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Will rice straw make farmers richer?

  • Published at 03:06 pm October 19th, 2019
What should be done with rice straw? Bigstock

We need solutions which people will voluntarily grasp at

Processing rice straw into biogas may or may not be a good idea. The jury is, as they say, still out on whether it is, in fact, a reduction in resources used so that we walk more lightly on this earth.

Sure, it could be that gaining some of the energy contained by the fermentation process is worth it. It could be that the costs of performing the action are greater than the income from it -- meaning that we shouldn’t be doing it for two reasons. 

One being that subtracting value makes us poorer, the other that in a market system prices do a lot of work for us. One of which is that things that are more expensive are using more resources.

It could be that ploughing the straw into the paddy field is the best solution. Even, possibly, just burning it. However, the research gets one thing absolutely correct, and this righteousness of method outweighs anything at all we might want to say about the specific activity.

Whatever it is that we want to do about climate change -- indeed, anything else -- it has to be of benefit to the people doing the doing. Whatever it is that is done with rice straw, it has to make the rice farmers richer. 

If it doesn’t -- and especially if it makes them poorer -- they won’t do it. On the basic grounds that we humans tend to do things which make us better off and don’t do those things, actively shun them, which makes us poorer.

So, a scheme, plan, and recipe for the utilization of straw? Sure, why not? But the determinant of success is twofold. Firstly, it does actually achieve something, obviously. But even then, of much greater importance is that it achieves some benefit for those who are doing the process itself.

All of which is really just our basic climate change problem written the other way around. Recall what that essential fault is. There are things we can do which make us better off. But the pollution that results from us enriching ourselves makes others worse off. 

Say, heating my house in Europe leads to carbon emissions (strictly, carbon dioxide emissions) which lead to global heating thus rising sea levels which reduce the amount of land available in the Ganges river delta. 

Of course, the effect of my alone emissions will be trivial, but when we’ve whole continents doing it we do have a problem. The problem being the third party effects. If my emissions damage me and me only -- as is true of smoking tobacco -- then I should be left at liberty to kill myself slowly. 

If my emissions shrink a farm thousands of miles away at no cost to me, then we need to change the system in some manner. This is what economists mean by the third party -- someone not a party to the decisions being made being affected by those very decisions.

This being what the entire problem is -- people not having to carry the costs of their decisions. We get to do things harmful to others without having to carry the costs ourselves. Thus we’re going to do too many of those things.

What our researchers into rice straw have, correctly, noted is that this system must be put into reverse when we consider what to do about it. It’s entirely possible, easy even, to come up with plans to reduce emissions.

We could kill off industrial civilization, for example, that would do it. That would also kill off several billions of people which most, especially those selected to do the dying, think not beneficial. Thus they won’t do it.

The same is true of banning cars, or of insisting that houses be cooler in winter, or that all should eat vegetables, not meat. Yes, all will reduce emissions. But people won’t do them because they don’t think they’re of benefit to themselves.

What we need are solutions which people will voluntarily grasp at, be delighted to adopt. Something they’ll do only if they recognize them as being something that benefits those very same selves.

This is the same problem in reverse. People can indeed be remarkably generous, all of us have had in our lives experience of that. But as a general rule, about how we all live our lives, we’re rather selfish. 

We do what is best for us, and if the costs are on someone else, well, pity, but there it is. It is this very self-centredness that any solution also has to appeal to. Any solution to any part of climate change has to benefit those performing the actual action itself. Otherwise, they’ll not do it. 

Farmers won’t burn rice straw when they’ve got something better, more beneficial to them, to do with it. The world won’t use fossil fuels when there’s something better to replace them, and sadly, not before that time.

The task, therefore, is to go find those better ways.

Tim Worstall is a Senior Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London.

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