Was the Aral Sea one of 'nature's mistakes', or was it the scene of an environmental crime?

Is this the site of a major environmental crime - or an enlightened development project?The left photo shows, I think, the Aral Sea as it was last week. Wiki reports that ‘Soviet experts apparently considered the Aral to be “nature’s error”… [So] ‘From 1960 to 1998, the sea’s surface area shrank by approximately 60%, and its volume by 80%. In 1960, the Aral Sea had been the world’s fourth-largest lake, with an area of approximately 68,000 square kilometres (26,000 sq mi) and a volume of 1,100 cubic kilometres (260 cu mi); by 1998, it had dropped to 28,687 square kilometres (11,076 sq mi), and eighth-largest. The amount of water it had lost is the equivalent of completely draining Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Over the same time period, its salinity increased from about 10 g/L to about 45 g/L’. Which view is correct? The lives of those who won their living from the Aral Sea have been devastated. But the population of Uzbekistan benefits from valuable exports of cotton.
PS I wish Google Maps was available on aircraft, so that passengers know their exact position in relation to the ground.

14 thoughts on “Was the Aral Sea one of 'nature's mistakes', or was it the scene of an environmental crime?

  1. Christine

    An irony, a story of oil supporting the restoration of the environment!
    [ http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/04/100402-aral-sea-story/ ]

    How should sustainable agriculture be defined?

    Any cost/benefit analysis would say that a cotton crop was the wrong choice for this location. It is by far better if cotton growing is supported by rainfall rather than irrigation. The cotton belt in the United States is an example of a suitable climate for cotton growing:

    “The boundaries of the Cotton Belt are determined largely by climate. The primary production requirement for cotton is a long, hot growing season, and the northern boundary is set
    by the factor of temperature. Very little cotton is produced in areas with growing seasons of less than 200 frost-free days and a mean summer temperature below F. Within the region of
    suitable temperature, cotton is grown in areas where the annual average rainfall is as little as 20 inches and as much as 50 inches (Figure 25 and the color map). In all important cotton-producing areas, however, the months during which the crop matures and is harvested are relatively dry.”
    (Source: ‘Mortgage Lending Experience in Agriculture’).

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Even if it is only slight, it is great to have some good news from the Aral Sea. One wonders if Bentham would justify what was done with an argument draining the Aral Sea providing for ‘the greatest good of the greatest number’?
      Re sustainability, the famous Bruntland definition was that “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. But since “needs” were not defined the “definition” was empty. Do I have a “need” for 3 houses, 3 cars, 3 computers, 3 TVs and 3 walk-in freezers? Maybe; maybe not. And who can say whether these “needs” can be met without compsomising the needs of future generations to meet their “needs”? It is quite possible that an age of abundant energy lies ahead, from oil shale, nuclear fusion, artificial photosynthesis or elsewhere, and that anyone without “3 of everything” will be judged below the poverty line and brought up to the “safety net” standard by welfare programmes. The poorest people in the rich countries already have health care, education, housing etc to much higher standards than the “middle” classes of a century ago.

  2. christine

    The utilitarian argument? There also needed to be some consideration of how the costs and benefits changed over time. For example, in the beginning it was looking like a win win situation for everyone. However, as the Aral sea drained obviously any judgment as to the numbers benefiting would have had to be reassessed.

    In some circumstances you may have a need for 3 houses, 3 cars, 3 computers, 3 TVs and the like. Perhaps the most important question would be is it possible to ensure that the best use is made of these possessions? (A little like the outrage over the empty seats at the Olympic stadiums).

    With a little creative thinking a stand-by system for last minute unoccupied seats could benefit everyone and create considerable joy in the Olympic village for those who find that they now have seats!

    It is quite true that standards of living are constantly changing and generations in the past would have considered our lifestyles as unimaginable luxury.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      For the sake of argument, let us assume that the cost-benefit calculation to humans was greatly in favour of draining the Aral Sea. Would this make it the right thing to do? Or is there a higher-order calculation which would support protection of the Aral Sea to benefit local residents and ‘the environment’. In other words, are humans the measure by which to take these decisions or does ‘nature’ have its own rights (as Aldo Leopold argued)?
      The UK papers are joking about the army being called in to fill the empty seats. It seems they were allocated to the ‘Olympic Family’ which appears to be a race of supra-national beings who have garnered a permanent right to keep their noses in the Olympic Trough. One assumes that they will return to the snows of Mount Olympus until 2016, possibly passing the time by hurling the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune at mere mortals.

  3. Christine

    In human terms the argument is framed as the right to life, in nature as the right to exist. The principle is the same and is not supposedly based on utilitarian considerations. In Christian terms the right to life is considered as an absolute, inalienable right.

    Unfortuneately most of texts around the debate on the right to life centre on abortion and reproductive rights, and this is true also of Buddhism, however the principle is much deeper and broader. [ http://www.fnsa.org/fall98/tsomo.html ]

    Perhaps a more fullsome debate would clarify issues of the right to life as much as issues surrounding nature and the right to exist?

    Perhaps members of the Olympic Family if asked would be happy to give seats that they don’t intend using to athletes not competing and family and relatives of Olympians who undoubtedly would be the most enthusiastic cheer squad and incredibly grateful for the opportunity?

    Otherwise maybe a seat lottery could both raise money (for future sports talent development etc)and solve the problem of rows and rows of empty seats when the Olypmic Family do not attend.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Does mainstream Christianity see ‘Man’ as separate from ‘Nature’? Surely God created all the Creation so that if Man has a right to life then so do all the living things which God created. Or is this nullified by the ‘dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth?’ Ecological Christianity interprets ‘dominion’ as a duty of care (‘stewardship’), rather than as a right to endlessly exploit. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_and_environmentalism#Basic_beliefs

      I believe members of the Olympic Family are doing the decent thing and giving up their rights to exclusive transport lanes and vacant seats at the Games. As with the Gods of Mount Olympus, they are influenced by human passions as well as by their Godly Natures. http://www.metro.co.uk/olympics/906753-david-cameron-and-jacques-rogge-use-public-transport-at-london-2012

  4. Christine

    Man and nature are different no doubt. How they differ is an interesting question as is the implicatons of this difference. Same same with gender difference.

    Yes the distinction between what God created and the right to life is also interesting. And it may help inform the debate about stewardship. God is responsible for the existence of all things, but it is within the free will of man to kill life.

    For this reason there is the prohibition ‘Thou shalt not kill’. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_shall_not_murder ] The Jewish religion connects this with blood guilt and is a prohibition not against the taking of all life but the taking of innocent life.

    How nature is considered in this dialogue about innocent life is an interesting question as we do not think of nature as innocent or guilty (of crimes etc). So by definition nature is innocent, but is also probably not considered moral in the way humans are? Perhaps only moral beings can be either innocent or guilty?

    Perhaps the stewardship should be seen in the frame of legitimate use, ie the good or bad use of nature? In Christian understanding man and nature are considered together under the label of ‘creatures/creation’. All creatures/creation should be used in a positive creative way not in a negative destructive way.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I am not very happy with the concept of ‘stewardship’ because it gives humans a superior power and assumes they have superior knowledge. Darwin, always thinking about the survival of the fittest, wrote that ‘But to return to our more immediate subject; although some instincts are more powerful than others, thus leading to corresponding actions, yet it cannot be maintained that the social instincts are ordinarily stronger in man, or have become stronger through long-continued habit, than the instincts, for instance, of self-preservation, hunger, lust, vengeance, &c. Why then does man regret, even though he may endeavour to banish any such regret, that he has followed the one natural impulse, rather than the other; and why does he further feel that he ought to regret his conduct? Man in this respect differs profoundly from the lower animals.’ So if the baser instincts are strong then humans must be expected to act in base ways. Darwin regarded man as ‘just’ another animal. He was not an athiest but tended to agnosticism and, as a young man, thought God had set up the Laws of Nature but did not intervene in human affairs on a daily basis. Is it a Law of Nature that we should expand the human population at the expense of ‘wild nature’? I hope not!

  5. Christine

    I am not entirely sure myself what God meant about dominion…and for the most of the time it would seem my opportunities to exercise dominion over nature are very limited. Certainly on a daily basis I am not commanding birds of the air or fish of the sea to do anything. And if they asked me where the best nesting or feeding spot might be my advice might not be very helpful.

    However, from my knowledge of indigenous culture and increase and decrease ceremonies it is possible to imagine a very real form of nature stewardship which is also akin to familial relations with nature.

    Perhaps gardening is one form of dominion? And maybe the refashioning of natural resources into architecture is too. If so, in these activities, it would seem to be good to consider the ecological consequences of these actions as far as it possible. In Law there are discussions about giving nature standing, but nobody seriously considers that either trees or animals would represent themselves. We do not seem to have adequately overcome the communication barrier here to make that possible, at least yet.

    Yes instinctive reactions are important. True, often after acting on impulse you can think better of it. I am not sure whether animals do any reassessment of their decisions of this sort?
    Baser instincts?

    Well perhaps the desire to expand the human population at the expense of wild nature or even each other is an example of this. It would certainly seem we all have an individual responsibility to plan our families. How this extends beyond the family unit to State control and population policy at local and world scales I am not sure. China’s one child policy is a famous example of State policy at the level of the individual and it tended to disadvantage girls.

    Again indigenous cultures sort to maintain sustainable populations in balance with nature. So there is a model for what this might look like.

    But perhaps our contemporary success at industrialisation and divorcing ourselves from natural rythms by control of nature has skewed our perspective on what is both reasonable and responsible to do? It is not all bad. The elimination of diseases certainly seems to be a positive. Also task specialisation, increased communications and transportation has meant we can to some extent smooth out the toughs and peaks of the good and bad times. There are very few famines in the first world now.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Indiginous cultures provide an excellent model for sustainable principles and, on a Malthusian basis, I assume we will have to follow their example at some point. The factor which has let us escape Malthus’ prediction for two centuries is technical change.
      The interesting and encouraging example for those who would like to see fewer humans on earth is Japan http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Japan and many other countries would be in similar positions if they banned immigration.
      My views are:
      1) Parts of the world should managed, like gardens, for humans. This would include cities and agriculture – PROVIDING, they were managed on a multi-objective basis
      2) Other, large, parts of the world (including the Aral Sea in 1950) should be ‘set apart’ as ‘not for further human exploitation’. Antarctica is the best example of this so far. The word I would use for them is ‘sacred’ in the ancient sense of ‘set apart for reverence’
      3) National ‘Parks’ are not sacred space. As the term implies, they are equivalent to urban parks: places for human recreation (and for exercising ‘rangers’ in mock-military outfits and vehicles’.
      Medieval ‘stewards’ (etymology: from stig “hall, pen” + weard “guard”) knew their masters’ wishes. The problem for Christian Ecologists assuming a stewardship role is a lack of clarity about God’s intentions. Historians of the evolutionary process, which results from Nature’s Laws, tell us that ‘in the long term, all species become extinct’. Humans seem destined for an early exist and, if this is God’s intention, then un-sustainable behaviour may accord with his Will.

  6. chirstine

    Here is an example where God might want us to exercise some appropriate dominion over fish of the sea:

    The conflict between people and nature is nicely illustrated in this example of a ferry striking a mother whale. [ http://www.news.com.au/national/ferry-travelling-across-sydney-harbour-may-have-hit-a-whale-en-route-to-manly/story-fndo4bst-1226443782020 ] People are generally delighted with the presence of mother and baby whales in the harbour, so this news story is likely to prompt moves to better protect them during their stay in the harbour and on their migration north.

    Another of the increasing interactions between nature and the human environmnent happened a short time previously when ORCA dealt with a dead male whale carcass which washed up on the beach. [ http://www.smh.com.au/environment/whale-watch/wait–for–big-seas-to-wash-whale-out-of–ocean-pool-20120801-23dy8.html ] There isn’t much news commentary on why this sub-adult male did/should have died?

    Lets hope if we learn to do the right thing by nature whales wont go extinct soon.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      The oceans present a horrendous problem for the ‘world community’: since no individuals have fishing rights in international waters, every individual can hoover up the poor fish. Whales, presumably because of their loveability, have rights which are respected by most nations. Would it be better to have a sustainable stewardship policy for all creatures of the sea (including allowing sustainable whale fishing)?

  7. christine

    The seas are divided up in a variety of ways with States having control over waters up to 12 nautical miles [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Territorial_waters ] these are territorial seas. Beyond the territorial seas are international waters where there are less restrictions on fishing activities. There are a number of bilateral and multilateral agreements which govern fishing activities in international seas. However, in the absence of these agreements, while what you say is correct there are recognised international principles governing the seas which are gradually increasing protections and encouraging sustainable management of fish (viewed as a natural resource) rather than as creatures deserving protection for their right to exist as a species.
    [ http://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/10_principles_for_high_seas_governance___final.pdf ]

    Each creature is unique, and many nations have historically had differing relationships towards them (think indigenous fishing rights), so it is good that each creature and its relationship to individual States is considered separately. That said an international consensus on species protection is also vital as it would be dreadful for species to disappear through a vortex effect.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Wiki states that ‘A typical species becomes extinct within 10 million years of its first appearance,[3] although some species, called living fossils, survive virtually unchanged for hundreds of millions of years. Most extinctions have occurred naturally, prior to Ho’mo sapiens walking on Earth: it is estimated that 99.9% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct.’ This can make one “fatalistic” but it still seems wrong for humans to push other species into extinction. Is this an anthropomorphism of non-human nature?


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