Alex Gourevitch on environmentalism: some pushback

by Chris Bertram on October 10, 2012

Alex Gourevitch, with whom I’m collaborated in the past, has a piece at Jacobin that’s somewhat hostile to environmentalism. The piece is written as a provocation, and, indeed, it has successfully provoked at least one person: me. Alex argues that greens substitute science for politics, neglect the social determinants of well-being, would deprive the global poor of technological benefits that could protect them from natural disasters and risk condemning people to lives wasted in drudgery.

No doubt Alex can find plenty of instances of people mouthing the sentiments and opinions he condemns. But the trouble with this sort of writing is exemplified by the endless right-wing blogs that go on about “the left” and then attribute to everyone from Alinsky to the Zapatistas a sympathy for Stalinist labour camps. Just like “the left”, people who care about the environment and consider themselves greens come in a variety of shapes, sizes and flavours. Taking as typical what some random said at some meeting about the virtues of Palestinians generating electricity with bicycles is inherently problematic. Alex argues in the piece that “the Left” should support the industrialization of “the Global South”. Well, it might be right that some countries should industrialize more. But countries don’t all have to go through some developmental phase involving smoky factories. What’s important is that people in the Global South should, where possible, have the benefits of a modern infrastructure, well-built houses, secure energy supplies, decent transportation, and so forth. Industrializing might be one way of getting those things, but it is hardly the only way. Once technologies have been developed in once place, they don’t need to be redeveloped elsewhere: they can be transferred.

Alex reacts, and understandably, against the tendency, which undoubtedly exists, to reason directly from scientific evidence of impending environmental disaster to authoritarian and anti-humanist solutions. As he says, the natural scientists who warn us about climate change often don’t know very much about politics or economics and peremptory demands that we do something (this thing!) now or perish only serve to alienate the people they’re aimed at. But it isn’t as if the scientists are making this stuff up. Climate change may be irreversible and will be catastrophic, especially for the poorest people in the global south. The best political response doesn’t involve ignoring this in the name of humanism, it requires getting social scientists, political activists, policy makers and others to think about the social side of adaptation and mitigation and to inject this into the democratic conversation. “Industrialization” as an alternative to doing this is the politics of the ostrich and actually exemplifies what Alex condemns: a simple universal answer licensed from one disciplinary perspective. What use will “industrialization” be if those factories are underwater? Or if the land is desertified and uninhabitable? The left in those circumstances might do better to fight against the exclusion of climate refugees from wealthy countries.

Finally, Alex makes much of the importance of technological change in making it possible to free people from burdensome toil. He’s absolutely right about this. But it doesn’t abolish the environmental constraints, and nor does it alter the fact that capitalism’s inherent tendency is not to channel technological progress into increases leisure time but into increased output that, in wealthy countries, has little or no impact on real levels of well-being. Environmentalists and the left ought to be allies in this: cheap energy can be good if it brings us more time on the beach or with our children, but not if it simply enables more production of the crap the 1 per cent want to sell to us. Weaning us off crap consumer culture and enabling more satisfying human lives is not anti-humanistic. Vivre autrement! as the slogan went. People like Tom Walker and Juliet Schor (not to mention our own John Quiggin in a recent piece are doing the thinking necessary to create a genuine red-green alliance. Cat-calling at environmentalists in the name of a supposed humanism takes us in exactly the wrong direction.

{ 189 comments }

1

Brett 10.10.12 at 4:27 pm

But countries don’t all have to go through some developmental phase involving smoky factories. What’s important is that people in the Global South should, where possible, have the benefits of a modern infrastructure, well-built houses, secure energy supplies, decent transportation, and so forth.

I think even the term “industrialization” is becoming increasingly meaningless when distinguishing whether a country is “developed” or not. What we’re looking for is not a bunch of factories and manufacturing (which is going to become increasingly automated even in the Developing Nations like China), but urbanization and diverse, advanced economies.

Environmentalists and the left ought to be allies in this: cheap energy can be good if it brings us more time on the beach or with our children, but not if it simply enables more production of the crap the 1 per cent want to sell to us.

People choose to purchase that “crap” when given the choice between leisure and higher consumption, at least when the legal incentives against it aren’t strong. In any case, that “crap” is increasingly a whole range of services instead of the typical consumer manufactured products.

2

Hidari 10.10.12 at 4:49 pm

I don’t know why he is so worried: you could solve the problems of global warmıng just by burnıng all the straw men he fearlessly defeats ın that article. Indeed theır iımagınary fumes from their ımagınary bodies could undeniably power 1 millıon power stations for about 1 millıon years: producıng enough electricity to help power Gourevitch’s epic voyage to Spiked Magazine, whıch I would imagıne wıll be takıng place ın about 3 years or less, on the evıdence of thıs crappy article.

3

JW Mason 10.10.12 at 4:55 pm

You’re completely right about this piece, Chris. And unfortunately it’s rather representative. I worried for a while that Jacobin was turning into Dissent; now I worry that it’s turning into Spiked.

4

JW Mason 10.10.12 at 4:55 pm

(I see Hidari had the same thought.)

5

MPAVictoria 10.10.12 at 4:59 pm

I have always been a “people before trees” kind of leftist but of course some kind of balance between development and protecting the environment is necessary. Just as no one wants to be living in a forest with no jobs, no one wants to live and work in a toxic waste dump.

6

Peter 10.10.12 at 5:29 pm

We have a response to Gourevitch up today from one of our contributing editors, Max Ajl: http://jacobinmag.com/2012/10/climate-change-and-the-politics-of-responsibility/. It’s more in line with Chris Bertram’s critique.

For what it’s worth, as one of Jacobin’s editors, I’m mostly with Max on this. JW, in what way do you find the Gourevitch thing “representative” of our stuff? I’m guessing this is in the context of your debate with Mike Beggs, and maybe also Jim Livingston’s last (the latter was not our finest hour, IMHO). Believe me, Spiked is the last thing I want us to turn into, and I find the comparison disturbing and a bit offensive.

7

JW Mason 10.10.12 at 5:33 pm

It’s interesting that jacobin published this piece on the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act.

I would like to know if Gourevitch believes that limiting water pollution made everyone — especially poor people — worse off by retarding economic growth. I would like to know if he thinks that preserving the capacity of rivers and lakes to support marine life is just an irrational attachment to some mythical idea of nature. i wonder if he thinks that limiting industrial effluents is just a doctrinaire opposition to large-sclae industry. I wonder if he thinks that guaranteeing the safety of our drinking water was just an elite project with no popular support.

Because those are all things he says about the environmental movement in general. (Without ever quoting or even naming an individual environmentalist, or mentioning any specific campaign.) If his claims about environmentalism in the the abstract don’t apply to concrete instances of environmentalism like the Clean Water Act, then his piece is, not to put to fine a point on it, bullshit.

8

Bhaskar Sunkara 10.10.12 at 5:48 pm

Josh:

It’s actually from our last print issue, we republished it to give context to Max Ajl’s response, which I’m generally more sympathetic too.

Gourevitch’s piece was obviously a provocation, but it didn’t doubt any of the climate science, just attacked a few broad tendencies. Maybe too much overstatement or lacking nuance, but definitely not that offensive (on the Spiked! level).

Curious about how the Dissent comparison came to mind though, since we’ve never published anything that wasn’t consistently anti-imperialist and pro-Palestine…

9

JW Mason 10.10.12 at 5:53 pm

JW, in what way do you find the Gourevitch thing “representative” of our stuff? I’m guessing this is in the context of your debate with Mike Beggs, and maybe also Jim Livingston’s last (the latter was not our finest hour, IMHO). Believe me, Spiked is the last thing I want us to turn into, and I find the comparison disturbing and a bit offensive.

Mike’s piece was basically fine. I disagreed with it pretty strongly, but — unlike the Gourevitch thing — it was a smart, substantive piece that made serious arguments. While this thing is just embarrassing.

The main symptom of Spikification is when a “left” publication appears hostile to all actual left politics and movements, and reserves its enthusiasm for markets and technology. Does that fit the Jacobin ? I don’t know. But every time I see something like this, I worry that it’s fitting better. (Mike’s piece fit only to the extent he rejected Debt precisely because it’s read by activists. Which is to say, only a little.)

10

Chris Bertram 10.10.12 at 6:02 pm

Hey people, keep it nice and play the ball. I share the hostility of some commenters to Spiked, but I just disagree with Alex here (whilst agreeing with him on much else). Jacobin wouldn’t be the interesting project it is without the variety of pieces it carries and I wouldn’t read it if it were a party-line journal.

11

JW Mason 10.10.12 at 6:08 pm

OK. Consider my comments about Jacobin in general withdrawn.

And to be honest, in offline settings (where, like most of us, I’m a much nicer person than here) I frequently recommend the magazine and more than once have physically put copies in people’s hands.

In penance, I will write a post on my blog about the three or four recent pieces in the Jacobin that I really liked.

12

Ragweed 10.10.12 at 6:36 pm

I think the points made above say most of what needs to be said.

What is particularly disappointing about Gourevitch’s article is that there is an active discussion in the “Global South” about what consitutes appropriate development to avoid the pitfalls of dirty industrialism while providing improved standards of livings. That includes both things that don’t look like industrialism (eg – improved conditions and infrastructure for small-holding farmers) as well as things that do (big infrastructure projects).

The broad brush critique that Chris makes is right on – if Gourevitch had focussed his criticism a little more closely on Deep Ecologists, or the wackier sides of the Transition movement, he would have come across better. Even naming names and providing examples, like James Hansen, whose climatology is outstanding but whose political analysis is sometimes just embarassing (eg – we need a carbon tax rather than direct government intervention because it will allow markets to find the best solutions), would have made more sense.

But instead, he fired off a really badly aimed shotgun. Which is too bad, because there were a couple of good points hidden in there.

13

Salem 10.10.12 at 6:59 pm

“capitalism’s inherent tendency is not to channel technological progress into increases leisure time but into increased output that, in wealthy countries, has little or no impact on real levels of well-being. “

Actually, quite the reverse is true. Leisure time for employed workers in “capitalist” countries has been steadily rising. E.g.
Canada: http://filipspagnoli.files.wordpress.com/2008/05/hours_worked_canada.jpg
Germany: http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/data/DEUAHWEP_Max_630_378.png
USA: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_8rpY5fQK-UQ/SsX4TnLmAVI/AAAAAAAAIHY/eqwG8POWJ3c/s1600-h/hours.png

The same is true in every developed country I could find. You increases in developing countries as they get richer, as people get brought into the formal economy, but what is really increasing is employment. Being a subsistence farmer is definitely work – and a lot of it.

14

Tim Worstall 10.10.12 at 7:09 pm

“The virtue of a power plant is that it frees all but the few who run it from having to dedicate labor to power gen­eration, or having to rely on costlier energy sources. That Palestinians were forced to produce energy in their own homes was a further sign of their unfreedom, as they had to devote more of their labor to producing bare neces­sities than they had previously.”

That’s obviously true. If you’ve got to cycle for your ‘leccie to read by (or feed the wood stove, or cut the firewood, or clean the solar panels) then you’ll have less of that leisure that JQ was talking about.

“Should we adapt to effects or miti­gate the causes? Who should bear the burdens of adaptation or mitigation to climate change? Which economic and political institutions are the most desir­able? Which risks and natural changes are acceptable? These are social ques­tions, not scientific ones. But the ap­peal to science is an end run around trying to resolve them – it dresses up ideological concerns in the garb of un­impeachable scientific authority.

Even some of the more outlandish versions of “denialism” or rejection of the science, should be understood as a reaction to this authoritarian attempt to use science to force certain policies and projects down people’s throats. People can tell when science is being used as a stick to silence legitimate disagreement. And this holds not just for certain ele­ments of right-wing populism, but even within and amongst lefties themselves.”

And oh boy do I recognise that one. As I do this:

“As he says, the natural scientists who warn us about climate change often don’t know very much about politics or economics and peremptory demands that we do something (this thing!) now or perish only serve to alienate the people they’re aimed at.”

Yes I’m an extreme, by the standards of around here, righty. Leave that aside for a moment.

What has me frothing with rage is that when various serious people do listen to the climate scientists (and I use them as an example) then we still don’t get those serious peoples’ solutions from their own fields listened to.

Take that climate change. Stern, you know, the Stern that JQ wrote a paper defending. Does he say that Africans should remain as peasants for evermore? No, he doesn’t, he says, carbon tax, carbon tax now at $80 a tonne. Add a bit more R&D money and she’ll be right. At which point we get Oxfam (again, an example) releasing a report that says that Africans should remain peasants because climate change and the Stern Review proves it.

Yes, I have an expertise and no, this isn’t it. But when people ignore my knowledge in my field all that happens is they lose money. Oh dear. I take offence at those who demand that “action must be taken” about this problem but then refuse to listen to those who are expert in what action should be taken.

As to this:

“What’s important is that people in the Global South should, where possible, have the benefits of a modern infrastructure, well-built houses, secure energy supplies, decent transportation, and so forth. Industrializing might be one way of getting those things, but it is hardly the only way.”

I look forward to the description of that economy that has achieved all of that without an industrial revolution. Given that mechanisation is how value is added and value added is what buys everything else I really do look forward to it.

15

Cam Hardy 10.10.12 at 7:12 pm

Alex Gourevitch is being unfairly blamed here for the narrow perspective of modern politics, a perspective which he is in fact criticizing in his “Two Hurricanes” article.

Many on the left, as the response to this article indicates, want to turn the poverty of rural life in the developing world into a virtue through celebrating small-scale farming’s exclusion from the global market and looking for solutions outside of capital. The appropriation of Vandana Shiva’s traditional knowledge, or Nicaraugan agroecology, etc., is not a straw man, it is an easily recognizable tendency on the left and is a resignation to the idea that industrialization can only happen one way, in the form of “smoky” factories and endless creative destruction. This ignores the political context of why progress appears to be exhausted and why industrialization seems to invite disaster. It’s a tragedy that the assumed alternative to the parochial “small is beautiful” politics of the green left has to be Spiked Online’s fetishization of technology. To their credit, at least Spiked are honest about seeing radical social transformation as impossible, which is why they look to “better living through chemistry” to fix the world’s problems.

16

Tim Worstall 10.10.12 at 7:15 pm

Apologies, a shorter way of making the argument:

1) Climate scientists “we have a problem”.

2) Economists “if that’s the problem here’s the solution”.

3) Environmentalists “Not having that solution, it only solves the problem”.

17

John Quiggin 10.10.12 at 7:44 pm

Provocations provoke, as I’ve certainly found out for myself.

But for me, this piece provoked more yawns than anything else. The whole article reads as if it was written in response to Earth Day 1970 or Small is Beautiful. At least Spiked is recognizably part of the modern world, even if it’s a part that has descended into delusional self-parody.

18

Hidari 10.10.12 at 7:44 pm

I might note ın passıng that, generally speakıng, those who rail agaınst the poverty of Africa, South Amerıca, Central Amerıcan-The Carrıbbean, the “Far East”, and the Indian sub-continent rarely go into too much detail as to how they got into this state of poverty in the first place.

But let’s not forget: before these places were poor, they were rich.

Now: remind me who changed that state of affairs again.

19

Anna Haynes 10.10.12 at 7:58 pm

A question, from Ragweed #12′s “political analysis is sometimes just embarassing (eg – we need a carbon tax rather than direct government intervention because…)” and Tim W. #16:
Where, according to environmental economics experts, is the best writing about how to structure the economic playing field (or otherwise act plausibly and effectively) to solve the climate problem? And why is a carbon tax (or rather, a revenue-neutral “fee and dividend” arrangement) not a good solution?

Is it the Stern review, or something else?
(I ought to know this stuff much better than I do at present, and am currently in learning mode, so I promise to do the reading.)

> ” Once technologies have been developed in one place, they don’t need to be redeveloped elsewhere: they can be transferred.”

Well put.

20

Salem 10.10.12 at 8:05 pm

“But let’s not forget: before these places were poor, they were rich.”

When exactly was this?

21

Hidari 10.10.12 at 8:07 pm

“When exactly was this?”

Before “we” “discovered” them, more or less.

22

JW Mason 10.10.12 at 8:10 pm

Many on the left, as the response to this article indicates, want to turn the poverty of rural life in the developing world into a virtue

Nope.

Environmentalism means limits on air water pollution, the ban on CFCs, limits on fishing that have prevented the extinction of marine mammals and complete collapse of many fisheries, protections for endangered species, bans on lead in gas, paint, etc. (arguably one of the great social policy successes of our time), food and workplace safety regulation, and of course efforts to keep the planet habitable by limiting carbon emissions. If you are writing a critique of environmentalism, you have to show what’s wrong with that stuff. (All of which, by the way, has been attacked in Goirevitchian terms as anti-progress, romantic, elitist, etc.) And if you don’t have a problem with that stuff, you should be writing about how effective the environmental movement has been and how it should be a model for the rest of the left.

And yes, there’s a fringe of extremists. That’s fine! They are part of how all that concrete progress got made.

23

MPAVictoria 10.10.12 at 8:17 pm

“Before “we” “discovered” them, more or less.”

Citation needed.

24

JW Mason 10.10.12 at 8:22 pm

Hidari makes a good point – the idea, implied by Gourevitch, that people are poor in Africa and Latin America because regulation has prevented them from fully participating in capitalism, is grotesquely stupid. Without getting hung up on whether Africa was “rich” before it was forcibly incorporated into the Europe-centered world economy, it certainly was not poor the way it is now.

25

Hidari 10.10.12 at 8:29 pm

26

Matt 10.10.12 at 8:30 pm

The characterization given in the Jacobin article seems so far from actual political progress on the environment that it’s hard to even get worked up. Belief that we should shut down the electrical grid and switch to bicycle-generators is in short supply outside the Unabomber’s shack. This reads like a “will-you-condemn” where he picks some extreme fringe positions and then uses them to bludgeon a very popular movement that doesn’t advocate those positions.

27

Cam Hardy 10.10.12 at 8:53 pm

Right, so opposing intensive agriculture, GMOs, nuclear energy, etc., is confined to Unabomber-style maniacs. Environmentalism means everything good, and any of its reactionary traits– celebration of the simplicity of country life, romanticizing the wisdom of those close to the land, assuming any interference in the supposed natural order will end in chaos, etc., are just the domain of an anarchoid fringe element.

If you need concrete examples, look at Oxitec’s project with dengue-carrying mosquitoes. Ingenious scientific methods could help eliminate the Dengue virus in the third world. Greenpeace (surely one of those fringe organizations nobody serious mentions) opposes GM technology full-stop, due to their dedication to the precautionary principle. Mother Jones (which also publishes Malthusian drivel about too many people being born in the wrong countries) published an article attacking the project without actually investigating the science behind it. GM won’t solve problems of disease or hunger on its own but the scientific methods behind these projects could be used as part of a larger project that could.

28

SamChevre 10.10.12 at 8:54 pm

India was rich before we discovered it?

In my accounting,a country that sufferes massive famines every couple generations is not rich; it’s not even close to rich.

29

shah8 10.10.12 at 8:56 pm

The Environmentalist movement can be seriously classist. Muirism and Malthusianism tends to dominate most environmentalist movements. The tendency of Greens to participate in the political process as a kind of fake-left but libertarian (like UK Lib-Dems) safety valve in democratic politics also reinforce conservative sentiments.

So I was pretty prepared to hear out Alex Gourevitch, but it’s rather apparent he either understands nothing or is being highly mendacious in the flavor of “I used to be a Democrat, but [insert fringe outrage] has changed my mind.” The harshness in the blog post is rather deserved.

The main reason for ecological devastation and underdevelopment in the Global South primarily derives from the suppression of governmental organs that might act in the people of that country’s interest like passing and enforcement of environmental regulations. Suppression of adequate taxation of profitable enterprises that go into good roads. Think: http://whynationsfail.com/blog/2012/3/28/nice-schools-nice-roads.html . Also, global commodities markets and corporations that deal in commodities drive over-exploitation of land and water resources as well.

Power plants are all well and good, but massive power projects have a nasty tendency to introduce serious costs in all kinds of subtle ways. Aswan and Three Gorges Dam were not a particularly good idea, all things calculated. Inefficient diesel power plants like what the Palestinians had, are generally not a good deal–they were always dependent on the generosity of foreigners, and I bet the water usage from the valuable Gaza subsurface reservoirs was a major reason why the Israelis bombed it.

No, a modern, sustainable, and livable place requires design, and design according to the needs and restrictions of the location, so that costs are payable, and consequences are livable with. As you might guess, it’s about deep politics, and politics that is allowed to matter at the rim, despite the hub’s wishes. It goes a bit further than buying fair trade coffee (which is more label and good feelings than anything real).

30

shah8 10.10.12 at 8:58 pm

SamChevre, Mike Davis would like a word with you…

31

SamChevre 10.10.12 at 9:00 pm

I think Mike Davis is a British India specialist; I’m thinking of the famines pre-1700.

32

Ragweed 10.10.12 at 9:00 pm

“Where, according to environmental economics experts, is the best writing about how to structure the economic playing field (or otherwise act plausibly and effectively) to solve the climate problem? And why is a carbon tax (or rather, a revenue-neutral “fee and dividend” arrangement) not a good solution?”

Sorry – I was not clear about my complaint. A carbon tax is an excellent solution for a number of reasons, most importantly that it prices the climate externality for carbon. Even a revenue-neutral fee-and-dividend arrangement has good arguments for it, though I think the dividend aspect is more to make it politically palatable. Though there are some good arguments that a carbon tax alone does not provide sufficient impetus to move to a cleaner technology, particularly if the cost of transition is high.

The embarressing thing is the notion that markets do a better job than government at allocating resources to the problem. Really? After 2008 we are still saying that government can’t pick winners and losers, but that markets can? That is where Hansen’s political analysis falls short.

(That plus statements that equate Greenpeace with the fossil fuel lobby, and “Backing alternative energy is drinking the fossil fuel kool-aid” etc. I understand he is pro-nuclear, but there is a way to express that without attacking his natural allies).

The Stern review is an excellent place to start. Also, Frank Ackerman and Elizabeth Stanton at the Stockholm Environmental Institute – http://sei-us.org/home.

33

Zora 10.10.12 at 9:09 pm

Surely the answer isn’t choosing between small-scale, bottom-up solutions and large, industrial-scale, top-down installations, but rather the proper balance between them.

We may need a few large dams to supply the power for, say, solar cell factories, but we also need widespread installation of those solar cells to provide power for mundane residential needs. You can’t have the solar cells without the factory … but you’ve got a brittle system if you don’t have local backup power when a storm takes down the lines that bring remotely-generated electricity to your community.

We probably couldn’t supply all our food needs with hand-cultivated vegetables from backyard gardens … but the backyard gardens give resilience to the owners, who can better survive economic reverses or disruptions in the centralized food system.

Not a choice between factory farms and backyard gardens, but a balance. For everything, a balance.

Note that I’m not arguing that one size fits all: the efficiency/resiliency balance may differ from place to place, time to time.

34

shah8 10.10.12 at 9:15 pm

You know man, why don’t you think about why Henry the Navigator went through all the trouble he did? Or the degree of effort that the British East India Company to crush local textile industry so that British finished good could compete in the Raj?

And you know, you *could* read Davis’ book in part about British India. You could find out why your comment was so stupid.

35

david 10.10.12 at 9:33 pm

FYI it is well-documented amongst economists (e.g., Maddison’s authoritative compilation) that colonization and war depressed per-capita income in India. However by the 1900s it was already richer per-capita than it had ever been, even taking into account the ongoing trade surplus (which, in agricultural economies, is generally considered a extractive thing).

36

Omega Centauri 10.10.12 at 9:37 pm

Many of these issues pit present versus the future, and then the discount rate becomes absolutely crucial. For instance climate change will impose a rate of sea level rise, which will impose costs on anyone proposing coastal infrastructure more than a thousand years into the future, but practically any nonzero discount rate will discount it away. There are major intertemporal tradeoffs, as well as tradeoffs respecting the current distribution of wealth/outcomes.

37

Ragweed 10.10.12 at 9:42 pm

There is also a big difference between romanticizing subsistance agriculture and development strategies that support small-holding agriculture and other “peasant-based” development strategies. Timothy Wise et al at GDEI at just released a paper today that describes how Mexico could rebuild its small-holder corn agricultural base and achieve food independence – as well as be better prepared for climate change and other issues facing the country. It isn’t a back-to-the-paleolithic sort of solution either – there is considerable investment in infrastructure, particularly around water use and irrigation.

The other issue is that what often makes “peasant” farming so unbearable is not the work of farming itself, but the capitalist framework around it – debt, industrial intensification, market-dumping, commodity manipulation, monopolies, etc. And that industrial development in the west largely meant throwing people off their land so there was enough of a base of desperate people in urban slums that they were willing to work those nasty, dangerous factories for c— wages, making the factories profitable. Many of the peasant-based strategies do not romanticize peasants so much as try to prevent the brutal exploitation that goes along with industrialization.

38

shah8 10.10.12 at 9:44 pm

Yes, it was richer per capita than it has ever been, but that growth in wealth seriously lagged places that did not suffer as much wealth extraction. More than that, it lacked many institutions that reflected genuine wealth in terms of people and dynamics. A higher gdp per capita was a pretty big feature of colonial regimes (and places like Argentina and Chile) everywhere during the first half of the 20th century–much of it evaporated at independence as domestic politics fell into destructive cycles of wars and short-sighted exploitation. India didn’t suffer as much of Africa, due to much larger input of education and rail, but 1947 was really a rather massive tragedy anyways.

Wanna try more apologisms?

39

david 10.10.12 at 10:00 pm

A high domestic income per capita was a characteristic of minimally extractive regimes in predominantly agricultural economies; once industrialization takes off, all bets are off and growth is almost wholly determined by factors more subtle than “exploitation by foreigners”.

The post-WW2 statistics are ugly, simply because a handful of East Asian states did so darned well and so many African states did so darned badly. And exponential industrial growth implies ugly math in the consequences of missing out. If the foreigners murdered the local communist majority by the millions and installed a brutal capitalist-supporting dictator, your myopic focus on “growth in wealth” means that this was a marvelous success, and carelessly surrendering power over to socialist anticolonial revolutionaries quite possibly the world’s largest humanitarian disaster.

In the 1950s development economists thought the future crisis country would be… Indonesia. Not India and certainly not then-breadbasket Africa. And then agriculture stopped being relevant for wealth at all.

40

Matt 10.10.12 at 10:09 pm

Right, so opposing intensive agriculture, GMOs, nuclear energy, etc., is confined to Unabomber-style maniacs. Environmentalism means everything good, and any of its reactionary traits– celebration of the simplicity of country life, romanticizing the wisdom of those close to the land, assuming any interference in the supposed natural order will end in chaos, etc., are just the domain of an anarchoid fringe element.

Some of these things are policies and some of them are feelings. There are logically consistent and materially grounded justifications for the policies, but not all of their advocates arrived there by the logical materialist road.

As an example, intensive irrigation can greatly increase yields over traditional dryland farming in regions with limited precipitation, but in many regions said irrigation is also shrinking and tainting aquifers. The increasing dissolved solids content of shrinking aquifers can actually render land unfit for farming with continued irrigation. There’s no backup plan for what to do with all the investment in water-intensive equipment and practices when it can’t be continued, much less what to do with the degraded land if people insist on continuing past the point of safety.

To put it in an extreme form, some people may advocate a return to traditional farming in arid regions because they are soil/water/agricultural experts and others may do so because they’ve got an idea that it will make the countryside look more like something illustrated by Norman Rockwell. Are we supposed to ostracize people in the latter camp as punishment for their defective and embarrassing reasoning, no matter how much sense the actual policies might make? “Monsanto is pretty suspect, but ‘Frankenfood!’ is such a childish non-argument that I’m going to demand Roundup Ready everything just to spite those ignoramuses…”

41

Sandwichman 10.10.12 at 10:52 pm

Darn, once again superstition and conventional wisdom have galloped half-way around the world while sober reflection was lacing up her boots. Probably not as populistically-accessible as Gourevitch’s collection of platitudes and homilies, but meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Sandwichman was cobbling together some kind of synthesis that might allow us to talk coherently about economic growth and the environment. Oh well.

Endogenous Growth Theory and Ecological Unequal Exchange: linkage, displacement and deflection of ‘diminishing returns’

42

Sandwichman 10.10.12 at 11:07 pm

Here’s what Nicholaus Kaldor said about ‘underdevelopment’ in his 1986 Hicks Lecture. I think his parenthetical explanation at the end is a bit obscure and deserves to be unpacked, which is one of the things I try to do in my blog post referenced above. But those who would assume that “growth” or “cheap energy” are just somethings good that happen have a whole lot of explaining to do.

The basic requirement of continued economic growth is that the various complementary sectors expand in due relationship with each other — that is to say that general expansion is not held up by “bottlenecks” in key sectors. However, in the course of time, under the influence of technical progress, both of the natural-resource saving and labour-saving kind, the requirements of expansion may become considerably modified. In the manufacturing sector which becomes more important as real incomes rise, there are considerable economies of scale, as a result of which manufacturing activities are subject to a “polarization process” — they are likely to develop in a few successful centres, and their success has an inhibiting effect on similar developments in other areas. The realisation of these economies of scale normally requires also that numerous processes of production which are related to each other are carried out in close geographical proximity.

As a result different regions experience unequal rates of growth of output and of population. The industrial areas experience a growing demand for labour which may involve immigration from other areas once their own surplus labour is exhausted. Technological development in primary production on the other hand, tends to be more labour-saving than land-saving, so that the growth of output may go hand in hand with a falling demand for labour; and though output per head may grow fast in real terms, the level of wages will tend to remain low (and may even be falling) as a result of a growing surplus population. Since labour cost per unit of output is the most important factor in determining selling prices (at any rate under competitive conditions) the low wages prevailing, in terms of industrial products, will mean that the terms of trade will move unfavourably to primary producers, which may be the main factor, along with the low coefficient of labour utilisation, for their state of “under-development” characterised by low standards of living. The important contrast — which I regard as a major factor in the growing inequality of incomes between rich and poor countries — resides in the fact that the benefit of labour saving technical progress in the primary sector tends to get passed on to the consumers in the secondary sector in lower prices, whereas in the industrial sector its benefits are retained within the sector through higher wages and profits. (The main reason for this difference lies in the differing manner of operation of perfect and imperfect competition.)

43

faustusnotes 10.10.12 at 11:27 pm

I think “environmentalists” have been right about pretty much every issue they’ve tackled except nuclear power (on which I think they’re wrong). GMOs are tackled, even by environmentalists, on a primarily political basis precisely because they hold back development and enslave poor farmers to western agribusiness. Where environmental interests enter the GMO debate, they’re largely of the precautionary principle kind: we don’t yet have strong evidence that it’s wise to release terminator genes into the wild, and it’s extremely dubious to be marketing crops that can take much higher pesticide loads, given the known consequences of heavy pesticide use.

But in general environmentalism has been a boon for all communities, poor and rich.

The writers bias towards industry is obvious: we are wrong to deny the poor access to electricity, but it’s okay to deny them access to clean air or water, or functioning ecosystem services. Particularly amusing that this article is published just as the UN is raising the alarm about significant food shortages, which will disproportionately affect the global south and that can probably be linked to a warming planet …

44

david 10.10.12 at 11:43 pm

The tradeoff between cheap dirty electricity and clean air all over the developing world strongly suggests that suffering through the dirty air for a couple of decades buys you much better health in the end. Non-basic healthcare is expensive and you need industry to afford that.

45

Sebastian H 10.11.12 at 12:06 am

“Alex argues that greens substitute science for politics, neglect the social determinants of well-being, would deprive the global poor of technological benefits that could protect them from natural disasters and risk condemning people to lives wasted in drudgery.”

Hell on GMO the greens can’t even get their science right, they go straight for the politics based on how it feels just like any other fundamentalist.

46

JW Mason 10.11.12 at 12:51 am

The tradeoff between cheap dirty electricity and clean air all over the developing world strongly suggests that suffering through the dirty air for a couple of decades buys you much better health in the end.

Sure, if that were the tradeoff. But if you think that the main reason people in poor countries lack electricity is too much regulation of air pollution, you’re nuts.

47

gordon 10.11.12 at 1:14 am

Though several commenters have essentially suggested that “industrialisation” isn’t a black box, that there are different ways of doing it and some are better than others, I get the impression that there are still many who don’t get it. Maybe they could try “Natural Capitalism” ( Lovins, Lovins & Hawken; 2000), which talks in some depth about more environmentally conscious industrialisation.

There is a Harvard Business Review summary of the book downloadable from this page:
http://www.natcap.org/sitepages/pid11.php

48

faustusnotes 10.11.12 at 1:20 am

david, you offer a false choice. Because:

1. the largest gains in health don’t require development. They arise from clean water, reorientation of health systems, access to a few simple medicines that are now very cheap, and improvements in education of girls – none of these things require much development.

2. just because the UK had to go through a dirty electricity phase 150 years ago to get its energy, doesn’t mean the developing world has to now. If you’re concerned about the development path of these nations, you could advocate along with greens for changes in western development aid to focus on clean energy (including gas and nuclear) and help these nations skip the coal-power stage altogether.

The idea that health can only improve when countries complete their development path is just wrong. It’s not how health develops, and it’s belied by the experience of both developing and developed nations.

Sebastian H, do you have some scientific evidence that increased use of roundup will have no effect on the environment? And do you think the politics of agricultural development can be divorced from the environmental issues that accompany agricultural development?

49

shah8 10.11.12 at 1:33 am

I don’t think you can ask Sebastian H to deny a negative…

Moreover, as distasteful as RoudupReady (or plants that produce insecticides), they are pretty far down the list of serious agricultural conflicts with the environment. Phosphate and Nitrate pollution from fertilizer overuse, for example, is a massively more important problem.

Mosanto’s strategy is toxic more in the sense of legal trolling, as with patent submariners and domain name squatting. They leverage their property rights over their patented crops in such a way to squelch competition and force a rather disguised tribute from farmers. However the random implications of genetic infrastructure escaping into the wild, the social costs of the legal strategy, never mind the other important agricultural issues, swamps said theoretical musings.

50

Jake 10.11.12 at 1:35 am

In what world does clean water not require development? Sewage treatment plants require money and expertise, both to build and to run.

51

faustusnotes 10.11.12 at 1:49 am

Jake, I don’t think it requires the kind of development that demands huge numbers of coal-fired power plants.

52

Kenny Easwaran 10.11.12 at 2:03 am

Hidari, Shah8 – it’s definitely true that in the past, many of the places that are now considered part of the developing world were much richer than many of the places that are now considered the developed world. In fact, they may have been so much richer that it was worth the huge expense of Europeans to try to figure any way to trade directly with India and China rather than let middlemen take some percentage of the riches!

However, that doesn’t mean that India and China then were richer than India and China now. Someone already mentioned famine, but there are plenty of other things that modern subsistence farmers don’t have to deal with that their ancestors did. Like never being able to talk to your children again if they leave the village for the big city.

(Also, how did Hidari get those i’s without dots before every n and m in the comment?)

53

faustusnotes 10.11.12 at 2:06 am

Industrial revolution era Britain also had famine. e.g. the corn laws, Ireland, etc.

54

Silly Wabbit 10.11.12 at 4:20 am

“Industrialization” in low income countries often does nothing to improve living conditions in those countries. Wealthy nations transfer negative externalities to low income countries……

Go to google scholar and type in “ecologically unequal exchange”. Seriously, you can just cut and paste it……

55

Hidari 10.11.12 at 4:22 am

“Industrial revolution era Britain also had famine.”

And these days may come again: perhaps sooner than most people think:

“Are rising bills at the supermarket checkout turning out to be the first tangible impact of climate change on the daily lives of all Britons? It very much seems so.

The damage wreaked by the dismal summer of 2012 on UK harvests was revealed on Monday and will push food prices up. In these austere times, with food banks feeding the hungry, that is going to hurt.

There are two lessons to be learned. First, the UK is not going to gradually warm into a pleasant Mediterranean climate, with sunny resorts on the coast supplied by burgeoning English vineyards. The heating of the climate system leads to greater extremes in weather and greater damage. Second, with much of our food imported from around the world, the totals we tot up at the tills is at the mercy of global warming’s impact on the whole globe.”

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/damian-carrington-blog/2012/oct/10/food-price-rise-uk-crop-harvest?intcmp=122

56

js. 10.11.12 at 4:59 am

So I’m very sympathetic with this argument—CB’s that is—and there’s a whole lot in Gourevitch’s post that I don’t agree with: the implicit treatment of environmentalism as really quite monolithic, some of the analogies with Occupy, etc. Nevertheless…

Right, nevertheless. Well, I think there’s a good argument to be made roughly in the area of Gourevitch’s, even though it’s (maybe) not the one Gourevitch himself makes. Let the thesis be something like: if you look at contemporary “green” discourse, in say the US (I know less about the UK and basically nothing about other developed countries, on this issue), large parts of it are highly problematic, and they’re problematic for reasons not unrelated to what’s bothering Gourevitch.

So take the rightly ridiculed (on all ends) Palestinian bicycle-power example. Bertram’s right that it’s a bit ridiculous to take this as representative of contemporary environmentalism (as a whole). At the same time, it’s not at all surprising that this example would be cheered by, oh let’s call it, the median “environmentally-conscious” audience in the Global North. I mean, is it?

I think the example ties into two very deep and problematic obsessions in contemporary Western (or US) environmentalism. First is the obsession with end-point or consumer solutions to extremely large-scale environmental problems. (This needn’t be global warming, though that’s the current focus.) “Reduce your carbon footprint!”, etc. Which, as a solution to the mooted problem, is completely ridiculous.

Relatedly, and more insidiously, there’s “localism”—or at least lots of versions of it. (Ok. I should say right now that I’m not going to provide any links; most of this comes from talking to people who are a lot more into this stuff than me, and most of it should be familiar anyway.) This needn’t take the extreme form: we should only eat things that are locally grown, etc., though I’ve heard that version as well. Another version that I’ve heard forwarded, by people I deeply respect that are deeply involved in environmentalism is something like: the price of produce should more or less accurately reflect transportation costs, etc. Translated: if you live in Massachusetts, say, you can only eat bananas if you’re rich. This is horrible!

Ok, again, the caveats: There are very serious environmental activists who understand the deep connections between environmental justice and global social justice. There’re are lots of them! The “traditional” Left and environmentalists need not be, and should not be opposed to each other. But: what runs through the cases and tendencies outlined above is a deep-seated individualism that thinks of social or global problems as solvable through individual—definitely not collective! efforts. And I for one think it’s hard to deny that this sort of individualism is highly prevalent in mainstream contemporary environmentalism in the global north. And this is a serious problem.

OK: CB, JW Mason, etc: Please tear this down. Because ultimately I want to entirely agree with you all.

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js. 10.11.12 at 5:10 am

Yikes! That was really long. And I failed to link it up with Gourevitch’s post at the end. Sorry.

58

Lee A. Arnold 10.11.12 at 5:21 am

The Luddite-style environmentalists whom Gourevitch criticizes do not represent the mainstream of environmentalism, or at least not anymore. Go read Gus Speth. It is interesting, though, that these Luddites are far ahead of Gourevitch in one aspect, insofar as they have a gut feeling about an intellectual problem that Gourevitch himself clearly does not understand. It is the most important sentence in the piece: he writes, “Scientists can tell us about the com­plex things happening in the natural world.” That is all you need to know about this essay, and you can stop right there, because it is false, as he intends it. Scientists can “tell” us about complex things, but they cannot precisely predict them.

Complex systems are never precisely predictable, but after long observation of very many kinds of complex systems, in nature and in silico, we know that the following generally happens: 1) they gyrate within certain parameters; 2) occasionally they have a wild breakpoint, or catastrophe, often for reasons which remain unclear even after it happens; 3) exotic forcing, such as a new wild predator in a natural food-web (and perhaps additional CO2 released into the atmosphere), increases the gyrations and INCREASES THE PROBABILITY OF BREAKPOINT CATASTROPHES. Again, this is a general induction from observations of what usually happens, though we have NO precise predictions about when or how it will happen.

So, when we read things such as:

“…the ‘crisis’ mode of politics. This ‘we must act now, we don’t have time to reflect’ that we find in much climate activism is deeply problematic. As I have written elsewhere, it is a politics of fear…”

–a thought which presumably is premised on the fact that there is still a scientist somewhere who thinks that we don’t have a really big problem–or in other words, a scientist somewhere who hasn’t learned that complex systems have remained unpredictable throughout the history of science; or we read:

“Who should bear the burdens of adaptation or mitigation to climate change?”

–without admitting any probability that it may well be “everybody”, one way or the other; or we read:

“Cheap energy is a good thing,”

–without a clause about the fact that where the energy comes from, i.e. how it is to be generated, is almost the central question, then we are reading someone who really needs to learn the issues.

59

Sandwichman 10.11.12 at 5:30 am

Silly Wabbit wrote, “Go to google scholar and type in “ecologically unequal exchange”. Seriously, you can just cut and paste it…”

Yes, do! And while you’re at it go to Ecological Headstand and have a look at the Sandwichman’s latest on ecologically unequal exchange vs. endogenous growth theory or, as I titled it “Endogenous Growth Theory and Ecological Unequal Exchange: linkage, displacement and deflection of ‘diminishing returns’”

And, yes, js, there is a lot lacking in “contemporary ‘green’ discourse” most of which falls for one variety of wishful thinking or another — either rose-coloured glasses or here-comes-the-apocaplyse-hooray! But then there is always a lot lacking in discourse, period.

60

faustusnotes 10.11.12 at 6:22 am

js, if you have a solution to the problem of environmental destruction due to over-fishing or raising animals, that is not based on personal consumption, I would love to hear it. This kind of cute 70s marxist solution to modern environmental problems is all very well – yes, we’ll change the structural factors, whatever, but you can’t prevent overfishing without reducing the amount of fish people eat. If you want to prevent overfishing and reduce global inequalities in protein intake you are going to have to demand that rich people give up their sushi so that poor people can have some.

It’s also just plain stupid to point to the consumption-focused end of environmentalism and pretend that is where it’s all at, because much of environmental activism over the past 30-50 years has been about changing deep-rooted structural factors: clean water acts, clean air acts, changes in quantities and patterns of pesticide use, economic policies to encourage disaggregation in energy policy, improvements in public transport, etc. The question is, why do you focus on the Palestinian bicycle-power issue, rather than noticing that the environmental movement is also deeply involved in trying to change environmental policy and industrial practice in Israel and Palestine?

61

chrismealy 10.11.12 at 6:51 am

For what it’s worth, I’m a Jacobin subscriber and I was also worried that it was turning into Spiked.

62

bad Jim 10.11.12 at 8:47 am

Ït’s been conjectured that Hidarï ïs usïng a Turkïsh character set. Anyone suffïcïently dïsturbed by the dotless Ï’s ïs welcome to compensate by doublïng theïr own.

Like a great many environmentalists, I am acutely aware of my own sinfulness, act by act, even as I recognize that personal virtue is an entirely impractical approach. Waste and excess are big problems, and once you start paying attention you realize they’re pervasive, and mostly not getting better. The replacement of station wagons by sport utility vehicles is probably worse than the practice of drinking exotic water from disposable bottles, but what’s most discouraging is that we will probably indulge as enthusiastically in the next environmental outrage.

I’m personally inclined to despair. I don’t see any obvious way to provoke nuclear war between China and India, and anything short of that is probably not going to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide enough to avert disaster. If we humans manage to muddle through this mess it’s going to be really brutal. I’m looking forward to being dead when things get really bad.

63

ajay 10.11.12 at 9:04 am

Waste and excess are big problems, and once you start paying attention you realize they’re pervasive, and mostly not getting better. The replacement of station wagons by sport utility vehicles is probably worse than the practice of drinking exotic water from disposable bottles, but what’s most discouraging is that we will probably indulge as enthusiastically in the next environmental outrage.

But yet, North America and Eurasia are both using less energy per person now than they were thirty years ago. Implying that we’re getting less wasteful, not more.

64

Chris Bertram 10.11.12 at 9:34 am

_But yet, North America and Eurasia are both using less energy per person now than they were thirty years ago. Implying that we’re getting less wasteful, not more._

Or that more of the energy used to produce the goods we consume, is used in China and India rather than locally.

65

Matt 10.11.12 at 9:46 am

I’m personally inclined to despair. I don’t see any obvious way to provoke nuclear war between China and India, and anything short of that is probably not going to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide enough to avert disaster. If we humans manage to muddle through this mess it’s going to be really brutal. I’m looking forward to being dead when things get really bad.

One helpful adaptation mechanism for children of the future: they’ll never have experienced what we would miss acutely! Diminished expectations all around will dampen despair.

In the abstract I wish that the woolly mammoth weren’t extinct and that 18th century settlers of the US East Coast had left more old-growth trees intact or at least turned them into nice furniture instead of ashes. But I don’t get really worked up the way I do about present day slash and burn agriculture or the march to extinction of African megafauna.

In the future, children will regard angry old people talking about the days when you could shut off the air conditioning in September or rely on mountains to store clean water as snowpack for free the way we now regard old people complaining that doctors were cheaper and roads less crowded when they were young.

66

reason 10.11.12 at 10:05 am

Chris Bertram @64,
Yep. Further to that – the sort of marginal growth we are having in the West may be less energy intensive that the sort of marginal growth they are having in BRIC. Does AJ want to stop the expansion of prosperity.

Its a bit like, people keep saying I don’t see any effect of peak oil, I can still fill up my car – but people in some African countries can’t afford to run a diesel generator anymore.

67

Matt 10.11.12 at 10:35 am

Or that more of the energy used to produce the goods we consume, is used in China and India rather than locally.

There may be some energy swept under the rug by allocating consumption in the USA to overseas industry, but there are good reasons to believe that declining energy consumption per capita is real.

According to the EIA’s Annual Energy Review, in 2009 the US residential sector consumed 21064 trillion BTU with population 307,007,000. In 1978 it consumed 16132 trillion BTU with population 222,095,000. In the same period real median household income increased about 20%. Per-capita residential energy use is down about 5.3%, and that’s a statistic that is insensitive to offshoring of industrial activity.

If you want to look at specific industrial commodities, historical trends also show moderate steady decreases in energy intensity of producing ethylene, chlorine, ammonia, silicon, aluminum, steel, concrete, glass, and other energy-intensive chemicals and materials.

68

ajay 10.11.12 at 10:42 am

Or that more of the energy used to produce the goods we consume, is used in China and India rather than locally.

Maybe! Any economists who can comment on that?

69

ajay 10.11.12 at 10:50 am

I don’t see any obvious way to provoke nuclear war between China and India, and anything short of that is probably not going to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide enough to avert disaster.

This is not only a staggeringly callous and tasteless remark, it’s not even right. India’s only got 80 or so warheads in the 50-kiloton range. Even if every one of those gets through (let’s ignore range problems and delivery uncertainties) that’s still only going to kill about 20 million people, max. That many people are born in China every two months or so.

China has a rather larger arsenal but the fatalities per blast will be lower, because India’s population is more rural and thus more spread out. And anyway, carbon emissions per person in China are a lot higher than in India, so the slaughter that you are so casually contemplating would have less effect.

70

Sandwichman 10.11.12 at 11:05 am

Matt wrote, “there are good reasons to believe that declining energy consumption per capita is real.”

There is one even better reason to believe otherwise. The EIA’s reported global consumption of energy (measured in trillions of BTUs) per capita increased by 11.6% between 1980 and 2006.

71

ajay 10.11.12 at 11:15 am

70: which is much less than the global economy expanded over the same period; implying that making the same amount of stuff in 2006 took a lot less energy than it did in 1980, as Matt said. China’s GDP per capita went up from about $180 to about $2000 in constant dollars over that period, and its energy use per capita went from 18 to 56 mbtu.

72

Tim Worstall 10.11.12 at 11:17 am

“js, if you have a solution to the problem of environmental destruction due to over-fishing or raising animals, that is not based on personal consumption, I would love to hear it. This kind of cute 70s marxist solution to modern environmental problems is all very well – yes, we’ll change the structural factors, whatever, but you can’t prevent overfishing without reducing the amount of fish people eat. If you want to prevent overfishing and reduce global inequalities in protein intake you are going to have to demand that rich people give up their sushi so that poor people can have some.”

Well, there is a solution: grow more fish.

If 7 billion humans were still trying to feed themselves through hunter gatherer methods there would be zero humans left. Fishing is still hunter gatherer, in a way that agriculture quite clearly is not. Move from the one model to the other and we would be able to increase the amount of fish available.

Indeed, it’s been shown that in a private fishery (ITQs and the like) the most profitable population level is one well above sustainability. This is one of those roblems where we really do know the answer to Hardin’s point about commons. Privatisation of the resource leads to better outcomes than either regulation of it or common access.

73

Barry 10.11.12 at 11:37 am

Chris: “The piece is written as a provocation”

‘Provacative’ is like ‘contrarian’. They both used to have a worthwhile meaning, but now simply mean bullsh*tter.

74

Barry 10.11.12 at 11:48 am

“Gourevitch’s piece was obviously a provocation, but it didn’t doubt any of the climate science, just attacked a few broad tendencies. “

Thanks for the confession – honest work doesn’t have to be defended with the term ‘provocation’. Also, ‘attacked a few broad tendencies’? How about attacking specific things, or patterns which can be demonstrated to actually exist (and no just as fringe positions)?

75

Phil 10.11.12 at 12:04 pm

Also, ‘attacked a few broad tendencies’? How about attacking specific things, or patterns which can be demonstrated to actually exist (and no just as fringe positions)?

See also the religion thread.

76

ajay 10.11.12 at 12:05 pm

And indeed the battleship thread…

77

Chris Bertram 10.11.12 at 12:17 pm

ajay: yes that’s correct. So (one scenario) if we’d stuck to producing the same amount of stuff and awarded ourselves more free time instead, we’d be consuming much less energy and emitting correspondingly less in the way of greenhouse gases. Since, however, we decided to go for more stuff ….

78

EWI 10.11.12 at 1:12 pm

JW Mason @ o9

And don’t forget that UK tech site that has become a Spiked! Offshoot, namely The Register. It seems to function as a mouthpiece for the GWPF as well.

Interestingly, it features regular columns by a Tim Worstall arguing against any regulation of bad effects from the activities of industry. Small world, eh?

79

ajay 10.11.12 at 1:17 pm

So (one scenario) if we’d stuck to producing the same amount of stuff and awarded ourselves more free time instead, we’d be consuming much less energy and emitting correspondingly less in the way of greenhouse gases. Since, however, we decided to go for more stuff ….

Since we’re talking about worldwide emissions, “we” in this case is, very largely, the peasants of the Third World, in particular those of China and India. Damn their selfish cupidity! If only they’d appreciated the virtues of free time!

80

Chris Bertram 10.11.12 at 1:26 pm

Yes, sorry, the scope of the various claims made in our exchange shifted and I lost track. You’re right on that one ajay.

81

SamChevre 10.11.12 at 1:53 pm

Sebastian H, do you have some scientific evidence that increased use of roundup will have no effect on the environment?

Not Sebastian H, but I’ll take this.

I expect increased use of Round-Up because of the availability of Round-up Ready corn to have a large positive effect on the environment. The alternatives are in most cases either far more persistently toxic (atrazine) or require more fuel and produce more erosion (tillage).

82

Chiron 10.11.12 at 1:57 pm

“I’m personally inclined to despair. I don’t see any obvious way to provoke nuclear war between China and India, and anything short of that is probably not going to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide enough to avert disaster.”

I have always felt a certain horror of political economists since I heard one of them say he feared the famine of 1848 in Ireland would not kill more than a million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do any good. (Benjamin Jowett, referring to Nassau Senior, economic adviser, 1848)

83

Sandwichman 10.11.12 at 2:20 pm

Worstall: “Well, there is a solution: grow more fish.”

Oh. My. God. And then when the sea lice from the farm fish infect the wild stocks? There’s a solution to that too: muzzle the fisheries scientists.

84

Sandwichman 10.11.12 at 2:26 pm

“I have always felt a certain horror of political economists since I heard one of them say he feared the famine of 1848 in Ireland would not kill more than a million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do any good. (Benjamin Jowett, referring to Nassau Senior, economic adviser, 1848)”

Thanks for that one, Chiron. I hadn’t heard it, though I’ve done a bit of research on Senior and the sentiment is entirely in character.

85

ajay 10.11.12 at 2:39 pm

83: sea lice aren’t an inescapable part of fish farming, and good management can remove or reduce the risk of infection of wild fish.

86

Sandwichman 10.11.12 at 3:46 pm

85: ‘good management’ exhibits diminishing returns to scale.

87

Lars 10.11.12 at 3:53 pm

85: Sea lice and infectious diseases incubated in fish farms aren’t inevitable consequences of the technique, true. They’re just much much more likely, as epidemics of bird flu in wild bird populations are much more likely in the presence of commercial chicken battery operations.
And most farmed fish, particularly marine species, are predators. Keeping them fed requires the sequestering of large parts of the productivity of natural marine ecosystems. So even if they aren’t laid low by fish-farm engendered plagues, natural fish populations will have their resource bases whisked away from beneath them.
The promise of The Deep Range and advanced aquaculture feeding the teeming masses of future humanity seem pretty-much a bust on the face of it.

88

ajay 10.11.12 at 4:04 pm

Sea lice and infectious diseases incubated in fish farms aren’t inevitable consequences of the technique, true. They’re just much much more likely,

Well, the research disagrees. Well-managed fish farms – or rather salmon farms, since that’s what we’re talking about; most fish farms don’t farm salmon – seem not to make lice outbreaks in nearby wild populations more likely.

And most farmed fish, particularly marine species, are predators

But most farmed fish are not marine species, and are not predators. They’re carp and perch and tilapia.

‘good management’ exhibits diminishing returns to scale.

I am not sure what this means. You can have one well-managed farm – or factory, or hospital – but if you build ninety more, they all become less well-managed? Is this like the Law of Conservation of Ninjutsu?

89

Sandwichman 10.11.12 at 4:12 pm

@88 “Well-managed fish farms – or rather salmon farms, since that’s what we’re talking about; most fish farms don’t farm salmon – seem not to make lice outbreaks in nearby wild populations more likely”

Just as there is little risk of E coli contamination in a well-managed meat packing plant. #XLFoods

90

mud man 10.11.12 at 4:26 pm

faustusnotes @60: ” … you can’t prevent overfishing without reducing the amount of fish people eat. If you want to prevent overfishing and reduce global inequalities in protein intake you are going to have to demand that rich people give up their sushi so that poor people can have some.”

That’s not quite right, the destruction of fish stocks has a lot to do with wasteful large-scale harvest methods like big net trawling that create a lot of discarded bycatch and environmental destruction. A lot of the “value” in fish these days is “trash” fish used for animal feed … not high-grade stuff like tuna for sashimi, which must be carefully caught and handled and will never have high volume. It’s really a tragedy-of-the-commons problem which would have to be addressed by management, much of it across nation-states, which consumers (of fish or chicken) qua consumers are in no position to supply. Even fish that are consumed directly, like wild-caught salmon, we could manage the environment to increase the supply substantially if we cared to.

91

ajay 10.11.12 at 4:28 pm

Quite. So, regulate them well, and lice outbreaks will be extremely rare (see, for example, the Norwegian experience). Glad we’ve reached an agreement!

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James 10.11.12 at 4:29 pm

Here in the US, Gourevitch’s, knocks fit the pattern of behavior exhibited by the environmental movement. The movement, as a whole, is pushing for a large percentage of electric production to be green energy. This, as a standalone item, is both laudable and consistent with the movement’s larger stated goals. When someone actually tries to build an industrial sized wind farm, solar plant, or damn the environmentalists in the region fight against the projects. They fight to delay the project, decrease the size of the project, and reduce the active time of power production. These same regional will fight to remove (damns)/reduce (wind farms/solar) existing green energy production. This is all done with the goal of saving the local bird, fish, or natural environment. Both positions are consistent with the movement’s goals. This results in the strange situation where there is a popular political position of wanting more green energy but having to fight the environmentalist to actually get it.

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Lars 10.11.12 at 4:29 pm

@88
I would really like to see some citations on the benignity of salmon farming – on the Canadian West Coast, the issue seems very much unsettled. And it’s not just because of tree-huggers protesting the despoliation of their nice pristine Vancouver Island coves that there is doubt about the sustainability of theindustry.

And saying that most farmed fish are non-marine simply removes the problem from marine to freshwater ecosystems, which have to deal with immense amounts of effluent and are inherently more susceptible to eutrophication to begin with.

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ezra abrams 10.11.12 at 4:43 pm

1)
The land area of the earth is about 150 million square kilometers
If we break that into squares 1 meter on a side, there are about 150^6 X 1^6 or about 150 trillion square meters.
Current human population is about 6 billion (0.006 trillion)
So, if want our not so distant (100 year) kids to have a decent life, we have an idea that total population can grow more then about 1,000 fold, order of magnitude.

2) what does a real environmentalist think we should do
well, I think we should, immediately, that private cars, jet aircraft and internal combustion engines for things like lawnmowers, and wood stoves, are going to be outlawed.
thats right, if you actually think that global warming is a problem, there is a simple solution – ban cars
And, strict 1 family one child; if that means mass forced abortions and sterilization, so be it.
You wanna get serious,, or not ?
I’m not trolling here – if I was the planetary dictator, which thank god I’m not, I would enforce these measures; it is time for the human race to grow up, and abandon our toddler temper tantrums; this means no more private cars, very little meat, strict population control, immediate ban on cutting any tree or laying of more pavement (which means, to be fair, a lot of removal in developed world to provide for 3rd world)

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Lee A. Arnold 10.11.12 at 5:00 pm

I am a technological optimist, but it isn’t likely that there will be a single solution. We should try everything possible, right away, all at the same time. We should also think of alternatives such as scrubbing CO2 back out of the atmosphere, such as by genetic engineering of industrial micro-organisms that turn themselves back into gasoline–a closed energy cycle, if you like.

We cannot predict what will happen. If we have a sudden heat spike for a few years that destroys much of world agriculture, then goes back to the “normal” temperature trend, everyone will say, “Oops! What caused that?” …Except that there won’t be anyone left to say it. There are no national emergency food reserves (that I know of) and much of the world economy is based upon annual agricultural production for industrial feedstocks. There will be mayhem, then mass starvation.

This sort of spike event may be possible in the climate (as it is in other complex systems), perhaps it even happens frequently–without always leaving evidence of it in the distant past. The evidence doesn’t have to be visible. It would be too short to distinguish in the proxy records, and it may not always cause extinction of many species of plants and animals because they could survive in cryptic refugia, so there would be no indication in the fossil record, which, in addition, isn’t smoothy continuous anywhere. But it could still destroy civilization.

On the other hand, there are at least a few known extinctions that appear to have been caused by climate change. The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, 55 million years ago. (probably from methane, which is to be unlocked from the permafrost.) A mass extinction of mammals, about 50,000 years ago.

At one point in the last ice age, we know that the temperature increased around 15 degrees Celsius in about two decades. If this rate of change happens now, we wouldn’t be able to change agricultural patterns and trade patterns fast enough.

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Lee A. Arnold 10.11.12 at 5:05 pm

It is well past time for people to be extremely alarmed by this, in the Luddite style, if not with the Luddite solutions. That is what bothers me about Gourevitch’s essay.

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Sebastian H 10.11.12 at 5:47 pm

If you want to argue that Monsanto’s patent strategy shouldn’t be allowed to continue the way it goes, I’m perfectly willing to agree with you. But if you want to argue that GMOs are ‘unsafe’ for human consumption in a way that typical foods are not, you are engaging in global warming denialist-level anti-science. If you want to argue that the risk of crop contamination from GMOs is more dangerous than that of hybridization crops, you are engaging in global warming denialist-level anti-science. If you want to argue that there are scary undefined holistic worries about the fact that humans “weren’t evolved to deal with” GMOs, then you are engaged in global warming denialist-level anti-science and you are an enormous hypocrite if you ever eat crops like corn or if you eat foods like tropical fruits and your ancestors are from Europe.

The GMO food game as currently played out in politics is just as anti-science as global warming denialists. Both *use* the language of science and science criticism. Both have some valid points at extreme corner cases or regarding certain of the most extreme defences. Neither respect the actual science as performed.

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Chris Bertram 10.11.12 at 5:57 pm

Sebastian: a quick search for “GMO” in this thread reveals anti-environmentalists trolling for attention and nobody actually putting the arguments you are emoting about.

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Sebastian H 10.11.12 at 6:43 pm

It isn’t surprising to me that lefties here don’t want to ‘put forth’ arguments about GMOs. Its an embarrassment. And embarrassments are, well, embarrassing. Though whenever the topic comes up we certainly get quite a share of defenders and even more tellingly very little pushback against the vocal defenders of GMO anti-science by those on the left who would freak out about precisely similar anti-science from global warming denialists.

But the anti-GMO crap is in fact an extremely big face of current environmental policy wrangling both in the the EU (where its marketing and lawmaking potential has been ridiculously successful despite the science) and increasingly in the US. This is hugely important to the developing world, where GMO techniques open up a much easier hope of getting away from ag-based economies. Furthermore it is an important facet of even the global warming debate, as some GMO crops require fewer petro-chemical fertilizers.

If I were harping on some small two-bit argument put off on the side, you’d have a point. But the anti-GMO crowd is increasingly one of only two important political faces of the environmental debate as it plays out in the developed world (the only other which rivals it being global warming concerns).

Alex’s piece is all about the intersections of politics and science vis-a-vis environmentalism. The people not ‘on your side’ are against global warming. They tend to leverage politics inappropriately and in direct contradiction to the science. They sometimes have good points on very remote issues, but generally are bat-shit crazy on the core topics. They get well deserved derision and pushback from you.

Anti-GMO people are ‘on your side’ in other areas. They tend to leverage politics inappropriately and in direct contradiction to the science. They sometimes have good points on very remote issues, but generally are bat-shit crazy on the core topics. They get, well generally chirping crickets from the same people who want to slam global warming denial.

This would be fine if anti-GMO people were some tiny declining splinter group. But they aren’t. They are increasingly noisy and increasingly a very major part of the traditional environmental face. Both Greenpeace and the Sierra Club take wildly inappropriate GMO scare tactic stances for example.

This is exactly how the freaking global warming denial groups became so powerful: they were seen by politicians to be a good source of votes with an easy pander. If you think science is important, don’t let it become so dismally polluted on both sides.

I’m not emoting. I’m warning about letting anti-science take rein on (roughly) your side the way it has on (roughly and embarassingly) my side. You’re being dismissive, but that is what you do, so the warning isn’t really for you. It is for people who care about the science more than the politics, and I’m pretty sure that is some of the readers here.

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J. Otto Pohl 10.11.12 at 7:14 pm

Since CB censored my first comment without any notification I will try again. There are two basic ways to develop. Both of them involve manufacturing finished goods with added value rather than continuing to export raw materials at low prices and import finished goods at high prices. The first tried by Mexico and Brazil with some success in the 1950s and 60s is import substitution. This is a more autarkic model. The second used with spectacular success in East Asia is to manufacture value added products like electronics for export. In Ghana we import a huge amount of processed goods that are expensive and have to be paid for in foreign currency and export mostly raw materials that are low cost. So we have the strange situation of Ghana selling cocoa to Cadbury at a relatively low price and then importing candy bars at very high prices from the same company. Ghana produces high quality pharmaceuticals and textiles. But, it still imports a lot of high priced, but no better quality pharmaceuticals from Europe and cheap, but low quality textiles from China. It shouldn’t be importing any pharmaceuticals from Europe that are manufactured here and should instead be exporting them to Europe. Instead of selling cocoa to Cadbury Ghana should be selling finished chocolate bars at a considerable mark up to the UK. But, if you don’t actually manufacture any consumer goods like computers, mobile phones, cars, appliances, etc then the import bill is really hard to offset with exports of raw materials. It is the primary reason the cedi keeps losing value against the dollar.

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Tim Worstall 10.11.12 at 7:34 pm

“Interestingly, it features regular columns by a Tim Worstall arguing against any regulation of bad effects from the activities of industry. Small world, eh?”

Gosh that’s amazing. Must be some other Tim Worstall out there writing for The Register then. For example, on this environmentalist thing that we’re duscussing here, I’ve been advocating a carbon tax for over a decade now.

That might not count as “regulation” pf bad effects from the activities of industry but it’s certainly an attempt to deal with it, isn’t it?

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Chris Bertram 10.11.12 at 10:41 pm

Since CB censored my first comment without any notification

Actually, I didn’t. Your comment went in the auto-moderation queue for some reason. Admittedly, I couldn’t be bothered to free it from limbo, but I haven’t actively censored you Otto.

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Plume 10.11.12 at 10:46 pm

Less than 20% of the world’s population consumes more than 85% of its natural resources. Obviously, the math doesn’t work out for an expansion of consumer culture.

If the bottom 80% consume like the top 20%, they can’t consume like the top 20%. A sort of Barber’s Paradox.

Obscene levels of wealth and income inequality is near the very top of the most immoral and odious results of capitalism. Tragically, another result of the triumph of capitalism is the trap it makes regarding the bottom part of the consumption ladder. If we raise the bottom, while the top keeps consuming like they are now (much less even more), then the earth simply will collapse. There are not enough resources to handle that. Not enough clean water, safe food, arable land or breathable air.

The only logical answer is for the top to consume far less, to bring its ecological footprint waaaay down, while we raise the bottom up. We need to do this yesterday, as several environmental organizations predict that by 2030, we will need two entire earths to meet demand.

A very good source on the topic of the article is:

http://climateandcapitalism.com/

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Watson Ladd 10.12.12 at 12:27 am

Plume, the Pharao of Egypt would quite contentedly argue that he, ruling as he did a population of several millions, could never permit an increase in population. Today 25 million people live in Egypt, on that same river with the same fields.

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Peter T 10.12.12 at 1:01 am

On the “declining rate of energy use per capita is good news” theme. Well, even if it were true, climate scientists keep pointing out that, as CO2 is a very long-lived gas, what matters for climate change is not the rate at which you emit, but the total quantity emitted. Driving more slowly towards a cliff is still driving towards a cliff.

On Alex’ piece, I think some of the issues he raises are simply the consequence of a subterranean shift in belief systems, as the realisation of that there are hard limits leaches into the collective subconscious. I don’t know what will emerge, but I expect the process to be messy, incoherent and often self-contradictory. I mean. there are still people who haven’t caught up with the enlightenment….

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Lars 10.12.12 at 1:08 am

@ 104 -
Ah, no – it’s more like 80 million. And before you point out how this improves your argument, you might ask for how long that same river with the same fields can be expected to continue to support all of these additional people without radical degradation of its ability to do so. Extremely large, dense populations these days are largely subsisting upon ecological capital. Pointing out how many bodies we can cram into a space that previously held much fewer is basically the same as clapping your hands together in wonder at how many fraternity men can be stuffed into a telephone booth for a photo shoot.

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Plume 10.12.12 at 3:03 am

Watson Ladd,

Denial isn’t a river in Egypt. That river isn’t the same river, as Heraclitus would tell you. It’s not as clean. It’s filled with a host of synthetic chemicals that did not exist in the time of Pharaoh and are incredibly hazardous. We have cancers today that did not exist in the time of Pharaoh. We have dozens of new diseases that did not exist in the time of Pharaoh.

There are currently 80,000 man-made chemicals out in the wild today. More than 20,000 of them can’t even be studied in America, due to “trade secrets” laws. The EPA can’t even do studies on them and doesn’t even know what they consist of. At a time when we need to curb the expansion of synthetics, we are producing more and more, while corporate control of government prevents defense of the population — all in the name of more and more profit. Americans, closed off as they are from the effects of their consumption, don’t see the problem. They don’t think it exists. But much of the rest of the world sees it — the 3 billion who live on less than $5 a day see it. The 2 billion who live on less than a $1.50 see it. They live a toxic existence, thanks to our profligate ways. They live a toxic existence, thanks to the fact that we Americans produce 33% of all pollution while having only 5% of the world’s population.

Add the profligate consumption and production in Europe, Asia and the wealthiest quarters of the earth, and that spells doom to the poor first, to the middle next, and eventually to the wealthy to. There is no outrunning the destruction of our ecosystems.

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js. 10.12.12 at 4:59 am

faustusnotes @60:

I think you’ve somehow managed to massively misinterpret my comment earlier. I was talking about certain quite widespread tendencies within contemporary mainstream environmentalism in the US today— e.g. tendencies which seek to bring about significant change through directly targeting consumer choices (say, an ad campaign that tries to convince individuals to reduce their carbon footprint).

I picked the Palestinian bicycle-power example because, as I said above, I think it’s not the least bit surprising that it got the response it did from the generic “environmentally conscious” Western audience. And this seems like evidence for the problematic tendency I was trying to identify. If you think otherwise, I’d be curious to know.

None of this is to deny that there are very serious and very good environmental activists and theorists who are doing the work that needs to be done to address, e.g., necessary questions of scale in food production. I quite like Michael Pollan for instance, even if I don’t agree with everything he has to say. Moving closer to issues of social justice, I think Eric Schlosser and others are great. Point being, I’m hardly some died-in-the-wool 70′s Marxist structuralist or whatever (not that I won’t often defend Marx).

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John Quiggin 10.12.12 at 5:04 am

Claims that greens are irrationally anti-nuclear are false, first because there are plenty of greens on both side of this and second because the total case for nuclear (economic as well as environmental) is weak enough that it’s perfectly rational to be anti. While revealed preference arguments have their problems, it’s notable that even in jurisdictions like the US and France, with a pro-nuclear mainstream political consensus, no one is building nuclear plants.

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js. 10.12.12 at 5:04 am

I picked the Palestinian bicycle-power example because, as I said above, I think it’s not the least bit surprising that it got the response it did from the generic “environmentally conscious” Western audience.

Sorry, just for clarity, let me rephrase that sentence:

I picked the Palestinian bicycle-power example because, as I said above, I think it’s not the least bit surprising that it got the response it did: I’d more or less expect exactly this sort of response from the generic (or “median” if you prefer) “environmentally conscious” Western audience.

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John Quiggin 10.12.12 at 5:12 am

Coming to GMOs, I think it’s fine for people to say “I just don’t like the idea of tinkering with genes, and I don’t want to eat the resulting products”. If there are lots of people like that, it seems reasonable to require labelling of GM products (note that this also helps people who like GM products). That, AFAICT is the position of most environmentalists.

I agree that Greenpeace takes an anti-science line on this, pretending to raise specific objections (for example, about property rights for seeds) while actually being inflexibly opposed, presumably on ethical grounds. So, when someone comes up with vitamin-A enhanced rice and offers to put it in the public domain, Greenpeace says something like “the money would be better spent on nutritional education”. And Greenpeace supports sabotage attacks, even on research projects aimed at testing safety. But you can’t infer much from the position of one group on one issue.

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bad Jim 10.12.12 at 6:43 am

Ajay @ 69, the vision that inspired my light-hearted comment about an improbable war concerned the disruption of the economies of the world’s most populous nations and the consequent reduction of coal consumption, not their mutual annihilation. There is perhaps some fun to be had with the idea of nuclear winter as a quick and dirty sort of geoengineering, but it might not be feasible with anything short of the American and Soviet arsenals.

By the way, James, the environmentalists aren’t the only ones against damns. Atheists don’t like them either, because we’re always on the losing side. Even worse, our candidates don’t have a prayer.

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Chris Bertram 10.12.12 at 7:00 am

The other thing to mention about the GMO debate, at least in the UK context, is that it came immediately after the most catastrophic case of “scientists say this is ok” intervention in the food chain, where animal brains were fed to animals (which resulted in BSE). One can hardly blame the general public for not taking each case on its merits and preferring “not to mess with nature” in the wake of that.

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Gar Lipow 10.12.12 at 7:03 am

I think that there are real problems with large sectors of environmentalists, including some who have learned the lessons of Schumacher too well. I’m going to engage in some shameless self promotion to suggest my new book “Solving the Climate Crisis Through Social Change” and the graphic version “Cooling a Fevered Planet”, which is a graphic subset of the longer book. That book deals with climate change in a larger social and political context. It critiques of what I consider widespread economic and political errors within the environmental movement, and suggest what I think are better approaches. It specifically criticizes the “small is beautiful” approach. It shows what is wrong with both the left and right versions of austerity. It documents why excessively market driven approaches fail, at least at bringing environmental or social improvement. It suggests concrete alternatives in economic approaches to environmentalism, and in policy, and politics, and grassroots strategy and tactics. It also has appendices on technical alternatives to fossil fuels, technical alternatives to greenhouse gas intensive processes, aside from fossil fuels, and on alternative agriculture and forestry.

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Gar Lipow 10.12.12 at 7:10 am

You can find more about it at the website linked to my name. In terms of policy it suggests large scale public investment, large scales “command & control” regulation and a carbon price. Politically it suggests that climate activists (and environmental activists in general) see themselves as part of a large movement that supports labor, women’s and LGBT rights, peace and anti-militarism, and pretty much all movements linked to justice and equality. It documents that environmental destruction is largely a side effect of inequality – not just economic inequality, though that is extremely important, but also gender, national, ethnic and racial inequality.

And no, it does not assert that inequality directly produces pollution. But the social structures need to maintain inequality tend also to produce waste; also once that inequality is in place it tends to subsidize waste, by transferring costs to the least powerful. I know this post is short on specifics; that is why I wrote a book on the subject.

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john c. halasz 10.12.12 at 7:11 am

JQ @ 111:

GMO’s likely have complex and unforeseen effects, (both ecologically and nutritionally), and are no panacea, despite the reflexive technophilia of economists. And they are clearly a part of MNC strategies to gain a strangle-hold over the agricultural sector globally, (together with neo-liberal nostrums, like eliminating domestic grain reserves based on the 7/7 year principle, because the global market and its financial speculators will always provide, or insisting that large-scale commercial agriculture is the key to meeting balance-of-payments debt requirements). Heaven forbid that the capital investment of Monsanto must needs be destroyed, together with the tar sands investments of Big Oil! That would be uneconomic!

Whatever the exaggerations of the perma-culture folks, they have some interesting ideas. And likely more natural agricultural methods, (if more labor-intensive ones), would produce more sustainable yields. Planting trees in the Sahel, with suitable supporting incentives, might do more to feed the starving millions in Africa, than relying on gross aggregates. But that might require agricultural extension services, domestically developed, independent of both domestic and foreign political corporate interests, to implement. Which is on old New Deal idea. Long since defunct in its place of origin.

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Gar Lipow 10.12.12 at 7:14 am

One last post (sorry keep having afterthoughts) since the email is kept private, I will note that I can be reached at glipow@gmail.com . Gmail spam filters work well enough that I don’t mind my email being public. Why I put up with some really horrible features from them. The spam filter makes up for a heck of a lot, and I have yet to find another email provider that comes close.

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faustusnotes 10.12.12 at 7:50 am

Tim Worstall, fish farms are not a solution to overconsumption of fish – at least, not the fish farms you suggest (ajay may have a point with herbivorous freshwater fish, I don’t know). Salmon and tuna farms require smaller fish to feed them, and if we want to increase our consumption of farmed fish we need to also devastate a food stock (feeder fish) that supply the entire food chain, not just farmed fish.

The same problems apply to farmed meat: it relies on feedstocks that have to be taken from some other part of the (human or natural) foodchain. Also, agricultural runoff has huge consequences, including on other protein sources (i.e. the sea) through e.g. coral bleaching.

mud man suggests better fishing techniques, but every technique he describes will inevitably lead to an increase in cost and reduction in catch size – i.e. we will all have to eat less fish.

The sad reality is that as the human population increases and our consumption increases, we are going to bang against an increasing number of increasingly important environmental limitations. Animal protein is the first of them, but will be followed by water, and then of course there is carbon use. While in some cases we can find other resources (a point Tim Worstall is fond of making about industrial processes), as the ecosystem services we exhaust become increasingly basic, the workarounds become increasingly infeasible. The two most obvious examples of this being water and carbon. We have to reduce our consumption of these, or increase the efficiency of use of them, and if the only people pointing this out are environmentalists then yes they’re going to look like hairshirted hippies demanding reduction in consumption.

Because the reality is that we are going to either choose to reduce consumption, or be forced to.

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faustusnotes 10.12.12 at 7:54 am

… and on that point, I would just like to observe that if we don’t act soon and strongly on AGW and resource depletion, we are going to see some serious problems arising in our lifetime. The pace of change in the arctic suggests the possibility that we are already underestimating how serious things are getting.

If we don’t make those hard decisions soon, much tougher decisions will be forced on us in the medium term, and when that happens it will take about 10 seconds for the republican and libertard critics of the environmental movement to jump onto the worst and nastiest forms of environmental fascism. At that point we’ll see people like Gourevitch go from excoriating Greens for wanting to keep the developing world in poverty, to attacking anyone who suggests doing anything else.

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Greg 10.12.12 at 8:37 am

The more interesting example in Gourevitch’s article is not the Palestinian bicyle generators (which is farcical) but the one of California’s producer-manipulated energy shortfalls of 2000-1, which environmental groups jumped on as an example of why we need to conserve energy. I’d like to hear commenters’ responses to this. Can you just put it down to an overenthusiastic tactical error on the part of the environmental groups, or was it indicative of a greater failure?

People are complaining of Gourevitch setting straw men on fire: fair enough, but sometimes killing off straw men is necessary before they come to life.

On the other hand, if anyone thinks that development agencies support small-scale farming projects in rural areas because of some environmentalist notion that everybody in the developing world should be small-scale farmers, they clearly do not get just how fucked the farmers were in the first place.

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Gar Lipow 10.12.12 at 8:40 am

Reducing consumption of resources does not mean reducing consumption of consumer goods. For example we have to use less water. But that does not mean we have to give up drinking water, or using water for cooking or for agriculture (the biggest use worldwide) or for industrial purposes (the second biggest use worldwide). We can use water more efficienctly – in many cases much much more efficiently. And we can also clean water after it is consumed (because consumption of water mostly consists of polluting it rather than letting it evaporate into the air or transforming it into something other than water). Similarly in terms of carbon, we can produce electricity from low carbon sources like the sun and wind, substitute that electricity for fuel use whenever possible, and also greatly increase the efficiency with which we use energy. In terms of industry, in addition to substitution of renewable electricity and conventional efficiency, we can also rethink the services goods provide and find less resource intensive ways to provide those same services. And yes, meat at current world levels is unsustainable, but that does not mean no meat is sustainable or that we can’t provide all the protein we need.

However, markets and market tinkering won’t provide any of this – at least not on the scale needed. For example we cannot drive a reliable grid largely with solar and wind unless we have not only long distance transmission, storage and demand management, but also location of solar and wind generators where timing of supply most closely matches timing of demand to minimize need for expensive storage. We will need large scale planning. Within capitalism, the form large scale planning takes is public investment and so called “command & control” regulation over and above stuff like cap & trade or carbon taxes. Not that we don’t need some sort of price on carbon as well, but a carbon price will fail in the absence of public investment and non-price forms of regulation.

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Katherine 10.12.12 at 9:40 am

The trouble this particular fluffy, mushy environmentalist has with nuclear-generated power is that it’s yet another finite resource being used. There are not infinite deposits of uranium, just as there are not infinite deposits of oil/gas/coal. It might be a stopgap, but it simply cannot be The Answer, which is how some nuclear enthusiasts seem to present it.

And I do find myself wondering sometimes what the relative cost of renewable energy would be if it had had the same amount of public funding in R&D and subsidy as nuclear has had. Genuinely, I do wonder, because I don’t know the answer.

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John Quiggin 10.12.12 at 11:25 am

Contrary to Sebastian H, I can’t say I find the Sierra Club position on GMOs to be anti-science. It’s true that it includes a call for a moratorium, but this isn’t pushed hard, and most of the emphasis is on labelling, public notification and so on. There’s also an acceptance of pharmaceutical uses of GM, which Greenpeace opposes.

And in terms of the focus of the movement, it’s absurd to say, as Sebastian does that “But the anti-GMO crowd is increasingly one of only two important political faces of the environmental debate as it plays out in the developed world (the only other which rivals it being global warming concerns). “

For most environmental groups, GM food is way down the list of concerns compared to global warming, biodiversity, air and water pollution, wilderness preservation and so on. In Australia at least, everyone but Greenpeace appears willing to settle for labelling.

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John Quiggin 10.12.12 at 11:29 am

Agreeing with both Chris and JWM, the fact that GMOs have very often been about pushing products on the public with inadequate consultation and information, encouraging pesticide use and promoting corporate control means that the fact that these are not logically necessary links isn’t very significant in political terms – people are going to be pro- or anti- based on what they actually see, not on theoretical possibilities.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 10.12.12 at 12:22 pm

For informational purposes on the GMO question as it relates to agriculture, “development,” science, political economy, and intellectual property rights, please see the list of titles I mentioned here: http://www.newappsblog.com/2012/10/is-the-labeling-gmos-as-gmos-anti-science-part-1.html#more

There are sundry problems associated with the belief that genetically-engineered rice (‘golden rice’) with vitamin-A should be seen as a solution to the serious problems associated with Vitamin A deficiency. Among individuals and sources with relevant arguments: Marion Nestle, GRAIN, Food First, Institute of Science in Society…. See, for a brief argument in a letter, Nestle here: http://www.foodpolitics.com/wp-content/uploads/golden-rice.pdf and Vandana Shiva’s article, “Golden Rice and Neem: Biopatents and the Appropriation of Women’s Knowledge,” Women’s Studies Quarterly, 29 (Spring 2001): 12-23.

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Salem 10.12.12 at 1:16 pm

“‘good management’ exhibits diminishing returns to scale.”

Maybe so, but this is a very strange thing for someone on the left to be saying.

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ragweed 10.12.12 at 3:24 pm

“The more interesting example in Gourevitch’s article is not the Palestinian bicyle generators (which is farcical) but the one of California’s producer-manipulated energy shortfalls of 2000-1, which environmental groups jumped on as an example of why we need to conserve energy. I’d like to hear commenters’ responses to this. Can you just put it down to an overenthusiastic tactical error on the part of the environmental groups, or was it indicative of a greater failure?”

Its both a tactical failure and a tendancy to view the world through a single-issue lens. But the solutions proposed are actually a far-sighted approach to the problem of both environmental scarcity and corporate manipulation. Conserving energy and distributed generation systems – like solar – reduces the power that a large energy corporation has to manipulate production. Plus most, though not all, environmentalists also support public ownership or at least regulation of energy, and were against the deregulation that made what Enron did possible. In Seattle, many environmentalists were pointing out how stable and reliable electricity prices were under the government-owned Seattle City Light, compared to dramatic price swings we saw in the suburbs, where the private power companies quickly raised prices to match what they could get selling power to California.

However, the single lens view is a hard one to tackle – it is really easy for people to get bogged down in finding the “one” cause or reason behind events. One example we see is the tendency in some parts of the movement against global warming to see every single weather event as caused by global warming, even when the evidence is extremely sketchy* (like tornados). It also leads to somewhat myopic “grand theories” that posit complex events as having a single cause. The more mono-focused peak-oil folks will tell you that the sub-prime bubble was caused by peak oil because financialization is the direct result of the rising cost of energy from peak oil – that it was not possible to have something like the sub-prime bubble without peak oil. Its hard sometimes for people to grasp that there can be multiple causes of a phenomenon, especially if they have invested a lot of specialized knowledge in one area.

*(to be clear, there is more than ample evidence that heat waves, floods, droughts and hurricanes are being made much worse by global warming, today. My complaint is areas like tornados, where the evidence is sketchy and hypotethetical at best. The hard climate sources are the first to acknowledge this and say there is little evidence for tornados, but some try to run with it anyway. There is also a difference between those that say “X event could be linked to” and “X is caused by”).

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Tim Worstall 10.12.12 at 3:40 pm

“Tim Worstall, fish farms are not a solution to overconsumption of fish “

I wasn’t particularly thinking of fish farms. Rather, of changing the incentives of fishermen from the current hunter gatherer set to one more like those of farmers. Essentially it’s Garrett Hardin all over again. Demand for a renewable resource is currently higher than the regenerative capability of that resource. Thus access to that resource must be limited. The EU has tried the regulatory route without, to put it mildly, a great deal of obvious success. Other places have tried something more like private property rights and those seem to have been much more successful. (And yes, certain inshore fisheries with smaller numbers of possible entrants have, as Olstrom has pointed out they might, managed to come to communal arrangements).

By “grow more fish” I was really referring to this sort of thing. After all, we do know that the oceans contained a lot more fish decades and centuries ago than they do now. Not entirely beyond the wit of man to get some way back to there being more fish in the oceans which would allow a higher than current sustainable catch. Question is, how? I go for the change the incentives of the fishermen through ownership argument.

“and on that point, I would just like to observe that if we don’t act soon and strongly on AGW and resource depletion”

As above on AGW I’m already right onboard. Indeed my working life this ast year has been about creating supplies to make windmills and fuel cells work better.

But resource depletion. I always have a very large problem with that one. Because, in the field I actually know about (weird metals), whenever someone says we’re about to run out of something they manage to get it all entirely and absolutely wrong. I recall Monbiot sayoing that we couldn’t have lots of solar cells because the gallium mine in the Congo was close to exhaustion. I’ve no idea at all where he got that idea from for the mine closed decades ago. We get our gallium these days from the wastes of making aluminium. And just in the stuff we’re already pretty sure we’re going to mine for the aluminium there’s a one thousand year supply of gallium. Indeed, if you wanted me to I could triple global production for a cpital cost of about $50 million.

The same is true more or less of all the other stories about running out of metals. Compounded by the ghastly mistake people make of thinking that “reserves” tell us anything at all about resources. The former is the amount we’ve shown to be there according to strict stock market requirements. The latter is the amount that’s out there for potential use in the future. Or, as the example is in front of us:

” The trouble this particular fluffy, mushy environmentalist has with nuclear-generated power is that it’s yet another finite resource being used. There are not infinite deposits of uranium, just as there are not infinite deposits of oil/gas/coal. It might be a stopgap, but it simply cannot be The Answer, which is how some nuclear enthusiasts seem to present it.

And I do find myself wondering sometimes what the relative cost of renewable energy would be if it had had the same amount of public funding in R&D and subsidy as nuclear has had. Genuinely, I do wonder, because I don’t know the answer.”

Uranium and or thorium are pretty good solutions for the next couple of millennia. That’s without breeder reactors and all that which would last much longer. They do have the cost problems JQ notes, do produce pollution and so on, but sourcing fissionable material just isn’t a problem for a long time to come.

Sure, they’re also not “The Answer” but they’re enough of one that we’ve got no real urgency in switching to renewables. A decade or two either way doesn’t make the slightest difference to what portion of the globe’s uranium we would use up.

Finally, my own best guess about renewables (and I do work at least tangentially in this field) is that within two decades they will be the natural economic choice because they will be cheaper than other methods of energy generation/capture. I don’t think windmills will make it but I can, hazily, see a high end solar for capture, electrolysis for the battery, fuel cell for on demand generation system working. Get the capital costs cheap enough (and that road map can already be seen I think) and you could happily wear the inefficiencies of that three stage process.

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Sebastian H 10.12.12 at 4:07 pm

John, the anti science impression I get is from ads like these touting cancer worries and organ damage as if they were actual safety concerns for GMOs. And I’m not sure how you can interpret a call for a complete present day ban on all GMOs from the Sierra Club anything but anti science extremism. And certainly it is pretty much the mainstream environmental group in the US, right?

Again. I freely concede that the very best anti GMO critics have small nuggets of useful information in their critiques. But that was true of the very best global warming critics too. That fact does not contradict the fact that both groups are heavily anti science as a whole, especially in the political arena.

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ezra abrams 10.12.12 at 4:22 pm

@97
Actually, there are science based arguments as to why GMO could have dangers
GMO is made by insertion of transposable elements; this could have large, and unpredictable effects on expression of neighboring genes; if these gene encode toxins, that would be bad
In the case of roundup resistant soybean and corn, there is over expression of the key enzyme in the metabolic pathway to aromatic amino acids, and , I would presume, to aromatic secondary metabolites, many of which could be toxic
In turn, abnormal levels of these compounds could do bad things to he plant.
I’m not sure if these concerns are real or not, but the high level expression of key enzymes in intermediary metabolism seems to me a little different from ordinary plant breeding, although maybe not; on the other hand, the chance the n nitroso guanidine or other mutagens, or selection in the field would do this seems to me low, but maybe there are others more qualified

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Gar Lipow 10.12.12 at 4:32 pm

Sebeastian. Nuclear energy right now is more expensive than wind turbines, especially if you count the cost of occasional accidents. Note that while people can argue that casualties from Fukishima will end up at zero, they can’t reasonably ignore the huge amount of land lost and the resulting displacement of people and businesses and the closing of farms. Thorium and breeder reactors? Maybe, neither are operating at a profit anywhere at the moment. Replace fossil fuels with solar, wind, geothermal, and maybe wave now with today’s technolgy – starting today and completing the transition over two decades or so. If we get a breakthrough in nuclear during the process, use nuclear replace the remaining fossil fuel and the solar and wind plants as they wear out. Note that if you are talking vaporware, I’d say flying wind generators of various kinds are as promising as thorium and breeder reactors for producing cheap carbon free electricity. All three technologies have been demonstrated. None of the three have been demonstrated yet to be commercial. Proponents of all three argue that they actually are commercial if simply implemented on a large enough scale, or perhaps with a very tiny bit more research. I agree with the research on all three, but am not so convinced of near term feasibility.

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Jerry Vinokurov 10.12.12 at 4:40 pm

I’m kind of amused by Gourevitch’s anecdote about the California blackouts. It so happens that not only was I living in California at the time (it appears Gourevitch and I actually hail from the same place, San Diego, are of an age, and would have intersected at Brown had I not graduated just as he started his postdoc there…) but I was living in the heart of environmental hippie-dom, which is to say the People’s Republic of Berkeley. Maybe this is all selective memory, but I really don’t remember too many people even in Berkeley saying that we should turn against cheap energy. Sure, people talk about the virtues of conservation all the time; it’s part and parcel of environmentalism to encourage that, which I think is as it should be. But whatever demons AG is railing against have such minimal influence even within environmentalism that his whole piece reads like one giant concern troll.

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Sandwichman 10.12.12 at 4:46 pm

Strange days. First there’s the comment from Salem that my skepticism about the wonders of management being “a very strange thing for someone on the left to be saying.” I was going to reply by referring to Elinor Ostrom that the scale of management does indeed matter.

But then (talk about “killing off straw men before they come to life”) Tim Worstall beats me to the punch by saying he wasn’t thinking of fish farms particularly but the regulation of access to a resource and cites Ostrom with regard to the communal management of inshore fisheries.

Imagine that, Tim Worstall and the Sandwichman singing from the same hymnbook! This brings to mind a research finding I had years ago that the views of people on “the left” and “the right” aren’t in most cases diametrically opposed but are, so to speak ‘at right angles’ to each other. However, people tend to imagine and portray those they disagree with as “opponents” — that is having opposite views. it’s easy to argue that way. So there ends up being four ‘people’ in most controversies, two of whom are straw men. Dialogue happens when the two sides listen to each other instead of nattering at their bete noirs.

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Gar Lipow 10.12.12 at 5:09 pm

I will note that while fish may indeed best be regulated by market means, though this is not a settled issue, this a case like sulfur trading with a small enough number of players and simple enough solution that this kind of thing can work. However when you get larger messier problems combined with a need to act quickly, pure market solutions don’t work well and have proven not to work well in practice. How do we make sure all future buildings get built to higher standards than in the past? Regulation? How do we make underinsulated existing buildings get insulated to the extent possible? Regulation and possibly subsidies? How do we switch from automobiles and heavy trucks to trains to the extent possible? Public investment. Appliance efficiency? Public investment again. Here is the thing – reducing fishing is not a techical problem. You reduce the number of fish allowed to be taken, and use a market to determine who gets to take how much. Again, I don’t think it is settled that this is the best way, but the record on this is much better than for carbon trading But the key is you don’t need capital investment to reduce the number of fish caught. If you want to reduce carbon emissions by 90% or better without without a reversion to the per capita income of Cuba or worse Haiti, you need to make a great deal of investment in efficency and low-carbon energy production. You need to do this even with shorter working hours week and significant conservation is in the mix. And capital investment that replaces short term operating costs responds badly to price signals. For example, businesses when looking at return to investment, require much higher rates of return for flow costs (such as energy and water) than they do for investments they expect to reduce labor costs or increase sales or market share. That means firms will choose an investment that saves labor over one that saves energy or water EVEN when that labor saving investment offers less profit.

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Sandwichman 10.12.12 at 5:25 pm

By the way, I have nothing against “well-managed” fish farms, nor against wind turbines for that matter. Problems arise because innovations attract entrepreneurs who underestimate the complexities (and therefore the costs) of what they are undertaking. Faced with unexpected expenses that threaten to ruin their investment, some of them will cut corners. Experience shows that sometimes those corner cuts turn into catastrophic. To assume this won’t happen is to ignore the human factor in technology.

EVERY technological fix for environmental problems entails risks that become formidable at the scale of intervention contemplated. That’s why many small solutions are preferable to one big solution and why simple and familiar is preferable to complex and exotic.

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Sandwichman 10.12.12 at 5:32 pm

Gar “you need to make a great deal of investment in efficency and low-carbon energy production. You need to do this even with shorter working hours week and significant conservation is in the mix.”

Agreed. There needs to be investment and innovation. Shorter working hours is not a panacea. By the same token investment and innovation are not the panacea, either. There needs to be shorter working time, ‘rational consumption’ and conservation. Today, most of the one-size fits all panacea talk comes from the green technology side.

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Katherine 10.12.12 at 6:01 pm

Uranium and or thorium are pretty good solutions for the next couple of millennia. That’s without breeder reactors and all that which would last much longer.

It’s not that I don’t trust you Tim, it’s just that I’ve seen very different estimates in other places (such as, for example, New Scientist). I know it’s a bit cheeky to ask for a source for this when I was asking someone to do me a favour in the first place, but could you link?

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Sandwichman 10.12.12 at 6:04 pm

And, at the risk of repeating myself, on “efficiency” there is the unresolved matter of what I will call (out of sheer modesty) the Lovins Paradox, which is to say that the Jevons Paradox doesn’t necessarily hold as long as we ignore the effect on jobs and the Lump-of-Labor is indeed a fallacy as long as we ignore the effects on resource consumption. But… well as Abe Lincoln said in his famous debate with Douglas, “You can ignore all of the effects some of the time, you can ignore some of the effects all of the time, but you cannot ignore all of the effects all of the time.”

In other words, when employment and energy efficiency are considered as an integrated whole (which they are) rather than as isolated and independent parts (which they aren’t) the implications of the paradox/(pseudo)fallacy are inescapable.

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Sebastian H 10.12.12 at 6:34 pm

Gar, I think you are responding to someone else on nuclear power. While it would certainly be better for the environment to replace the 70% or so of the USA electricity production that is made with coal into nuclear (and considering the horrific toll of ongoing coal that benefit analysis includes Fukushima style accidents) I think that public relations battle has been lost so I don’t bother with it.

Ezra, re “I’m not sure if these concerns are real or not, but the high level expression of key enzymes in intermediary metabolism seems to me a little different from ordinary plant breeding, although maybe not; on the other hand, the chance the n nitroso guanidine or other mutagens, or selection in the field would do this seems to me low…”

The thing is that pesticide and dangerous chemical levels are already testable and tested for in GMO food as regular food. I have no problem with screening for actual toxins in food. We do that all the time. ‘Natural’ food has toxins. We have all sorts of ways of dealing with that in the food supply chain. Europeans are quite tolerant of that–see for example cheese. my problem is with the magical thinking around GMO food effecting your body without realizing that it does so through normal food channels. If we decide that chemical x is dangerous, ban all food which expresses chemical x in the end product, GMO or otherwise. Banning it in just GMO or banning all GMO no matter what the expression while leaving it alone in ‘natural’ products (see the Sierra Club position) belies a different scare tactic agenda. That is anti science.

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Ragweed 10.12.12 at 7:55 pm

The environmental position against GMOs is largely strategic. The problem with GMOs is less that they pose real immediate threats to health or the environment, but that they are both the product and driver of capital intensification in agriculture. In that sense, they are, as the pro-GMO side argues, not significantly different than the hybridized mono-crops that agribusiness developed and pushes pre-GMOs – they are tools to turn food into industrialized commodities dominated by a handful of giant transnationals, where much of the profit is in supplying the petro-chemical inputs. Terminator genes are just one more step in the process.

And the thing is, most of them won’t work. Sure, you can put BT in the corn and that may reduce the amount of pesticide treatments that are put on the corn currently, but in a few generations you will get corn-borers that are resistant. Then it will be the next new thing, the next GM crop, with a new pesticide in the plant itself, complete with hefty patent rents for the multinational that developed it, and on and on ad-nausum.
I would personally love to see some publicly funded research into GMOs that would genuinely benefit humanity. Vitamin A enhanced Cassava could make a tremendous difference to millions in Africa, if it were freely available and without patent restriction . Drought resistant strains of various crops would be a godsend. But as the system stands right now, GMOs mainly insure the extraction of massive patent-tributes to multinationals. Sure, they will distribute seeds free to poor countries, at least until people are sufficiently dependent on the seed imports. That’s how you grow your market.

The problem with GMOs has nothing to do with science, but rather with capitalism. Unfortunately, that argument does not fly well in the US, so the environmental movement has turned to some of the weaker factual arguments around GMOs, because they resonate more deeply with the public. It’s a shame in a lot of ways, but I understand the move strategically.

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Plume 10.12.12 at 8:12 pm

Advanced apologies if someone has already linked to this.

But Jacobin has a good rebuttal to the original article:

Max Ajl

142

faustusnotes 10.13.12 at 12:14 am

I notice that Sebastian has turned the debate on GMO into the “toxic for human health” strawman, even though the majority of environmentalist concerns about GMO are for the environment.

Tim Worstall, your reply is long-winded and seems to involve a lot of jargon, but how exactly is this:

I wasn’t particularly thinking of fish farms. Rather, of changing the incentives of fishermen from the current hunter gatherer set to one more like those of farmers

not equivalent to “more fish farms”? How do you propose restoring the lost numbers of fish in the ocean without eating less fish? They don’t grow on trees, you know.

This is the problem with the original “environmentalists only focus on the consumer” straw man: resource depletion occurs through consumption. You can find fancy ways to say it, but the only way to deplete the resource less is to use less of the resource, and this is something environmentalists have been pointing out for years. Any solution you propose to over-fishing is not going to involve eating the same amount of fish unless you can find a way to grow those fish without damaging fish stocks further down the food chain – which will have subsequent effects on other fish stocks.

When I mentioned the problem of resource depletion I explicitly excluded Tim Worstall’s rare metals example. Yes, we can sometimes find new resources to replace the diminishing ones, or we can find ways to use less of them, but (as I said) as the resource limits we run up against become more fundamental – water, protein, arable land – these workarounds become harder and harder. In the rare metals industry, someone can come up with a new technology that requires less vanadium, or whatever. Not so much in the food industry. There is no new technology that enables humans to require less protein.

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Sebastian H 10.13.12 at 12:27 am

“I notice that Sebastian has turned the debate on GMO into the “toxic for human health” strawman, even though the majority of environmentalist concerns about GMO are for the environment.”

Nice try. I’m engaging the anti-GMO fundamentalists on the terms they use in the political debate. The laws on labelling are grounded in the unsubstantiated worry that GMOs are unsafe for human health. That is why you see commercials about tumors and organ damage. That is why they start with crap like “I care about the health of my children so I want to know what’s in the food I give them”. Those are [unscientific] worries about whether or not GMOs are toxic to human health. I’m addressing the scare tactics because that is what they use to get votes.

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john c. halasz 10.13.12 at 12:33 am

@140:

This topic is far away from my areas of concentration, so I don’t have all that many “technical” details to offer, but the drought resistance of plants/crops is not just a function of their genetics, but of the farming methods used, with their effects on maintaining soil quality, conservation of water resources and the like. Something of the same goes to pest control and yields, especially when the measurement of results is not a yearly crop, but over long cycles of crops.

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faustusnotes 10.13.12 at 2:18 am

The laws on labelling are grounded in the unsubstantiated worry that GMOs are unsafe for human health

No, the laws on labeling are grounded in the reasonable idea that people want to know the source and production method of what they eat. Laws on labeling also require companies to say where a product was made, whether the fish was sustainably harvested, whether it’s organic, etc. Just because some people are worried about threats to human health doesn’t mean they all are.

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Sebastian H 10.13.12 at 3:14 am

If people want to worry about food for non science reasons they can have voluntary but silly kosher seals, halal marks, or organic designations. And in fact they do have all three of those. They can even be protected by fraud laws if they came to be non pesticide but really aren’t.

The political marketing is about scare tactics around safety. It simply is. Saying that there are other allegedly legitimate reasons to want to ban GMOs is trying to avoid the reality of how anti-GMO campaigns actually function. They function in a specifically anti science way.

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Chris Bertram 10.13.12 at 7:52 am

Sebastian, as a pointed out at @98, there was nobody in the thread arguing the anti-GMO position until you raised it (and nor did I mention GMOs in the OP). So, basically, you’ve managed a major threadjack in order to rant on about one of your pet concerns. Well congratulations on an epic success. Now please stop and consider yourself limited to one short comment per 24h on any thread in which I am the author of the OP.

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dbk 10.13.12 at 8:01 am

I’d be interested to hear CTers’ reactions to Mark Bittman’s travels through California’s Central Valley recently (“Everyone Eats There”, NYT 10/10). I had many and conflicting responses while reading and then reflecting on the piece. What I think Bittman did convey well was the wide range of agricultural practices the Valley hosts, from mega-corporate (mega writ large) down to tiny acreages worked by a single individual, from high-level to minimal-level chemical intervention. For me, the most interesting case study was the T & D Willey Farms – 75 acres, year-round cultivation, minimal pesticide use (the farms are “certified organic” by the State), in combination with social justice. Fifty-five families are supported year-round by the farms , meaning that ~1.4 acres supports each. I would hope other readers would appreciate this model as well (though I can’t say for certain; I’ve been finding the comments on every thread rather surprising of late). The commenters over at the Times (all 200 or so of them) had mixed reactions; many were critical because they felt the piece didn’t say enough about the depleting of the aquifers and salinization from long-term, intensive irrigation.

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Tim Worstall 10.13.12 at 9:12 am

I know it’s a bit cheeky to ask for a source for this when I was asking someone to do me a favour in the first place, but could you link?

The Wikipedia piece is reasonable enough.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uranium#Occurrence

“The worldwide production of uranium in 2010 amounted to 53,663 tonnes,
….
It is estimated that 5.5 million tonnes of uranium exists in ore reserves that are economically viable at US$59 per lb of uranium,[52] while 35 million tonnes are classed as mineral resources (reasonable prospects for eventual economic extraction).”

Thre’s that distinction between reserve and resource. It’s an economic concept, dependent upon prices.

This is without even considering extraction from seawater. Something that can be done right now but which is expensive. Uranium at $1,000 a lb would make such extration economically viable and would make a difference of about spit to the economics of nuclear power overall.

In general (please note, in general, not any specific or particular study) the way to get to the “but the uranium will run out” is to assume a) that we’re going to provide all our power this way and b) that we’ve only got those reserves to play with.

“This is the problem with the original “environmentalists only focus on the consumer” straw man: resource depletion occurs through consumption. You can find fancy ways to say it, but the only way to deplete the resource less is to use less of the resource, and this is something environmentalists have been pointing out for years. “

Err, no, you can increase the productivity of the resource. I’m willing to agree that this might mean a temporary decrease in the fish catch. We don’t catch so many immature fish for a few years, leading to more adult fish who breed which leads to there being more fish in the sea of which we can take a sustainable percentage. If there’s 50 million cod in the North Sea and we take 10% a year that’s more fish than taking 20% of the 10 million currently there (numbers entirely made up to make the point). And while fish don’t grow on trees they do indeed fuck in water as the comedian pointed out.

“When I mentioned the problem of resource depletion I explicitly excluded Tim Worstall’s rare metals example. Yes, we can sometimes find new resources to replace the diminishing ones, or we can find ways to use less of them, but (as I said) as the resource limits we run up against become more fundamental – water, protein, arable land – these workarounds become harder and harder. In the rare metals industry, someone can come up with a new technology that requires less vanadium, or whatever.”

I mentioned metals not to talk about substituitability, nor finding new resources. Rather, to point out that there are often very serious mistakes made in calculating the size of the resources available to us.

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Sebastian H 10.13.12 at 2:29 pm

nt-GM sn’t prt f nvrnmntlsm. Gtch prfssr!

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chrismealy 10.13.12 at 5:38 pm

Now that the troll has been devoweled I’ll tell you why this environmentalist is GMO-skeptical. You don’t have to be Karl Popper to not be reassured by “science! science! science!” You can’t prove that something is safe. Science said DDT was safe. And unlike GMOs, DDT doesn’t reproduce. It’s easy to imagine an apocalyptic Frankenstein invasive species, like something that kills mycorrhizae, or methane-emitting plankton. How can you be sure it will never happen?

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Soru 10.13.12 at 5:47 pm

Under what circumstances do you think it would be appropriate to ban things on the basis that you can’t be philosophically certain that no bad things can happen?

And what assessment of the curtent word order wold you need to adopt in order to think it might start to match those circumstances?

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Dr. Hilarius 10.13.12 at 6:18 pm

When the subject of depleted fish stocks comes up there is often an implicit assumption that they can be restored by catch reduction. That is the hoped for outcome but it won’t necessarily work. Even fairly simple population models show the potential for multiple stable equilibrium points. What this means is that once of population drops below a certain level it might rebound but only to a much lower equilibrium point than the original.

Atlantic cod, once a giant fishery internationally, crashed due to overfishing and still has not recovered. It’s very difficult to demonstrate that a species is at a new equilibrium point. What is clear is that we have such limited understanding of complex species interactions, along with the abiotic environment, that we have no idea how to manipulate these systems to restore fish stocks. Best not to deplete in the first place. Fat chance.

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chrismealy 10.14.12 at 6:13 am

Soru, you have to take into account how bad it could be and how reversible it is. GMO cows you could round up. GMO grasses, never.

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Fu Ko 10.14.12 at 8:42 am

Or that more of the energy used to produce the goods we consume, is used in China and India rather than locally.

No. All of our appliances are more efficient than they were 50 years ago. All of our cars are more efficient than they were 50 years ago.* All of our trains, ships, semi-trucks, and airplanes are more efficient than they were 50 years ago. All of our generators are more efficient than they were 50 years ago. And most of our lightbulbs are 10x more efficient than they were 20 years ago.

* SUVs are certainly carrying much more weight than they need to, but they actually use less energy than 1950s cars which weighed much less.

if we’d stuck to producing the same amount of stuff and awarded ourselves more free time instead [...] Since, however, we decided to go for more stuff ….

It’s not exactly accurate to call this a decision. Every individual person is forced by competitive pressure to have a job, and every individual person is forced by competitive pressure to work in this job “full-time.” (This is more or less a definition of “full-time.”) The alternative — or, put otherwise, the punishment for failure to live up to the competitive standard — is a vastly diminished hourly rate of compensation (and probably also inferior working conditions, less job stability, etc.).

In order for us to “decide” to have more free time, we have to solve the massive (now global!) coordination problem of forming One Big Union. So far in the history of the planet, this coordination has mostly been absent or partial, and so we continue following our course, each individual forced to adopt the strategy he does, without anybody having to choose it.

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Walt 10.14.12 at 9:41 am

Fu Ko: Chris’ argument was about the energy used in production. If goods that are energy-intensive to produce are all imported, then a simple count of how much energy a country uses is misleading.

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rf 10.14.12 at 6:04 pm

Since this is petering out, CB I bought ‘Immigrant Nations’ by Paul Scheffer today but have just noticed your (slight) hostile review – any chance of a small elaboration of things to look out for?

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Hidari 10.15.12 at 10:14 am

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Ragweed 10.15.12 at 5:36 pm

John halasz @144 – I would agree. The value of drought resistant GMOs, or any other condition resistant variety of crop, is related to a number of agricultural factors. Agro-ecology tends to focus on those other factors, and can lead to significantly improved yields with less environmental damage. GMOs could potentially help in that effort as well, if most of the research was not completely subservient to corporate interests.

And, guess what -. Looks like the science is not entirely clear and supportive of GMOs.

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clew 10.16.12 at 12:15 am

I was going to write Ragweed’s 140, but not as well.

Also: if you live in Massachusetts, say, you can only eat bananas if you’re rich. This is horrible!

My environmentalist take would be, rather, that bananas in Massachusetts can’t be cheap, plentiful and year-round with our current tech & economy. We could price in the costs of (I’m guessing) pesticides, soil conservation, and fast refrigerated transport and have expensive bananas now; we could have lotteries for cheap bananas in some totally other economic system; we could develop cleverer farming and kite-powered ships and other engineering ponies and have fairly cheap, fairly plentiful bananas. But in the current system, we don’t have cheap bananas, we have bananas for which the real price is hidden.

I think there are a lot of ponies to be found, actually, but we won’t find them until there’s social and economic reward for doing so.

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JW Mason 10.16.12 at 2:13 am

The problem with GMOs is less that they pose real immediate threats to health or the environment, but that they are both the product and driver of capital intensification in agriculture. In that sense, they are, as the pro-GMO side argues, not significantly different than the hybridized mono-crops that agribusiness developed and pushes pre-GMOs

Right. R. C. Lewontin has argued that the supposed advantages of hybrid crops are a myth. Rather, a choice was made to develop superior breeds as hybrids in order to ensure that farmers would have to buy seed every year. It would have been technically possible to develop crops with the same higher yields without the use of hybrids. But it would not be profitable to do so, since there would be no way for the developer to capture the gains from improved crops if they couldn’t monopolize sale of the seeds. This was explicitly understood at the time as the reason for focusing on hybrids as opposed to straightforward selection:

At the turn of the century, American and European breeders became acutely aware of this economic contradiction. As early as 1885, private cereal and fruit breeders began calling for the establishment of a system of plant patents. … Hybrids provided a solution. Indeed, [hybrid corn pioneer George Harrison] Shull in his very first paper suggested that the problem of corn breeding “may possibly find a solution making it necessary to go back each year to the original combination…” East and Jones wrote: “It (hybrids) is something that might easily be taken up by seedsmen; in fact, it is the first time in agricultural history that a seedsman is enabled to gain the full benefit from a desirable origination of his own.”

It would be silly to suggest that hybrids are inherently dangerous to people or the environment. But it is true that the use of hybrids is inextricably linked to capitalist farming practices that are very bad for people and the environment. If there had been “misguided” environmentalists around a century ago to fight the use of hybrids and force crop development to focus on breeds where farmers could use the seeds from their own crops, less of the surplus from improved agricultural productivity would be captured as rents by the Conagras of the world and we’d all be better off. Of course this would have meant relying more on public rather than private investment.

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tomslee 10.16.12 at 3:07 am

Thank you Ragweed and JWM. I absolutely agree that “The problem with GMOs has nothing to do with science, but rather with capitalism.” Well, almost anyway, institutional science does have its own myopia.

It is, however, sad and damaging that “the environmental movement has turned to some of the weaker factual arguments around GMOs, because they resonate more deeply with the public. It’s a shame in a lot of ways, but I understand the move strategically.” I understand it too, but surely it is bad strategy, as well as dishonest (to the extent that it is strategic). The decision or tendency leaves the environmental movement open to serious accusations of know-nothingness and a proper attempt to take on industrialized and patented agriculture might work better.

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Matt 10.16.12 at 3:24 am

we could have lotteries for cheap bananas in some totally other economic system;

When I lived in Russia, I had a friend who had been in her late teens to early 20′s at the end of the Soviet Union. She told me one day, when we were at the grocery store(*), as she was buying a banana, that this was justification enough for her for the end of the Soviet Union- that she was now able to buy a banana if she wanted. I don’t retell this story to accuse anyone of wanting to bring back the Soviet Union, but I do think it’s worth thinking more seriously than some people do about how people, with different tastes and preferences other than themselves, are likely to respond to different sorts of proposed changes in agriculture. If nothing else, doing this more seriously might make some changes actually possible.

(*)This was a time when supermarkets were much less good in Russia than they are now, and significantly worse, on average, than what one finds in, say, poor inner-city areas in the US in most ways, but still vastly better than what existed for most people in the Soviet Union.

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Fu Ko 10.16.12 at 4:11 am

Walt, a simple count of energy used per capita is indeed misleading, but the phenomenon that Chris is still not responsible for the drop in per capita energy use. The responsible phenomenon is higher efficiency technologies.

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Fu Ko 10.16.12 at 4:15 am

that Chris describes*

166

Peter T 10.16.12 at 4:44 am

Can I tie together a couple of recent CT threads? Many commenters of Francis Spofford’s book on Christianity made the point that rationality is about means, not ends. It can tell you how best to do something, but is silent on what to do. For ends, we fall back on faith – whether that god exists and is good, or that we hold these truths to be self-evident, or whatever. And these faiths come with stories. Prof Quiggin felt the need to wrap a reasonable query about US naval spending in a story about reactionary admirals clinging to their obsolete battlewagons. A good deal of economics comes with stories about Georgian and Victorian Britain that would not find space in any serious history.

If we environmental concerns are are to be really addressed, a key step is the development of an attitude that the environment is not for rational calculation of utilitarian ends, but a (semi-mystic) end in itself. Else it will be niggled to death by development lobbies because we will have no rational basis to resist (“just one more tree”, just this little bit of marsh”, it’s nearly all gone so the last bit won’t matter, can you prove this will cost more than it will benefit…). Some of the stories will be wrong, but that does not really matter. Alex wants to price all the fish, and then do cost-benefit analysis. He’ll end up with no money and no fish.

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Matt 10.16.12 at 4:58 am

If we environmental concerns are are to be really addressed, a key step is the development of an attitude that the environment is not for rational calculation of utilitarian ends, but a (semi-mystic) end in itself.

What an incredibly depressing view that is. Perhaps it’s true, but I think we should all hope not. (It’s also at least potentially highly elitist and undemocratic. Unless we think it’s possible to reason ourselves into unreasonable beliefs, then those like us, here discussing this, will know that the semi-mystic view is some nonsense made up by us, and sold to the masses. Even if it’s for a good end, it’s still a deeply distasteful approach to life, and one open to obvious abuses. (There’s no reason to think the semi-mytic view people will accept is the one we want, as opposed to the one that says, say, the environment doesn’t matter, as God will work things out, or the next world is at hand.) I think we should be very slow to accept it.

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JW Mason 10.16.12 at 5:21 am

What an incredibly depressing view that is.

You think? Do you find it depressing when people say it’s just wrong to cross a picket line?

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Tim Worstall 10.16.12 at 5:45 am

“She told me one day, when we were at the grocery store(*), as she was buying a banana, that this was justification enough for her for the end of the Soviet Union- that she was now able to buy a banana if she wanted.”

On bananas and economic systems. When the two Germanys finally merged after the fall of the Berlin Wall one of the things that was done was to ship loads of bananas east. They actually had lorries full of them on the border, rolling over it at midnight as it disappeared. To make sure that when the no longer Ossis all woke up the next morning in the new Germany, there were bananas in every shop.

There was also that post WWII UK experience, where the govt. imported a banana for each and every child.

The insouisance with which some claim that expensive bananas are just something that everyone will put up with seems a little misplaced.

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john c. halasz 10.16.12 at 5:52 am

Matt @167:

Maybe you should read Wittgenstein. Ya know, the idea that the validity produced by reason is grounded on an awareness of the limits of reason. Which leaves behind something rationally “mystical”.

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Matt 10.16.12 at 6:00 am

Do you find it depressing when people say it’s just wrong to cross a picket line?

I suppose it depends on what they mean. If I thought you, JW, held the view that we should just inculcate in kids (say) that it’s inherently wrong, in some quasi-mystical way, to cross picket lines, I’d find that either depressing or sinister. Surely _you_ think there’s a _reason _people shouldn’t cross picket lines that isn’t just a brute fact, or a quasi-mystical thing we can’t explain. Don’t you think it’s better, and more respectful of people, to explain that reason to them?

john c. halasz, I’m sure I’ve read as much, or more likely more, Wittgenstein as you have. His views are either completely irrelevant to this point, or else are among his frankly rather dumb views on ethics and value. (I’m deeply sympathetic to much in Wittgenstein, but his actual statements on value are horrible.)

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Peter T 10.16.12 at 6:16 am

Why depressing? And why elitist? If everyone felt that it was just wrong to torture people, or leave people to starve, would this be depressing? And if everyone says – our concern for the environment as a whole is grounded not on what it might cost us/make for us but because it is the ground of our existence full stop, that is profoundly anti-elitist (because they cannot then be bought by the elites, who after all do have the money).

I do not want to sell it to anyone. I want people to develop this basic attitude in place of some of the basic (non-rationally-grounded) attitudes they have now.

We rational people have our stories too – we have to, because rationality does not supply the ends. What’s wrong with better ones?

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john c. halasz 10.16.12 at 6:28 am

@171:

Lotsa people have read L.W. without much understanding him. You seem clearly to be among those who miss the point of his “propositions”, ( since he does proceed by a method of indirection).

As to bananas, the original variety that was developed for commercial export succumbed to blight and was replaced with the current “Cavendish” variety, which is rather tasteless, in contrast to the “Gros Michel”. Though the current crop is now threatened with a new strain of blight. Many other no doubt tasty varieties are staples in much of sub-Saharan Africa, but they don’t transport.

So much for the alleged welfare gains of cheap bananas.

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Chris Bertram 10.16.12 at 6:51 am

Fu Ko: I don’t know the answer to the question. But the relevant comparison is between the carbon cost of producing the goods that the US consumes now and the carbon cost of producing the goods that the US consumed then, wherever the production (etc) actually occurs. (Additionally, more efficient technologies don’t necessarily reduce the amount of carbon because they also lower price, leading to a greater volume of consumption.)

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Phil 10.16.12 at 7:22 am

Some of the stories will be wrong, but that does not really matter.

Steady on – I think allowing stories we know to be incorrect to circulate is a really bad idea. I’m not so bothered as Matt about a general devaluation of the coinage of truth, but I do think that specific non-evidence-based scary stories could come back to bite us. It’s always possible that the technology or the evidence will change such that our position on issue X needs to change – and persuasive but non-evidence-based scary stories about issue X are just going to get in the way. A while ago I heard somebody raising money for Chernobyl orphans talking about the dangers of nuclear technology – and after the Fukushima disaster, when we think that it could happen here… At this point somebody in the audience who’d worked in nuclear power called out “No it couldn’t!”. That’s actually quite an important evidential point, which shouldn’t get buried under the general principle that nuclear energy is highly dangerous and long-term unsustainable.

But I think the broader point is strong.

Matt:
Surely _you_ think there’s a _reason _people shouldn’t cross picket lines that isn’t just a brute fact, or a quasi-mystical thing we can’t explain. Don’t you think it’s better, and more respectful of people, to explain that reason to them?

I can explain to people why it’s wrong to cross picket lines, and why it’s wrong not to vote in elections, and why it’s wrong to waste the planet’s resources. What I can’t explain is why it’s wrong for them to do this particular thing at this particular time, whatever benefits they gain from it. One person crossing a picket, one vote not being cast, one field being concreted over isn’t going to make a difference – either everyone’s doing it (so what difference will it make if you don’t?) or nobody’s doing it (so what difference will it make if you join them?)

Whatever political & ethical values we hold, the rational thing to do in any given situation is generally not to act on them. We do act on them – when we do – because we think something’s more important than the rational considerations bearing on that situation, including the rational consideration of our action’s likely effect. In rights theory there’s a concept of certain values having “peremptory force” – they take precedence over all other considerations; when you hit one of them, the argument stops. That’s something like what Peter’s talking about: I could do with the money and I’d like to get in favour with the boss, but I don’t cross picket lines, so that’s that. Or, looking back in time, those apples look nice and the only alternative’s Golden Delicious, but I don’t buy South African, so that’s that.

I don’t get the impression that green thinking has this kind of peremptory force in many areas of life for many people just yet, despite just about everyone recognising the validity of the issues. This is a problem, and it’s going to be addressed by ethical persuasion rather than by evidence alone.

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Peter T 10.16.12 at 8:29 am

Phil said what I tried to say

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tomslee 10.16.12 at 11:48 am

I don’t think we need to resort to white lies (that is what we are talking about isn’t it?) or semi-mystical stories to stop general principles from fraying like an old sweater. Thomas Schelling described the benefits of “bright lines” in his Nobel lecture (here (PDF)) describing the arguments over nuclear weapons, and responses to Of Course Nukes Are Bad, But Why Not Use Just This One Small Nuke Here?

There are two answers that this question has received, one mainly instinctive, the other somewhat analytical, but both resting on a belief, or a feeling
– a feeling somewhat beyond reach by analysis – that nuclear weapons were
simply different, and generically different. The more intuitive response can
probably best be formulated, “If you have to ask that question you wouldn’t
understand the answer.” The generic character of everything nuclear was
simply – as logicians might call it – a primitive, an axiom; and analysis was as
unnecessary as it was futile.

The other, more analytical, response took its argument from legal reasoning, diplomacy, bargaining theory, and theory of training and discipline, including self discipline. This argument emphasized bright lines, slippery slopes, well defined boundaries, and the stuff of which traditions and implicit conventions are made. (The analogy to “one little drink” for a recovering alcoholic was sometimes heard.) But both lines of argument arrived at the same conclusion: nuclear weapons, once introduced into combat, could not, or probably would not, be contained, confined, limited.

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Matt 10.16.12 at 1:41 pm

Phil- I largely agree with you. But what I agree with is that we shouldn’t be utilitarians. (It’s possible that a utilitarian would argue that they get the same result on a good enough calculation, but it’s unlikely.) But that’s not what Peter T was arguing for- rather, he was presenting a form of “government house” utilitarianism. That’s what I oppose. To accept a non-utilitarian view, of course, one need not believe in anything “quasi-mystical” and there’s no need to think we need to make people think there’s anything “quasi-mystical” about the environment or a picket-line.

john- even Wittgenstein rejected the views you’re attributing to him. But even if he didn’t, so what?

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Phil 10.16.12 at 4:09 pm

what I agree with is that we shouldn’t be utilitarians

I think there’s a bit more to it than that. I don’t think it’s possible (or desirable) to forswear calculation about what we’re doing and live by ethical absolutes; “don’t be utilitarian” has a good ring to it, but it would be lousy advice if it was meant (or taken) literally.

The thing about “bright line” (or “peremptory force”) issues isn’t just that they’re absolutes, it’s that they’re those particular absolutes that you don’t feel able to disregard. “Live sustainably” is an absolute injunction, but it’s one that almost everyone feels free to interpret as a nice-to-have. When it comes to nudging it up the scale to the “bright line” level – well, I think “quasi-mystical” wasn’t the best choice of words, but I do think it calls for rhetorical persuasion as well as evidence.

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Matt 10.16.12 at 4:24 pm

I don’t think it’s possible (or desirable) to forswear calculation about what we’re doing and live by ethical absolutes

Thankfully, most sensible theories of ethics (including Kant’s and Scanlon’s) don’t require this, and yet are not utilitarian views, either. Only some sorts of intuitionist views do what you suggest.

There’s a version of what I think you’re getting at that I have a fair amount of sympathy for- the idea, put most clearly by Rorty among philosophers (and worked out by some psychologist in their own terms) that we learn ethics more from “sentimental stories” (Rorty’s term) than from abstract reasoning. I think that’s almost certainly true, as a matter of moral psychology, and not problematic. What I can’t agree with is when the discussion turns to government-house utilitarian type schemes, as it seems to have here. That approach was elitist and intentionally anti-democratic when argued for by Sidgwick (and less explicitly by Mill) and is so today, too.

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Ragweed 10.16.12 at 5:40 pm

” I understand it too, but surely it is bad strategy, as well as dishonest (to the extent that it is strategic). The decision or tendency leaves the environmental movement open to serious accusations of know-nothingness and a proper attempt to take on industrialized and patented agriculture might work better.”

Don’t get me wrong – patenting and industrialization are actually some of the core issues in anti-GMO activism. The whole concept of bio-piracy is central to the discussion. Sp is Monsanto’s attempts to have farmers who don’t buy their products fined or shut down because of wind-blown GMO pollen from nearby fields. These are all issues at the core of anti-GMO activism. I think the less solid arguments about danger to human health are the ones that resonate most with people, and thus they are the arguments that get the most attention. To reference modern social networking – they are the arguments most likely to be “shared”.

But there is also a deeper, quasi-mystical response to GMOs as somehow invalidating the sanctity of life that seems to resonate deeply with people, which you see with activists that talk about “strawberry fish” and references to FrankenSeeds. One can also argue that this is anti-science, in that it takes a creationist view of species (though most people who make those arguments actually talk about undoing millions of years of evolution).

But I think, drawing on something that JWM said in the Spafford thread, this is also a reaction to capitalism. We essentialize the idea that life shouldn’t be “messed with”, because under capitalism we (the majority) have no value other than the monitary value of our labor – we are objects, as surely as any ear of corn. If you can genetically engineer corn to make it more profitable, then it follows that you can genetically engineer anything to make it more profitable. The more extreme ideas of fields of genetically engineered crops that grow chicken breasts and the like are abhorent because we know we could be those chicken breasts – under the logic of capitalism there is no reason not to genetically engineer units of labor to increase efficiency of production. So the revulsion to the idea of messing with “nature,” is really a revulsion to turning people into mere objects, not to scientific fact itself. Much of the opposition to any use of GMOs is one of those bright line issues, like use of nuclear weapons, because we fear, reasonably, that it will not stop with just the one reasonable-sounding instance.

The question (and this gets back to one of the better points Gourevitch made) is not why are environmentalists anti-science, but why have some arguments about “science” become so anti-human.

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Ragweed 10.16.12 at 5:52 pm

And JWM – that Lewontin-Berlan article is awesome!

183

Phil 10.16.12 at 9:46 pm

Kant believed that it was possible to envisage a universal law such that individuals could freely pursue their interests while abiding by it, the result being social harmony. It hasn’t really worked out. But I think the point I wanted to make is that there isn’t any generalisable set of “bright line issues” that we can take off the shelf – “not crossing picket lines” is a great example of an issue that would never have occurred to Kant – and that which issues get that bright line around them is up for political debate (meaning rhetoric as well as reason).

If you can genetically engineer corn to make it more profitable, then it follows that you can genetically engineer anything to make it more profitable.

Zigackly. Reminds me of a rather good anarchist take on animal liberationism that I read mumblety years ago, to the effect that animal rights people start with the plastic package of meat on the supermarket shelf and unravel the whole history of suffering and pain that lies behind it, but that this is to get stuck on animal lives – actually there’s a history of (human) suffering and pain behind just about everything on every supermarket shelf. Not that this is a good reason to do less than the animal rights people, of course.

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Sebastian H 10.16.12 at 10:18 pm

Strange how we are getting arguments up thread that sound like what you hear from anti abortion advocates.

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john c. halasz 10.17.12 at 12:24 am

Matt @178:

It’s hard for me to tell what views I’ve attributed to L.W., since I’ve actually said so little here, (and you were the one who declared his views on “value” dumb, by which I take it you didn’t mean mute).

But the idea that validity is “grounded” on awareness of its limits is Kantian and as such not exactly new. L.W. was not a Kantian, but his thinking significantly devolves from Kant. But L.W. did hold that ethical value is non-propositional, which is why he declares it “mystical”, which has nothing to do with irrationalism. And he did hold, early and late, to the distinction between what can be said and what can not be said, but only shown, which is why he proceeds so obliquely and why it is so easy to miss his basic points. (The so-called private language argument attributed to him is actually a matter of confuting or critically liquidating solipsistic skepticism about other minds, but the upshot is also to uncover the relation to the other, which is the very root of ethics and which is not an object of knowledge).

So what’s the relevance in this context? Simply the awareness of human finitude and limitations as the basis from which to proceed. Something can be wrong because it fails to sustain (what is valuable in) a “form of life”. (As with the strike-breaking example, which violates solidarity requirements). Which, ya know, might just serve as a reasonable basis for a “precautionary principle”. But then the other relevant point is that, from this sort of POV or mode of ethical thinking, a systematic formal-rational prescriptive ethics is an impossibility. So attempting to deal with the issues involved here by grandly deducing them from “first principles”, (which just abstract from the actual basis of ethical recognitions and intuitions), is not just mistaken, but amounts to a kind of distraction and thread-jacking, (since “ontological” and epistemic issues of truth and functionality are a distinctly different normative dimension from ethical issues of justice or goodness, which it doesn’t “pay” to confuse). But I can see how a lawyer might want such a systemic deduction from “principles” to eliminate indeterminacy in decision-criteria. Professional deformation. (Aside from which issues of ethics and justice are not identifiable with issues of legality and systems of law, which are mostly just a technological complex for codifying extant relations of property and power, with only a very adventitious relation to justice). So less pointy-headed academic arrogance, please.

Getting more on topic, there is a distinction to be made between science and technology, with science only opening up ranges of technical possibilities without prescribing them and the gap being crossed through engineering and selection of investments. Opposing nuclear weapons doesn’t entail denying e+mc^2, and similarly, questioning GMO technology doesn’t amount to irrationalism, superstition or romanticism. It does amount to insisting that the full range of possible technological complexes be considered, from without the corporate political economy that attempts to privatize basic social and investment choices, and examining the actual science involved, which doesn’t issue in automagical inferences. Though it’s not my area of concentration, I can think of two basic objections to the “science” of GMOs. One is that it depends on isomorphic correspondences between genes and the expression of phenotypic traits, (and their further biochemical consequences), which isn’t exactly cutting edge biology, which has emphasized more gene-regulation cycles and interactions and their variable expressions and complex interaction with metabolic biochemical processes. It’s all to easy to see how things could go wrong there, even if no such instance has been thus far detected. (Think of the results of research in Big Pharma, for a significant parallel). The other is the reduction is the genetic variability of natural seed stocks, which either disappear or become private property or museum pieces. (The destruction of “race corn” in southern Mexico, the point of origin of corn/maize would be an example, though that was a result of NAFTA , which withdrew local subsidies while dumping subsidized surpluses from El Norte, not specifically of GMOs). Both those considerations I think should give one pause in considering the issues involved, rather than underwriting denunciations of anti-scientific tendencies, (as if “science” were automagically identical with “progress”, rather than a winding road of advancing explanatory understandings, frequently at odds with itself, and resulting in complex, but also limited inferential structures). And, of course, even those considerations abstract from the declining, decaying publicness and thus “democraticness” of scientific institutions under a corporate-dominated, neo-liberal political economy. Even if GMOs were to result in larger increases in productive surpluses than any alternatives, even in functional economic terms, such increased marginal surpluses might be countermanded by their distributive effects.

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clew 10.17.12 at 5:32 am

The German reunification/English postwar banana stories don’t weaken the environmental argument. Clearly we like bananas enough that there’s political payoff for subsidizing them, but that makes me more suspicious that we’re just making weak groups pay for them.

Hence `banana republics’.

187

Ragweed 10.17.12 at 3:47 pm

@185 – agreed, and I think its clear that most GMO opponents do not deny Watson-Crick or the other science involved. They oppose the imposition of a specific technology because there are significant social and environmental impacts beyond increased yields.

Another aspect is that the science that has been done around GMOs are, for the most part, extremely un-scientific. Not un-scientific in that the technical methodology is un-scientific, but un-scientific in that corporate restrictions on the use of GMOs block open scientific inquiry into the substances. Much as with many pharmacueticals, the corporations that own the strains hold great sway over the research institutions and the publishing infrastructure and are able to supress publication of unfavorable research results. While I suspect their are few harmful health effects of GMOs themselves, the truth is we don’t know how much evidence there is, and how much has been surpressed. And this is an issue in scientific research that impacts much more than GMOs.

188

Charles Peterson 10.18.12 at 5:09 am

I feel like one of these anonymous extremists Gourevitch is bashing, not that I consider myself or others of like mind to be extremists.

A carbon tax would be a great idea, and might have even solved the problem if it had been introduced in 1956. But now, we’re very far down to road to catastrophe. I take from a number of sources that at this time, the incentives that would be created by any possible carbon tax won’t work. If set high enough to force the transition, it would starve poor people, or explode unemployment. Wait, we’re already there. If not set high enough, there won’t be enough movement. Some people think the problem can’t even be solved through the wholly renewable energy methods I advocate…I think it will actually take less time and resources for a pure renewable source than adding nuclear to the mix, but I could be wrong.

It’s gotten to the point where we need to get things done right now. We can’t just open the barn doors and wait for the horses to return. And however bad the state of affairs is now, by the time sufficient political will develops, the AGW situation will be far worse. Unfortunately, the material and political state by then will also by my lights be far worse as well. We will not be able to do–then–what we could do now. I’d anticipate deaths by the billions in this century. Lives that probably could have been saved had the right technology been distributed soon enough. A few centuries on, much of what we know of as civilization, nuclear reactors and all, will be under dead water and the planet itself may be on track to become Venus II.

I (and many others) envision massive public works projects, on the scale similar to WWII mobilization in the USA, but continued 30 years. I have read this many times (I most clearly remember this in Jamie Galbraith’s Predator State, which describes the situation much as I do here).

For most people it would be an immediate improvement…through increased employment. It is very unfair to call such a project Stalinist. Great public works projects are legion in history. And this would be, by far, the largest and most important.

I recall Doug Henwood saying that if we need to wait for Socialism to solve this problem, we’re doomed. I agree with the doomed part, unfortunately, as far as my imagination can stretch. As always, I may be wrong, and in this case I strongly hope so. But that’s what my crystal ball shows.

189

Will Boisvert 10.18.12 at 8:06 am

@ JW Mason, et al, on hybrid seeds #161.

I have deep misgivings about the Lewontin-Berlan article decrying the dominance of hybrid corn seeds.

The article left out a crucial advantage of hybrid breeding—it creates genetically identical seeds.

Start with two lines of inbred homozygous corn—AA and bb, never Aa or Bb. Every offspring seed of a cross is then identical: AA-bb-CC X AA-BB-cc gives you just one seed genotype, AA-Bb-Cc. Because the seeds are genetically identical, you know exactly how they will behave. You can cross a drought resistant line with a fungus-resistant line and combine the two traits reliably in every hybrid seed. (While rectifying the double-recessive defects in the homozygous lines, thus imparting “hybrid vigor.”)

Crossing heterozygous plants is a crapshoot because you have no idea whether the seeds will contain the particular genotype you want. That’s one reason why such Mendelian or “open-pollination” breeding programs—farmers just crossing likely plants from the field—didn’t work too well. As a eugenic search strategy, it makes more sense to create inbred homozygous lines and cross them until you hit upon a good mix.

And that makes sense as a seed-production strategy, too, since you’re assured of getting genetically identical seed-corn with the ideal mix of alleles. The downside is that the offspring of the heterozygous hybrids will have a mix of usually non-ideal genotypes, so the vigor declines. Farmers therefore keep buying the hybrid instead of using seed from the field, which generates a rent for the seed-vendors—what Lewontin-Berlan hate about hybrid seeds.

Lewontin-Berlan critique the whole hybrid tendency on several grounds. First, they argue that hybrid seeds don’t work. Their skimpy cherry-picking of the literature suggests murkily a figure of 7-11 percent or less for the improvement of yields from hybrid breeding. (Here’s a recent source that says yield improvements from hybrid breeding are about 50 percent of total yield improvements since the 1930s. http://www.plantphysiology.org/content/149/1/7.full)
They also contend that Mendelian, i.e. open-pollination, corn breeding for robust heterozygote strains that would retain vigor would have done as well, without leaving farmers the captives of Monsanto. (They give no evidence for that claim.) They imply that the government neglected Mendelian breeding programs in favor of hybrid breeding precisely because it wanted seed-vendors to capture rents for hybrid seeds.

I’m not terribly convinced by these arguments. Farmers can calculate their yields and the price of seed; if hybrids are a bust why do they buy them? Are they just beguiled by the Monsanto salesman? What about big corporate farms who buy seeds—are they patsies, too? And if non-hybrid breeding programs are as obviously promising, fast and cheap as the authors believe, couldn’t some agribusiness corporation somewhere internalize the cost of one and thus free themselves from the seed-vendors’ exactions, or at least lobby the government to do so? Seed buyers can bribe politicians as well as seed vendors, can’t they? Maybe the whole vast government-agricultural combine really is in thrall to the seed-vendors’ sliver of the industry—or maybe hybrids really are a better mousetrap.

In fact, Lewontin-Berlan’s “economic analysis” shows that hybrids really do work. First they posit that replanting hybrid seed offspring lowers yields by 20 percent. (Which, right there, is a pretty strong indicator of the “hybrid vigor” concept they deride.) They calculate that a farmer profits by buying hybrid seeds at 56 times the price of using his own grain as seed-corn. Then they put the price of hybrid seeds at $70-80 per bushel, over a “production” cost of $15 per bushel, a five-fold markup. Lets assume the hybrid production cost is twice a farmer’s grain production cost, so a ten-fold markup over the farmer’s cost of grain. This implies that the farmer himself is still getting a five-fold return on the money he spends on buying hybrid seeds instead of planting from his field grain. That’s for replanting the hybrid offspring seed, but the analysis holds for any seed that has a lower yield than the hybrid seed. If the farmer’s choice is between planting his own heirloom seed or hybrid seed that gives him, say, an 8 percent boost in yield, then he still gets a two-fold return on the money he spends on the hybrid seed.

Lewontin-Berlan style all this as direly oppressive, but I just can’t see it. Their own analysis shows that, even at the understated yields they posit for hybrids, farmers still get a sweet deal by using hybrids instead of their own “free” seed corn from heirloom strains. A little bit of hybrid vigor translates into a lot of profit for the farmer. Maybe that’s why farmers don’t turn their pitchforks on the seed salesmen.

I’m afraid you guys have got this all wrong. Hybrid seeds work great and don’t oppress anyone—let’s have more of them. (And comprehensive labelling, too, so I can switch to an all-GMO diet.)

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