July 26, 2012
Sandel's "The Moral Limits of Markets" Takes on Walrus Hunting
My summer reading list included Michael Sandel’s new book, “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.” Sandel explores a litany of modern examples where, he avows, market values arguably have cast aside nonmarket values. For instance, he describes a program in Dallas that pays second graders $2 for each book they read, a North Carolina-based outfit that pays women with drug addictions $300 to undergo sterilization procedures, and lobbyists’ practice of paying companies who employ homeless people to stand in line for Congressional hearings. Several of Sandel’s examples arise in the environmental realm. One particular interesting section of the book is entitled “Paying to Shoot a Walrus.”
Sandel describes how the centuries-long practice of hunting the Atlantic walrus in the Arctic region of Canada ultimately decimated the walrus population, prompting Canada to ban walrus hunting in 1928. The ban included only a small exception for the Inuit, an aboriginal group of subsistence hunters. In the 1990s, the Inuit convinced the Canadian government to allow it to sell the right to kill some of their walrus quota to big game hunters. Today, select hunting enthusiasts pay upwards of $7,000 to shoot a walrus, under the guidance and supervision of the Inuit.
While Sandel cites another writer’s comparison of walrus hunting under Inuit supervision to “a long boat ride to shoot a very large beanbag chair,” one hunter recently described the experience as “a unique, exciting, and rewarding hunt.” Hunters may seek to land a walrus in the course of endeavoring to kill one of each specimen on hunting clubs’ “lists.” (For example, the Arctic “Grand Slam” includes the caribou, musk ox, polar bear, and walrus.) Moreover, through the practice of supervising walrus hunts, the Inuit create jobs, collect fees, and retain the meat, skin, blubber oil, and tusks as they always have done.
In describing these benefits for non-Inuit hunters and the Inuit alike, Sandel emphasizes that “markets don’t pass judgment on the desires they satisfy.” Yet he suggests that allowing the Inuit to sell the right to kill walruses may push the limits of markets too far, crowding out morality-based objections. He notes two over-arching reasons:
“One is that this bizarre market caters to a perverse desire that should carry no weight in any calculus of social utility. Whatever one thinks of big-game hunting, this is something else. The desire to kill a helpless mammal at close range, without any challenge or chase, simply to complete a list, is not worthy of being fulfilled, even if doing so provides extra income for the Inuit. Second, for the Inuit to sell outsiders the right to kill their allotted walruses corrupts the meaning and purpose of the exemption accorded their community in the first place. It’s one thing to honor the Inuit way of life and to respect its long-standing reliance on subsistence walrus hunting. It’s quite another to convert that privilege into a cash concession in killing on the side.”
Regardless of one’s perspective on the merits of markets in protecting the environment (or one’s perspective on walrus hunting or much of anything else), Sandel’s latest work is an interesting, thought-provoking read.
July 25, 2012
Reflections on Precaution, Regulation, and Cell Phones
For the last two years, I've been using an iphone 3G that didn't work very well. I couldn't hear without putting it on speaker phone and the reception was poor, especially in my home. But I kept using it because it was unusually low radiation for a smartphone.
Yesterday, as part of a broader movement towards functionality I've been trying to make this summer, I decided to switch providers to get on a lower cost family plan and have better reception. Of course, providers make it so that you have to switch phones to do this, and so I faced a dilemma; I wanted an iphone, but the only option was the higher radiation 4G phones. So, I did some research into cases, and discovered a company named Pong Research that claims to make cases that massively decrease cell phone radiation (a claim which seems to have been verified by reputable independent testing). While looking at the various user reviews of these cases, one comment jumped out at me: someone queried whether if it was relatively straightforward to reduce radiation so much, why not just require cell phone manufacturers to include this technology.
I've been wondering ever since about this question, and would welcome thoughts from blog readers who know the law regulating cell phone radiation better than I do. The scholarly literature on this topic is still relatively limited, and litigation is still emerging. It seems to me that the underlying issue relevant to environmental law professors is what precaution means in this context and how that should influence an appropriate response. At what level should standards be set, given that they vary greatly around the world? If technology exists to bring down radiation to significantly lower than those standards, should that be required or optional? How should this issue be situated within the broader conversation about risk, cost benefit, autonomy, and the precautionary principle? I think these questions are hard, especially when considered in the context of environmental justice and the unequal choices people have regarding risk.
In the meantime, I'm cautious and so am trying to limit my family's exposure to this and other things that I perceive as risky. I similarly no longer microwave plastic and opt out of the airport scanning machines, even when I'm given a lecture about how much more radiation I get from flying itself. I'm not sure how these choices would fit within a fully rational risk assessment--I drive most days after all, among other choices--but I do my best to navigate the simultaneous information overload and underload that I experience.
July 23, 2012
Forests on Fire - With Very Different Causes for Concern
We are currently witnessing the largest natural disaster ever, by area, in the U.S. (see image of the drought coverage area above). The scope of the disaster leads to a variety of harms, not the least of which is increased risk of fire, as evidenced by the recent fires near Colorado Springs, Colorado. Scientific American reports that this may just be the beginning, as climate change becomes the match, so to speak, that lights the "fire deficit" witnessed in the western U.S. over the last 100 years. In fact, for most of our recent history the frequency of fire activity has been directly correlated with climate change - until about 100 years ago, when fire suppression efforts disassociated the two. In only the last 30 years, fire frequency in the West has increased more than 300 percent, while the annual acreage burned has increased 500 percent. Ultimately, "[a]s the West continues to warm, that [fire] debt will come due – possibly with interest – triggering fires that are fiercer and harder to contain," scientists warn.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe forest fires are increasingly concerning for entirely different reasons - highlighting yet again the intersection between environmental, energy, and natural resource vectors. The Chernobyl nuclear accident laced the mostly pine forest 30 km exclusionary zone around Chernobyl with a variety of radioactive isotopes. Much of this forest constitutes "dying radioactive plantations" that are "considered too dangerous and expensive to clear." If they catch on fire, which is a concern, "one expert likens the potential effect to setting off a nuclear bomb in Eastern Europe. Wind could carry radioactive smoke particles large distances, not just in Ukraine, but right across the continent." But even though this potentiality may be lower on the probability scale, a common occurrence is the numerous Ukraine firefighters frequently exposed to smaller forest fires they extinguish to avoid a major disaster. Climate change rears its ugly head once more, as it may also increase the likelihood of radioactive forest fires.
We can hardly escape the increasing evidence of climate change's effects, but perhaps no disaster shines quite as bright of a light on climate change as forest fires.
- Blake Hudson
July 22, 2012
In Case You Missed It: The Week of July 15-21
The widest U.S. drought in more than half a century is forecasted to worsen
The D.C. Circuit decided American Petroleum Institute v. EPA, upholding the E.P.A.’s 2010 revision of its National Ambient Air Quality Standard for nitrogen oxide
A report released by staff of the House Natural Resources Committee at the direction of Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) revealed a significant increase in mountaintop removal coal exports from Appalachian mines over the past several years
The E.P.A. announced that it plans to review its new standards for mercury and multiple other airborne emissions, thus delaying the implementation of new rules that would have impacted the construction of several new coal-fired power plants in Georgia, Kansas, Texas, and Utah
Nationwide Mutual became the first major insurance company to declare that it will not cover losses associated with hydraulic fracturing in light of its conclusion that “exposures…are too great to ignore”