Critical Thinking Through Debate

We often have strong opinions on topics that matter to us, and sometimes, our passion clouds our judgement. For example, you might believe so strongly in the production of organic foods that you would not consider the possible benefits that the production of GM crops can bring to developing countries in terms of yield increases for example. Alternatively, you might believe that genetic engineering is the only way to solve problems related to food insecurity and disregard entirely the values of those people who support and advocate for organic production.

Another example is the campaign against A&W by many who support the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association. The burger chain supports the actions of only those cattle producers who raise hormone-free and antibiotic-free beef and consequently sources the majority of their beef from beyond Canada’s borders. Another criticism comes from environmental groups concerned with the rising use of fertilizers and other chemicals in agriculture production. Over fertilizing can lead to eutrophication of water bodies creating dead zones that destroy habitat. The list of concerns and crises is long and growing as we increase demand for agricultural products while at the same time, land and other resources become scarcer. How do we decide which side is right? What arguments should we weigh?

In module one we talked about decision making in a world of scarcity. We set out to discuss trade-offs and incentives and explored how opportunity costs should be considered when we make decisions. We also discussed the importance of thinking at the margin – the solution is not often all or nothing, it’s usually somewhere in the middle. Also, while it’s nice to think that we could reach a consensus on many issues, it just isn’t the case. There are many costs and benefits to consider, and our aim in society is not always to make the highest profit (at least from governmental and social perspectives). So, we will now use our economic thinking to debate both sides of several issues. The framework I find most helpful I learned from the debate club at the University of Saskatchewan (something you might consider if you like to discuss controversial issues).

The debate club uses SPLEEEMR to formulate arguments both for and against different issues. The mnemonic stands for:

S – social arguments including the wellbeing of society, social costs, and benefits, and community sustainability

P – political arguments that support policymaking or government decisions

L – legal arguments based on laws, statutes, regulations

E – economic arguments that focus on efficiency, costs/benefits, markets

E – environmental arguments that support ecosystem functioning, environmental goods and services, and environmental sustainability

E – ethical arguments made on moral grounds

M – military arguments that support peace, safety, security

R – religious arguments that support freedom of religious practice and beliefs

Some of these arguments you have already seen in Module 3 about sustainability. Certainly social, economic, and environmental sustainability are three goals we have in long-term decision making and there are clearly trade-offs among them.

Revisiting one of the arguments above, we could examine the effects of increasing fertilizer use. Economically, if the costs of fertilizer use are lower than the increased yield, then we would argue in favour. Another economic argument would be to look at possible externalities. If the run-off and subsequent environmental damages are not included in the analysis, the social costs might outweigh the benefits of increased yield. Both arguments are based on economic theory, but the latter also includes environmental sustainability.

Other arguments that might shed light on the situation are legal (are there regulations regarding payment of environmental damages, prohibitions for dumping in a stream or water body, regulated best management practices (BMPS), etc.?). What could be the political arguments? Saskatchewan is the world’s top potash producer, so our political leaders most likely would promote business development and the use of fertilizer at home and abroad to promote local economic growth. Moving down the list of debate arguments, we could ask whether we could support greater fertilizer use from an ethical perspective – what do our social morals say about environmental pollution? As for military and religious arguments, they likely don’t apply to this case.

In the next several sections, consider the different perspectives on each topic using SPLEEEMR, the continuous pursuit of sustainability, and the key economic principles we reviewed in Module 1. Here are some questions to help you think about each topic:

  • What are the key economic principles that help you to explain each situation?
  • What trade-offs can you identify?
  • Are there opportunity costs?
  • How can economic theory help you to make sense of relationships between consumers/producers, importers/exporters, individuals/society, winners/losers, etc.?
  • How can economic theory guide you in developing solutions?
  • Is sustainability possible under current conditions?
  • How can thinking at the margin help us to understand issues?