine any way that things like air travel wouldn't rely on hydrocarbon fuels (MMMMAAAYYBBBE hydrogen, but right now the energy density isn't even close) and so if you wanted to remove your dependence completely, you could begin to make synthetic fuels for the aerospace industry in much smaller scales.
JD
Solar power (none / 0) (#74)
by salsaman on Thu Feb 17, 2005 at 07:52:24 PM EST

solar is not nearly practical

On the contrary, for places like the sahara and middle east it would be very practical, e.g.: http://solel.com/press/wp/globes7-04/

[ Parent ]

I disagree with some of your assumptions (3.00 / 4) (#49)
by gnixdep on Sat Feb 12, 2005 at 11:01:53 PM EST

Solar is only impractical based on the energy consumption of your typical North American home.
A small solar setup would provide lighting and communication to a home, tent, hovel, etc. that might otherwise be burning candles or kerosene lanterns.

Also, if a culture is beginning to grow, and has limited access to petroleum, then alternatives will be developed.  I am thinking biodeisel, ethanol, biomass/steam.  Farmers would then be able to tap into the fuel production market.

-1: Factual Disputes (3.00 / 3) (#50)
by JChen on Sat Feb 12, 2005 at 11:12:53 PM EST

Significantly reduced poverty in China? Maybe the impoverished aren't as visible in the main cities anymore, but in the countryside there exists a widespread and vicious cycle of poverty that you've failed to point out; the main energy consumers are in fact a tiny fraction of the elite.

Let us do as we say.
-1, the discussion is dull. (2.00 / 2) (#56)
by vera on Sun Feb 13, 2005 at 02:47:03 PM EST



-1, needs more EDIT QUEUE. [nt] (2.00 / 2) (#57)
by alby on Sun Feb 13, 2005 at 03:16:30 PM EST


--
Alby

Sell our resources dearer (3.00 / 4) (#66)
by Thought Assassin on Mon Feb 14, 2005 at 01:40:35 AM EST

The price of natural resources has always just been the cost of location and extraction. The price should reflect the fact that these resources are limited, and that there are billions of others, most of them probably not even born yet, who would also like to extract and use those resources. Because the extractors haven't had to compete for the right to use the resources, the price has been artifically low, and developing nations and future citizens have been unable to use their rightful share.

So first we need to start setting a reasonable price on taking those resources (and let the proceeds benefit everyone equally), so they are not all used up as soon as they are wanted, but left for the generation to whom they are most useful, or at least the one who feels the strongest need for them. I am not suggesting this is an easy thing to do, it will involve a lot of guesswork, and debate on the fairest pricing mechanism would never really end. But it has to be done if we are going to prevent the free market (the only effective economic system we've found) from ruining the planet.

Second we need to decide what the appropriate prices would have been for the resources that have already been taken, and declare them all to be unpaid debts to humanity. That'll make an interesting balance with the debts currently owed from the remainder of humanity to the first world that has gained its ascendancy through stealing (that's what it's called when you take something away without paying) these non-renewable resources.

Finally, because the playing field has now been leveled, we don't need trade restrictions. If importing something uses more resources than making it locally, it'll cost more.

The plan's about a million implementation details away from workable in its current state, but it does promise a solution to both the environmental crisis and third world debt, while staying within the free market system that serves us so well when we let it.

A philanthropic dilemma | 75 comments (19 topical, 56 editorial, 0 hidden)
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