Democrats & Liberals Archives

Tumblers in the Lock of Time, Part Two

Economies are centered mostly in our heads. Nothing physical or quantum mechanical dictates a price. That is negotiated between two or more brains whose conclusions are a product of any number of factors, some of whom may be particular to that person alone.

But no real world economy functions without having to deal with physical and human realities. Human realities are not just the whim and the will of the people in general, but their health, wealth and general wellbeing. History shows that such attention can pay off.

Take sanitation. We take that for granted. We would be horrified to have raw sewage flowing through our streets, but once upon a time that was precisely the arrangement in most cities. One speaks today of not having a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of without realizing that people actually disposed of their human waste this way as a matter of course. If we think today's cities are dirty, those of yesteryear where a biohazard. Epidemics we now see only in third-world countries and refugee camps were once common to our cities.

It was also once common to be infested with fleas and lice. We are now thoroughly disgusted to even hear that, but once, there was even an ettiquette as to how royalty and nobility would pick them off of themselves. The times have changed, though, and it's a rare occasion when one feels that kind of bite.

What happened? We created sewers, literally cleaned up our streets, and through chemistry came up with ways of keeping ourselves and our waste at a distant remove. Now, folks a couple centuries ago might have looked at these improvements and wondered why they were even necessary, this between bouts of plague, real-life nitpicking and life threatening intestinal illness. But we today enjoy its benefits, and react with horror when things like sewage or fleas invade our corner of the world.

Transportation, healthcare, sanitation, electricity, energy, etc. These are technologies that are interdependent, interwoven, and integral to our way of life, and the proper functioning of this grand infrastructure cannot be divorce from what it does to us as human beings.

For example, if our marvellous sewer system dumps the stuff raw into our lakes and streams, things are going to get a little ripe, and fishing and swimming will become hazardous to our health rather than healthy outdoor recreation. Now some people will call that nitpicking, and say that it's an unecessary expense. Well, some real nitpickers said that about sanitation once upon a time, when nitpicking was taking the flea eggs out of your hair, and when the royal families of the world looked for polite ways to deal with their insect parasites.

There will always be people who try to deal with problems by living with the misery of them. Sometimes that means living far enough away to avoid the problem. Sometimes that means living in the middle of a problem and never knowing any better. For example, the problem of light pollution, which is city lights drowning out the light of the stars at night (a critical problem for observatories located near cities) was academic to me until one night in my teens I went out on a trip to bring my brother back from college. The sky was clear, the moon a new moon, and there were no cities for miles around. I had thought one could only see such skies in astronomy magazines, but I discovered that night the price of the Earthbound stars around me. Looking at it, I could only marvel at the number and the color of them, and at my first glimpse of the Milky Way.

A less benign example would be that of England, before coal was phased out as a major energy source. London Fog was more than a clothing line in the centuries before- it was a health hazard. One spent one's life inhaling the soot from thousands of burning coal fires. Now they thought that was necessary an economical in those times, and perhaps it was from that limited perapective. We grew as a civilization, though, and found ways to deal with the environmental issues at hand, so now the major cities of the west no longer suffocate under a fog of coal soot.

While it pays some to sit on their laurels and do business like they always have (you know, after they stopped doing what their predecessors always did), it pays us all to innovate rather than weasel our way out of problems. From a perspective of productivity alone, the society that can transport, process, and generate what it needs with less waste and pollution has an advantage over one that endangers it's environment and its citizens at the same level of productivity.

Our food is a good example. The bucolic notion of the family farm sadly does not live up to the reality of industrial agriculture. There's a book by Nicol Fox called Spoiled that is quite illuminating on just how dangerous modern food practices are, and how much it's taken away from our enjoyment of food. Ever wonder why you have to cook your hamburgers thoroughly, where in times before you could risk it rare? Why you have to do the same with Chicken, or why raw egg products are such a risk to us nowadays?

Why? Because agriculture nowadays operates farms where sanitation for the animals is lacking. Oh boohoo, some would say, but I would remind folks that we eat those contaminated animals. Their problem becomes ours, even to the point where fresh orange juice is a health threat. The book details a bacterial outbreak at Disney World that followed just such a vector. I don't mention these things to run around and scream "We're all going to die", but instead to relate that the book cites the unsanitary construction of these factory farms as one of the causes of contamination. What if somebody could design a farm of this kind which would lessen the problems associated with it? Then we could get more meat on the table for less pathogen. We wouldn't pay such a human price for human productivity.

Maintenance of our infrastructure against threats both human and natural is also an issue. In my previous article, I cited the Enron-manufactured power crisis in California. I bring it up again here to make a point about deregulation and the systems that run our economy: They are not fool proof. There's always some idiot who will do shortsighted things for their profit. Enron reaped billions from California, but could they, by their exorbinant rates and rolling brown-outs, have put a major stumbling block in front of our economy? I can't help but think that such energy issues would do that to Silicon Valley and the other tech industries in that state.

Regulations are not always an impediment to the economy. Sometimes they help to reinforce it. when your car gets better mileage, we have to strain less and pay less to get our energy. The difference between a 12MPG station wagon and a 30+ MPG compact was the difference between struggling to get to Dallas from Houston, and driving all the way to Philadelphia instead. We only had to fill up maybe three or four times for a trip that took us from Gulf Coast Texas to Atlantic Seaboard Pennsylvania. I can bring out a technology magazine from the early part of this decade talking about getting SUVs in this range of efficiency. All we'd have to do would be to rework the electrical system.

Unfortunately, some folks in Detroit are stuck in the Twentieth Century mode of automotive thinking, and already our competitors overseas are ahead of us on this. It's funny to recall what they said about hybrid vehicles, when their SUVs were selling like hotcakes, now that they can't move the SUVs so fast, and people are paying more for used Hybrids than for new ones.

It is depressing to think of the problems of regulating todays technology only in terms of what we cannot do. But to think of it in human terms, is it not worth a little more effort, a little more cost, and a little more thinking to improve our lives, to allow us to live healthier and happier lives. I don't think so. Technology will always present us with dilemmas and conflicts, especially when our goals are narrowly economic, but if we can think outside the box and hope for better things, environmentalism and humanity do not have to interfere with the continuation of our way of life.

In fact they may stand to improve them, regardless of what some flea-bitten nitpickers with their minds in the gutter might say.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at April 28, 2005 10:37 AM