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Friday, August 21, 2015

This Episode of #PlanetMoney About California Farming and Water is a #MustListen but it Made Me Really Angry

I love podcasts but have a hard time catching up with them. Sometimes I find myself weeks or months behind after not listening for a while, so this podcast was posted back on July 22, 2015. Listen to it here or read the transcript.

This episode of PLANET MONEY, an always entertaining money-covering podcast often covers the topic of economics in a very approachable way. The reporters on the NPR-produced podcast come across as balanced, well-educated people. Which is great, but sometimes they come across as too balanced. Sometimes, there simply aren’t even two sides to a story.

 In a nutshell (preemptive pun not intended), this episode is about how pistachio farmers in California are dealing with the huge drought. Specifically, it deals with how nut farmers, are among the only entities in California that are able to dig far enough down to reach receding water levels that are now out of reach for the wells of some California residents. One reporter asked a water scientist where things were headed in this area of California and he referred to the Mad Max movies.


The episode goes on to explain why farmers are still planting nut trees during this crazy drought despite a gallon of water being required to grow a single pistachio. Turns out, it’s the drought. See, the drought is making nuts scarce so the price is going up and so that makes farmers want to plant more trees so they can sell more nuts while the price is high. It makes good financial sense, right? Except, California is running out of water thanks to a historically bad drought… and because of farmers who are planting more nut trees. See, agriculture is pretty much the biggest drinker of water. But hey, you know, economics.

Maybe there’s something more important than economics? Not according to the NPR reporters who work on PLANET MONEY.

That’s what made me angry about the episode — how middle-of-the-road the reporters were. They seemed to understand where the farmers (aka business people) were coming from. They talk about how farmers are hard to convince regarding self-rationing water.

Oh gosh, yeah, don’t harm your bottom line just because your state is running out of water — you know — that thing that is two-thirds of you and without it you’ll die.

The episode quotes one estimate of how much water is left in California aquifers as 50–100 years of H2O. In March of this year, NASA estimated that the water in the Califnornia’s reservoirs would only last another year. But the PLANET MONEY episode doesn’t mention this fact at all. As though, things are bad, but not THAT bad. As if, ignoring another source of drinking water for Californians running low would somehow not be a factor in a landscape where people were already running out of drinking water.

 Sorry, but things are THAT bad…

This episode begins with a story about how taps are literally running dry for some folks in the same area of California as the farmers. Their home wells have no water. Local authorities are delivering non-potable water for showering (is it safe to wash with water you can’t drink?!?*) but residents have to go get potable water from a depot run by those same local authorities.

What is going to happen when even more of the wells at people’s homes run dry? With water supplies dwindling in reservoirs, and rain out of the forecast for the better part of the few years, it seems like there could be a cascade effect that will make water a Mad-Max-style problem really quickly, at least in the central valley of California, if not for the entire state.

I lived in LA for fourteen years. LA gets its water from hundreds of miles away. In other words, it already can’t survive on local water supplies. Now think about other areas of California finding themselves in the same situation. Where will they get their water from? Every major city in California can’t all get their water from hundreds of miles away.
Maybe if the NPR reporters had put the story about home wells running dry for people at the end of the show, I’d not be so harsh on them. But by the end of the piece I got this sense that they were feeling a little passive aggressive about it all. At one point, they mention the idea of the “Commons” — the concept that some resources belong to all of us. However, they go on to explain that when a resource is available for free, it will definitely get used up by the populace. The reporters made it sound like it was just a fact of life — like the people rabid dogs, incapable of thinking about the community they live in.

In other words, the NPR reporters seemed to feel that short-term self-interest would trump long term self-interest every time (and that was shrugworthy, but ultimately OK). They seemed to feel this so strongly that they barely even mentioned it — as though it were axiomatic. You know, duh, of course people are going to take every free thing they can get!

Wow. I think these folks have been covering money for too long.

I mean, they failed to mention that the very concept of the Commons was created to establish a kind of “greater good” idea. You point to something we all own and say “use all this up and everyone suffers, including you.”

I feel that only unfettered greed will blind people to the needs of the community. Only Capitalism has this kind of an influence on people.

At one point in the PLANET MONEY piece, the reporter asks the pistachio farmer if farmers would agree to rationing water. He replied hesitantly, saying that even as few as five farmers wouldn’t be unable to reach a consensus. In other words, he’s saying that even 5 guys in a room, staring at their bank balances would ignore an historically dwindling water supply.

Like I said — only Capitalism does this to people.

It’s like a concept I’ve blogged about before — the Absurd Disconnect. Similar to the idea of Cognitive Dissonance, the Absurd Disconnect is when you lie in the face of contradictory proof. Imaging you are staring at a monster right in the face and insist that everything is fine and that your safety is assured and that there is another, more important threat, in another direction that really needs our attention. Of course, that monster is really the bigger threat.

In fact, this isn’t like the Absurd Disconnect, it is exactly the Absurd Disconnect. In this case, the monster is a dwindling water supply and all these greedy farmers can do is think to themselves “Let me get as much of that as I can before it’s gone!”

If anything, it’s the Capitalist farmers who fit the PLANET MONEY-sanctioned definition of the Commons. They’re the ones that seem to want to gulp all of that water down just so they can make some short-term gains, failing to realize that under current conditions, they will be out of a job in the foreseeable future.

The Planet Money folks fall just short of hitting this nail on its head, seeming to play that passive aggressive card, just sitting back and letting the listener make up their own mind. The catch is, this isn’t an “issue” like abortion or gay marriage. This is about facts. California is in it’s fourth year of drought. According to this USA Today article (from September 2014), California’s drought is part of a 15 year drought that spans across most of the western United States.

And here we (and the NPR reporters behind PLANET MONEY) are, pretending like this isn’t some sort of really really scary trend. There is no guarantee that it will ever rain in sufficient amounts to break this drought. We are doing the same thing we did with Global Warming/Climate Change, years ago. We’re ignoring water as a problem despite seeing the warning signs right now.

Do I have a solution? Not one you’re going to like… maybe you have a better one?

The only solution that I can think of is a slow evacuation of drought-stricken areas. This needs to happen now, before there is a rush. Water is a basic building block of life. We literally can’t function without it. Short of desalination plants (which we are told cost too much) there is no future in these drought-stricken areas.

I’d love to hear a better solution, but seeing as most folks just want to keep pretending the problem isn’t really a problem, expecting any good solutions is kind of silly.

 *Seriously — how is it safe to shower in non-potable water but NOT safe to wash dishes with it?

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