Chocolate and Gold Coins

Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Impossible and the Impractical

Some things are just impossible. It isn’t possible to turn lead into gold by chemical means. It isn’t possible to send a spacecraft to a distant galaxy and have it return in a week’s time. These things are prohibited by the laws of science.

Other things are impractical. It isn’t practical to mine oil shale for its oil content. It isn’t practical to build ships that are a mile long. It isn’t practical to send people to the Mars. It isn’t that any of these things are impossible. It is just that the cost of doing them would exceed the benefit of doing them. The set of impractical things that man has serious contemplated doing greatly exceeds the set of impossible things that man has seriously contemplated doing. In fact, many people around the world are currently doing impractical things, but no one is doing impossible things.

There is a very clear difference between these two and you only look foolish if you say something is impossible when it is merely impractical. The problem with saying something is impractical is it often depends very much on current market prices, and when the market changes, the impractical suddenly becomes practical. It might be better to say, “It isn’t practical to mine oil shale at today’s prices, but it might be practical to mine it if the price rises above $70, (for example).”

Now at the risk of beating a dead Chiru, I want to return to the subject of domesticating the Chiru and collecting its wool to prevent the Chiru from being hunted to extinction (see Uma’s post and my response). The central issue in the discussion is whether it is possible to take wool from the Chiru and not kill the animal. Uma says no it is not possible, but cites evidence that makes it look like the process is impractical.

It may be that it is not possible to take the wool from the Chiru without killing the animal. I do not know, and neither does Uma, Swaminathan Aiyar, or you, and quite possible anyone on planet Earth. We don’t know because probably no one has seriously tried to do it. If someone had tried, they might discover that it is impossible because, for example, the animal would bleed to death. Sheep don’t bleed when you cut their wool off (they might suffer some minor cuts due to carelessness but in theory, cutting their wool does not cause them to bleed). But maybe the Chiru is different.

However, this isn’t the kind of evidence we are presented with. Instead we get an argument that it is not practical to remove the wool without killing the animal. There might be several variations on this argument. It isn’t practical to remove the wool off of a live Chiru because:

  1. They are really big and mean and will kick you, (I could believe this),

  2. They only eat grass from the tops of mountains, and it would be too costly to create farms on mountaintops (not very convincing but maybe)

  3. They only eat the grass from the tops of mountains where it is cold and removing their wool would mean that you would either have to keep them in a warm barn for several months or you would have to put a warm artificial coat on them until their wool grew back (neither sounds ridiculously impractical).

  4. It must be, otherwise the poachers would be doing this, (bad argument).

  5. There are many Indians who don’t mind if the poachers hunt the Chiru to extinction but do mind very much if honest people try to raise the Chiru like sheep, (why? I dunno).

  6. So-and-so said so (urban legend alert).

  7. It would be cheaper to put armed rangers to protect the Chiru from poachers, (maybe).

  8. It’s illegal, (obviously).


Looking at the above list, some of the arguments might be reasonable and some look foolish. I could easily believe that the Chiru will not just stand there and let you cut its wool off. But there might be ways of gently subduing the creature and removing the wool without great risk to man or animal. Clearly one could not know exactly how expensive it would be until people do it. I don’t know what food the Chiru could eat, but my guess is that they could eat a lot of things (most animals can) and live in a warmer climate (look at the tiger - you think it got its fur coat living in India?). Putting an artificial coat on a Chiru might seem odd, but if the coat you remove is worth $100 and the one you put on is worth $10, it doesn’t seem so odd. The fact that poachers don’t shear live animals is just because they aren’t humanitarians. There is no guarantee that the same poacher will get to re-shear the same Chiru the next year, so why bother dealing with a live animal? It may be that a lot of Indians prefer to stick their head in the sand on this issue, but this still seems an enormously weak argument. Just because so-and-so said you couldn’t shear the wool off of a live Chiru means nothing; no one really knows until someone tries. If plan A isn't working we need to consider plan B, C, D and everything else. This is not an either/or situation. This is an all of the above situation. And I’m sure it is illegal to domesticate the Chiru, but laws can be changed.

The point I am making is that it is clear that if you are willing to spend some money, you can definitely save the Chiru. But I cannot guarantee that there wouldn’t be a host of difficulties to overcome. The question is: is the Chiru worth it? I would think so. It is hard to put the value of a species, but it could be enormous. It might be easily into the billions of dollars since future generations of Indians (who might be fabulously wealthy) might have a great desire to see animals that either went extinct or just avoided extinction. Even when you discount the future, the value of an entire species might be very large.

In any case, it is clearly not impossible to save the Chiru, but it may be impractical to save it if people hold their own preconceived notions to be more valuable than the fate of the Chiru.

7 Comments:

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:45 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger uma, at 10:46 PM  

  • michael: i'm not sure if i've explained my stand clearly.

    there is a view held by several people/groups that the chiru's wool cannot be obtained without killing the animal. this is the assumption on which aiyar proceeds to make his suggestion for chiru farming and selective killing, and i was responding to this suggestion of his.

    having said that, if - as in the possibility you raise - it is indeed possible to farm the chiru and shear its wool without harming the animal, i don't have a problem with that.

    so: if it's possible to farm and shear without killing, by all means we should do so; if it's not possible to shear without killing, then we should protect the animal, not farm it to kill.

    i hope that clarifies my views :)

    By Blogger uma, at 10:47 PM  

  • Great post, very well explained.

    If we hold S. Aiyar's assumption to be true, then we have an ethical dilema: either farm the animal only to kill it for its fur, or watch it get killed to extinction by poachers.

    However, Aiyar's suggestion may not hold true (notice that no one has explained WHY the fur cannot be obtained without killing the Chiru, they just say that it can't). In that case, let the humane expoitation of the Chiru for its wool continue.

    By Blogger Kunal, at 5:43 AM  

  • Hi Uma and Kunal
    Uma: We're probably not that far apart on this issue. I don't like the idea of raising animals like the Mink - just to kill them for their fur - but raising sheep for their wool is clearly better than seeing go extinct.

    I believe that all avenues need to be explored in all haste to prevent this great creature from extinction. This animal is severly endangered and its numbers a falling rapidly. We cannot argue about whether plan A is better than plan B, we need to go through the whole alphabet.

    Kunal: Thanks and hopefully something can be done for the Chiru.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 6:57 AM  

  • Raising them is probably a good idea, in that, once it is farmed, the wool of the chiru would be more readily available, thus it would probably drop in price, thus giving the poachers less of an initiative to illegally kill these animals.

    By Blogger gawker, at 9:56 AM  

  • Hi Gawker
    This is exactly the idea. You increase the supply of wool by farming. Also you can decrease poaching by increasing its cost by better motitoring of national parks. The combined effect would make poaching less lucrative and hopefully not worthwhile.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 10:43 AM  

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