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Imagining a Post Pandemic World

How might a post-pandemic world look and feel? Let’s imagine a creative team at a New York City advertising agency pitching a campaign in 2050 for a new perfume (more than most products, perfumes are sold by attaching to the dreams and aspirations of their times).  The Big Apple, ...

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Deep Past
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Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.


The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Future In Plain Sight
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The Parrot's Lament
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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The Alms Race
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Apes, Men, & Language
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In Defense of Raising Alarms


Thursday April 24, 2014

A good alternative to a bracing cold shower as a way of raising your heart beat in the morning is to read any review, oped, or editorial about environment in the Wall Street Journal. Today’s digitalis was served up by James Hoffman in his review of A Climate of Crisis by Patrick Allitt. I’ll reserve judgment of the book, but the review offers the standard WSJ stew of casuistry, cherry-picking, misinformation and distortions that has long been the Journal’s signature when it comes to environment.

For instance, Huffman credits authors like Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich and Barry Commoner with rousing the public to demand the landmark environmental legislation of the ‘60s and early ‘70s (give a nod to Richard Nixon – much of the credit for today's cleaner air, water, and protected species trace to legislation he signed), but then has this gem: “Even so, environmentalists continued to cry wolf, and we’re undeterred when their doom-saying forecasts of global famine and ecological ruin failed to materialize.”

In what way was Silent Spring crying wolf? To find an example of a nation that didn’t heed the warnings of the environmentalists of that era, Mr. Huffman need only travel to China, where pesticides did kill off most birdlife, where pollution has so fouled the air and water that in vast stretches of the country the water is unfit even for industry, the land is too poisoned for farming and air pollution makes the cities unlivable.

And then there’s this: “And numerous Northwest communities were devastated in the 1990s by a 90% cut in public-land timber harvests, which crippled the timber industry to save the Northern Spotted Owl.” Really? At the point at which the Spotted Owl issue boiled up, the only remaining large tracts of old growth Pacific Northwest forests were on public land as virtually all old growth on private land had already been cut. So much for Wise Use. Moreover, over the years, automation threw more loggers out of work than environmental restrictions (which were a convenient whipping boy for owners who would gladly cut the payroll if a machine could do a man’s work). With old growth gone the logging industry was destined to shrink drastically anyway as the real money lay in extracting the giant, ancient trees.

If private owners had acted responsibly and the Forest Service not acted as errand boys for the loggers over many decades, the Endangered Species Act would not have come into play as a last resort. Would Huffman have preferred that all old growth be available for logging?

I’ll give Huffman some credit. Unlike virtually any other writer that appears in the Journal’s editorial pages, he sounds as though he does think environment needs protecting. He thinks the courts are the place to work out environmental disputes (which reminds me of Michael Kinsley’s pithy line about the libertarian preference for courts over regulation: “Why do something once when you can do it many times”). Courts need laws, however, and when has Congress enacted any legislation without a sense of urgency?

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Short Take

Relaxing COVID-19 Restrictions will Kill, not Save, the Economy


 

[This is a more developed version of the previous Short Take}

Those who want to relax mandates on self-isolation and social distancing to save the economy have got it exactly backwards. Reopen society too soon, and we risk destroying the economy as well as public order and our shaky democratic institutions. The reason comes down to two words: supply lines.

 Supply lines for necessities such as food are already under stress. Those going to grocery stories encounter random instances of empty shelves and vegetable bins. Smithfield Farms shut down a South Dakota plant that supplies roughly 4% of the pork in the nation after over 500 of its workers tested positive for the coronavirus. Other giant meat processors such as Tyson have also shut down plants for similar reasons. Farmers in the West are having trouble finding workers to harvest the crops now reaching maturity in the fields. And even if they manage to get the crops picked, farmers are out of luck if the truckers fail to show up, or the flow of packaging for their products get interrupted. 

Right now, these disruptions are episodic, but that should be concerning because we haven’t even seen the end of the first wave. What we have seen is that vital front-line workers such as nurses, doctors, EMT’s, and other first responders have had trouble finding protective equipment and maintaining morale. Some have staged walkouts over the dangerous conditions, and these are workers with a sense of mission.

By contrast, for most of the hourly-paid workers who keep supplies made, distributed, and sold, their work is a job that pays the bills. It would be appropriate if society recognized that they played a vital role, but mostly these workers encounter demanding bosses, monotony, and surly customers. If sick, they are not going to work – nor would we want them too. And they are not likely to risk their lives if going to work exposes them to contagion.

Disruption of one link, e.g. the trucker that delivers food the last mile, could halt a supply chain. COVID-19 is a threat to every link. Should a second wave hit before there is a readily available, cheap and effective treatment, it’s a very high probability that many supply lines will be disrupted and filling the gaps could easily overwhelm the nation’s businesses. 

Even today, on the evening news, we see images of vast caravans of cars lined up to get supplies from food banks. Imagine two weeks of empty shelves in the stores that feed our cities. How likely is it that civil order could be maintained in that situation? Will people suffer in silence if they realize that they can’t buy food for their kids because our leaders reopened the economy before a treatment was available because they wanted to prop up the stock market (which is how it will be portrayed)? If we want to look analogues for what life is like once supply chains break down, they’re readily available today in cities like Mogadishu, Kinshasa, and Port au Prince. 

 Thus far, the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic seems to be a mélange of Boss Tweed, Don Corleone and Inspector Clouseau. For the next act, the administration has a choice: Churchill, who bolstered British morale during the London Blitz, or Pol Pot, who sacrificed millions of his countrymen for a bad idea. Let’s hope those around Trump can convince him that the cure for the disease is the cure for the economy.
 



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