Friday, March 17, 2017

Water action: ethic, ethics or legal?

Ever since Governor Dayton proposed "fostering an ethic of water conservation in our communities," I've been wondering how raising awareness of the need to preserve and protect clean water fits with the facts that water pollution control has been treated as a legal obligation more than an ethical requirement. Back when I was first learning to hunt and fish, I was taught that "ethics are what you do when no one is watching." Aldo Leopold phrased it more elegantly. Bob Dylan, a Minnesotan, noted that "to live outside the law you must be honest." Today's posting is one of an occasional series exploring community, ethics and legal obligations in a sustainable society.


late Winter corn field with stubble and water
late Winter corn field with stubble and water
Photo by J. Harrington

A story in today's St. Paul PioneerPress, Buffer strips ahead of deadline; Mark Dayton opposes big changes to law, once again caused me to wonder how we, as a society, see the relationship between what's legal and what's ethical. Legal requirements usually either prescribe (mandate) what we must do, e.g. get a permit before you discharge pollution to water, or create a buffer strip if you're a farmer, or proscribe (prohibit) what we're not supposed to do, e.g., drive a vehicle without a license. To phrase that a little better, think of legal as what we can or can not do, ethical is what we should or should not do. Sometimes they overlap, sometimes not.

But when we hear mining companies or farmers or others say that it "costs to much" to do what's needed to keep our air and water clean enough so the rest of us can safely breathe it or drink it, swim in it, and eat fish caught in it, that raises the questions of "Costs who, and For what?" The PioneerPress article linked above brings another perspective to such a question this way:
"Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, who worked to pass the initial buffer bill, said he was surprised Dayton was so emphatically against delaying the implementation deadline by a year. He noted that because the governor vetoed last year’s tax bill for an unrelated reason there currently isn’t funding to help counties enforce the buffer law."
There is another way to approach such a situation. If farmers behave both legally and ethically, and protect the soil as they are wont to claim they do, enforcement costs shouldn't be an issue for some time and therefore, there's little, if any, reason to delay implementation. If some farmers continue for an extended time to not create buffer strips, aren't they unethically taking "competitive advantage" of their neighbors (and the rest of us)? Wouldn't those same neighbors feel a little less neighborly and, perhaps, call to the attention of a county agency responsible for enforcement, or the Department of Agriculture or of Natural Resources, the location of required buffer strips (blue lines in graphic below) that are missing? Has anyone considered using drones to fly the waterways?

Sunrise River agricultural buffers needed
Sunrise River area agricultural buffers needed

There are many ways to approach motivating us to improve the quality of life and our environment, and promoting ethical, responsible, citizen behaviors may be the least expensive. If every driver were a scofflaw, could we afford the number of state troopers needed to enforce speed limits? If every tax payer were a significant tax cheat, wouldn't the IRS audit staff have to increase unreasonably? Wouldn't we be better off as a society if we emphasized ethical behavior (a carrot to feel good) more than legalities and enforcement (a stick for punishment) were kept limited to a level needed to deal with those who would take advantage of their neighbors and fellow citizens? Farmers and businesses are entitled to try to make a living. They aren't entitled to poison the world the rest of us depend on. That's really what it comes down to in many cases, isn't it?


[UPDATE: related?  Insurance Startup Uses Behavioral Science To Keep Customers Honest]

There are some who have recently gone much more than an extra mile to protect water resources. Some of them are now facing legal challenges for doing things many consider ethical but, perhaps, unlawful.  If you'd like to consider doing something ethical to support legal defenses for DAPL protestors, follow this link: Water Protectors Legal Collective. Thanks.

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

~Wendell Berry



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