It’s a System, Stupid!

By Mike Koetting August 22, 2021

As much as extreme weather conditions have caught our attention, we don’t seem ready to acknowledge those are just the warnings. The main events are the ones that fundamentally change life conditions—persistent lack of water, rising sea levels, acidification of the oceans, loss of species.

At its core, the issue is simply that the environment isn’t free forever. Each action creates a reaction. It’s a system with feedback loops, long and, to a point forgiving feedback loops, but eventually the accounts have to get balanced.

Western civilization got off on a bad foot in this regard, choosing for guidance the biblical passage:

Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”  Genesis 1:28

The problem, as both economists and ecologists can agree, is that there are no free lunches. Dominion is not a blank check; God only created so much earth and so much sea. And all the parts are connected.

None of us are truly shocked when reminded of this. We give easy intellectual assent to the different folk wisdom of Chief Seattle of the Suquamish tribe:

The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life; he is mere a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

But intellectual assent to an abstract proposition does not even begin to replace realities on the ground. We continue to enjoy the benefits of simply taking from the environment without a real plan for replenishing.

Recently, at the Colorado History Museum, I saw an exhibit that asserted that in the first toilet flush of the morning, a citizen of Denver uses more water than the daily average of a Pueblo Indian living at Mesa Verde. So maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised when the Department of the Interior issued the first ever official water shortage warning for the Colorado River, a so-called Tier 1 mandate that will require decreased water allotments throughout the Southwest. The size of these decreased allotments will range between 5% and 8% of the water supply in the adjacent mountain states.

But we are still surprised. Tom Davis, president of the Agribusiness and Water Council of Arizona, a state where some farmers will feel the cuts, said “It is a sobering thing to realize we are at Tier 1 already. A few years ago, no one was thinking this would happen.” (And, for the record, the experts are saying Tier 2 is closer than “anybody ever imagined.”) The impacts of reduced water allotments are going to reverberate beyond the immediate region. Fewer crops will be planted and there will be lower yields from those that are. We are connected.

The point here is not that we are running out of water in the Southwest. Everyone with an ounce of sense knew that was inevitable. It is that we have been unwilling to act on the systematic issue: the environment is a finite system. We know that, but are apparently incapable of believing it until we’re kicked in the teeth. And even then we can’t kick the habits.

As evidence mounts, many Republican legislators have felt compelled to shift their narratives and admit that carbon emissions are significantly contributing to environmental problems. But their response is to focus exclusively on the consequences while avoiding the causes. Their only concession is willingness to help cities and states prepare for the increasing fallout. This is a necessary step—although it needs to be done in a way that builds on the systemic elements of nature rather than attempting to simply dominate them as we have done in the past. But a longer term solution must get to the underlying cause, which the Republicans are apparently unwilling to do. Representative Cassidy summarized the Republic position: “We cannot live without fossil fuels or chemicals, period, end of story.” Unfortunately, it may turn out that we can’t live with them either.

Much of Republican concern is focused on the local, immediate economic impacts. Yes, there will be economic impacts from addressing environmental issues. Those must be considered, but they must be considered in the larger context. The fundamental issue: the environment is a system and it is being overwhelmed. We have reached the end of its natural resilience. The feedback loops are every day accelerating the process. Tier 1 warnings will slip into Tier 2 warnings in the blink of an eye because we want to keep writing IOUs against a future we’ve already used up. It is simply paying the minimum balance on the environmental credit card while the interest mounts.

Moreover, not changing our patterns assumes—and again the fallacy that the environment is simply there for the taking—that it is somehow the right of the United States to protect its economy regardless of the damage to the rest of the world. The US contributes 15% of all carbon emissions. China contributes almost twice as much, but has more than four times the population of the US.

                 Source: Union of Concerned Scientists                   Source: Our World in Data

In the short term we might be able to mitigate the worst effects in America, but failure to recognize there are global impacts from what we in the US do cannot be justified by any standard—either the immediate standards of manifest fairness or the longer standard of self-interest, because sooner or later this will come to haunt us. There is a limit to which the rest of the world will allow us to disproportionately pollute the planet on which we all live.

And while the most egregious enemies of the environment are Republicans, we are kidding ourselves if we don’t recognize that very few of us really want to face up to the implications. Let’s face it: we all enjoy being the world’s biggest consumer. Indeed, we’ve come to assume it as our birthright.

But maybe we have to listen to one of the prophets of the Cree nation:

Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.


Obesity Afternotes

My last post was on how the overall American food environment is feeding American obesity. Two developments since merit attention.

The day after that post, The Milbank Quarterly published a review of the efforts that led to the virtual removal of artificial trans fat from the food chain. It summarized its results thusly:

…challenges were addressed (through communications, leveraging an expanding research base and expert reports, showing that a national policy was feasible through voluntary corporate changes and state and local policy, and litigation against companies and government agencies) providing a model for scientists, students, advocates, and policymakers.

While this article stressed this change was achieved “without the need for individual behavior change,” I am not sure we can solve the obesity problem without also helping individual behavior change. Still, this is a great, concrete example of how to win on one essential front in the struggle.

Also, in the week after I posted, the Biden Administration announced an increase in SNAP benefits (what used to be food stamps) of up to 25%. It is instructive that this increase was given not simply to offset inflation, but reflected rethinking how the benefit should be calculated to improve eating habits, taking into account realistic time and taste parameters. Again, I think without some additional efforts (more education, specific cooperation from medical community, ensuring availability of healthy food to purchase, etc.), it will be hard to achieve the full benefits of this increase. But they can be done later and this is a great start.

Finally, if any of you wanted an explanation of why America has a calorie problem in one picture, this photo from my most recent shopping might be it.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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