Tuesday, November 9, 2010

An interesting read

"What the Green Movement Got Wrong" from Charles Moore of The Telegraph, presents an interesting perspective on solutions to environmental issues. He's referring to a program that aired on BBC. I haven't seen it yet, but will search for a link.

There are a few issues here that I agree with. First, trying to change human nature is a losing battle. Human nature is just nature after all, and people, like all animals, will always pursue their own best interest. Sustainable solutions can be achieved using human nature as an ally rather than trying to stop it. Incentives work because incentives are how people make decisions. Which leads to a second point, the idea that claiming you have the moral highground because you favor conservation overlooks the very simple idea that traditional environmental conservation is not at all compatible with the alleviation of human poverty. I listened to a lecture a few weeks back (David, what was that guy's name?), and he said something like "the romantic environmentalist is dead", because true conservation of nature (in the sense of limits to extraction) often means that people die. Not exactly a morally superior argument, is it? Finally, and obviously related to the first two points, is the idea that a lot of what we've attempted has failed miserably. Top-down, draconian, command-and-control via standards most often does not achieve anything close to sustainable outcomes. Here's a link to a great paper by Jon Sutinen regarding the efficacy (or lack thereof) of CAC approaches to fisheries managment.

Obviously there's more, and of course a series of articles could be written on what the environmental movement has done right, but I'll leave that up to the discussion.


Filorux said...

Best post, ever. I can’t help but dive in…without looking as usual…probably from the 3-meter board into the foot bath…but that’s never stopped me before.

"[C]laiming you have the moral highground because you favor conservation overlooks the very simple idea that traditional environmental conservation is not at all compatible with the alleviation of human poverty"

Agreed, but I would argue that there is an even simpler (or if not simpler, ‘more basic’) idea at play here. David Hume famously argued that you cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, and I subscribe to that in as much as I understand it. Claiming that the environment ‘ought to be kept as is’ simply because ‘that’s the way it is’ is not valid reasoning. You need something else, something which supports the idea that ‘the way it is now is the best it can ever be.’

I could probably go on forever about reasoning, (and might yet, don’t tempt me) but there is another related problem (perhaps a consequence of Hume’s idea) – our moral positions are not necessarily the result of well thought out premises and proper application of the rules of logic. According to “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail” by Prof. Jonathan Haidt, the process of critical thinking only enters the picture after a moral judgment is made, in an (usually bad) attempt to justify said moral judgment.

Conclusion – we should be very skeptical of anyone claiming moral superiority. This is not because we are any more superior. But, if the rules of the game are 1) have any intuition, 2) scream it from the mountaintop, and 3) seriously consider what you are saying later, it is hard to imagine how we could be any less.

R Ham

David Gill said...

Very interesting article, especially since I just read one by Ehrich this weekend (Ehrich P. 2008. Key issues for attention from ecological economists. Environment and Development Economics 13:1-20) giving some of the doomsday stats and trends of global degradation but trying to illustrate ways in which economics can be used to inform better decision making around some of the hazards so that we can be better prepared or alter practices.
The telegraph article does raise some very important points about the philosophies that are at the very core of some in the conservation field, especially those who have been taught by persons coming out of that era. The lecture that you are referring to Peter was given by Prof. Paul Collier at the London School of Economics "The Plundered Planet". He basically said that we should not be preserving nature as is for future generations, but our responsibility is to pass on equivalent value to the next generation. So if we were to deplete a fishery, we better provide something that is of equivalent value to that fish stock to our children. If we can't, don't over-exploit it. Pure conservation may cause local communities to suffer and present the next generation with a host of social problems coupled with some nice protected areas. That said, poverty alleviation is also key to conservation. One only has to look at places like Haiti with denuded hillsides to see how the poor are forced to engage in unsustainable practices to meet immediate needs.

I believe that you have to balance the morality arguments with the rational. To be guided by just one will result in societal collapse.

Anonymous said...

Could it not be argued that a life is a life, and morally one is not worth more than another regardless of species? If one takes that position then the argument still stands. Not the most popular position, but one some may stand behind.
Disregarding the morality argument, more people on the earth means less resources for me to use. More people are bad and the more that can not come into being benefits my offspring and me.


Dr. Peter Schuhmann said...


I think the moral position that "a life is a life" (all creatures have equal standing) is just fine. Indeed, this position reinforces the point that if you claim that saving species A is the moral thing to do, but in reality saving A results in the death of B, your argument falls apart. Because you are then saving that A is more important than B.

Filorux said...

Take the flip-side of Dr. Schuhmann's example: assume that B depends on A for life. A quick and dirty example: Since resources are scarce, something has to go - do we kill Mr. squirrel or cut down the tree? There may be a whole host of other lives that depend on the squirrel, and once we knock him off they will fall like dominoes. However, once you see that the squirrel depends on the tree, how can we say that the tree and squirrel have the same value?

Rationally, the only way I see the moral calculus working is to say that each thing has zero or infinite value. In either case, when you cut down the tree and sum up all the value that is lost from the domino effect you end up with the same value as when you kill the squirrel and sum the consequences.

Also, consider the problem vertically instead of horizontally. Assuming you had some influence, say a DeLorean equipped with a flux-capacitor, who would you rather see 'let go': your grandfather, or your great-great-great-great grandfather?

I think if we start with the premise that all life is of equal moral worth, then the discussion has to end (eventually, and sooner than later) because either everything has no value, or incomprehensible (infinite) value. However, if we can admit that some life depends on other life, then consequentially some lives are worth more than others. The leads to a interesting charge for the notion of biodiversity. If biodiversity is to be promoted as good, then those 'bios' which enable 'diversity' should be the most highly promoted.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Schuhmann,

your argument is solid, I merely play devils advocate for these post when people do post(and I remember about the blog, it has been many semesters since I was a student of yours) I think Filorux has best grasped the point I was feebly attempting to make