The Causes of Human Rights Violations (50): The Weather?

[T]he persecution and expelling of Jewish people by pre-modern European states is linked to agrarian variations. Based on historical weather data, evidence suggests that during the 15th and 16th centuries, colder temperatures made it significantly more likely that a Jewish community would be expelled. … [A] Jewish individual from the 15th or 16th century, who lived to 50 years old, faced roughly an 18% chance of being expelled during their lifetime. This risk was almost twice as great during a cold year. (source)

Apparently, persecution of Jewish groups follows from the economic hardship that in turn follows from colder temperatures during the growing seasons (that is, April to September). Agrarian economies were more vulnerable to weather shocks, and these shocks produced negative economic outcomes which then led to the scapegoating of minorities. Cities with poorer quality soil also saw an increased chance in the occurrence of expulsions of Jewish groups.

Interesting, but I doubt it has much relevance for the problems of today.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (48): Farmer v Herder Culture

According to Steven Pinker, farmer cultures and regions or countries arising from farmer cultures are much more amenable to human rights than herder cultures and their successor societies.

The North [of the US] was largely settled by English farmers, the inland South by Scots-Irish herders. Anthropologists have long noted that societies that herd livestock in rugged terrain tend to develop a “culture of honor.” Since their wealth has feet and can be stolen in an eye blink, they are forced to deter rustlers by cultivating a hair-trigger for violent retaliation against any trespass or insult that probes their resolve. Farmers can afford to be less belligerent because it is harder to steal their land out from under them, particularly in territories within the reach of law enforcement.

As the settlers moved westward, they took their respective cultures with them. The psychologist Richard Nisbett has shown that Southerners today continue to manifest a culture of honor which legitimizes violent retaliation. It can be seen in their laws (like capital punishment and a stand-your-ground right to self-defense), in their customs (like paddling children in schools and volunteering for military service), even in their physiological reactions to trivial insults. (source, source)

It’s an interesting explanation, but also reductionist. Even if the descriptions of herder and farmer cultures are historically correct, it’s by no means evident that present-day people are determined by the mentalities of their distant forefathers.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (61): Geography

It’s commonly accepted nowadays that a multitude of causes determines whether a country is relatively rich or poor. The fact that I’m currently writing post number 61 in this series points in the same direction. However, this means that it’s still possible for a particular cause to be dominant in certain countries, outweighing other existing effects. Some focus on institutions for example, others on geography. Let’s have a look at geography, and more specifically at the argument made by Jared Diamond. He cites some geological, geographical and climatological facts that do seem to have a large effect on national prosperity in certain countries:

  • Tropical climates are notoriously unhealthy. There are more parasitic diseases in the tropics because the temperatures are never cold enough to kill parasites. Carriers of diseases, such as mosquitoes and ticks, are also far more diverse in tropical than in temperate areas. Furthermore, tropical diseases – compared to other diseases – are more difficult to combat with effective vaccines. There’s still no vaccine against malaria for instance. Disease is obviously a drag on economic growth: when large parts of a population are sick for extended periods of time, they are unable to work and trade efficiently. Furthermore, disease leads to high fertility rates – as an insurance against infant mortality – which in turn removes many women from the economy for a substantial part of their productive lives.
  • Agricultural productivity is on average lower in tropical than in temperate areas. Temperate plants store more energy in edible parts such as seeds than do tropical plants. Plant diseases borne by insects and other pests reduce crop yields more in the tropics than in the temperate zones because the pests are more diverse and not subject to cold winters. The soils are also better in temperate climates (rainfall washes away the nutrients in tropical soils, and these soils are older and not renewed by glaciers).
  • Landlocked countries are at an economic disadvantage: if an area is accessible to ships because it lies either on the sea coast or on a navigable river, then trade is easier and less costly: it costs roughly seven times more to ship a ton of cargo by land than by sea. Hence, landlocked countries profit less from the advantages of trade.
  • Similar advantages are shared by countries that have abundant reserves of natural resources such as fresh water, forests, minerals, fuels etc. (Although dependence on natural resources can also be a curse).

This being said, there is no overwhelming correlation between national wealth and geographic conditions that supposedly promote wealth: there are countries that are more prosperous than they should be given their geographic endowments, and vice versa. Other factors must therefore play a part, most notably institutions.

More posts in this series here.

The Causes of Poverty (57): No, It’s Not Overpopulation

There is enough food, water and energy in the world to support a decent life for the whole of humanity, even if the numbers of humans continue to grow at their current rate. Poverty, hunger, drought and lack of energy are caused by an inefficient and unjust distribution. It’s not the size of humanity and the supposed pressure it puts on the earth’s resources that results in poverty and suffering for so many of us. Let’s have a closer look at water, food and energy.

Water

The earth’s fresh water reserves are relatively small, and a lot is wasted on inefficient irrigation, inefficient home use and the production of animal food (the animals in turn are used for the production of meat consumed by people who already eat too much meat). More efficiency could help a lot, but there is also the vast reserve of salt water:

Desalination currently costs about $2 per thousand gallons, which in real units, is about $0.5 per thousand liters. It’s hard to get good recent data on water consumption, but it seems to have been 4000 cubic kilometers per year in 2003. Let’s guess it’s around 4500 cubic kilometers nowadays (about 70% of this is agricultural). It would cost about 2 trillion dollars to produce this water from desalination. (source)

Compare this to total military spending: $1.6 trillion in 2010. Eminently doable given the right priorities.

Food

[I]t should be possible to produce yield increases that are large enough to meet some of the predictions of world food needs, even without having to devote more land to arable agriculture. (source)

There’s a huge margin for growth in food production:

Food production in Africa is vastly less than the region’s known potential, and that is why so many millions are going hungry there. African farmers still use almost no fertilizer; only 4 percent of cropland has been improved with irrigation; and most of the continent’s cropped area is not planted with seeds improved through scientific plant breeding, so cereal yields are only a fraction of what they could be. (source, source)

In fact, the arable land is underused even on a global level:

Most countries are only using a bare fraction of their available agricultural land. The United States, for example – one of the world’s top producers – is using only 5.5 percent of its available agricultural land. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, only 5.6 percent of the world’s arable and permanent cropland and permanent pasture is under irrigation. (source)

World agricultural production has grown 2.5 to 3 times over the last 50 years but the cultivated area grew only by 12%. So it’s not like we’re running out of land on our “tiny” planet. Africa has around 600 million hectares of uncultivated arable land, about 60% of global total.

And then there’s waste: up to 40% of the world’s food ends up in the garbage bin, because of deficiencies in the food-chain infrastructure, in transportation and in storage. Farmers produce more than they can sell because they receive financial penalties from wholesalers when they can’t deliver fixed quantities throughout the year irrespective of climate conditions. Add to this excessive quality selection (shops throw away perfectly edible food because it’s not visually appealing, and apply overly zealous use-by dates) and consumer waste, and you have mountain ranges of wasted food that could be used to feed many more billions of people.

The enormously expensive and resource intensive production of meat could soon be a thing of the past. In vitro production of meat is becoming a real possibility. That will in turn reduce water usage, deforestation and other environmental catastrophes. Not to mention the consequences for the wellbeing of animals.

Energy

Briefly:

[W]e could replace our energy sources with solar panels, at current prices, while spending only a tiny bit more [on energy] than we currently do. (source)

More on overpopulation here. More posts in this series here.

Gender Discrimination (25): The Plough as a Cause of Gender Inequality

Gender inequality means different levels of protection of human rights according to gender. No need to say which of the two gender’s rights are usually violated more or protected less rigorously. Gender inequality occurs in many areas of life:

  • in political representation or participation
  • in income or labor market participation
  • in labor sorting (when women are relegated to certain professions)
  • in family life (when women do not have the same marriage or divorce rights, inheritance rights etc.)
  • in criminal justice (when the testimony of women is considered less valuable) etc.

Too many areas to mention, unfortunately.

When you read about the causes of gender inequality, the usual suspects are religion, patriarchy and all sorts of anti-women prejudice. A different and interesting perspective, focused on inequality in the labor market, is the following:

Ester Boserup … argues that gender role differences have their origins in different forms of agriculture practiced traditionally. In particular, she identifies important differences between shifting and plough cultivation. The former, which uses hand-held tools like the hoe and the digging stick, is labor intensive and women actively participate in farm work. The latter, in contrast, is more capital intensive, using the plough to prepare the soil. Unlike the hoe or digging stick, the plough requires significant upper body strength, grip strength, and burst of power, which are needed to either pull the plough or control the animal that pulls it.

Because of these requirements, when plough agriculture is practiced, men have an advantage in farming relative to women. Also reinforcing this gender-bias in ability is the fact that when the plough is used, there is less need for weeding, a task typically undertaken by women and children. In addition, child-care, a task almost universally performed by women, is most compatible with activities that can be stopped and resumed easily and do not put children in danger. These are characteristics that are satisfied for hoe agriculture, but not for plough agriculture since large animals are typically used to pull the plough. …

[T]his division of labor then generated norms about the appropriate role of women in society. Societies characterized by plough agriculture, and a resulting gender-based division of labor, developed the belief that the natural place for women is within the home. These cultural beliefs tend to persist even if the economy moves out of agriculture, affecting the participation of women in activities performed outside of the home, such as market employment, entrepreneurship, and participation in politics. (source)

And there does seem to be a strong statistical correlation between historical plough use and prejudice against women.

The Causes of Poverty (48): Overpopulation

It looks like we’re about to have another large famine, and so – right on cue – we’re hearing the familiar chorus of overpopulation. Equally predictable, I promised myself that this will be the last time that I drag my feet towards yet another rebuke of the Malthusians whose visions of the human flood always seem to cloud their perception of the facts.

The world’s population is estimated to continue its current growth path and to reach 9 billion in 2050, after which stabilization and even decline are likely. Those worrying about overpopulation claim that we can’t possible feed all those new people and that a decline in the numbers, if it will come, will come too late. A Malthusian catastrophe is inevitable without strong measures to reduce the number of human beings. However, that turns out to be a very simplistic assumption. There’s no good reason why humanity can’t feed one or two billion more members:

So long as plant breeding efforts are not hampered and modern agricultural technology continues to be available to farmers, it should be possible to produce yield increases that are large enough to meet some of the predictions of world food needs, even without having to devote more land to arable agriculture. (source)

The latter point also debunks the myth that population growth will inevitably mean increased deforestation and desertification.

Likewise, an excess number of people in a certain area isn’t the cause of current food shortages, and neither was it the cause of historic famines. A combination of climate factors, bad governance and infrastructure, the failure or inability to adopt modern farming technologies and panic hoarding produced those shortages. (Read also the work of Amartya Sen if you haven’t already done so).

If food production can keep up with expected population growth, maybe the problem is water. There’s indeed a water crisis in many parts of the world, but again it’s not population numbers that create the problem, but inefficient irrigation, excessive meat consumption and careless use. Rather than trying to limit the world’s population – which is very difficult anyway because it seems to require dictatorial government and has unexpected harmful consequences – one should tackle inefficiency and waste and focus on the development and improvement of fresh water production. Those objectives are eminently doable.

So, if water and food will be OK – notwithstanding the odd local famine that is likely to occur with any given number of human beings populating the earth – maybe a general increase of the world’s population will lead to pressures on poor countries’ healthcare systems? More children without extended healthcare systems means increased child and maternal mortality. However, current population increases go hand in hand with radical improvements in child and maternal mortality rates, so why would future increases be any different?

And don’t get me started on migration flows. The supposed harm done by migration is one of the biggest lies out there, on a par with overpopulation rhetoric.

More on overpopulation here.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (16): Climate and Geography

There are some contingent reasons why countries’ governments develop or fail to develop a strong system of centralized control over resources. And those that fail to do so tend to be more democratic. The detailed argument is here, but I’ll give you a short summary.

Montesquieu already related differences in human political conditions to climatic differences. And indeed, it’s not uncommon to see the argument that water for instance plays a crucial role. Water makes land valuable, but only in countries where there’s continuous rainfall over the seasons will water be available in sufficient quantities. In other countries, a centrally coordinated irrigation system will be necessary, and this requirement favors a strong central government. In countries where citizens don’t depend on the government for water for their agriculture for instance, those citizens have more bargaining power.

Also, continuous rainfall results in agrarian surpluses, which in turn favor urbanization and taxation. Taxation is a well-known cause of democratization (“no taxation without representation“), and popular mobilization against authoritarian rule is easier in large cities. Urbanization also leads to commerce, specialization and industrialization, phenomena which result in a large and powerful middle class, able to bargain the taxes it pays against more rights and freedoms.

In light of this, it’s not surprising that democracy developed first in North-West Europe and North America, regions with plenty of rainfall. And neither is it surprising that so many non-democracies suffer from the so-called resource curse: countries that are endowed with natural resources that – unlike rainfall – can easily be brought under central control tend to develop governance structures that favor such control. Government will be centralized and authoritarian because the resource rents for the leaders are very high. And when there’s central control over resources, there’s also central control over all the rest: leaders have a strong financial incentive to stay in power and to oppress opposition movements.

But it’s not just climate that favors democracy or autocracy. There’s also geography. A country that is shielded from external military threats as a result of its geography or topography – for example because it’s an island, has a long coastal line, or is situated in a mountainous area – doesn’t need to sustain a standing army at the exclusive disposal of its leader. Without such an army, the leader’s control over coercion is limited and it’s much more difficult to develop a centralized governance system. Perhaps the success of democracy in countries such as Iceland, the UK, Scandinavia and Switzerland can be explained in this way. The army in Switzerland is really a volunteer militia, whereas the army in the UK has long been the hobby of the nobility.

So these are two examples of climate and geography deciding the balance of power in favor of citizens. A government that isn’t favored by climate or geography in its attempts to centralize power faces a stronger citizenry. Likewise, if a government depends on its citizens’ agreement for the use of an important resource such as the military – for geographic reasons – then those citizens have bargaining power. They will only participate in war or conquest if they get something in return, e.g. more rights and freedoms.

Of course, it would be silly to claim that climate factors or geography determine political outcomes, or even that they are the main causes. Democracy depends on a lot of things, especially beliefs and intentional collective action , much more than objective and contingent circumstances. But those circumstances do play a role, as they always do. Other causes are discussed in other posts in this blog series.

Self-Defeating Human Rights Policies (5): Land Reform

Intuitively, if poor people don’t have land of their own and are forced to work for a few major landowners who have monopolized all the fertile land in the country, there’s a bargaining problem: poor people have no other options and because they are so numerous they can be played out against each other by the landowners. Wages tend to remain low in such a scenario (supply and demand, remember). That’s a recipe for a very unequal society. So the intuitive case for land reform is strong, especially when you consider that equality in land ownership isn’t just a matter of fairness but is also good for economic growth.

On the other hand, some notable attempts have gone horribly awry. Land reform policies in Zimbabwe – supposedly implemented for the benefit of the poor but probably for other reasons – have made things even worse for the poor. Why? Cutting up large chunks of land and giving a lot of poor people a very small piece can undo economies of scale. Furthermore, expropriating large landowners forces them out of business, and a lot of know-how will be lost.

So, what’s the deal? I guess it all depends on how land reform is done. Things don’t have to turn ugly. Land reform doesn’t have to be counter-productive. Property rights in general, and more specifically property of land in poor agrarian countries, are very important for the poor.

It is sometimes implied that improving property rights primarily favors the rich, conjuring up the image of rich owners of capital securing greater rents. However, there is increasing evidence that secure land rights, in particular, are an important vehicle for the poor that may promote both equity and efficiency. Lin…, for example, showed that the move from collective to household farming in China starting in 1978 led to large productivity increases in agriculture. …

Obtaining property rights over land in urban areas can also help poor households to gain access to credit. (source)

The Causes of Poverty (33): Agricultural Subsidies

After the United States and before Turkey, the world’s second largest producer of tomato concentrate is the EU. Its tomato farmers are paid a minimum price higher than the world market price, which stimulates production. The processors, in turn, are paid a subsidy to cover the difference between domestic and world prices.

Some of the effects of these subsidies on West African LDCs in the 1990s have been documented. The subsidy is reported to have reached about $300 million in 1997. The processors, then, need to find markets, and about 20 per cent of exports at that time went to West Africa. In the mid-1990s, about 80 per cent of demand in this region was covered by tomato products from the EU, which were cheaper than local supplies.

Stiff competition from EU industries led to the closure of tomato-processing plants in several West African countries. In Senegal, for instance, tomato cultivation was introduced in the 1970s, and progressively acquired an important position for farmers, for whom tomato production was synonymous with a key opportunity to diversify their farming systems and stabilize incomes. In 1990-1991, production of tomato concentrate was 73,000 tons, and Senegal exported concentrate to its neighbours. Over the past seven years, total production has fallen to less than 20,000 tons.

One of the main reasons for this dramatic fall was the liberalization of tomato concentrate imports in 1994. Despite the positive impetus provided by the devaluation of the CFA franc, the tomato-processing industry could not compete with EU exporters. Imports of concentrates jumped from 62 tons in 1994 (value: $0.1 million) to 5,130 tons in 1995 (value: $4.8 million) and 5,348 tons in 1996 (value: $3.8 million). SOCAS, the one Senegalese processing firm that has survived, buys imported triple concentrate and processes it into double concentrate.

Other West African LDCs – Burkina Faso and Mali – have had similar experience of enormous increases in imports of EU tomato concentrate. (source)

More on free trade and protectionism.

The Causes of Poverty (32): Overpopulation

How can I say, as I so often do on this blog, that overpopulation isn’t a very important problem, and certainly not the main cause of such human rights violations as famine, war, poverty etc.? Especially when we know that there will be 9 billion people on the earth in 2050, that with the almost 7 billion living now we can’t manage to properly feed one billion everyday, that many resources (water, fish, arable land in certain places etc.) are already overexploited, that rising incomes will mean rising consumption of food and water (especially meat, a water-intensive commodity), and that because of all of this green house gases will increase?

How can you be so stupid not to believe that overpopulation is a problem, I’m often asked in comments on this blog. Maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that people have been sounding the alarm about the “population bomb” for over 200 years now, and it still hasn’t gone off. Of course, it’s not because people have been wrong for 200 years that they will continue to be wrong. But there are some indications in this paper that they will continue to be wrong.

The paper explains how we can feed 9 billion people, and argues that we’ll need to change the food system. Agricultural waste is a huge problem. Up to 40% of the world’s food ends up in the garbage bin, because of deficiencies in the food-chain infrastructure, transportation and storage. Farmers produce more than they can sell because they receive financial penalties from wholesalers when they can’t deliver fixed quantities throughout the year irrespective of climate conditions. Add to this excessive quality selection (shops throw away perfectly edible food because it’s not visually appealing, and apply overly zealous use-by dates) and consumer waste, and you have mountain ranges of wasted food that could be used to feed many more billions of people.

We could also promote vegetarianism, or at least a reduction in meat consumption, since meat production is very costly in terms of water use, land use, deforestation, green house gases etc. (see here). A side effect would be that we reduce factory farming and are a bit nicer to animals.

Stricter systems to reduce overfishing are also required. And let’s not forget that on a global level, the arable land is underused.

Most countries are only using a bare fraction of their available agricultural land. The United States, for example – one of the world’s top producers – is using only 5.5 percent of its available agricultural land. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, only 5.6 percent of the world’s arable and permanent cropland and permanent pasture is under irrigation. That gives humanity a lot of room to grow.

Mother Earth actually has the capacity to feed her people, even the billions that live on her now. As more and more people need to be fed, more and more people can be put to work farming, planting, and engineering new food management solutions. (source)

But not just the quantity of agriculture can be boosted, also its quality. Crop yields can be improved, perhaps by way of genetically modified crops but other techniques are also available: farmer training and financing for example, or more efficient irrigation, which would also solve the problem of water shortages, another “consequence” of overpopulation.

This shows that when you improve the food system, you automatically lessen other types of environmental population impact: not only water shortages but also global warming (because of less waste and less meat production), desertification (because of more efficient land use and again less meat production) etc.

Of course, focusing on food production and consumption is just part of the job. An increasing population also means increasing energy consumption. But here as well, there are many things that can be done short of population control. It’s the way energy is used, not the number of people using it, that is the problem. 85% of the people living on this planet consume below the world’s average energy use. Adding many more people isn’t likely to add substantially to energy use.