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FLOBECK: Ask the hard questions: Relative or absolute?

By: Jack Flobeck
February 9, 2014 Updated: February 9, 2014 at 9:50 am
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Paper or plastic, fresh or frozen, regular or decaf; these comprise the dazzling array of choices facing modern America. Whereas our pioneer forebears faced simple survival choices of either hard work or of even harder work; we are overwhelmed by a multiplicity of choices at every turn. One choice we fail to face nor seldom recognize is a paramount one concerning our attitudes on the world around us. Bjorn Lomborg, in his doorstop book, "the skeptical environmentalist", lower case points the way for us to choose whether we are people with absolute or relative values? Here's Lomborg's tricky question in an abridged form. You get a choice of living in one of three countries: A- Where 500,000 people die of starvation out of population of 1,000,000. B- Where 750,000 die of starvation out of population of 2,000,000. C- Where 499,000 die of starvation out of population of 500,000.

Absolutists quickly prefer C because it's where, absolutely, the fewest deaths occur. Whereas Relativists seize B, because they fathom that's where their odds are best.

The question is: are you ready to commit to identify yourself as a dyed-in-the wool absolutist or a wild-eyed relativist? Or do you prefer to hedge your bet by saying that you are relatively absolute or absolutely relativist? The challenge in life, as in card games, or in water debates; is that, in the end, you must declare, sometimes going 'all in.'

Now the fun begins, as all your underlying preferences and the consequences surrounding your family and friends, close in to influence your decisions. If you're Clean and Green, how can you oppose the new sewer plant in your neighborhood? Or would it simply 'fit in better' a few miles down the road? Many great projects are rejected by NIMBY, or 'not in my neighborhood' prejudice.

How excited are you about being ready to get up at 3 a.m. to drive to the community electrical charging facility to connect your battery car to the charger? Are you willing to shower once a week to conserve valuable water, and trust that all your neighbors are doing the same thing?

We can't allow the 'tragedy of the commons' to overtake us and by over sharing, become water paupers. Nor can we ignore the economics of high dollar manufacturing that relies on adequate supplies of water. With brilliant stewardship, with our headwaters river capacities, with California battling wildfires and considering water rationing; we could become once more a magnet for chip and computer manufacturers. It goes without saying that we need to enhance stronger training programs to ensure adequate numbers of highly skilled workers.

In our consideration of tax strategies we must never forget Newton's third law, where he postulated that every action has a reaction, equal in magnitude, and opposite in direction.

Before we award tax breaks and amnesty for new companies, we must ask what we are doing for the ones who have soldiered on for scores of years, paying their way and their fair share for all the civic improvements made to date.

Can we create situations where there are strong penalties for undesirable social and business behavior; as well as worthy rewards for excellent behavior? Let's ask the hard questions, such as how much energy and how much water will that brilliant concept take? We will find a new rating system to use in all new proposals to grow our city.

Put Absolute and Relative concepts in the fiery furnace of the real world of supply and demand and see how they take the heat. It might absolutely astonish us relatively.

In the West we must be ready to conserve, treat, and reuse every drop of water we can; making agonizing, unselfish yet patriotic decisions to protect ourselves from drought, wildfires, and economic downturns.


Readers can contact him at

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