Externalities: Bees, Weetbix, and racism

I’d never thought that I’d be able to write about bees, fluid dynamics, money, and mass terrorism in the same blog post before.  It seems I can still surprise myself.

When using mathematics to study how fluids move, we often use little tricks to make our lives easier.  We sometimes assume that there’s a point in space which can act as an infinite source of fluid, as if there were a wormhole there to another dimension from which water just keeps coming out.  And there’s another wormhole somewhere else which is just a giant plughole, removing the water from our universe.  These are our sources and sinks.  As consumers, we understand sources.  We’ve been taught that the opposite of supply is demand, we understand the effect of scarcity on the price of a commodity (why is gold so expensive?), and we find it reasonable.  It makes sense.  It’s the toll on the source-wormhole, and it fits with what we’ve experienced from childhood when cards in Weetbix packets were collected and exchanged according to their rarity.  We understand source-pricing, but we are much less familiar with the other end of the life-cycle, the sink.  

In recent years we’ve heard more about the idea of carbon pricing and carbon taxes, where companies or products which contribute significantly to pollution are charged more to compensate.  It’s probably our first exposure to the idea of the sink, but it’s something which still feels unnatural; punitive rather than market-driven, lefty-greeny-government-imposed rather than a real-money-type cost.  Economists refer to this as an externality, something outside the accepted cost of the product, but present nonetheless.  Externalities include the indirect effects on people or systems who did not choose them, and can be good or bad:

  • Good would be when your neighbour keeps a beehive for their own honey, but their bees fertilise your tomatoes.  You didn’t choose to have your neighbour keep bees, they didn’t choose to have their bees fertilise your tomatoes, but somehow everyone wins.
  • Bad would be inhaling second-hand smoke, air pollution, antibiotic resistance, and many more.

The reason I’m writing today is two-fold.  Firstly because the idea of externalities made a lot of sense to me (despite its limitations, read more about them in the article above).  Secondly, I’m writing today because of what happened in Christchurch yesterday as the conclusions are the same.

I heard a talk years ago about guilt (though I can’t remember who gave it, sorry).  Imagine you’re driving down a country road at night, and you’re distracted for a moment and miss seeing the speed-limit sign which ends the open road and limits you to 50km/hr.  You keep going through the small town at 100.  You don’t feel guilty of speeding, you don’t even notice it.  But you are guilty, because guilt is a legal condition, not a feeling.  Now imagine that you were on your way to collect some bits and pieces which someone had advertised as “free, first come, first served”.  You beat out the others who are also on their way there because of your speediness.  In the box of junk is a first edition which you bequeath to your children, who in turn sell it for thousands of dollars.  Do you feel guilty?  Are you guilty?  Do they feel guilty?  Who should have got the money?  This is the situation in which many of us find ourselves.

Discussions around white privilege represent a step towards society internalising and acknowledging the externality (ie: separeteness from ourselves) of overt and oppressive racism by white colonialists and their decendents (and isn’t that rather a lot of people).  Like any shift in world view, it’s challenging, provoking, and will probably be exploited (this last doesn’t mean it’s incorrect, it just means that its ingredients are human).  Elsewhere, the emergence of triple and quadruple bottom line or life-cycle assessment approaches to green economics do the same thing: they include in their analyses more factors than were previously considered.

But the biggest challenge that I see in all this – to the ecology of the planet, to the health of our societies and cultures, to our own mental and physical states – is the shift that’s needed from passive to active.

Where we have given no thought to how our convenient plastic wrapping ended up we must now actively consider it.  Where we have not acknowledged (let alone understood) the effects on a society of systematic and systemic oppression, we must now actively seek to educate ourselves and to change our world views based on what we discover.  It’s no longer enough to “not be a bad person”; we need to accept that our previous definition of “bad” was woefully incomplete, and to extend it to include all the bits that were missing.  From “I didn’t do it” through “I didn’t ask for it to be done” until we arrive, painfully, at “I didn’t think to stop it” and then emerge into “How will I do better?”.

People often go on about their rights as individuals to this or that.  I figured I should go to the source so read (go on, it’s interesting, and contains the largest collection of whereas-es in the known universe) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948.  Here are some snippets.

Article 19: We’ve all heard this one trotted out.  Right to freedom of opinion and expression.


OK, fair enough.  One day I want to write an entire essay on just this point, but not today.  The most important part to remember when reading this particular point is that there are 29 other points which are “indivisibly” attached to it.

Article 26: Not one I was looking for orignally, but point 2 intrigued me; that the purpose of education is to develop human personality and to strengthen our respect for human rights.


Article 29: The biggie.  The one which those people who scream Article 19 to defend their actions totally disregard:


So we all have duties and responsibilites (which implies an action of some kind, no?), and that those duties include the rights and freedoms of people other than ourselves.  This has not been a part of our past thinking, whether in economics or society, or, sadly, laws.  This has been an externality which we now need to internalise and digest.  It’s time to stop thinking about supply versus demand, but supply versus disposal.  It’s time to seek out and to count the real, indirect, and unacknowledged costs and effects of our lifestyles and our actions.  To internalise the uncomfortable and confronting externalities, and, as Article 26.2 says:

” … [to] direct our education to the full development of the human personality and the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.  [To] promote understanding, tolerance, and friendship amongst all nations, races, and religious groups, and to further the activities of the United Nations everyone in the maintenance of peace.”

Hold all the opinions you like.  But educate yourself too.


Cover image from here.

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