The Tautology and Its Weaknesses

A given economic growth rate can be sustainable only if the average impact per unit wealth declines at an equal or greater rate.


I argue that this is certainly true if one grants that a sustainable behavior must be sustainable indefinitely.

Shortly after coming to this pretty firm conclusion and wondering how smug to feel about it, I realized that it’s just a consequence of the old I = PAT tautology, due to Ehrlich and Holdren (yes that Holdren). Tidal pointed out the same before I got round to making the connection.

I’ll continue to argue, though, that it’s both a striking consequence and a useful one. Anyone talking about both returning growth to the economy and about sustainability needs to take this constraint into account. This includes President Obama. If you think about returning to sustained 3 % annual growth rates you are talking about some very massive changes in the consituents of the economy.

Pointing to the constraint does not guarantee that there is a way to achieve it. There are many reasons to expect negative growth in the largest economies in the future after all. We don’t even know if unsustainable growth can really be reconstituted. If we have really begun the long decline, it is probably a bit sooner than might have been necessary were it not for the great outburst of irresponsibility in the financial sector of late.


What the constraint does guarantee is that we will not be able to revive growth at full steam without a very substantial virtual tax implied by accounting for what has until now been treated as external, and shunted to later generations. We are no longer in a position to shunt things to later generations. We are the later generation that those awful people who were right about the environment warned our parents about.

I’m not claiming some secret key to answer all our problems. I’m suggesting only that those desperate to avoid challenging the growth paradigm have a very steep and narrow path ahead. I’m noticing that this includes our otherwise enormously admirable leader. I hope President Obama or someone around him has some secret recipe to make these ingredients work together, but I think instead that nobody has faced up to the constraints properly.

So I’m proposing we be as optimistic as possible, and also be sort of mathematically oriented. Proving that growing impact is unsustainable is easy. Detaching our institutions and traditions from growing wealth appears very difficult. But is it impossible? We can take the mathematician’s approach and assume a solution exists, and try to examine the properties that follow from the constraints we have set in search of a final contradiction.

So consider some of the responses to my previous article in this vein.

Let’s first tip our hats in the direction of the stuff that John Mashey wants us to take into account: the fact that whatever we do, energy is going to get more expensive. This surely makes many things more difficult, but I don’t see that it makes a sort of numerical growth in wealth more difficult. On the contrary, it would appear in some odd paradoxical way to help! We want more wealth per unit of energy and we will automatically get less energy per unit of wealth. Isn’t that the same thing, really? Well, no, not exactly, because it means all else equal that real wealth tends to decline, but suppose all esle is not equal. If there’s some other sort of low-impact wealth that compensates, the combination actually pulls in the right direction. I am scratching my head about this one, too, but not everything works the way intuition says it does.

The question, though, is what that other source of wealth might be.

Another interesting comment comes from Dave Gardner of Growthbusters :

I like your notion that perhaps we can all be delusionally happy if we are simply given more Monopoly play money and it has no connection to more resource depletion or environmental degradation! You may be onto something.

I think this takes it just a hair too far. I don’t think the currency can be entirely delusional, although one might argue that it is already play money in some circles.

(For the love of God, why doesn’t Microsoft just take its money home and shut down its production of worthless garbage so everyone can migrate to a sensible platform? What drives their intense drive to prevent us from having useful tools? It’s not because they are literally hungry, is it?)

No, the currency has to convey real advantages. Maybe very few people will fly, but the people with more of it will still be able to take luxury liners to fine hotels, eat the little bit of sushi that is left, and so on. The real question remains what is it that has been growing all along? The concept of aggregate wealth seems to me to evaporate the closer one looks at it. It does seem that the changes in the rules of the game might not have to be all that large.

Bart Verheggen offers a challenge from a different direction.

But in the current financial crisis, didn’t the fact that money is already to a great extent decoupled from material items contribute to the problem? Didn’t the (risky) dealing with money as hot air, without a link to a real product or service, play a role in the current financial crisis?

This came at me rather unexpectedly, but I have to admit there is a point. The fact is that our system failed because of its abstraction from real processes. This perhaps ties in with the Monopoly Money issue that Dave raised. But I am not arguing for devaluing real processes. I am arguing for increasing their valuation. Food and energy in particular will become relatively more expensive in proportion to finished products; indeed this is what is likely to happen anyway.

Another problem is raised by my intervening posting about the vast wealth of the internet and the complete lack of sensible models to pay for it. “Too cheap to meter” turns out to be a problem. We used to believe that our material pursuits would be replaced by artistic and intellectual ones. In a sense that is entirely true for me. I hardly care at all where or how I live as long as I have a decent internet connection and a few good friends. (I’m an extreme case being childless, but the principle holds to a lesser extent for families too.) But as a producer as well as a consumer of exactly the sort of intellectual and artistic content that was supposed to be the salvation of the future dematerialized civilization, I find myself in a strange economy, one where the currency of attention can’t easily be exchanged for, say, shoes. Admittedly I could get into endless pissing matches with famous denialists, but after all, I do have some standards. I’d rather just work at Wal-Mart.

Maybe I can follow in The New Yorker’s footprints and sell Tobis’s Tautology T-shirts. (I have seen someone selling T-shirts with the slogan “There is No Planet B” which I wish I had thought of.)

Maybe this is teh whole story, though: we will just need to adjust to a radical rearrangement of pricing structures. But this brings me back to my basic confusion about economics. As the “basket” of goods we choose changes, the “value” of the “currency” in which we measure our “wealth” becomes less determinate. So what, exactly, is it that is supposed to be growing? Can we keep that something growing while decreasing absolute impact?

But what is the something? Bart ponders along these lines:

Could a redefinition of the growth parameter (GDP) help? More car accidents raises GDP, but decreases the average wellbeing. If impacts, also those that are distant in time or place, are included within the growth parameter, then the picture of growth would quickly look very different. The genuine progress indicator (GPI) and other initiatives along similar lines could perhaps serve as an example.

To which the Texas answer is a squint and a “y’all aren’t from ’round these parts, are ya?” Around here we spend money, not GDP.

I think it’s the individual and institutional incentives that matter, not the collective metrics. But we do have to play around with them and stop letting them have their way with us.

It’s interesting. So far my answer to the question framed by the tautology is “maybe”. I haven’t convinced myself that we absolutely need to let go of something very much like growth. I freely admit to being uncomfortable with macroeconomics. Unfortunately, it’s not just my own grasp of the subject that I find wanting, though. I doubt everyone else’s as well. That said, I think the present company will be able to recognize cogent analysis and we will all appreciate any further consideration of these ideas.


Image from the T-Shirt sales at the New Yorker. Please do buy something from them and keep their lawyers at bay so I can keep the cartoon up.


Gunther: "Phony Green Jobs Debate"

Marc Gunther at The Energy Collective pretty much agrees with me on the “green jobs” thing.

Let’s get real: We can’t predict oil prices 12 months out. Last spring, virtually no one anticipated the global financial crisis of last fall. And we are projecting the number of green jobs that will be created or lost on a state-by-state basis by a law that won’t take effect until 2012? Who are we kidding?

I called Russ Roberts, an economist at George Mason University who hosts the fine EconTalk podcast, for some guidance on how to think about green jobs and the economics of climate regulation. “Creating green jobs is easy,” he told me. “We could employ millions of people picking up litter, and we could make them very good-paying jobs if we want. But of course that would make us poorer as a nation. There’s a cost to providing those jobs that would have to be borne by other people in the economy.”

It’s not just the cost of higher taxes that needs to be factored into the equation, he noted. To the degree that the government makes policy that favors, say, vast construction of wind turbines throughout the upper Midwest, the people doing those jobs will be drawn from somewhere else, maybe even from more productive work. If policy leads to the hiring of thousands of contractors to do energy efficiency, the cost of building a new home or renovating your basement may go up because many of the good construction workers are busy.

“As voters and citizens and readers, what we want to think about is the big picture—are we moving in the right direction when it comes to environmental policy?” Roberts says. Put another way, are we spending enough money today to head off the threat of global warming in the future? Because if anyone tells you that we can deal with climate change at no cost, they probably shouldn’t be trusted.

Maybe that’s what bothers me about the green jobs ads. They’re like political campaign ads. They promise something for nothing. They treat the voters like children. They’re emotional and not educational. And they’re not helping to build a movement around climate change.

Other than that, they’re fine.

It is certainly good to have worthwhile projects to employ people doing, while we reconsider how to arrange things so that having a job stays rewarding while not having one gets a lot less punishing. And unless we get very lucky, this carbon thing is going to cost us plenty, no matter how we approach it. But the issue is not jobs. That just reinforces people’s confusion. 

The environment is not a subsidiary of the economy. It is the other way around.
Something called the Sustainable Development Commission in the UK, which appears to have some sort of government charter, issued a report called Prosperity Without Growth which is on the whole a worthwhile read for people unfamiliar with the idea of a steady-state economy. There are lots of good quotes in there that will be showing up here.
It also talks about the confusion in the relationship between “green jobs” and the redesign of the economy. They point out that the natural inclination of politicians is to just treat the “green jobs” thing as an ordinary Keynesian stimulus, to get the economy “back on track”. I believe Prof. Obama is doing an astonishingly good job at this goal, actually, which is unfortunate given that it is the wrong goal.  
The report hits on the awkwardness of the Keynesian strategy at this juncture at several points. For instance, while we see this on p.69:

By early 2009, a strong international consensus had emerged in support of a very simple idea. Economic recovery demands investment. Targeting that investment towards energy security, low carbon infrastructures and ecological protection offers multiple benefits. These benefits include:

  • freeing up resources for household spending and productive investment by reducing energy and material costs
  • reducing our reliance on imports and our exposure to the fragile geopolitics of energy supply
  • providing a much-needed boost to jobs in the expanding ‘environmental industries’ sector
  • making progress towards the demanding carbon emission reduction targets needed to stabilize the global atmosphere
  • protecting valuable ecological assets and imporving the quality of our living environment for generations to come

which is all true and very compelling, but on the other hand, from p. 71:

it is difficult to escape the conclusion that in the longer term, we’re going to need something more than this. Returning the economy to a condition of continual consumption growth is the default assumption of Keynesianism. … the systemic drivers of growth push us relentlessly towards ever more unsutainable resource throughput. A different way of ensuring stability and maintaining employment is essential. 

A great deal depends on how these policies are sold and implemented. Were it not for the financial crisis, it might be better to wait until the public gained a better grip on the issues. There is a real risk that supporters will end up as confused about the fundamental purpose of these initiatives as its opponents. 

Some of us are eager to challenge the structure of society, and specifically of its economics. I myself am not so reckless as to look forward to it. I do understand that it is necessary. I wonder if those advocating “green jobs” while avoiding explaining how serious the underlying issues are might not be doing more harm than good.  If the economy can be rebooted, will people shrug off the idea of sustainability as some nice WPA-like project and get on with business?
Will people ever get the idea that the planet is full, and that consequently the basic idea of the invisible hand is broken? That nothing you do is only your own business anymore? That we’re not on the lonesome prairie, we’re on a leaky boat, and we’d better learn how to get along because there’s no place further west to go? 
I don’t know. Not if we don’t try to explain it, I reckon.
Update: See also John Whitehead on the Environmental Economics blog, who doesn’t think that “green jobs” necessarily will have a net positive impact on employment. 

Image from Sunwize.com


Sustainable Science Journalism Toward a Sustainable World

This is something of a rant about science journalism and my place in it. 

The core of the matter is this.

In our peculiar circumstances, science writing has an ethical component.

Although speech is free in a free country, individuals or corporations aren’t free of ethical responsibility for what they write. The problems we face these days are so vast, the decisions we collectively make so consequential, that the ethical responsibility is greatly magnified. 

That said, here is the problem.  I heard Clay Shirky say this at the ill-fated #sxswbp: filtering (editing) is everything. “The filter is the single most important function on the internet today.”

Before the internet, anybody could say anything, but nobody could get anybody to listen. The Brits maintained their soapbox tradition in Hyde Park, I imagine, but I doubt anybody gathers much of an audience that way anymore. The action, for almost a century now, has been in the mass media. Consequently, for the lifetime of everybody living and until just a few months ago, it was the moneyed interests who decided who would speak and who would be silent.

This broke down a bit in the period of 1966-1974, often called “the sixties”, a brief period when radicals understood media better than the people who owned them. Soon enough everything interesting about that period was sanitized, obfuscated and duly forgotten by everybody who wasn’t privileged to come of age exactly at that moment.

Control of intellectual input by the corporate sector is totally shattered now.
There is no governance on the internet. It’s totally mob rule, as a Google search on “global warming consensus” will instantly reveal. The corporations run a bigger chunk of the economy than ever; even our barristas are publicly traded. But they have lost control of the media in a way that makes the revolution of the sixties look like a fraternity prank. (Which, in a way, it was, come to think of it.)

The corporate control of the Overton window (thanks to Eli for teaching me the concept) was already weakening before the great AIG screwup proved what many of us had always suspected about the Phil Gramms of the world. Now it’s hopeless. Speech is uncontrolled but it doesn’t matter very much, because nobody trusts anybody anymore.

This is both very good news and very bad news. Freedom is the good news. If you have something interesting to say, you can find the audience to whom it is interesting. There is much more interesting stuff to read nowadays. 


Unfortunately, we also have the bad news. Lies are cheaper than truth, vague misgivings cheaper than balanced analyses, and wild-ass guesses cheaper than interview and investigation. In short, noise dominates signal. As things stand, most people lack effective filters. 

An important function that the corporations used to provide for us, and before that the culture and the churches, was to provide a sense of what was reasonable and what was outlandish, what was worthy of polite conversation and what was certifiable. As we lose this imposed sense of propriety, we are in desperate need of filters, of reliable mechanisms to connect the people who have lost faith in every institution to the people who really do mean well and really do know what the f*** they are talking about.

Now, one could argue (I used to argue this more vehemently) that science at least provides a model for how this could be done. It turns out that for a vast range of reasons, that science is struggling to scale up to its modern circumstances as well.

Instead, it surprisingly appears that the most functional corner of civilization nowadays is the software design community. (The reasons for that could fill books, and better books need to be written on the subject.) Many people are already  looking to the software community, particularly the open source community. for models of how to better organize ourselves at scale. This is promising, one of the few trends that is promising. And indeed, that model may solve science’s internal communication and validation problems as it tries to scale to unprecedented complexity. That isn’t the problem that has been occupying me, though.


The problem that suddenly fell into my lap was not that of George Will, nor of Roger Pielke Jr., nor of Mark Morano, nor Glenn Beck (nor Laurie David or James Kunstler either). These people’s successes and failures all shine some light on our collective dysfunction in one way or another, but
the moment I slapped my forehead and said, that’s it, I’m in the wrong game, something has to be done, was specifically in reference to Andy Revkin.

Three things, to me, are fairly obvious about Andy Revkin:

  • 1) he has a wonderful job and enjoys it and does it competently and successfully
  • 2) he thinks he is helping
  • 3) he isn’t.

And it’s point three that specifically galvanized me into rethinking whether this blog is really a hobby.


 It started with removing Revkin from my blogroll, but of course I don’t think he cares. At worst it will cost him a handful of hits a month, and honestly, I am not going to stop reading it. To his credit, despite the extent to which I am on his case, Revkin still takes my comments, too. Delisting him on my humble little blog seems a pathetic and futile gesture, and maybe it will turn out to be. It’s meant as a gesture. What matters in substance is replacing the Times as an authoritative source for scientific reporting. If Revkin thinks his family’s comfort is more important than the survival of the planet, if he doesn’t have the cojones to stand up to the publisher and say “kill the Dyson crap or I am out of here” or something like that, he is not doing us much good. As my good friend John M says, “you can’t achieve anything if you’re not willing to quit your job over principle“.

Revkin might say that somebody else will be glad to do his job at the Times. A problematic excuse, of course. One thing you can easily say is just, yes, Andy, but not as well. We need you telling the truth full time, not 50.00% of the time.

The problem, of course, is that the Times is a pre-internet institution, and is incapable of blunt honesty that might be inconvenient for its owners or its advertisers. This is just a human foible under ordinary circumstances, but the time for hemming and hawing is over. The world is changing in ways that are casually obvious and are likely to become overwhelming if not grappled with soon. If these ways are embarrassing to the corporations that own newspapers, they simply must be replaced. I know that sounds grandiose, but I am not just windmill-tilting here. The Times is not serving effectively in science journalism of policy consequence. (The same phenomenon likely applies to the rest of their reporting, but that’s not my topic here.)

In the huge tangled quandary that the world faces today truth is the commodity in most desperate shortage, and its lack is traced to the lack of its raw material, trust.

So what will replace the Times given that the Times has gone out of its way to prove that we cannot actually trust the Times?

A good place to start is from analyses of the future of the press in general, and Steven B. Johnson has that one right. And here is his figure, which I am lifting from his sxsw talk.

It seems that there must be a role for me in developing some corner of Johnson’s model for scientific communication to the general public. But what? What’s the business model? It’s obvious to me that filtering is crucial.

The issue in scientific reporting is about trust. One has to create mechanisms for individual science writers to establish trust with their audience. This isn’t without precedent. I trusted Asimov, I trusted Sagan, I trusted Gould. Didn’t you? The writer is the brand. It is only with the individual human voice that trust develops. I read those guys because I trusted them. I trusted them for at least three reasons:

  • they wrote things I could understand,
  • they were close enough to science to know how it works,
  • they spoke with their own voices in ways that average everyday people around me never seemed to manage.

The great pop science writers of my youth were lucky to be on relatively uncontroversial turf (less so Gould, I guess, but I always found doubts about evolution to be laughable.) Nowadays though, I just discover someone like the unspellable Hrynyshyn and find myself trusting him, whether he is being controversial or not, whether I agree with him or not. When I take the time to read Hrynyshyn I get something out of it; it alters my point of view. When I read Revkin, I expect him not to get the facts wrong, but now that I understand what he does better, I am very surprised if the experience affects my behavior or beliefs in any way. Revkin is not wrong, usually, but a scientist is usually right, and usually in a non-obvious way. There is a difference. And in the quandary we are all facing, that is the difference we desperately need.

In the course of becoming a not entirely anonymous blogger I’ve met a couple of science journalists in person, some of whom I admire more than others, some of whom are quite commendable. I hope I’m not out of line in singling out John Fleck as a standout. But unfortunately he also seems to me still something of an exception. For the most part, I get a lot more out of reading scientists, or journalists who were trained as scientists, on science than I do from reading trained journalists on science, even if that’s their beat. Don’t you?

(Less profoundly and with more exceptions, but still strikingly, I get more out of reading scientists on politics and economics than I do journalists, politicians and economists. For instance, Steinn Sigurdsson has been “indispensible” on the Iceland story, but has opened my eyes to many other aspects of the economic crisis as well. Steinn is an astronomer.)

It doesn’t matter what level of sophistication the article is pitched at. Scientists writing at the 11th grade level are usually much more interesting to me than journalists writing at that level. See Grumbine, for instance, or my scientific colleagues on the imperfect but lamented Correlations blog.


So, let’s pretend a business model has emerged in my fevered brain out of all these constraints. What would it be like?

What I’m willing to say about it:

  • reporters must own their content and be their own brand
  • filtering is crucial and must be achieved by a collaborative infrastructure
  • new software is involved
  • I think I see how the people who work hard enough and produce a good enough product can get paid even though the content will be free. Anyway after pondering it intensively for six weeks, I have an idea worth considering.
  • Science journalism is my target, but the core idea will probably work for some other branches of reporting.

I’d like to talk this through with someone willing to confer in confidence. I need allies to make this work (even as a nonprofit, which is definitely a consideration). Which is really the point of this great long rant. I am looking for somebody to talk business who understands the nature of the problem, something about how the web works, and a little bit about making a business concern go. 


The business model chart, as I said, is lifted from the linked Steven B Johnson article

The comic clippings are from an episode of Tom the Dancing Bug
I thought Bora Z might be having some similar thoughts so I deliberately avoided reading his recent article on science journalism until I got this out to avoid undue influence. So finally I looked at it. He did indeed say some similar things among many ideas. His recent article on blogging, journalism and science is excellent indeed and very highly recommended for those who care about communicating science.

Another Sign of Dawning Realization

Dot Earth is running “Eleven Questions for Obama’s Science Team” and I would like to especially recommend they (and all of us) think long and hard on question eight, which is a nice statement of one of our themes here:

My request to the Obama transition team is to introduce the economy team to the science team. Economists like Daniel Tarullo would benefit from discussing the laws of thermodynamics with Steven Chu. I’m also sure that the science community would benefit from learning something of the complexity of economics theory and practice. New ideas might evolve!

I’m certain that physics has laws that must be obeyed at our peril, but I’m not convinced that economics has shown their ‘laws’ to be inviolate. In fact, just now to the contrary those principles are looking quite tarnished. And, I’d like to see a science-cum-economics dialogue continue and evolve throughout Obama’s tenure in the White House. It would greatly benefit our transition to a sustainable economy based on alternative energy, resource conservation, green jobs and creative partipation by all sectors of our society.

Thanks to the questioner, Wayne Hamilton of Springdale, Utah.

 

Post-Growth America

A surprising glimmer of recognition spotted in the major media:

“Look,” said the President, walking across the stage with a microphone in hand, “here’s what no one wants to tell you. Structural changes in our economy, and new competition from countries like China and India, mean that we’re in a different world now. That pattern we once took for granted, in which our incomes basically kept rising across the board, turns out to be something we can’t sustain. Many of you are earning less than your parents did, and the truth is, many of your children will earn less than you do.”

The President paused, watching as the words sank in. “I don’t think denial helps any of us. I know it won’t help us come together to do the things we need to do as a nation to thrive even amid these new realities.”

Don’t worry, you didn’t miss the news; the scene above has not happened yet. Few politicians would say those things even if they believed them to be true, because it would challenge a notion at the heart of the American dream: the idea that the kids will earn more than we do.

There’s a third worrisome attitude traceable to our faith that the kids will earn more than we do. This is the imprudent conviction that we can live beyond our means, because somehow we’ll earn enough later to deal with any problems. This outlook represents a dramatic shift from earlier American thinking, as the sociologist Daniel Bell noted in 1976. “Twentieth-century capitalism wrought a … startling sociological transformation,” he wrote, “the shift from production to consumption as the fulcrum of capitalism.” Both as individuals and as a society, we’ve been gambling on better days tomorrow to make good on unsustainable borrowing today.

Such is the toll of a Dead Idea.

This is from Matt Miller, editor at Fortune, raised in Greenwich CT and Rye Town NY, BA economics magna cum laude Brown, LLD Columbia Law School, member Council on Foreign Relations. In other words, to the extent that there’s still an “Establishment”, he’s in it. You heard it there second.

 

Plauger’s Law and Small Glacial Lakes


I rotate the quotation at the top of the blog sometimes. For the reference of future readers it currently reads:

“My definition of an expert in any field is a person who knows enough about what’s really going on to be scared.”

— P. J. Plauger

This Sunday’s presentation at the Ethical Society of Austin presented a laundry list of environmental contaminants without really providing any sense of scale or stratgey for prioritization. I found it difficult to agree with the speaker’s approach, which seemed rooted in a generalized fear of contamination. On discussion of the presentation with Irene, it occurred to me that perhaps we become most expert in the things that worry us most, which would provide an alternative and more sanguine view of Plauger’s observation.

Here is one of my earliest and most vivid memories. As a small boy I had been trained not to pee in swimming pools. I was swimming in beautiful little Lac Paquin (pictured) with my father, and told him I needed to find a bathroom, fully aware that a difficult half mile walk was ahead of me. (Aside: Much of the movie “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” takes place by a fictitious instance of one of the many similar tiny lakes in this immediate vicinity. I spent literally hundreds of weekends of my childhood there. Note: plenty of nature. No farming in view. Perhaps an unusual experience.) My father told me not to worry, that Lac Paquin was much larger than a swimming pool, and that I ought to just go ahead. Which I did with much relief.

But I’ve always wanted a clear delineation between what is wrong and what is okay. This explanation of what was and wasn’t appropriate as a matter of scale absolutely fascinated me. It didn’t seem entirely satisfactory. I wondered what size of pool it was OK to pee in, and eventually about how many people could pee in a lake the size of Lac Paquin, and how it could be okay for one person and not for lots of people, and so on.

How could something be so clearly OK in some circumstances and so clearly not OK in others, even if the dividing line between them was so unclear? And how could we know where the line is? Here I am today essentially asking the same questions!

My concern for the environment then is rooted in a sort of rabbinical hairsplitting rather than in a contamination phobia or a resentment of power that dominates the motivation of most activists. Though religious orthodoxy holds no appeal for me, a desire for a consistent set of ethical constraints seems absolutely primal. I see the impossibility of altogether avoiding pissing, but just the same I don’t want to damage the world. As far as I can tell, in an underpopulated and preindustrial world, such problems are trivial, but as the world becomes more populated and more technically potent, somehow at some point the problem crosses the fuzzy line from lake to swimming pool, and a whole new set of moral imperatives suddenly kicks in.

I think this way of looking at things may be more common among earth scientists than among biologists for whom biophilia may be a very intense experience, and a tragic one given its near-absence in most modern people. Such biologist-environmentalists simply see biodiversity as a dominating moral precept. I’m not really in that bunch, myself, though I have enough biophilia to sympathize.

Unfortunately a set of moral constraints for a small world that is adequate would seem to be complex and tightly coupled. To absorb such a morality into essentially all of our various cultures and social mechanisms would be hard enough even if we could agree on a mutually consistent set. Regardless, it seems to me this transition dominates what we should be thinking about. Is it just me and my own obsessions?

 

Environmental Economics vs Ecological Economics

A fellow named Zeke Hausfather has showed up on the globalchange list and is saying a lot of interesting things. At last I am getting some glimmer of an idea that some sort of sensible discussion is happening in some corner of economics. I hope this leads to some substantive reading at some point.

In the discussion (unfortunately marred by a moderator’s error as you will see) on the Rolling Stone article aboout the “Secret Campaign to Deny Global Warming”, Zeke offers the summary that there is a

fundamental divide in the community of economists studying environmental matters; namely whether unlimited growth is possible coupled with a dematerialization of the economy, or if we need to aim for a more “steady state” solution. This question largely divides Ecological Economists from Environmental Economists

which seems like a very good place to start. Much better than what we usually see, about “correctly discounting the future” and such.

I’m not sure which side I will find mroe attractive, but I am inclined to a belief that “unlimited growth is possible” as a designed feature. This is not because I believe that the quantities that have been growing, historically, are all that useful. Rather it is because I don’t think the growing quantity is very meaningful at all.

If all of our systems are predicated on the increase of an arbitrary quantity, by all means let us try to arrange to gradually redefine it so that it tends to increase!

In other words, I see the “environmental” (vs “ecological”; what awful nomenclature) position as achievable by design as a retrofit, and preferable to revolutionary change in the economy on the one hand or ever-hotter flirtation with catastrophe on the other. The real economy, which will seek sustainability and serenity, will have to ride atop this artifact, but we won’t need to unplug it!

Am I making sense? I wonder.