Monday, November 22, 2010

When is it right to start criticising our ethics?

Now it is Ireland that has to be bailed out by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Why does the country of Ireland need to be bailed out? Here's what a BBC article reads:

"Put simply, the seriousness of the situation it finds itself in with regard to the debts of the Irish banks.

As several of the banks have been part-nationalised, most of their massive debt is now actually government debt.

And the great majority of this debt is owed to foreign lenders, which the Irish banks, and therefore the Irish government, simply cannot afford to default on.

This is because the Irish Republic, as a small country, is greatly reliant upon this overseas investment. And to default on their overseas loans would make it very difficult - and far more expensive - for Irish banks to borrow from their foreign counterparts in the future.

More importantly, if Irish banks could not pay back their overseas debt, it would have a knock-on impact on the Republic's overall credit rating.

This would make it more expensive for Dublin to sell government bonds, as it would have to offer a higher rate of interest to more sceptical institutional investors."

House values have fallen by between 50% and 60%, and bad debts - mainly in the form of loans to developers - have built up in the country's main banks. This almost wrecked the institutions, leaving them needing bailing out by the government at a cost of 45bn euros (£39bn; $60.1bn).

This has opened a huge hole in the Irish government's finances - which will see it run a budget deficit equivalent to 32% of GDP this year."

I don't claim to be any sort of expert on banking, international debt and investing and the proportion of GDP that a country's debt is. What I do see, however, is a confluence of events across the world, that although seem disparate to most people, are fundamentally connected through their root cause(s). I think two graphics that are particularly telling are those two below, that I have pulled from here:

What the two graphics together tell me is that most Western countries (including the US) live well beyond their means - services are promised to people that the government takes loans out (from other countries or the IMF or the World Bank) to provide, and these loans are used to create vested interests in those services, ones which people will absolutely not do without. Then, when a problem does arise, say that too many people are starting to default on their mortgage payments, or people's pensions are lost because an airline goes bankrupt, we address the problem by band-aiding it, and addressing it with even more complexity than that which caused the problem in the first place.

Let's take the case of the automobile. We realise that we can use high-energy-density fossil fuels to power internal combustion engines that will propel people from place to place. We don't think of the consequences of sprawl, fluctuating gasoline prices, or greenhouse gas emissions. Now the world is in a bind. We have all of these people that live incredibly far from the places they work and shop, and think of an automobile as an expression of freedom. With "growing" environmental and climate change concerns, there are several options proposed - 1) let's cap carbon dioxide emissions and have companies duke it out to not be the ones paying to pollute, 2) let's tax those entities that pollute based on the amount they pollute, 3) let's find a way to continue driving cars and extract resources from the Earth, just this time let's not let it be fossil fuels. Okay, so we will drive....electric cars and have wind turbines. What do electric cars and wind turbines need? They need batteries and magnets. What are batteries and magnets made of? Lithium, lanthanum, neodymium, and other rare earth elements. Well, the largest deposits of lithium lie in Bolivia (but also in Afghanistan, now!), with an indigenous President who threatens vested interests by instituting land reform (read/listen here and here), and says "Either capitalism dies, or Planet Earth dies." At the same time, the largest deposits of rare earth metals lie in China (here's something for the techies). What will a country like the US do to get access to large reserves of lithium or rare earths? Well, maybe they go to war or assassinate those whose views are markedly different than their own. Also, did you hear about more coal miners stuck underground in New Zealand?

It seems to me that the foundational causes of these problems lie not in that the coal is too deep, or the oil is too far away, or that the rare earths are reserved in a country whose Communism we don't like, but rather in our ethics that compel us to want access to these resources so we can continue to live lives on debt and deficit. We are taking debt at the expense of those people, creatures and ecosystems that will come after we are gone, and we live in a world full of moral, ethical and spiritual deficit.

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