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Before turning my attention to studying Environmental Economics, it never occurred to me that environmental issues were tied so intimately into issues of distributive justice. It makes sense though. For example, since land around a coal power plant is cheap, it may induce lower income families to live near there, and therefore you might expect poor families to suffer from worse health outcomes than wealthier families. Now, there is an economic problem with leaving the story here (remember how prices work and what they do!!!) but I think you get the gist of the concern that folks have about the environment and the poor.

But the way that modern “E”nvironmentalism is tied into issues of Distributive Justice is extremely surprising to me, at least to the old me that thought environmentalism was actually about the environment. Here is one simple illustration of what the typical position of “E”nvironmentalists is regarding distributive justice:

So, we should have compassion and strive to make sure CURRENT generations are not suffering from catastrophe. Sounds unobjectionable. And then I was updating my lecture on Genetically Modified Organisms and reflected on it a bit, then came across Tyler Cowen’s excellent book An Economist Gets Lunch. Rather than post myself, I’ll simply post what he has to say about the issue in his book (there is more in there too). If folks wonder why I have taken a much sharper turn for the bitter and frustrated skeptic that I think I am now, this illustration pretty much captures it. Here is Cowen on how Europe has basically made it impossible for Africa to have access to GMO foods:

Now consider that rich countries do not need GMOs, but poor countries do.

The biggest losers from these restrictions have been African farmers, the group in the greatest need of the green revolution. According to one index of production, African farmers produced more per capita in 1970 than in 2005!!!

Yet farming employs 70% of all Africans. Ag productivity is perhaps the major economic issue in most African countries. Africans are however afraid of losing access to European markets and so often GMO crops do NOT get grown. Angola, Sudan, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria and Zimbabwe have all refused food aid with GMO ingredients for fear of “contaminating” their crops and losing access to African markets. Ghana, Benin and Zambia banned GM foods and crops, and in Africa only South Africa (at time of this writing) has embraced it wholeheartedly … along with GM cotton in Burkina Faso.

Most African countries cannot simply afford the requirements for safety, labeling and control that European-style regulations impose on them.

Europe is, in effect, taking a continent where death or sickness by e.Coli, hepatitis, cholera and salmonella – through the food – is common, and is requiring that food adopt extreme GMO safety standards that are (at best) suitable for wealthy nations only.

It’s as if we made every African buy an SUV rather than allowing the purchase of a smaller and less safe car; it’s a recipe for disaster, and it is the very opposite of thoughtful consumerism.

That’s a slightly abridged version of what is on his pp. 163-64. We’ll provide additional illustrations of this “confusion” in the coming weeks. Words of advice to you: if you see the term “social justice” run the other way. At least stop to ask someone exactly what they mean by it. Do they mean ensuring that we as individuals treat one another fairly in our interactions? Do they mean an end to free-market capitalism? Or something else? It’s a pretty solid bet that most folks have no idea what the term means, or even can mean. Sort of like the term “sustainability.”

6 Responses to “Environmentalism IS Social Justice”

  1. Michael says:

    Social justice isn’t blind and isn’t just; the “rule of law” would depend on who you are and what you think. But my real reason of posting is to point out that in Africa the bigger problem of agricultural output is due to land reform which took the property from farmers who knew how to farm and put it into the hands of those who didn’t (in the name of social justice, by the way). GMO would probably help, but maintaining property rights would help more.

  2. By theory, would it not seem true that if African farmers chose to use GMOs any way they best found for themselves, they could trade anywhere that their goods were accepted, such as other places in Africa. Africa has cities as well as farms. It could become a huge free trade zone and Europeans could eat their own potatoes and drink their own wines for all the difference it would make to Africans.

    Plus, any nation that refused to enact silly laws against Africa’s genetically modified foods and fibers – Hong Kong. Taiwan, and the rest of China, for example – would also benefit, regardless of what Europe does.

    Why do the rulers of African nations continue to kowtow to European colonialism? Would free trade theory not speak of liberation?

  3. … and what is a “genetically modified organism” that maize is not?

  4. Harry says:

    Michael, both would help enormously.

    We have GM soybeans planted in two fields next to my house. Right now, the plants are almost five feet high, which is in my observation the max, as the soybeans growing will weight down the stems. Only on the periphery of the fields do you see weeds. These fields have been riidded of weeds, but not entirely.

    Soybeans, beside being a basic food for cattle, are a staple for vegetarians of all types, including the vegetarians at Berkely, where Van Jones (above) preaches his vision about how the rest of us should live.

    He thinks justice includes taking my land — ok, just some of it, along with whatever I have in excess of my needs.

    Van is concerned about the failure of socialism, which he sees all around him, and does not want to give an inch, even if GM soybeans might feed a million starving people.

  5. Harry says:

    Just sent WC an emal regarding access to TUBW, but on another try, got in as easily as I could get into Coyote, or maybe Obama.com. Waiting for my phone getting fried after I do this post.

    If it does get fried, I will be incommunicado until the Monday after October 5, at least from this phone. If Alex can fix the problem, then I will ping TUBW from Rome, Florence, and Carthage (which must be destroyed), among other places, if they have a hot spot.

    By then the GM Roundup-Ready soybeans will have been harvested.

    My tomatoes beat the tomatoes of everyone else in the world. They are grown without anything other than great soil, and are available free of charge who gives the password Rizzo.

  6. Harry says:

    Ke-Bam, it did it to me again. Help, Alex. My phone is blocked again. Is it spam if you use the keywords Obama, David Axelrod, Van Jones, or his mother, Mother Jones? Not going to buy another phone. Maybe I should try to tweet the fat kid in North Korea and ask him if he has a solution to the free speech problem.

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