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BC’s Tales of the Pacific | The more we try to help…

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WHY can’t we fix this planet?

Why is it that every time we take steps to make things better, we end up making them worse? If points were scored for effort, we would have improved things a long time ago. But reality judges us by results, not effort.

Take the war on poverty. Back in the 1960s, American President Lyndon Johnson, in great rhetorical flourish, declared war on poverty. Of course, you cannot declare war on a concept, that is grandstanding nonsense, but it plays well with voters. But the idea of attacking the problem of poverty with the same vigor that we prosecute a war was appealing and we went to work.

Congress passed laws increasing government aid to destitute families, tax rates on the wealthiest people were raised to historic levels to pay for it all. Medicaid provided health insurance to the poor. Government-backed student loans created a pathway for underprivileged young people to go to college. Food stamps guaranteed that the poor would always have food on the table. And on, and on.

With all the massive effort and all the money spent, and an army of politicians promising for decades to wipe out poverty, how did we do? According to statistics the poor class has grown both in real numbers and as a percentage of the population. Every politician reminds me of that. Total failure. In Lyndon Johnson’s terms, we lost the war.   

Last year, Palauan President Tommy Remengesau set up the largest and most ambitious marine sanctuary in the world. The worthy goal was to protect endangered reef fish by restricting access by foreign fishing vessels to Palauan waters. For years, commercial fishing for tuna was dominated by China, Taiwan and Japan, leaving local fishermen to take reef fish such as grouper, snapper and parrotfish. They took too many. Without these species, the reef ecosystems were collapsing, taking the tourism industry with it.

Palauan officials tried to encourage local fisherman to take tuna instead by severely restricting foreign fishing vessels, but the plan has had the opposite effect. Local fishermen do not have the motivation or the equipment to fish tuna on the high seas. Their boats are too small for the open ocean. Anyway, why fish in the open sea, which is further away, more complicated, more expensive and more hazardous, when one can simply fish in the waters right off the beach?

Because fish markets no longer receive tuna from the Chinese and Japanese fishermen, the price for local reef fish has gone up, motivating local fishermen to catch even more of them. So, the marine sanctuary, which was set up to protect Palau’s reef fish and stimulate the local fishing industry, has done neither. Local fishermen still do not fish for tuna and reef fish are being wiped out at a greater rate than before the sanctuary was set up.  

We praise the Lyndon Johnsons and Tommy Remengesaus of this world. They try to make a difference, but their actions have proven futile, even dangerous. They have hurt the very people they were supposed to help. Why? Let me relate a story about Vietnamese rats, and see if this teaches something about human nature that answers that question.

Years ago, Vietnam had a serious rat problem, so the government decided to fix things by offering a bounty for rats. People could earn a dollar per rat they hunted down and turned in. To a poor rice farmer, that was good money, so do you know what the people did? They started rat farms. They bred rats because rats were now good money. Within a few years, the Vietnamese government was paying half the country to raise rats and the number of the vile creatures skyrocketed. Realizing their mistake, the government stopped the bounty for rats, since the program had the exact opposite effect as intended. So, the rat ranchers let all their rats go and returned to rice farming. Now Vietnam has ten times as many rats as it did before.

The next time you hear a politician campaigning about fixing this or solving that, the next time you see some activist wanting to spend your money to make sweeping changes to save this species or protect that resource, remember Vietnamese rats. It’s not that they have bad motives, but think things through, remember human nature and make sure they will not make a bad situation worse. We already have enough poor people, not enough reef fish, and too many rats.

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.

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