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November 25, 2006

Addicts Environment  Ethics

More and more, I think we're fucked — we in the industrialized world, especially. The fundamental problem is that we're never going to voluntarily change course to the radical degree needed to stave off disaster. All of the trends that point to disaster — greenhouse gas emissions, depletion of nonrenewable resources, worldwide ecosystem destruction, species extinctions, etc. — are accelerating. In fact, the rate at which they're accelerating is accelerating. We see where it's all heading, and still we can't stop ourselves. We're addicts, addicted to comfort, power, artificial stimulation of all kinds, and like most addicts we’ll never recover without first hitting bottom — that's if we manage to recover at all. We'll take the path of least resistance until it ends in disaster and stops being the path of least resistance.

Here's a story that strikes me as the perfect epitome of what I'm talking about. BBC:

Marine scientists say the case for a moratorium on the use of heavy trawling gear in deep waters is now overwhelming and should be put in place immediately.

A new report prepared for the UN indicates the equipment is doing immense damage to the ecosystems around seamounts, or underwater mountains.

Its analysis shows bottom-trawling is being used in regions which harbour particularly sensitive corals. [...]

Bottom-trawling uses huge nets armed with steel weights or heavy rollers.

Boats drag them across the seafloor to catch species such as orange roughy, oreos, alfonsino and roundnose grenadier.

The technique is very effective but smashes everything in its path, ripping corals and sponges from the sea-floor — removing the habitats on which the fish and other diverse organisms depend.

It is practised by relatively few vessels — perhaps no more than 200 worldwide — and accounts for about 0.2% of the total world catch.

This meant the scale of the destruction was out of all proportion to the gain in terms of the value of the fishery, said Dr Alex Rogers, a senior research fellow at the Zoological Society of London, UK.

"It's the equivalent of clearing old-growth forest to collect squirrels. It's a practice on land that just wouldn't be acceptable," he added. [...]

Scientists think there may be 100,000 or more of the underwater mountains distributed around the world's oceans.

They attract aggregations of the planktonic organisms that form the food base of marine ecosystems. "We call it trophic focusing," Dr Rogers told BBC News.

Prominent in these deep — 1,000-2,000m down — ecosystems are vast "forests" of slow-growing corals and the very high densities of fish that are now the target of industrial trawlers.

"But if there are species which you really shouldn't fish, these are the ones," said Dr Rogers. "The orange roughy lives for up to 150 years or more; they don't mature until they are 30 or 40 years old; their reproduction is very sporadic; they are very vulnerable to overfishing."

At these depths, life processes are long and slow.

The team has compared the distributions of commercially trawled fish, fishing effort and coral habitat on seamounts.

This shows a broad band of the southern Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans between 20-degrees and 60-degrees-south where bottom-trawling activities are likely to have a particularly deleterious impact.
Campaigners are concerned because vast swathes of this band are beyond the authority of national or regional fisheries' regulation. They want proper management of these gaps established as soon as possible.

Most bottom-trawling is conducted by northern fleets from developed nations. The European Union bloc undertakes the largest effort, with Spain operating the majority of its boats. [Emphasis added]

We have no trouble seeing that the trawlers are acting insanely: destroying ecosystems that will take decades, centuries, or millenia to recover, for a one-time profit. If their activities were visible to us all, instead of buried under the sea — out of sight, out of mind — perhaps there would be more outrage. Clear-cutting old-growth forests to harvest squirrels.

But here's what's really crazy. The trawlers are acting "rationally" according to the tenets of mainstream economic theory. The deep-sea ecosystems replenish themselves only very slowly. A sustainable harvest would take only a very few fish per year, using methods that preserve the surrounding ecosystem. But that would yield an extremely low — or perhaps even negative — rate of return. You can get a much higher rate of return by "clear-cutting" and taking the proceeds and investing them. Especially since the profits are private while the costs, in the form of destroyed or degraded ecosystems, are public, borne by us all — so-called externalities. Besides, if you don't "clear-cut", somebody else will — the tragedy of the commons. Economic theory says the "rational" thing to do is to seek to maximize profits. So it's not just the trawlers who are insane.

This example is so egregious — so few ships wreaking so much damage — that it seems hard to deny that the moral thing to do, if one had the opportunity, would be to sabotage or sink as many of these ships as possible. But this example is only a microcosm of what's happening everywhere, in all spheres of activity, all over the world. (So it's an example worth remembering, since it exemplifies the issues so starkly.) Does the same moral argument apply more broadly? Is it time to start throwing wrenches into the gears of industrial civilization? Is it time for an intervention?

Posted by Jonathan at November 25, 2006 02:28 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb


Not much we can do about it, I'm afraid. The love of money is the root of all evil, and there's money in trawling. Ignorance is the norm in our civilization. Maybe 10% of the billions of adults on this planet could comprehend what lies ahead for humanity. The prevailing view is that the oceans are vast, that we could fish/drag/trawl for hundreds of years before any noticable effect. The lessons are there for all to see: the Grand Banks of Newfoundland no longer has a cod fishery. When Cartier sailed to the new world, he wrote that you could almost walk on the cod, there were so many. Now there are a tiny fraction left, most of which are runts and which propagate future runts. The remaining seed stock are so inferior that it is likely the fishery will never come back.

As for Spain being Exhibit A for raping the oceans, could one expect more from a nation that provokes and butchers live bulls in front of thousands of blood thirsty thrill seekers?

Posted by: Mr. Wu at November 25, 2006 07:55 PM

We are all with you...

Where is the monkey wrench ?

Posted by: claude at November 26, 2006 06:01 AM

Addicts. You could view cancer having the same behavior in that it rapidly sucks the life out of its host.

Posted by: Jeff at November 26, 2006 11:19 PM