Friday, April 17, 2015

What Are The Limits?

Humans, and other primates, it appears, have an innate sense of fairness. We expect, for example, in times requiring sacrifice, that no member of society will be exempted. When we are part of a long queue, for example, we expect everyone to bide their time and wait as well; someone attempting to jump the queue is rightfully deeply resented and scorned.

Of course, rules and expectations of fairness and equality are broken everyday by those with the means. If you are willing to pay for the privilege, you can buy into express lines, such as those that exist at Universal Express and Disney World FASTPASS. If you are in need of a new kidney fast, there are brokers who can arrange such transactions with dispatch.

Are there things that money cannot or should not be able to buy? That was the central question Michael J. Sandel posed in a book I read several months ago called What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. A very thought-provoking work, it explores the fundamentally alienating effects that some purchases can have, as in the above-mentioned kidney transactions, that leave us with less regard for our fellow-travellers in life. Indeed, there are some cases that really reduce them to mere commodities.

I couldn't help but think of such things this morning as I read about how some people are circumventing the tough water-rationing measures recently imposed in California, a state now in its fourth year of extreme drought.
Gardens stayed lush and lawns verdant as citizens paid tanker trucks to deliver thousands of gallons to homes in the seaside suburb of Santa Barbara. They drilled in back yards, driving the county’s tally of new wells to a record. Some simply paid fines for exceeding allocations, padding the water district’s budget by more than $2 million.

“People feel strongly about their landscaping and want to keep their homes beautiful,” said Patrick Nesbitt, who drilled a well to hydrate parts of his 70-acre estate but let his polo field go dry. “Why should anybody object?”
Actually, there are many reasons to object. One is the fact that money is being used here to opt out of good citizenship, which a healthy society requires. Why should certain parties be exempt from turf-removing initiatives that others are following as they substitute drought-tolerant plants for thirsty lawns?

Paying tanker trucks to bring in water simply postpones dealing with the drought, and one can't help but wonder where that water is coming from. Are other jurisdictions selling water for short-term profit? And what about this statistic from wealthy Montecito, California?
The top three users for Montecito in 2012/13 guzzled close to 30 million gallons alone... enough water to provide the needs of a small town
Even the drilling of wells that the well-heeled can afford are acts of massive disrespect of the greater good. The aquifers, quite frankly, cannot take it:
Measurements of water levels in wells throughout the state show that aquifers are being significantly depleted in many areas as more water is drained out than seeps back into the ground.

An analysis of groundwater data provided by the U.S. Geological Survey and two other agencies has found that, of 3,394 wells across the state, water levels declined in about 62 percent of the wells between 2000 and 2013.

As noted by Dennis Dimick in National Geographic
As drought worsens groundwater depletion, water supplies for people and farming shrink.
I am not offering any fresh insights here about the contradictory impulses of human nature; the fact that "some animals are more equal than others" was noted a long time ago by George Orwell and many others. But given the times in which we live, such behaviour does merit increased scrutiny and perhaps even condemnation.

Lest all of the above prove too dispiriting to readers, allow me to leave you with something that should leave us all feeling a mixture of both shame and hope, a captive orangutan sharing its treats with other primates:

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