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maybe jesus was right about that root of all evil stuff?
July 28, 2005 11:14 AM   Subscribe

What if we can't afford to save the world? An interesting debate between Sierra Club’s Carl Pope and the outspoken Bjørn Lomborg. (The “saving the world” bit might seem like hyperbole, but the really interesting question this debate sparks for me is this: Hypothetically, if it really came down to it, would anyone be willing to save the world for free? And if not, what does that imply about our values system and personal priorities? What does it say about the practical utility and limitations of monetary-based economic systems?
posted by all-seeing eye dog (55 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Hypothetically, if it really came down to it, would anyone be willing to save the world for free?

I see we're on an environmental theme here, but to really answer that question we need some more background. Define "world." Define "save." Define "free."
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:33 AM on July 28, 2005


Really? Okay:

World - The place we live.
Save - Prevent from being destroyed.
Free - For no personal monetary gain.
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 11:38 AM on July 28, 2005


"Common Sense? Common Sense? Come here, boy! C'mon... Where'd you run off to? Bad boy!"
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 11:41 AM on July 28, 2005


"Free - For no personal monetary gain."

Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money.  ~Cree Indian Proverb

Many western parallels to this wisdom - King Midas comes to mind - yet we forget that money is just an abstration.

I blame Croesus.

I think this is closer to the tragedy of the commons.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:43 AM on July 28, 2005


World - The place we live.

Usually pollution is just concentrated in some places, and just slowly leaches out into other places. We can avoid having to save the world by selectively destroying small portions of it.

Save - Prevent from being destroyed.

Regardless of anything we do the planet will probably not be destroyed. However, how much damage do we want to do? How much can we tolerate a bit of damage control, in the face of the possible (much worse) total and complete distruction of our ideals of complete economic freedom--ideals which aren't currently realized in practice, but are nonetheless seemingly defended by a perspective of, weaken one piece and the entire structure collapses.

Free - For no personal monetary gain.

Define personal. Usually governments protect the environment, and usually they are not-for-profit nonpersonal entities. Furthermore, although some measures involve paying money to clean up messes, an equal number of economic protection measures come in the shape of controlling or guiding what private entities are able to do. They don't usually make things impossible so much as they usually just try to make things a bit better.

Furthermore, an implication from the pollution friendly is that the environmental protection business is zero-sum or worse yet, is a wealth sinkhole, and just sucks value out of the economy. I wonder if that assertion could stand up on its own.
posted by nervousfritz at 11:49 AM on July 28, 2005


No mention of Bjorn Lomborg should be allowed to slip by without also pointing to the pretty much total debunking of every major point he made in his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, by scientists who actually work in the fields from which he cherry-picks data.

Also, it's worth noting that the linked debate is between a man who has dedicated his entire career to analyzing environmental issues and finding solutions to environmental problems and a statistician who read an interview in Wired and decided to crunch some numbers. This, in the current, lopsided playing field that is the media's "coverage" of climate change, amounts to balance.

Up next, a scientist who has been working on the world's most complex climate modelling software will discuss the potential impact of climate change with a Jehovah's Witness, the head of the Flat Earth Society, and a "researcher" at an "institute" that gets the majority of its funding from ExxonMobil.
posted by gompa at 11:49 AM on July 28, 2005


Frankly, the "monetary" is the problem. That "Cree proverb" (which I suspect fake as hell) may sound very touchy-feely, but it actually illustrates a hard economic truth: money is just a symbolic representation of wealth. Now, what "wealth" can there be if the world is destroyed? None, obviously. Next...
posted by Skeptic at 11:50 AM on July 28, 2005


Addendum: I was being a bit facetious there. It's not Jehovah's Witnesses who are given equal standing with climatologists in public discussions of climate change; it's writers of mass-market speculative fiction.
posted by gompa at 11:56 AM on July 28, 2005


Skeptic--ah, but see, that's the thing. Currency really doesn't work that way anymore. What really determines the value of a dollar now? For one thing, it's value on international currency exchange markets. There's a lot more to it than that, of course, but there's nothing tangible that money stands as a symbolic representation for anymore. Since we went off the gold standard, there's no direct correlation between currency and, well, anything other than other forms of currency (and presumably, entrepreneurial pluck--which we sure as hell can't eat). Basically, our currency is a signifier with no signified. It's value is purely speculative/relative now.
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 12:04 PM on July 28, 2005


/slight derail
yeah, Skeptic , the "eat money" thing's been attributed far and wide.

/back on

"The cause of any tragedy of the commons is that when individuals use a public good, they do not bear the entire cost of their actions. If each seeks to maximize individual utility, he ignores the costs borne by others.
The tragedy of the commons is a source of intense controversy, precisely because it is unclear whether individuals will or will not always follow the overexploitation strategy in any given situation, and especially because Hardin had a very poor understanding of how traditional commons were managed. Experiments have indicated that individuals do tend to behave in this way, when the common is unregulated, but historically, most commons have been regulated by communities, and the more use-pressure a common is under, the more heavily regulated its use would be....
A popular solution to the problem is also the "Coasian" one, where the individuals using the commons make payments to one another in exchange for not overusing the resource."
(all swiped from Wiki)

I agree with you Skeptic, the representational aspect of money as "wealth" seems to be our blind spot.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:07 PM on July 28, 2005


I think when you have a society or businesses or government spending more resources on denying a problem exists rather than acknowledging a problem and working to fix it (probably at a cost substantially below all PR costs expended or about to be expended), then the results speak for themselves.
Imagine a group of executives sitting at a table facing a cattle stampede and as the cattle draw closer they're arguing with one another about which color blind would work best to put between them and the stampede so they don't have to see it. Pretty much says it all.
posted by mk1gti at 12:18 PM on July 28, 2005


Oh, I think I see what Skeptic was getting at... Sorry if my response was misdirected.
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 12:18 PM on July 28, 2005


Bjorn Lomborg is an embarassment to statisticians everywhere, a dilettante who thinks he's smarter than the people who have spent their lives on the topic.
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:58 PM on July 28, 2005


World - The place we live.

The place where I live is my apartment, and yeah, it's kind of a sty-hole, but I don't think it's in any danger of imminent destruction.

Obviously I'm being facetious, but I still think the question isn't being phrased specifically enough. What constitutes destruction of the world? Human life is no longer supported? No life at all is supported? The surface is covered with enormous deserts and/or oceans, and humans live in ragtag bands stealing gasoline from other warlords? I'm not defending pollution; I just want to clarify matters. If I'm derailing, tell me so, and I'll shut up.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:04 PM on July 28, 2005


Would anyone be willing to save the world on a limited budget?

Would anyone pay with their life to save the world?
posted by sfenders at 1:16 PM on July 28, 2005


I'm trying to entertain a thought experiment here to make a point in principle, so I'd like to keep the scenario as simple as possible, but you're right, a little clarification would probably help.

Let's stipulate that for this discussion, "world destruction" means some near-future catastrophic event in which all humans die (it doesn't really matter how, but let's say it doesn't happen in our lifetimes). Let's also stipulate the event is preventable, but only at an enormous cost (in terms of either personal wealth or other material resources).

If we knew such an event was impending and there was no immediate short-term gain to be had in acting to prevent the event, would anyone be able/willing to act to prevent it?
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 1:37 PM on July 28, 2005


...Given the intense competitive pressures of our current economic system, that is...
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 1:39 PM on July 28, 2005


I guess my whole thing isn't so much the cost of saving the world as it is the desire to deflect any commentary that something along those lines might be happening with a co-ordinated and very expensive PR campaign to deflect any efforts to do just that. Pay a penny now or a dollar tomorrow.
posted by mk1gti at 1:45 PM on July 28, 2005


"Would anyone give up a some money to have an improved environment" would be a more useful question to start from.

"Only a Sith thinks in absolutes!"
posted by alumshubby at 1:45 PM on July 28, 2005


If the answer is yes, please explain who (or what, if it's an entity) would volunteer to do it.
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 1:45 PM on July 28, 2005


alumshubby: boo! i'm trying to do philosophy here! ;)

I'm just doing a good old fashioned though-experiment here. Where do you find any absolutes in the scenario?
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 1:48 PM on July 28, 2005


mk1gti: nice analogy, btw.
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 1:59 PM on July 28, 2005


In order to balance out the Lomborg bashing a bit, allow me to link to his critiques and replies page. I'm not going to take any position regarding his integrity but the Scientific American article from 2002 "Defending Science" was a shameful attempt to discredit his ideas by attacking his credentials. Anyone who annoys the kind of people who think that arguing from authority is the basis of proper science at least has some value, whether they are right or wrong.
posted by teleskiving at 2:21 PM on July 28, 2005


IMO, I think there was a brief window of time a few years ago when Lomburg's arguments were relevant; that window has since closed, only he hasn't realized it yet.
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 2:25 PM on July 28, 2005


Hypothetically, if it really came down to it, would anyone be willing to save the world for free? And if not, what does that imply about our values system and personal priorities?

There's a great quote from George Washington which addresses this issue:

"A small knowledge of human nature will convince us, that, with far the greatest part of mankind, interest is the governing principle; and that almost every man is more or less, under its influence. Motives of public virtue may for a time, or in particular instances, actuate men to the observance of a conduct purely disinterested; but they are not of themselves sufficient to produce persevering conformity to the refined dictates and obligations of social duty. Few men are capable of making a continual sacrifice of all views of private interest, or advantage, to the common good. It is vain to exclaim against the depravity of human nature on this account; the fact is so, the experience of every age and nation has proved it and we must in a great measure, change the constitution of man, before we can make it otherwise. No institution, not built on the presumptive truth of these maxims can succeed."

I don't think money or capitalism is the source of the problem. We could exhaust our limited natural resources if we were using cowrie shells or barter. The root problem is sustainability. If you exceed the "carrying capacity" of the natural resources available to you (the maximum sustainable harvesting rate), because of population growth, or increased per-capita consumption, or because some random event (like bad weather) happens to reduce your harvest, you can keep it going for a while, and maybe even increase your consumption in the short term, just as a government can run a deficit, but only at the expense of future consumption; eventually consumption will collapse to a lower level. Jared Diamond describes what happened to Easter Island: no capitalism required.

If we want to save the environment, we need to do it in a way that doesn't require some magic transformation of human nature. My suggestions would be:

(1) Focus on protecting agricultural land, and watch out for deforestation and soil erosion in particular. (That's the main thing I got out of reading Jared Diamond's latest book, Collapse--ultimately, civilization depends on food production.)

(2) Work at the national and local level to conserve natural resources and protect the environment. We have effective national governments, even in the biggest countries (China and India) with major environmental problems; we don't have an effective international government.

(3) Encourage people in the rich countries (starting with yourself) to save more and consume less. That's in your self-interest (since you'll have more savings for retirement/future consumption) as well as in the collective interest.

(4) Leave it to poor countries to decide what they want to do in terms of population control, if any; provide help if they need it. You can't impose population control on a country from the outside.

(5) Make sure that you're not just exporting the problem, e.g. Japan's protecting its forests while deforesting other countries; don't import wood from countries undergoing deforestation, for example.

I wrote up a Global Issues FAQ a few years ago discussing this and other issues.
posted by russilwvong at 3:11 PM on July 28, 2005 [1 favorite]


Basically, our currency is a signifier with no signified. It's value is purely speculative/relative now.

I think of a system of currency as a form of magic; the more people believe in it, the more real it is. Absent this belief, it collapses into the value of the mere atoms it is made of.

If the answer is yes, please explain who (or what, if it's an entity) would volunteer to do it.

An idealistic child with a large trust fund. Maybe Gates's kid?
posted by beth at 3:21 PM on July 28, 2005


I'll save the world for free.

Is next tuesday good for you?
posted by sourwookie at 3:52 PM on July 28, 2005


beth--good thinking, but it looks like we've found our hero. ;) hurray for sourwookie!

also, well said, original george w!

i'm still partial to the "magical transformation of human nature" solution, but admittedly, such a transformation isn't very likely without a system in place that encourages growth in the right direction. And that's really kind of the bigger point of my hypothetical scenario: our current economic system actually provides disincentives to the development of "motives of pure virtue." and that obviously conflicts with the founders' vision (at least, taken at face value) of how the marketplace should operate.

to be clear, i'm not trying to offer a general critique of capitalism, though. i'm actually pretty partial to the idea of free markets. but in my view, it can't be emphasized enough that free market theory as it was originally conceived (at least, taking the original arguments at face value) was envisioned to be a system that included just the right balance of regulation vs. free competition. in my view, the competition part of it was envisioned to be competition oriented around the quality of goods and services offered in the marketplace--not competition based on accounting practices, marketing strategies, and so on. the "invisible hand" of providence was supposed to be freed to work its magic in the world, so to speak, by the careful application of the right kinds of regulations: specifically, regulations that promote equality of access to the marketplace across all economic and social strata, and most importantly, regulations that prevent unfair collusion and other business practices that otherwise inhibit the truly free operation of trade in the marketplace.

all this might seem like it's off-topic, but I don't think any of these issues (environmental, economic, etc.) can be neatly parsed out into discreet problems; they're all profoundly interrelated, not to state the obvious.
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 4:57 PM on July 28, 2005


Burn the heretic! Lomborg says the world is not ending.

The environmental debate so often becomes Chicken Littles versus Ostriches.

For the people who are criticising Lomborg I'd say that if you haven't read his book you are behaving like fundamentalists. You don' t have to buy it, just check it out at your local library.

It might be worth making some points from the book:

Lomborg accepts global warming. He just wonders about what the consequences will really be, the cost of changing them and the accuracy of the models and thus the severity of the problem. He points out that the IPCC models made in the early 90s for the rest of the decade were too high.

Lomborg accepts that the extinction rate has exploded in the last few hundred years. But he points out that the extinction figures have been wildly exaggerated. Again, he questions the cost and is prepared to trade it off against the cost of attempting to save every species of small insect.

Lomborg's fundamental point is that the Environment is not an absolute and that trade offs should be made between it and other issues. This infuriates some Greens who believe that the only acceptable solution is NO CHANGE whatsoever at any price, i.e. environmental issues are an absolute good that cannot be traded off ever.

The book is a lot more reasoned than the critiques suggest it is. The attack job done in Scientifc American was very poor, as is the job in Grist. They are pretty much ad hominem.

If you think it is a bad book but are a reasonable person don't behave like a religious fundamentalist. Check it out yourself.
posted by sien at 5:43 PM on July 28, 2005


all right, then. i guess we'll be arguing about the finer points of statistical analysis and accusing imaginary people of being like fundamentalists and the like instead of engaging in that little thought-experiment i mentioned earlier. back to the drawing board, i guess...
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 6:14 PM on July 28, 2005


i'm still partial to the "magical transformation of human nature" solution --

Since I don't think that'll happen, I'm afraid that this seems like an escapist solution to me.

Conserving natural resources requires collective action. Our main mechanism for collective action is government. The Bush administration seems to be in denial about environmental problems, but Bush isn't going to be in office forever.

I still don't see what capitalism has to do with it. Businesses, even big businesses, operate within a regulatory framework defined by governments. There's no reason why governments can't set up regulations to protect the environment, and they have (Nixon set up the EPA, for example). The cap-and-trade systems for controlling emissions are an example of a regulatory framework that's still market-friendly.

That's one technocrat's view, anyway. :-)

Lomborg's fundamental point is that the Environment is not an absolute and that trade offs should be made between it and other issues.

That seems reasonable. It's also reasonable to make tradeoffs between different environmental issues--solve the easy and cheap problems first. That said, I think Brad DeLong's caricature of Lomborg--"Greatly expanding development aid would do much more good for the world than spending the same amount of money fighting global warming, so let's do neither."--has some force.
posted by russilwvong at 6:32 PM on July 28, 2005


(if you look back a little more carefully, you'll see that the topic i intended to address in this thread was a more general question about the ethical grounding of human economic activities, using the pope/lomberg debate and the issue of the environment as a launching point into these topics. if i haven't made that clear enough by now, i apologize, but i suspect you're just really keen for an opportunity to trumpet your boy, lomborg, and you know, that's fine, too, but...)

what the hell, if we have to go this route: i think you misrepresent the position of lomborg's detractors, sien. most of these "greens" you're talking about aren't just infuriated by the prospect of any "change whatsoever." they just think it would be nice if, for once, we (meaning people like you and me) actually planned and considered the non-economic consequences of our actions before jumping in with both feet (ironically, that's what used to be called a "conservative" position).

i know, i know... trying to think ahead is so boring (and can actually cause headaches!)... but in my experience, it can also save a lot of headaches in the long run. the other important consideration for us "greens" is that our environment consists of many dynamic and extremely complex systems, and it's really hard to predict just what will happen when you go mucking around carelessly with complex systems on a large scale. if you like to play russian roulette, that's fine. but i prefer to err on the side of caution (again, ironically, the position-formerly-known-as "conservative").

i happen to believe that as human beings we need to challenge ourselves to use our imaginations a little more, and that if we do, we may be able to turn things around without even having to give up our hair-dryers and airconditioners (which we may just really need in the near future). you and guys like lomburg, on the other hand, don't seem to think we're up to the challenge. and you see, that's why you're ultimately going to fail: because you need a more positive message.
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 6:55 PM on July 28, 2005


If philosophy and a cross-evaluation of value systems is what you want, please look at some ecological economics te xt s. this is a new field, and small, delivered to us by the failure of classical economics (a child of physics) to confront many, many issues, really the failure of economics as a science in general over the past 200 years.

If economics is just the ecology of human systems, why can't there be an ecology that contains these human systems?
posted by eustatic at 7:08 PM on July 28, 2005


a quote

"Once you sit down and draw a little picture of the economy as a subset of the larger ecosystem, then you're halfway home as far as ecological economics is concerned. That's why people resist doing that.

That means you would have to say well, there are limits, we're not going to be able to grow forever. That means the economy must have some optimal scale relative to the larger system. That means you don't grow beyond the optimum. How do we stop growing? What do we do? These are very threatening questions."
-Herman Daly, former environmental economist, World Bank
posted by eustatic at 7:12 PM on July 28, 2005


all-seeing-eye dog. In answer to your thought question. Yes, it would be good to save the world for free. There are limits to markets - check up on externalities. This does not mean that by far the best system we have ever seen (the system that is the ad hoc mixture of socialism and capitalism that we now have) should be thrown out. The other alternatives should be looked at. Did you ever go to The Black Triangle? It was quite an eye opener to see the scale of what had occured in Silesia, the Czech Republic and East Germany showing how purely centrally planned economies treated the environment.

But, it is reasonable to assert at this point that people who propose that the market be removed as a method of non-controlled resource allocation are fundamentalists. And, to go further, fundamentalists are sometimes right. And lots of people are fundamentalists. Many people in the Bush administration are, many religious people are. And many Greens are.

The Green movement does a great disservice to itself it allowing so many people who want to radically alter the current ad hoc system to take such a hold. Proposing cap and trade schemes, increased research into alternative energy and incremental increases in aid are one thing, and almost certainly a really good idea. But it is common to see the other statement such as, oh and maybe we will have to centrally plan the economy, thrown in for good measure by many, many Greens.

russilwvong : The charicature of Lomborg is a clever misrepresentation. Brad de Long takes John Quiggin's statement which points out that Lomborg's current employer takes that approximate stance and then attributes it to Lomborg.

In one of the comments the reply made is that Lomborg himself says:

"For the cost of Kyoto for just one year we could solve the world's biggest problem: we could provide every person in the world with clean water. This alone would save two million lives each year and prevent 500 million from severe disease. In fact, for the same amount Kyoto would have cost just the United States every year, the United Nations estimates that we could provide every person in the world with access to basic health, education, family planning and water and sanitation services."

So it looks like Lomborg himself thinks that this is where the money should be spent.
posted by sien at 7:13 PM on July 28, 2005


all seeing eye dog - The consciousness stretching you hope for cannot happen in the US until the Dominionist theological movement is countered.

For the record, I believe Lomborg - among other numerous inaccuracies - conflates new and old growth forest. In other words a tree farm = a mature ecosystem thas evolved over thousands of years.

NASA has some satellites that cover the destruction of the world's old growth forests from space.

Take a look now before the religious supremacist right chokes off the scientific funding for that. It's only a matter of time - unless more take the religious right seriously.
posted by troutfishing at 7:29 PM on July 28, 2005


* slow drum roll, fading away *
posted by troutfishing at 7:29 PM on July 28, 2005


sien - I'll stick with E.O.Wilson's take :

Bjorn Lomborn is a parasite load on science.
posted by troutfishing at 7:33 PM on July 28, 2005


couple of good links there; thanks eustatic!

what i was hoping to get at is i think even a little more abstract... let me try another tact.

why do we use money at all? well, i'd suggest its because money is a useful technology in some cases. if we still relied exclusively on the barter system, farmer joe (whose crops aren't ready until the fall) couldn't do any business in the summer, and he'd starve; currency probably originally took the form of a kind of IOU. farmer sal happened to have some eggs he wanted to trade with farmer joe, but unfortunately, farmer joe's crops weren't ready yet. luckily, good ol sal knew that by next fall, joe would have a whole mess of sal's wife's favorite vegetables in his field. so in exchange for a promissory note, sal gave joe the usual batch of fresh eggs anyway. modern-day currency probably developed from ad hoc transactions like this (of course, eventually, state actors also got into the act), so currency use began as a technological innovation that helped to solve a particular problem in the interest of the public economic good (or the mutual good of two interested parties, if you prefer to look at it that way). in the apocolyptic scenario i described (if we accept the pessimistic conclusion that no one would be willing to go broke in their lifetimes to save the world from destruction in their grandchildren's future), currency-based economic forces actually seem to constrain certain responses to the real-world problems we (human beings) might need to respond to, in ways that conflict with the public good. to me, that suggests we need a more flexible economic model--or at least, to rethink our ethical committments.
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 8:10 PM on July 28, 2005


troutfishing: You are right about Lomborg on the forests. His figures are probably wrong there. But, the figures about how much is being destroyed put forward by the environmental movement are often wild over estimates.

eye dog: I missed your previous comment, it's really good.

And in answer, if it can be shown that there is some thing that can't be easily put into the monetary system but that needs to be fixed then something can be done about it. A recent big example is The Montreal protocol which has been highly successful. Also emmisions regulation has improved things dramatically - shown in particular by cleaner air over major Western cities that have reasonable regulation.

But this doesn't mean that every whim put forth by environmentalists gets to be immediately resonded too.

In answer to your bit about money I'd say that the reason that money works is because we don't really know what to do. i.e. what type of car should people buy? Money lets things work out by themselves. It probably doesn't work well in fairly simple large things that pretty much everyone can agree on as being a good thing, like Defence, Social Security, education and much infrastructure. There is a similarity to Democracy, Democracy doesn't tell you what laws should be passed, but instead sets up a system for regular changes of government that are produced in a non-violent way.

Does anyone know if there is a book that points out where Lomborg is wrong, rather than just calling him names?
posted by sien at 8:48 PM on July 28, 2005


sien writes "Does anyone know if there is a book that points out where Lomborg is wrong, rather than just calling him names?"

If you have found The Grist's article linked above "just calling him names" I think there no hope anything produced by anyone in whatever form will convince you of anything contrary to your faith. In that article you have some of the most respected scientists in the world, all saying why Lomborg is a fraud in reference to their respective fields of knowledge and work. And then you call it " pretty much ad hominem." and on the top of it call anyone who believe in the words and the in references pointed to by those respected scientists "fundamentalists". For me this is sign of the worst kind of anti-scientific posture, the same willful ignorance displayed by creationists, who call themselves Christians but do nothing but produce lie upon lie and use their followers' money to spread those lies as if they were true scientific findings. Worse yet, the "anti-global warming" anti-science can't even claim some mystical high purpose, it is all about short term money, from the Exxon funded studies and think tanks to the PR campaigns for Lomborg-like pseudo-rebellions against the scientific establishment.
posted by nkyad at 11:01 PM on July 28, 2005


Please, won't someone help reasonable skeptics like sien? Can't someone find a link to articles eviscerating Lomborg's arguments whose authors aren't ax-grinding, ad-homineming nonscientists such as Edward O. Wilson and Peter Gleick? I mean, I think at least a couple of the people in that nine-part Grist special report don't have PhDs in the scientific fields they're discussing, whereas Lomborg's a statistician with no expertise whatsoever in climatology or biology.

The onus of proof is so clearly on the non-status-quo-mongering non-statisticians in this discussion. Can't you see?

sien wrote: Lomborg's fundamental point is that the Environment is not an absolute

I wait with baited breath for Lomborg to attempt to breathe without the absolute of an oxygen-rich atmosphere. (All puns intended, all rights reserved.)
posted by gompa at 12:08 AM on July 29, 2005


sien quotes Lomborg: For the cost of Kyoto for just one year we could solve the world's biggest problem: we could provide every person in the world with clean water. This alone would save two million lives each year and prevent 500 million from severe disease. In fact, for the same amount Kyoto would have cost just the United States every year, the United Nations estimates that we could provide every person in the world with access to basic health, education, family planning and water and sanitation services.

Yes, DeLong summarizes this as Greatly expanding development aid would do much more good for the world than spending the same amount of money fighting global warming. But DeLong's point is that Lomborg mostly seems to be interested in arguing against Kyoto ("let's do neither")--that is, arguing that Kyoto is incredibly expensive. Where's Lomborg's argument that the United States should spend all this money on expanding development aid?
posted by russilwvong at 12:15 AM on July 29, 2005


... currency probably originally took the form of a kind of IOU.

Kind of. Here's a textbook explanation:

The defining feature of money is that it serves as a medium of exchange. Trade without money depends on the double coincidence of wants. A farmer who has a basket of eggs and needs new shoes has to hope that the shoemaker needs eggs. The double coincidence is that the seller needs exactly what the buyer has to offer. Often that is not the case, and it becomes necessary to do three-way trades. For example, the farmer might have to go to the butcher to exchange the eggs into a ham, which then can be given to the shoemaker in exchange for shoes. If money is used as a medium of exchange, this problem does not arise. The shoemaker knows that the butcher accepts money, and is therefore happy to take money from the farmer instead of ham. This facilitates trade significantly. We can gauge the efficiency of money from the fact that the presence of money does not depend on an official authority like a central bank to create it. For example, when in post-war Germany the official currency had lost all its value, people started using American cigarettes as a medium of exchange. Barter trade was too complicated, so that the new “currency” was quickly accepted, even though there was no monetary authority to support it.

all-seeing eye dog again: ... currency-based economic forces actually seem to constrain certain responses to the real-world problems we (human beings) might need to respond to, in ways that conflict with the public good.

I'm afraid I still don't see how!
posted by russilwvong at 12:54 AM on July 29, 2005


I'm going to live, maybe another 30 years.

So, the world gets destroyed. Worlds have been destroyed before.

In my 55 years on this earth, I've awakened every morning to some sort of crisis imagined by world savers. Used to take them seriously. Different one every day.

Since I've lived my adult life in San Francisco, New York City and Woodstock, New York, I'd estimate that I've been told 7.5 billion plans to Save the World. Somewhere along the line, I stopped listening to them. If you want to tell me your plan to Save the World, now, it costs 50 bucks an hour.

Don't pay much attention to this stuff now, except to marvel at people who do pay attention to it. So many better things to do.

I like to ride my Harley. Will spend the day writing music and trying to think positive thoughts.

Saving the world is for God to do. He'll take care of it. I'm just here to do my job.

It's called humility.
posted by Shouting at 5:29 AM on July 29, 2005


Shouting: I completely agree. "Saving the world" is a silly idea, and the world can take perfectly good care of itself (with or without people around).

The "saving the world" scenario I described is a reductio ad absurdum argument meant to draw out what I consider to be a broader, theoretical problem in economics. I've tried to be pretty clear about this, but I guess I should have chosen a less emotionally charged scenario as an illustration of the point.

"I'm afraid I still don't see how!"

russilwvong: To sum up my position, I think we often put the cart before the horse where money is concerned. No one should ever have to say: "Money keeps us from solving this problem," because money itself is a technology for maximizing the options we have for solving certain kinds of problems. If the tangible (material and intellectual) resources are available to do something that's in the long-term interest of the public, why let the fact that no individual interest or interest group stands to directly or immediately profit from it stand in the way of doing it? Well, right now, the reason is simple: You'll go broke and get kicked out of the Rotary Club. I'm suggesting there's a bigger picture we sometimes fail to see.
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 8:18 AM on July 29, 2005


“The defining feature of money is that it serves as a medium of exchange.”
There is no symbol for certain things that do have inherent value.

"the competition part of it was envisioned to be competition oriented around the quality of goods and services offered in the marketplace--not competition based on accounting practices, marketing strategies, and so on."

- except it’s predecated on certain infinities. One of which being the continued input of energy (resources) from the earth.
We also completely disregard the ‘wealth’ inherent in sustainability.
Mostly, I speculate, because no one can reap short term rewards from it - i.e. exploit it.

"For the cost of Kyoto for just one year we could solve the world's biggest problem: we could provide every person in the world with clean water. This alone would save two million lives each year and prevent 500 million from severe disease. In fact, for the same amount Kyoto would have cost just the United States every year, the United Nations estimates that we could provide every person in the world with access to basic health, education, family planning and water and sanitation services."
AND
“we need a more flexible economic model”

- in a sense, like money, these things are valuable because of their scarcity.
1984 by Orwell - for all it’s totalitarianism - is a valuable resource on this topic. Production too high? Got too much stuff? Destroy it and lower the standards for everyone so you can manage between microchanges in expectations. The simple difference that the Proles drink beer, outer party members drink Gin, and inner party members drink wine is an excellent example of this.
Economics fails, in part, because it is linked to the workings of power.

“Saving the world is for God to do.”
I take that personally.
God helps those who help themselves.
Feel free to do what you do that makes you happy.
What makes me happy is seeing others happy. Some people are built that way. I despise (hu)men who think they are my superior in the same way I abhor those who think they are inferior to me.

I see no reason why anyone should die just so someone else can feel superior (through manipulation of resources or any other means).
posted by Smedleyman at 9:25 AM on July 29, 2005


Shouting relates that he is a jaded, 55 year old man with a midlife crisis (Harley), a closed mind and undoubtedly a fat ass from sitting around feeling self-satisfied. Honestly, you came all this way to tell us all that? Now that's a waste of time.
posted by Tommy Gnosis at 9:50 AM on July 29, 2005


"these things are valuable because of their scarcity"

One minor point on this: Scarcity isn't the only factor that increases demand for resources, and that to me, is one of the misunderstandings that contributes to our current predicament. "Demand" for something shouldn't automatically increase just because there's less of it around. In my view, demand should be more closely aligned with actual need rather than perceived need. I think one of the weaknesses of our current economic orientation is that we intentionally create artificial demand for products and services, in pursuit of profit growth, when demand should probably be more closely aligned with tangible need, assuming we don't want Adam Smith's "Invisible Hand" getting all confused and unknowingly distributing wealth and resources in the wrong directions. See, I actually believe the operation of natural supply and demand might just work--it's just that we lie a lot to get people to buy things they don't need. and that has a distorting affect on our economy.
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 9:55 AM on July 29, 2005


Shouting: Saving the world is for God to do. He'll take care of it.

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. (Genesis 1:26)

I suspect most religions similarly instruct their followers to take some responsibility for their lands and environment. You could argue that if you rule something you get to destroy it, but that suggests you fail to respect God's creation.
posted by alasdair at 10:36 AM on July 29, 2005


Well, I can take criticism as well as the next guy... but "fat ass?"

Ricky, the gay FIlipino hairdresser, just offered to marry me. He said I should just give him my paycheck and he'll take care of everything.

My Filipina girlfriend, the Karaoke Queen, says that I am only "pleasantly plump."

So, take that.
posted by Shouting at 11:40 AM on July 29, 2005


If the tangible (material and intellectual) resources are available to do something that's in the long-term interest of the public, why let the fact that no individual interest or interest group stands to directly or immediately profit from it stand in the way of doing it?

Available to whom? To society as a whole? You need people to make decisions and actually do things; you need institutions and mechanisms. In other words, you need a government, or a quasi-governmental organization. But once you've got that, there's nothing stopping the government from making decisions to protect the environment, or whatever, through taxes and regulations.

The problem isn't the monetary system, it's leadership and government. It's quite possible to get people to make individual sacrifices for the common good, without changing our monetary system: think of World War II and food rationing in Britain, for example. But at the moment, we don't regard the environmental situation as a crisis as important as World War II. (Maybe we should, but we don't.)

If you don't like governments, then you just need to find some other way of doing large-scale coordination of people's efforts.
posted by russilwvong at 4:29 PM on July 29, 2005


The problem isn't the monetary system, it's leadership and government.

actually, i agree. let me clarify that, broadly, i'm critiquing over-reliance on market competition as an effective arbiter of solutions to human problems (what we might call "free-market fundamentalism"). what i've attempted to illustrate is at least one clear (if abstract) case in which the unrestrained operation of the marketplace fails to serve the public interest. that's all i really hoped to establish.
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 10:06 PM on July 29, 2005


what i've attempted to illustrate is at least one clear (if abstract) case in which the unrestrained operation of the marketplace fails to serve the public interest.

Okay, I'd agree with that. In political philosophy, the doctrine that the highest interest of the individual and the highest interest of society naturally coincide has a name: it's called the harmony of interests. E. H. Carr discusses the history of this doctrine, and some of its flaws.

It was the laissez-faire school of political economy created by Adam Smith which was in the main responsible for popularizing the doctrine of the harmony of interests. The purpose of the school was to promote the removal of state control in economic matters; and in order to justify this policy, it set out to demonstrate that the individual could be relied on, without external control, to promote the interests of the community for the very reason that those interests were identical with his own. ... The individual "neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it.... he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention." ... "We now know," wrote Mr. Henry Ford as recently as 1930, "that anything which is economically right is also morally right, There can be no conflict between good economics and good morals."
posted by russilwvong at 12:12 AM on July 31, 2005


"it's just that we lie a lot to get people to buy things they don't need"
Bada-Bing!
posted by Smedleyman at 1:11 PM on August 2, 2005


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