Lex Talionis and Environmental Recovery

by John Holbo on August 2, 2010

An interesting Planet Money podcast (link goes to the associated post) about how much a pelican is worth. That is, how much should BP have to pay, per pelican, for wrongfully killing pelicans? How do you estimate dollar damages in cases where there aren’t markets that could give you a reasonable ‘market valuation’ of some degraded environmental condition, and in which laypeople are sort of torn between ‘infinitely valuable’ and ‘I’d pay a dollar’ responses to a survey question? It turns out that the answer is ‘a pelican for a pelican’, at least according to the federal agency responsible for solving this problem. If BP killed 500 pelicans, they have to pay whatever it costs to save 500 other pelicans, or pay for a pelican nursery that will raise 500 pelicans, or something of the sort.

I have a somewhat more than passing interest in the history of lex talionis, so I’m struck by this reversion to what is generally regarded as an intolerably primitive, retributivist formula. An eye for an eye, a pelican for a pelican. Of course, the first thing to note about it is that here it isn’t functioning in a retributivist spirit at all. Quite the contrary, it’s a utilitarian kludge for handling a case in which calculating a util seems too fraught.

Note the oddity of the fact that at no point in the podcast does anyone ask how much a pelican is worth to a pelican [to the pelican that happens to be that pelican]. Suppose someone proposed that it is impossible to value human life in a wrongful death suit, say, because we’ve outlawed slavery (just as we’ve outlawed traffic in migratory birds). That would be a funny sort of argument. But it does show up how our intuitions about environmental value are an odd mix of absolutism (nature is infinitely valuable) and instrumentalism (nature is valuable for us).

Maybe that means we are just monstrously inconsiderate of [better: conflicted about] animal rights in our typical thinking about environmental damage. I actually kinda think so [most days], but I don’t think there’s much chance of a serious paradigm shift that would go deep enough to alter that. So, setting aside that possibility, and moving back down the scale to more practical questions, it seems to me that there might be a way to tweak the ‘pelican for a pelican’ lex talionis principle, to make it more flexible – to make the currency of pelicans more fluidly exchangeable and money-like, in a way that the average American might find intuitive and, if not satisfying, then at least as not-unsatisfying as any formula is likely to be. [click to continue…]

The Tasmania Effect

by Henry on August 2, 2010

Charlie Stross has been blogging about “the minimum population”:http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/07/insufficient-data.html needed to sustain an advanced industrialized civilization (and why he thinks this means no colonization of space etc). This is a topic I have _no expertise on_ beyond a broad interest in the less Sunday-supplement inclined versions of evolutionary anthropology, which have given this question some thought. See, for example, Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson’s account of “the Tasmania effect” (p. 272 of _The Origin and Evolution of Cultures_ ) as excerpted below. While I can’t vouch for this argument myself (and it seems to be based more on modeling than on empirical evidence, which is reasonable when you don’t have as much direct evidence as you would like, but not entirely satisfying), it is interesting and (to me) plausible,. Further, it suggests an additional twist to Charlie’s argument – that because human beings cannot learn _precisely_ what their teachers are trying to convey, you need a larger population to counter for the lossy transmission of useful techniques.

bq. What is less well understood is the extent to which technology is likely a product of large-scale social systems. “Henrich (2004b)”:http://www2.psych.ubc.ca/~henrich/Website/Papers/HenrichAmericanAntiquity2004.pdf has analyzed models of the “Tasmanian Effect.” At the time of European contact, the Tasmanians had the simplest toolkit ever recorded in an extant human society … Archaeological evidence indicates that Tasmanian simplicity resulted from both the gradual loss of items from their own pre-Holocene toolkit and the failure to develop many of the technlogies that subsequently arose only 150km to the north in Australia … Henrich’s analysis indicates that imperfect inference during social learning, rather than stochastic loss due to drift-like effects, is the most likely reason for this loss. This suggests that to maintain an equilibrium toolkit as complex as those of late Pleistocene hunter-gatherers likely required a rather large population of people who interacted fairly freely so that rare, highly skilled performances, spread by selective imitation, could compensate for the routine loss of skills due to imperfect inferences.

A “recent piece of research”:http://ideas.repec.org/p/lec/leecon/09-23.html by British economist James Rockey into people’s misperception of their place on the political spectrum got a certain amount of “gleeful mileage”:http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/edwest/100047245/why-middle-class-lefties-believe-stupid-things-because-their-friends-do/ in the right-wing press, and for predictable reasons. The research claimed that many people mislocate themselves – identifying with the “left” even though they hold opinions that are fairly right-wing. Having worried this over for a few weeks now, my considered view is that whilst the research is flawed at a quite fundamental level, the conclusion might contain some truth. Let’s see if I can express that thinking without contradicting myself!
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