Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Shrinking Euphrates

On the front page of today's New York Times there's a story about the shrinking of the Euphrates river. The Euphrates runs through Turkey and Syria and both countries have dammed the river heavily. Iraq sits downriver and has no agreements in place for water access with either country. Plus there's a drought. Plus Iraq's water management has been terrible. And let's not forget the war. All this means that the Euphrates, a river with an epic history, literally at the cradle of western civilization, is going the way of the walkman. The whole region suffers from water wars and has for as long as time hsa been kept. And for just as long we've all assumed fresh water is forever, but it's not. It's precious and the effect of the river's loss -- farms dead, villages abandonned, lives ruined -- shows that nothing about water management can be taken for granted. Of course, I've been petrified of drought since I read Dune in the seventh grade, but our inability to manage our resources is, once again, terrifying and shocking.

But maybe I shouldn't be shocked. In Sunday's Times there's a piece by an economist named Robert Frank that argues Darwin's theories are more important than Adam Smith's when it comes to understanding how markets operate. Smith famously posits that markets left to their own devices will operate with an "invisible hand" for the greater good while Darwin thought that individuals will act for their own good and sometimes that's for the good of the species, but mostly not and it's not their primary concern anyway. Survival and reproduction are what matter most.

So now I'm thinking if the health care market didn't prove Frank is right in his assesment of Darwin and Smith, if the unregulated sub-prime mortgage crisis didn't prove him right again, then the evidence of the Euphrates should show how nice an idea the invisible hand is, but it's got nothing on the drive to compete and husband resources. Cooperation might spring up when parties compete - game theory shows it will more often than not -- but it's not guaranteed. Meanwhile, the Euphrates is dying and I can only hope that if it's where western civilization once began it will not become the place where we learn to save ourselves by deciding to cooperate.

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