Friday, 22 April 2016

Earth Day 2016

Today is "Earth Day" and I'd almost forgotten about it until I woke up this morning and got the reminder via the google homepage. It seems the editorial staff at the Taipei Times have also forgotten about it as today's edition makes no reference to it. Why might that be?

Nonetheless there are two small Taipei Times stories I want to discuss; one is from yesterday's edition and one is from today's edition and both stories have an environmental angle.

Yesterday, staff reporter Chen Wei-han, had an all too brief article published which was poorly written (or badly mangled by someone else) and which was partially about Taipower's proposal for a new coal-fired power plant in Changhua county. It is described as a two generator plant to be located in the Changhua Coastal Industrial Park. No other information about the nature or proposed design of the plant is given, presumably because the author and his editorial overlords at the Taipei Times do not consider it important. The proposal has been rejected for a second time seemingly by an Environmental Impact Assessment committee or by a higher committee within the Ministry of Economic Affairs (the article is poorly written because it doesn't make clear which body is doing the "rejecting").

Today's edition carries another report by Chen Wei-han about industrial waste being dumped in farmland and fishponds here in Tainan city's Annan District. Apparently, the president of "Show Chwan", a company that appears to arrange for healthcare tourism to Taiwan, has been arrested by the police and released on bail seemingly for allowing the waste to be dumped on plots of land that he owned. Presumably it is not yet known what sort of chemical treatment, if any, the waste had been given prior to dumping, though the article does conclude with a mention of "greenwashing", which is a practice whereby waste is reprocessed to some extent to prepare it for sale, but is then illegally dumped because there is no market demand for it.

Neither article is sufficient in itself to prove a thesis, but both are at least somewhat indicative of how environmental activism is oriented within the culture along the two axes of anti-industrialism and anti-propertarianism.

The anti-industrialism ought to be clear enough, even if the term is not quite precise. What it means is that, from among a broad range of environmental problems that could be selected for cooperative work to resolve, environmental activists tend to go for the explicit targeting of secondary industries necessary for the production of upstream capital goods such as resins, polymers and other chemicals and, especially, the primary goods of water and electricity. Hence there is always concerted opposition by environmental activists to new fossil-fuel power plant proposals, new reservoir proposals and new naphtha cracker plant proposals. There are other types of environmental problems that are not caused by large scale secondary industry (for example, household waste) and which do not arise from the vast increase in value which such industry makes possible. Yet these problems receive comparatively little attention from environmental activists, even though they could be solved at comparatively little economic cost.

The opposition to new fossil-fuel power plants is a particularly good example of the anti-industrial axis on which environmental activism is oriented. Such proposals are simply treated as beyond the pale, with no attempt made to even consider a cost benefit analysis. That the proposed coal-fired power plant in Changhua couldn't even get off the ground twelve years after it's initial proposal is because, as Chen Wei-han reports...
"...the project does not conform to environment and national energy development plans."
No consideration whatsoever is given to the emissions reduction technologies that may have been included in the designs for new fossil-fuel plants, like electrostatic precipitators and fine particle fabric filters which remove significant quantities of air pollutants. Nor is any attention given to the importance of fossil-fuel sources in contradistinction to intermittent, renewable sources in maintaining a stable electrical supply to a grid in order to minimize voltage fluctuations that damage sensitive machinery. The elision of these costs from the considerations of environmental activists and from the media coverage of environmental activism, and, especially, from the presentation of environmental activism and environmental issues in schools and universities (not to mention the elision of these costs from the consideration of State officials and politicians) is increasingly systematic. It is unclear how the propagation of public nescience on the costs and excesses of targeted, anti-industrial environmental activism can be achieved without significant institutional changes within the media and education.

The anti-propertarian axis on which environmental activism is oriented becomes apparent when you consider that the targets of environmental activism are often negative externality cases where an industrialist pollutes his own property and thereby affects adjacent or downstream property owners. In the second report by Chen Wei-han mentioned above, the concern was that by dumping toxic waste on his own property, the president of Show Chwan would endanger the health of Tainan residents who consume the fish and vegetables grown in nearby fields and adjacent fish ponds (Annan district is Tainan's "fish-pond city"). A propertarian ethic does not allow for carte blanche abandonment of responsibilities and there are numerous, more Coasean ways to resolve negative externality problems. However, the focus of environmental activists and the corresponding media trend to report on cases of "environmental justice" has very much an air and thrill of the puritanical about it, of catching the witches just as they are preparing a fresh brew in their forbidden cauldrons... 

Obviously, toxic waste that cannot be sold on to useful ends is a cost. It has to be disposed of somehow and the general principle is that the polluter pays. If an industrial waste reprocessing firm is paying off a medical tourism operator to dump toxic waste for them, as appears to be the case here, then whilst this is unethical behaviour due to the secretiveness of it and the negative externality aspect involved of potentially poisoning nearby fish farms, it must be understood as economic behaviour occurring within a set of incentives. Obviously all parties thought that either they would get away with it undetected, or that the punishments would be lax, but is it not the case that that only follows because the correct way of disposing of this kind of waste prohibitively expensive? Hence the attempt at illegal dumping.

The questions that aren't being asked are why is the correct disposal of toxic waste so expensive and why is illegal dumping comparatively cheaper? Surely it ought to be the other way around, with correct disposal of toxic waste cheaper and illegal dumping made much more expensive. That it currently is the wrong way around signals that there is something wrong there, and yet the question of how incentives are structured never seems to occur to the environmental activists or be raised by the media. There are at least two possibilities; either something has to change in the way in which (or quantity of) toxic waste is reprocessed to render it cheaper to accomplish, or the costs of illegal dumping have to be increased (or both). Prosecuting cases of illegal dumping under prohibitionary laws with stiffer penalties is one way to alter the balance of incentives, but still another, perhaps better way to do it is to use tort law instead of criminal law and have investigatory firms that can be hired to track down polluters, take them to court and punish them through compensatory (and perhaps even punitive) litigation. Yet the more propertarian and Coasean approaches to environmental problems are never considered.

I also got a hint of the anti-industrial and anti-propertarian premises of environmental activism recently when I and a couple of Taiwanese friends went to the trouble of trying to get the Tainan Environmental Protection Bureau (the same people who investigated the toxic waste case just discussed) to take an interest in the rotting piles of garbage that had been left behind by a government contractor paid to cut the grass in the park behind my house. We also contacted several other government offices (including the local Li Zhang - who didn't even know there was a problem, despite it being visible from her office) and one or two media outlets who were apparently not interested. The rotting piles of cut grass had begun to accumulate household waste from local fly tippers (in addition to the regular litter that spoils the park) and were becoming a health hazard and an obvious potential vector for the spread of mosquitoes and the recurrence of another dengue epidemic. It took weeks to finally get it shifted. 

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