It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Nature is not a Budget Item

Mr. Gore is right in a claim he made some years back in Earth in the Balance. This century must be the time we come to grips with our relationship to the planet. It is the crucial issue of our time, and it links everyone together in a common fate.

When the phrase "Nature is not a luxury" occurred to me, it resonated so well that I wondered if I had heard it before. If not, I could sort of claim it as a slogan and possibly as a book title for myself.

I'm not the first person to utter the sentence, but according to Google, other people mean it a bit differently than I do. The first hit is from Campbell Webb of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale, writing in Conservation Biology:
Nature is not a luxury. The nonhuman world has rights. Conservation is an ethical stance. True, humans have rights, and these will often clash with the rights of nature, but let us at least talk about this conflict. Obviously, arguing for the rights of nature is not new (Naess 1973), but it has seldom been the stance of academic biologists, although this appears to be changing.
I understand this point of view, and I agree with it, but it doesn't capture what I mean by "nature". Even stranger to me is this:
Nature's services cast a broad net, says Robert Costanza, an ecological economist at the University of Vermont. He spoke recently in Maryland, where he studied the bay for many years. They range from regulation of climate, pollination of crops and food and timber production, to soil formation, genetic resources, waste treatment and recreational opportunities. "Nature is not a luxury, not an 'if we can afford it' proposition," Costanza told members of the Maryland Conservation Council. He and other researchers have attempted to put a price on the natural planet, coming up with what he calls "a very conservative estimate" of around 33 trillion bucks a year in goods and services. That far surpasses the value of the human economy.
Both of these fall into the old trap of imaging humans as being in conflict with nature, of economics as a triumph over nature, of nature as an obligation or a line item in the budget that needs to be thrashed out every year. In practice of course there will be such battles, but this yields the perspective to those who are so wrapped up in the wealth game that they forget it is a game. Taking the romantic, empathetic view of nature as delicate and fragile disrespects nature and seems to persist in undervaluing the risks we take.

As I see it, the problem is in the nature of "nature", a word which, as William Cronon points out in a remarkable symposium he put together, has had many interpretations. Consider, though, what nature means in a literal sense, the sense the publishers invoked when they decided to call a leading science magazine "Nature".

Nature in that sense is not going away; the idea of "protecting" it is ludicrous. The main things we can do about nature are to make it less congenial to us or to leave it alone. (Conceivably we can argue about whether it is possible to make it better, but we are so far from that as to make this question quite academic for the present.) We can provoke nature, souring the oceans, razing the forests, soaking up the rivers. Nature will (in the sense I mean the word "nature") go on. Possibly we won't, or possibly we will squeak by in poverty; possibly the planet will be greatly depleted of life forms, and won't appeal to us very much. There will still be life, most likely, and even if there isn't life there will still be nature.

We arose in and live in a peculiar and unique configuration of nature. We can't get by on other planets where nature has other configurations. We don't fully understand what keeps nature in the peculiarly fine configuration it's in. As we push the balance ever harder, eventually we'll disequilibrate something.

We need to rethink how we think. Human laws cannot override natural laws, and the eco-system is not a component of the eco-nomy. We can behave very stupidly, but we're the ones who'll suffer from it, not nature.

Nature is necessary not merely because we need the forest to cleanse our souls. Nature is pervasive; we need air to breathe and water to drink and food to eat and land to walk on. There is no number of gold bars sufficient to tilt the balance once it goes far enough. There is no limit to the peril into which we can place ourselves by poking at nature, short of our own extinction. Nature will not care, but we very definitely will.


Dano said...

Well, Joe Romm over at ClimateProgress recently had numerous screeds against Schellenberger and Nordhaus for pointing out this very thing and offering alternative frames. So you should watch out for dissent.

And this is notwithstanding that almost every aspect of our society is set up to separate us from nature.



tidal said...

Neo-classical economic theory arose in an world where our footprint on the earth was much less. Consider when/where Wealth of Nations was written, for instance. The focus was on the "scarcities" in the system at the time - e.g. labour and capital - and the abstractions (whether intentional or not) that resources were limitless and that there were no meaningful externalities were "accurate" enough that the models worked reasonably well.

Unfortunately, the economy was always a subsytem of the environment, so those abstractions were always in error. Fast forward a few centuries you have a neo-classical economic paradigm that is trying to retrofit to accommodate resource depletion, atmospheric commons, negative externalities on environment and ecosystem services, etc.

Nevertheless, we need some economic paradigm to organize our thinking about human economic activity that both reflects observed behaviour and natural realities/limits. Michael, I recall on the globalchange thread that you made some comment about Kenneth Sayre's book, where you took issue with the concept of integrating entropic theories with economics. I am not quite sure why that was, but I think that we will eventually see thermodynamics deeply integrated into mainstream economics in order to deal with the existing model's shortcomings. Georgescu-Roegen, Daley, Ayres & Warr, etc. are right. Check this for a concise discussion or, a little lighter here . I think you would get a kick out of the last slide in that latter link!

Michael Tobis said...

The latter slide show is excellent, though I don't agree with some of its thrust.

Energy is not wealth. My present requirement to drive to work when in the past I could take a train or a bicycle I consider a setback, a form of poverty.

The second law still offers us very little guidance. There's no lack of thermodynamic entropy gradients for us to work with, and the Rifkinite generalization of the concept is pseudoscientific bilge.

However, I really liked the block diagram of "how a real economy works". That part is where we need to put our minds.

Michael Tobis said...

Blogger seems to have clobberred tidal's links. Here they are again:


People invoking the laws of thermodynamics would do well to understand them; say well enough to do undergraduate problems about the Carnot cycle. From what I can tell this whole sub-field has made a bad false start. Some of the insights are very much in line with what I'm trying to say here. Unfortunately the arguments from physics appear to be fundamentally unsound. It's hard to base a useful quantitative theory on a misinterpretation of physics.

I agree that an alternative quantitative economic formulation is needed, but I don't see much basis for one here.

I think biogeochemistry may present a sounder basis than thermodynamics. Thermodynamics tells us we have are a very long way from our limits. Negative entropy is not our limiting resource, and talking about it because it seems so, um, scientific doesn't actually form a basis for substantive reasoning.

I agree we need to come up with a new quantitative theory of economics that accounts for our constraints. Unfortunately, thermodynamics will not help, because our constraints are not thermodynamic.