August 21, 2005

Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory

Dave Ploeg has been telling me for a few years that I should read Julian Simon's stuff, so I have started. I can really see how he inspired Bjoern Lomborg (see also this link), the Danish author whose book The Skeptical Environmentalist caused an international storm a few years ago, and caused a sea change in Danish politics. Simon makes some good points, for example that by and large people are living longer and better in first and third world countries. Simon is a man who paints with a broad brush and in my opinion he misses the point of why some people (like me) choose to work with environmental issues. Far from being 'doomsters' I prefer to think we are simply trying to be constructive.

Some quotes from the introduction to Simon's book:

You may wonder why the tone of this book is so overwhelmingly positive whereas that of most popular writings is so negative. The most important explanation, I think, is the nature of the comparisons that are made. The comparisons in this book mostly compare now with earlier times. The comparisons others make often show one group versus another, or contrast how we are versus how we think we should be or would like to be - situations that guarantee a steady flow of depressing bad news.

If you want to make things better then the natural comparison is between a world with the improvement versus the world without it-- for example, should we put particle filters on diesel engines, should we build wind farms or ethanol plants, should we regulate emissions of mercury? These proposals can be judged using hard-nosed analysis and in my view there is nothing wrong with that. 'Progress' implies that we are constantly inventing new manufacturing methods and chemical compounds, and virtually all of these will be released into the environment. Therefore in order to have sustainable development we need scientists who can evaluate and hopefully minimize negative effects of pollution.

On the one hand, the doomsters say that there are too many of us; on the other hand, they warn that we are in danger of most of us being wiped out. Usually, a larger number of members of a species is greater protection against being wiped out. Hence there is an apparent contradiction.

It is natural and moral to be concerned with the safety and welfare of society, and there are dangers out there. True some of them, perhaps most of them, are only imagined, but equally true, some of them are legitimate. The progress we have made in battles to establish a safe working environment in industry and in the fight against disease and to prevent environmental catastrophes like the Exxon Valdez spill and the breach of dams holding Spanish mining waste has only been possible because we knew what we were doing. That is, research, concern, engagement and hard nosed science, far from being a brake on the economy, make the world a better place.

The doomsters reply that because there are more of us, we are eroding the basis of existence, and rendering more likely a "crash" due to population "overshoot"; that is, they say that our present or greater numbers are not sustainable. But the signs of incipient catastrophe are absent. Length of life and health are increasing, supplies of food and other natural resources are becoming ever more abundant, and pollutants in our environment are lessening.

If after you read the book and still doubt the general theme that conditions have been getting better, I pray that you answer this question: What data would you cite to contradict the proposition that the material conditions of life have been improving?

I see no need to contradict this proposition. Far from it. The only reason people can make an issue of the environment is because their immediate needs have been met-- food, safety, and so on. A correlary is that one of the best ways to improve the world environment is to improve the standard of living of people around the world. Once people have the luxury of reflection, they may start thinking things like, why aren't there any fish in the ocean anymore? My grandfather used to catch lots of fish. Or, they may try to do something about the pollution being emitted by the regional power plant, or ask why the air in Mexico City or Beijing or Athens or Los Angeles or Boston makes your eyes hurt. In this and other sections Simon is fighting a paper tiger of his own construction.

I invite you to research for yourself the assertion that the conditions of humanity have gotten worse. Stop at the nearest library and inspect the two basic reference books - the Bureau of the Census's Statistical Abstract of the United States and Historical Statistics of the United States. Look in the index under "Pollution: Air," and "Pollution: Water," and examine the data for various years.

Simon sidesteps the issue of WHY the water and air have gotten cleaner (marginally): because people took the time to care about the environment. The improvements are a success story for the environmental movement.

I chose the following quote because it makes sense: Skilled persons require a framework that provides incentives for working hard and taking risks, enabling their talents to flower and come to fruition. The key elements of such a framework are economic liberty, respect for property, and fair and sensible rules of the market that are enforced equally for all. The world's problem is not too many people, but lack of political and economic freedom. Powerful evidence comes from pairs of countries that had the same culture and history and much the same standard of living when they split apart after World War II -- East and West Germany, North and South Korea, Taiwan and China. In each case the centrally planned communist country began with less population "pressure", as measured by density per square kilometer, than did the market-directed economy. And the communist and non-communist countries also started with much the same birth rates. But the market-directed economies performed much better economically than the centrally-planned economies. This powerful demonstration cuts the ground from under population growth as a likely explanation of poor economic performance.

To sum up the argument of the book: In the short run, all resources are limited. An example of such a finite resource is the amount of attention that you will devote to what I write. The longer run, however, is a different story. The standard of living has risen along with the size of the world's population since the beginning of recorded time. There is no convincing economic reason why these trends toward a better life should not continue indefinitely.

This is quite different than the picture presented by the authors of The Coming Generational Storm, themselves well-reputed economists.

The essence of wealth is the capacity to control the forces of nature, and the extent of wealth depends upon the level of technology and the ability to create new knowledge.

Every resource economist knows that all natural resources have been getting more available rather than more scarce, as shown by their falling prices over the decades and centuries.

But what about peak oil?? There is a difference between the CFC replacements which got to be chaper than the compounds they replaced once production was scaled up, and crude oil, which is limited. The end of cheap crude will lead to higher energy prices.

To repeat, every forecast of the doomsayers has turned out flat wrong. Metals, foods, and other natural resources have become more available rather than more scarce throughout the centuries. The Famine 1975 forecast by the Paddock brothers that we would see famine deaths in the U.S. on television was followed by gluts in agricultural markets. After Paul Ehrlich's primal scream - "What will we do when the [gasoline] pumps run dry?" - there came gasoline cheaper than since the 1930s. The Great Lakes are not dead; instead they offer better sport fishing than ever. The main pollutants, especially the particulates which have killed people for years, have lessened in our cities.

When the doomsayers hear that oil can be obtained from various kinds of crops, they say: Yes, but it costs much more than fossil fuels. They do not imagine the cost reductions from increased efficiency that will inevitably take place in the future, and they do not foresee that the total cost of energy, already a very small part of our economy, will become even smaller in the future. And when they hear that the rich countries are becoming cleaner and less polluted with each decade, the doomsayers say: But what about the poor countries? They do not imagine that the poor countries, when they become richer, will also eventually turn to becoming cleaner rather than dirtier, as the now-rich countries have done. Again and again they do not imagine the adjustments that individuals and communities make that create more resources, invent better technologies, and overcome environmental problems.

I think that Simon also has a lack of imagination and it lies in the gap between where we will be in the future if we are guided by technocratic management and what we can achieve if we let loose our imagination to solve all kinds of problems-- real and potential. And, who is calling who a 'doomsayer'? That shoe doesn't fit. If you would like to make the world a better place a rational way to go about it is to think of the things that make it not so nice. In my field of specialty this would be things like mid latitude ozone depletion (causes increased rate of skin cancer), transport and transformation of pollution in the troposphere (e.g. mercury, old-style Scotchguard) and climate change. It makes more sense to work on a prioritized list-- the bigger the threat (e.g. climate change) the more resources we should use to at least understand the causes and the effects. Of course everyone wants the best outcome and not the worst case scenario, but that doesn't mean that the worst case scenario isn't useful in strategic planning.

I think that worrying about what may come is as natural as the hickups. Simon seems to sense this as well-- towards the end of the introduction he quotes George Washington: "the restless mind of man cannot be at peace." Perhaps this is the reason we seek to know how the world will end? Primate Brow Flash discusses preparations for the Coming Global Shitstorm. You too should make a contingency plan! Stock up on candles and water, blankets and can openers, chocolate and squirrel traps, and don't forget a rubber raft.


At August 23, 2005 8:14 PM , Anonymous dave ploeg said...


I don’t read the blog every day, so my comment is a little tardy. Thanks for giving Simon a peruse.

Yes, the worst case scenario is useful in strategic planning, but many people predict that the worst case scenario will become reality (see Kunstler, Heinberg or commentary from my local paper Fear sells, people are fascinated by the end of the world (e.g. Tim's preparations), and many people simply cannot hear the elegant truth that “natural resources are more abundant now than they ever have been” or “there is no convincing economic reason why these trends toward a better life should not continue indefinitely.”

But much of this is noise. Simon feels put-upon. He feels attacked and the tone of his book reflects this. I think we can agree that there are many, many doomsters out there and there are far more of them (or, at least, they are noisier) than there are optimists basing their arguments on economic theory (sic). If one can get past his defensive, sometimes sanctimonious tone, there are real truths, and I think you and Julian are not so different.

He dislikes government subsidy for corporations, especially subsidies that artificially lower the prices of commodities. However, he also believes in the power of society to prioritize. He understands that the reason our environment is cleaner and our lives are better is because we have as societies made this a priority. He’s not sure we always totally understand the costs of making the environment cleaner, but assuming we do, he is a proponent of limits on corporations in the name of environmental or social justice.

You suggest that peak oil is a different case, saying “The end of cheap crude will lead to higher energy prices.” Yes, in the short-run. Matt, let’s revisit this argument in a few years (perhaps 10, 20, 30?) to determine if energy prices are higher. My bet is on the long-term decline of energy prices. We’ll look back on the end of crude as a blip on this long-run decline in energy prices. (o.k., I’m being a little flip here. People may die. There may be political upheaval and change may not be swift. But in the larger scheme of things, a blip.)

“I think Simon has a lack of imagination and it lies in the gap between where we will be in the future if we are guided by technocratic management and what we can achieve if we let loose our imagination to solve all kinds of problems – real and imagined.”

Simon has a lack of imagination? Matt, I think you are arguing for argument’s sake. He imagines exactly what you are talking about. The ultimate resource is people. Why? Because people have the capacity to imagine infinite possibilities and the intelligence and capability to turn imagination into action.

Capitalism is almost a natural force. A human construct that has taken on a life of its own. Left unchecked I think we could agree our world would be very different and not such a fun place to live for the majority of people. But it’s not unchecked. Millions of people are thinking of how to make the world a better place by “thinking of the things that make it not so nice”, and by imposing limits on the economy to keep the “not so nice” things from happening in the future.

Some people think we need many more limits. Some people think we have too many limits. But the underlying truth is the same – the system is inevitable and we can control is only within limits, and, here’s the kicker, we don’t know what those limits are.

There is a group of people connected with our local co-op who are meeting monthly to prepare for the coming oil crisis (Peak oil awareness group at People’s co-op). They are attempting to build a community now that will survive past the oil bust – craftspeople, farmers, medical practitioners, glass blowers, blacksmiths and anything else people think might be necessary in the post-oil world. I love the vision, but I think they are terribly misguided in their motivations. Imagine: small, local sustainable community in a climate where almost anything grows and it rarely freezes, with relatively easy access to mountains, rivers and ocean; an interdependent community full of like-minded people doing meaningful work. Heaven. Where do I sign up? But can we drop the whole “End of Days” mentality? So oil will run out. So what? A blip. If people want to create an alternative, do it, but don’t do it out of fear, don’t believe the hype about the devastating global consequences of the end of oil. Do it out of hope. Create because you have a positive vision, create because it’s in your heart.

Matt, you put it most elegantly a few week’s back: “The whole thing boils down to an argument over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and meanwhile there is an immediate human need for compassion, love, forgiveness. I have an instinctual feeling that that is not something that is going to dawn on you after years of studying…but instead that it is a human thing, something your heart is whispering.”

Rock on Matt.

At August 23, 2005 9:54 PM , Blogger Matt_J said...

You're right I am arguing, and part of it is a backlash I have been saving up against Bjoern Lomborg. I can feel Simon's ideas taking root in my mind. AAaaaauugh! No, seriously, I have only read the introduction so far-- will keep going. I really hope you are right about the blip! What about the collapse of the fisheries (e.g. North Atlantic cod, Baltic fish)? We have only one earth and if the ecosystem collapses there will be no economy. Depreciation of nature doesn't seem to be included anywhere???

At August 24, 2005 11:15 PM , Anonymous dave ploeg said...

True, true, nature must be considered, and Simon does not include it except to say that we can think ourselves out of any crisis.

Perhaps there is a crisis so big that we cannot think our way out. But, perhaps not. It's not very environmentalist of me, but I have faith we can create solutions to most any crisis.

Of course, I'll still recycle, ride my bike as often as possible, participate in a local CSA, and buy groceries at our local co-op.


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