George Monbiot Today

Apparently George has read a novel and we\’re all doomed, doomed I tell you.

"Water scarcity is already acute in many regions, and farming already takes the lion\’s share of water withdrawn from streams and groundwater." Ten per cent of the world\’s major rivers no longer reach the sea all year round.

Buried on page 148, I found this statement. "If present trends continue, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity by 2025, and two-thirds of the world population could be subject to water stress." Wastage and deforestation are partly to blame, but the biggest cause of the coming droughts is climate change. Rainfall will decline most in the places in greatest need of water. So how, unless we engineer a sudden decline in carbon emissions, are we going to feed the world? How, in many countries, will we prevent the social collapse that failure will cause?

Ever thought of pricing it appropriately George? You know, this strange, almost laughably lunatic idea that scarece resorces are best managed by markets?

14 comments on “George Monbiot Today

  1. The irony is your right and you’ve got to the gist of the problem in a single sentence.

    “It is a strange and laughably lunatic idea that scarce resources are best managed by markets”

    Short term, market driven, policies are what has helped produce this potential catastrophe in the first place.

    Oh by the way how much would you charge someone subsiting on a dollar a day for water?

  2. Simon, the idea that market-driven policies have driven this catastrophe is nuts. If water is more expensive, and people charged for it, then companies would set up desalination plants, dig reservoirs, invest in new pipes, etc. If there is a shortage of food, more gets grown, etc.

    Look at where the biggest environmental catastrophes are: the former soviet union, for instance, with the destruction of its inland seas, or China, with its communist-led destruction of property rights.

    please.

  3. Tim, Jonathan – putting a price on something doesn’t magically make it affordable. Lots of people currently can’t afford access to water. If it becomes more scarce, the price will go up. Do the math. Famines can and do happen when food is sold at the market price, because people have insufficient income to buy. If you’re suggesting us rich types skew the market by subsidising the demand for water of hundreds of millions of very poor people now and for the forseeable future, have the honesty to say so. If not, stop pretending that inane blathering about the magic power of markets is actually a solution.

    Tim adds: Never said that putting a price on something makes it affordable. Rather, that it balances supply and demand and makes sure that scarce resources are directed to their highest value use. That is what we want, isn’t it?

  4. This water, where does it go? Exactly. It’s a question of getting the water to the people or vice versa. Not too many natural rivers helping Dubai. Distribution and property rights……same as any other commodity.

  5. “Tim, Jonathan – putting a price on something doesn’t magically make it affordable.”

    It doesn’t happen magically (it is just the sum total of everyone’s efforts driven by a market system) but it often looks like it. Note the utter lack of scarcity of mobile phones which didn’t even exist 30 years ago. The same goes for food in any advanced capitalist society: no scarcity and socialists have to start arguing about their being too much to give them something to do!

    Potable water is similar to all these goods in that the raw material is all out there (H2O). It just needs refining and transport. All perfectly within the grasp of a functioning free market.

  6. “Ten per cent of the world’s major rivers no longer reach the sea all year round.” Good thing the seas are rising up to reach them!!!

  7. “makes sure that scarce resources are directed to their highest value use”

    The peculiar characteristics of water (quasi-renewable natural resource that flows from place to place and sustains eco-systems) make it unsuitable for pure pricing, but even if they didn’t, the point about a market is that it’ll direct resources to where the greatest effective demand is, which is not the same as where it would be most ‘valuable’ in terms of human survival etc. Since people are already suffering due to drought we should already be subsidising their demand. We’re not, and the underlying conditions are going to get worse. So Monbiot is quite right to be alarmed, and your complacency is – well, it’s no less stupid for being typical.

  8. Ironically Jonathan I do agree with much of what you say. There is a place for the free market in the pricing and management of commodities.

    I guess the question is do you want to regard water and the right not to die from the lack of it as a commodity.

    I can’t believe that the idea of growing more food doesn’t occur to people in a famine situation.

    I appreciate that many of the problems being discussed here are essentially political in nature and that probably then its a question of a political solution rather than market forces.

    I just can’t believe that its acceptable to believe that the right to live is a commodity; maybe its a flaw in me?

    Tim adds: I don’t advocate that people die of dehydration simply because they don’t have the money to buy water. I don’t advocate that they die of starvation because they lack money either….nor of disease, come to that.

    However, “giving” people water or “giving” people food….effectively stating that these things have no price and thus no value, isn’t, to my mind, the way to do it.

    What is more sensible is to have these things traded in a market: and then if people lack the purchasing power to drink, or eat, we subsidize them. We give them money. We thus have efficient markets, we have resources being used for their highest value, and we also take care of those who, quite probably through no fault of their own, lack the purchasing power to take part in said markets.

    Think of it this way. Do we say that the unemployed in the UK, who have insufficient purchasing power to buy food, should get free food? Of course not, we know how crazed that would become. We give them money to buy food in the normal markets, don’t we?

    More specifically about water the system here in this part of Portugal seems very close to being economically efficient and also socially just. A basic household requirement is available at a low cost. (It’s something like a quarter of an acre foot a year, about half a US average household usage for, I think it is, €20 every two months). You can have more than this, about double or triple that, for about €40 a month extra. It’s something around and about those figures (these are dimly remembered from a pub conversation last week).

    But if you start filling swimming pools and irrigating the orange orchard next door then your bill will go through the roof…they not only meter it, they charge you progressively more for each unit over those limits.

  9. Simon,

    “I can’t believe that the idea of growing more food doesn’t occur to people in a famine situation.”

    Example of a famine in a free/free-market country outside of wartime please.

    “I appreciate that many of the problems being discussed here are essentially political in nature and that probably then its a question of a political solution rather than market forces.”

    Au contraire: most market failures are political in nature. If you just get the politicians out of it, the problem will go away.

    “I just can’t believe that its acceptable to believe that the right to live is a commodity; maybe its a flaw in me?”

    Who is suggesting that what we are discussing here is the right to life? We are discussing the right to live without any means of support in an area with no water.

    Do you have the right to life on the moon? Would someone else’s reluctance to supply you with oxygen at their expense to maintain your decision to live there constitute an outrageous assault on your fundamental rights? No.

    You are trying to shoehorn a claim (the right to free, potable water in a desert) into a liberty right. So yes, it’s a flaw in you.

  10. “Tim, Jonathan – putting a price on something doesn’t magically make it affordable.”

    There is no magic; if you let entrepreneurs make a living out of providing something for a profit, then putting a price on X or Y encourages them to provide X or Y.

    In the former Soviet Union, they had bread queues, despite their being oodles of superb natural wheat land, etc. The price mechanism was destroyed.

    This is all pretty basic stuff really; maybe some old-style socialist central planners are trying to stage an intellectual comeback. Oh dear.

  11. “I guess the question is do you want to regard water and the right not to die from the lack of it as a commodity.”

    Food is a commodity, it is produced for a profit, and thank god it is; given the history of what happens when the profit motive is removed from food production (see my reference to the former Soviet Union above, or what is now happening in Zimbabwe, to name two of many examples).

    There is this weird notion that because the rain falls out of the sky, it is somehow free and ours as of right; but someone has to capture it, bottle it, clean it, etc. That is a cost. To assert a right without then asking who is to be forced to provide this “right” is using the word “right” in the usual socialist, “I want X so I claim to have a right to X” sort of lazy use of the English language.

  12. “Since people are already suffering due to drought we should already be subsidising their demand.”

    Why? Why don’t they move? Why don’t YOU pay them or take them in or send them a bottle of water? Who is this we, white man?

    Does your lunatic theory apply to subsidizing those suffering folk in Los Angeles? Kuwait? Best of all, how about Israel? No, nothing for the Jews, what a surprise.

    Where do you live?

    What else do you want to steal from me to make you feel better?

    Tim adds: Errm, Israel actually has one of the better water management systems. Things like drip irrigation were, I think, invented there, weren’t they?

  13. Tim,

    “Errm, Israel actually has one of the better water management systems. Things like drip irrigation were, I think, invented there, weren’t they?”

    Quite – so the answer to people living in areas that – progressively, over a period of decades – become arid and refuse either to a) do anything about their water management systems or b) move to an area where they will not be utterly dependent on the generosity of others is not to subsidise these crazy choices.

  14. I think the talking-at-cross-purposes in this thread is coming partly from some people talking about markets as a way of determining the price of water while others are talking about people needing water that they can’t afford. Those are completely different subjects, one economic and one political.

    It’s important to understand that markets don’t determine the value of water, only the price. All a free market means (as compared to a less-free market) is that the price more accurately reflects the true value. That’s it. The water has the same value whether there’s a free market in water or not.

    The absence of a free market only means that we can’t know the true value of water even approximately. And there is nothing to be gained by not knowing the actual value of water, unless your objective is to mask the value.

    The question of how people who can’t afford water get the water they need is not an economic question at all. It’s a social/political question. Not having a free market in water may have political value if your objective is to redistribute water through political fiat because, without a free market, no one can objectively challenge your estimate of how much that will cost.

    But that’s not a very honest way to tackle a political problem. It would be much better to have a free market in water, so that everyone knows what it’s truly worth, and then talk about how you’re going to ensure that people who can’t afford it get the water they need.

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