Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Missing the Point

Georgia has just declared a state of emergency. The reason? Water, or more accurately, a lack thereof. The state’s governor, Sonny Perdue, issued the order this past Saturday and is hoping to receive federal help in alleviating the crisis.

Why is Perdue requesting government help? Because he is blaming the problem on federal bureaucracy. Back in the 1980s, the state reached an agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Wildlife Service to release 5,000 feet of water per second from Lake Lanier (the main reservoir for Atlanta and north Georgia) to the Chattahoochee River. This extra water provides hydroelectricity for Florida power plants and for endangered river species including mussels and sturgeon. Perdue is blaming these bureaucratic requirements for North Georgia’s current predicament and wants to be freed from the regulations, labeling them as “silly rules.”

Perdue’s analysis is misleading and, as is common in politics, misses the fundamental point. Blaming bureaucracy is a convenient political strategy that identifies a scapegoat rather than addressing difficult underlying issues.

The big story here is the relationship between natural resources and regional growth. Water, as well illustrated by this week’s New York Times Sunday Magazine article, is emerging as a great limiting factor across the United States and the rest of the world. Since 1980, the population of Atlanta’s metropolitan area has doubled, dramatically increasing the demand for water. At the same time, almost nothing has been done to expand the water supply. Unchecked urban development without a plan for sustainable water usage is what has turned the current drought into a state of emergency, not the water needs of a few fish and mussels.

This story is particularly important since it is not isolated to Georgia. Urban development has proceeded throughout the entire United States over the last half-century with relatively little consideration for sustainable development. This can be seen most clearly in the case of the southwest, where cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas import water from hundreds of miles away for golf courses and industrial enterprises. However, the current crisis in Georgia reveals that this is a much more widely spread phenomenon.

We cannot continue building unsustainable cities and expect to avoid resource crises. We must require new urban developments to be sustainable and create plans for retrofitting our existing infrastructure. Only then can we address the underlying issues.

However, a solution cannot emerge until we ask the right questions. Blaming Georgia’s water supply on federal bureaucracy is not only wrong, it prevents the type of dialogue that would be necessary for a solution. Sonny Perdue has missed the point. Let’s not make the same mistake.

Blog Postscript (posted Thursday, October 25, 2007)

The differing perspectives on the drought have been replicated in various news forums. Compare the news coverage at, CBS News, and the New York Times. Only the third article presents a critical perspective on the issues.

This blog is cross-listed at Science Progress.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Bio-fuels and Human Rights

Brazilian ethanol produced from sugar cane is one of the most promising stories in renewable energy technologies. For those committed to shifting away from fossil fuel dependence, the idea that we can grow an oil substitute is a very attractive idea. Moreover, Brazilian sugar cane ethanol is an established industry that offers a far better return on investment than American corn ethanol.

So, renewable energy advocates and environmentalists should support the rapid expansion of this industry, right?

Well, not exactly and certainly not unconditionally. The key thing to realize is that land is finite and there are competing demands for its use. In many cases, using land for energy means not using it for other human needs. Nowhere is this clearer than in the history of the Brazilian sugar cane industry.

Sugar has long served as an important cash crop for the Brazilian economy. In the 1960s and 1970s, many sugar cane plantations consolidated and expanded their operations—often using foreign capital—with the result that poor workers were pushed off lands they had used to supplement their food intake. As described in devastating detail by Nancy Scheper-Hughes and others, losing these small plots led to famine, poverty, sickness, and in many cases, death.[1]

This story is not particular to Brazil. Throughout the world, particularly in areas colonized by European powers, there has long been a tension between using land to grow food for locals versus using land to grow cash crops for foreigners. Sadly, cash crops have won this battle more often than the needs of locals. In many areas, this has created slow starvation, cyclical poverty, and environmental degradation.

We must not repeat this history. If Brazilian ethanol—or any other bio-fuel—is to be part of our energy solution, we must ensure that it does not come at the expense of the world’s rural poor. President Bush visited Brazil this past March to discuss an ethanol agreement with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Any trade agreement emerging from these discussions should require limits to the overall land use of the Brazilian ethanol industry, ensuring that sufficient land remains for the rest of Brazil’s population.

Solving global fossil fuel dependence is a tricky issue that will require some hard choices to be made. However, outsourcing these costs onto the world’s poor is not the answer. We should only support bio-fuels as part of the solution if human rights are protected.

[1] Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Death without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

Note: this blog was inspired by reading other posts at Science Progress and has been cross-listed at their web site.