July 20, 2014

From the Ethics of Islands (Part 1)

Courtesy: WWW
When Robinson Crusoe got stranded on his desolated Island, he first felt that he was being cursed, on second thoughts he came to realize that his prison was ultimately his salvation providing him with all necessities of life (freshwater, goat meat, fruits and crops).  Him being alone in his kingdom, and having nothing to share with anyone, simplified his minimalistic way of life: why desire more when there is enough to live on? Robinson’s answer would have been that it is natural to seek what is being denied and forget about what is already there. 

The ups and downs of the world’s most famous shipwrecked person are deemed as an early tale of capitalism, especially by demonstrating the utility principle.  That is every resource has to be produced and consumed in its best possible way (without waste, because waste is expensive) – more broadly the fulfillment of basic supply and demand equilibrium.  In that sense Robinson is not only a tale of the protestant ideal of capitalism (hard work leads to rightful earnings and deeds), but also entails a critic of unethical consumption patterns. In fact, the harder Robinson worked the more sustainable he became.

I see another important lesson from Robinson Crusoe. Apart from being dependent of the island’s natural ecosystem, his hardship to get agricultural resources (it took him several years to harvest his first crop) makes us rediscover the fragility of human nature.  Available resources are limited and precious, which we tend to forget because of the high division of labor and global supply chains.  Like many, I have no clue about how to produce most of the things I use. It gives us a false impression of almightiness quickly gone once left alone to fend for ourselves like Robinson did on his island. 

Today, Daniel Defoe's novel is still very much related to water ethics.  In fact, Islands offer scarce hydrological resources i.e. biomass, meat, vegetables and fruits. Agriculture and husbandry depend on trade-offs between competing available land/water resources and pollution from inputs (natural or chemical fertilizers) and outputs (solid and liquid waste). Most production processes (e.g. cooling or cooking) depend on freshwater, if not, at some stage, on drinking water. Hence, without any trade with the outside world (all things kept constant, as economists would say), Islands can only sustain a finite number of consumers such as Robinson.  But what is the Earth if not an island lost in millions of galactic seas?
Courtesy: Daily Telegraph UK
Islands are ecosystems to experience and measure sustainability.  For the ethical observer and practitioner they represent the ideal hydrological unit to study and learn from.  Water ethics is all about sustainability, because ethics brings us back to some of the core questions that tormented Robinson all these years on his Island;
  • What are my basic food and water requirements? What is secondary?
  • How much inputs (water for instance) do I need to produce?
  • How much can the ecosystem provide in future?
  • Do I need to share with other people? Am I the only one in need?
  • What are the limits to production and consumption?
  • Do I make some stocks for next week, next month or next year?
Those questions are of utmost importance because one agent has no exclusive right (we might say natural right) to answer these (or ignore them) on behalf of other living creatures (including flora), thus jeopardizing the ecosystem by over-producing or over-polluting.  Hence, water ethics should guide us away from productive quantity to enter the age of productive quality.  In fact, one might argue that being moderate is already an amazing achievement in terms of sustainability.  Do we need a new smart phone, mineral water from the Fijis, a steak-meal every day, all of these water-intensive products? Robinson teaches that it is already unethical to produce more than what is needed, for instance, by boosting bio fuel profits using chemical fertilizers and cheap labor (Robinson’s boat sunk on his way to find slaves for his plantation) diverting water and ultimately distorting food prices in many parts of the world.  Islands will help us to understand this idea – Robinson, apart from finding faith was also an early environmentalist, but it took him many, many years on the Island to realize it.  

Soon a comparative case study about islands and water ethics!


1 comment:

  1. Very good blog and blog post. learning water ethics is crucial for our survival because people are using water carelessly which is causing water scarcity in many parts of the world.