December 11, 2005

Global government, global disaster

Rosamond Naylor, Henning Steinfeld, Walter Falcon, James Galloway, Vaclav Smil, Eric Bradford, Jackie Alder, and Harold Mooney have published a very interesting paper in Science (Losing the links between livestock and land) about recent trends in livestock rearing. They describe the spectacular advances in industrial production that have made chicken and pork cheap and widely available, and review the associated environmental problems. They advocate policy measures (regulations, taxes and subsidies) "to encourage livestock and feed producers to internalize pollution costs, to minimize nutrient run-off, and to pay the true price for water [and wild habitat conversion to feed grain croplands]." In the end, however, they have little hope that politicians will implement such measures:
At a global scale, linking livestock to land would require the difficult task of harmonizing production, resource, and waste standards at higher levels than are seen in most countries currently. If the major meat-and feed grain-producing countries were to invoke strict environmental and resource standards, international meat prices would almost surely rise, perhaps slowing the increase in demand. Such a transition would be made easier politically if consumers increasingly demanded meat products based on sound environmental practices. In a global economy with no global society, it may well be up to consumers to set a sustainable course.The last sentence is intriguing.
The authors are wrong, of course -- there indeed exists a global society since there are worldwide interactions among people, including economic ones. Science magazine, where people from all over the world discuss scientific and political ideas, is itself an upshot of global society. Naylor and her colleagues probably mean that there is no global government to tinker with those interactions. They seem to lament this lack, and the fact that, in the absence of a global Big Brother, consumers (all of us) will have more freedom. I do not share their sadness both because I want as much freedom as possible and because I expect a global government to repeat the mistakes of country governments. One such mistake is to take possession of water, rivers, seas, and wild lands, and then let anyone use, pollute and destroy them for free.

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