"It is the unhappy fate of the scientist today that he must play the role of Cassandra in the body politic, sending his fellow men to bed with nightmares in the hope to be heard in time."

- Arthur von Hippel, in "The Molecular Designing of Materials" (h/t @upbeatprof)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Collapse: U R Doing It Rong

I've been sort of terse lately because I'm working on a longer piece. I'm not sure regular readers will want to hold their collective breaths; perhaps you've heard it all before. It might not show up all that soon; I'll see if I can get any interest in higher profile venues.

So meanwhile, continuing in the vein of short bits, consider this amazing bit of circular reasoning from Ronald Bailey of Reason magazine:
But what about the past? Haven't societies collapsed due to overpopulation? To the extent that it is true that some societies have suffered collapses, we now know that it was because they lacked the proper institutions for channeling individual striving into a process of economic growth which ultimately promotes the public interest. Very few earlier societies could be characterized as either economically free or respecting the rule of law.
See, if you live somewhere where freedom promotes the public interest, then obviously the public interest will never get any damage from freedom, right? It all makes such perfect sense!

I am not sure whether or not the real mechanism of the demographic transition has anything to do with this sort of economics, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't actually put more oil in the ground or even (as a social organization conceivably could) keep more carbon out of the air. I will concede to Mr Bailey that a perfectly organized society is, by definition, organized perfectly. I'm just not all that convinced from this bluster that Bailey knows how to make one.

Update: Much to my surprise, Tokyo Tom, far less silly about the global commons than most libertarians, thinks Bailey's blurt is a positive contribution.  


guthrie said...

Isn't that kind of missing the actual evidence, which (OK, I've only read Diamond no this) is that the societies collapsed because they were inflexible in the face of increasing problems caused by a mix of local climate/ ecological change and the increased human populations effect upon said ecology and climate.

And I wouldn't count todays society as economically free either. But all historical societies I've read about have a great deal of respect for the rule of law, so much so that they killed people for not respecting it...

Given what Reason magazine is, did you honestly expect anything different? With a number of honourable exceptions, the majority of libertarians I have run into online are blinkered and often infuriatingly logical, meaning they miss the actual picture compared to their idealised, reason built picture.

jg said...

My experience with libertarians is that they genuinely fear constraints on their freedom of energy use as much as I fear living on a biologically impoverished planet. To address my fear, I'm comforted by a strong federal government capable of implementing clean air and water acts, NEPA, and ESA. My libertarian friends don't oppose my intention, rather they oppose my solution, but I don't see any other means of preventing tragedy-of-the-commons scenarios.

Dano said...

Guthrie, an excellent backgrounder on this issue is An Environmental History of the World by Hughes. That is: 'inflexible' is part of it. And the rest of it challenges us even today (we don't learn, IOW).

And no, IMHO Bailey has no clue how to make a solution set for our imperfect society.



David B. Benson said...

Bailey biz-arr-oh

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...


Eh... I don't consider circular 'logic' to be part of actual logic. Then again, I've not paid US$1,300 to attend that upcoming, um, "Mastering the Intellectual Tools that Transform a College Education into Lifetime Success" seminar, so what do I know...

-- bi

Richard said...

A perfect society is organized perfectly. What a plan! Why didn't we think of that sooner! Pangloss couldn't have said it better. Now I can sleep at night.

eco101 said...

U R doing teh e^x dance in teh static barn hall!

TokyoTom said...

Michael, thanks for the link and for twitting it to my attention.

I`m not sure you really want to get me started, but I won`t let that get in the way.

First, of course, it`s regrettable that those on the left and right would both rather fight than think seriously. There`s alot of middle ground, but you can`t get there in war of words. I`ve been criticized Ron for this, but he deserves credit for accepting climate science and expressly acknowledging and analyzing tragedy of the commons situations.

While I think you have found an infelicitly stated portion of his piece, clearly he`s trying to say that social collapse in the past might be attributable to tragedy of the commons situation (where "proper institutions for channeling individual striving into a process of economic growth which ultimately promotes the public interest" were not in place).

While there are other cause of collapse - wars, climate shifts, disasters - do you really disagree with Ron`s point that societies are vulnerable to collapse if they don`t establish institutions that prevent ruinous exploitation of resources?

While Ron focusses on economic freedom and rule of law (market institutions) as checks on tragedies of the commons, he is familiar with (and libertarians certainly accept) traditional, community-based property rights systems can work just fine, though increasing demand (and use by outsiders) might swamp them, or technology might make private property more efficient.

I think that Ron is perfectly correct to note that property rights and market institutions in free societies are serving to check population growth.

The chief problem, of course is that there are huge gaps outside individual Western countries: Where are the property rights in the atmosphere, the oceans, the tropical forests? As a result, we are steadily destroying whatever we can get out hands on.

The related problem is that corrupt and/or inept governments are often in the middle of these problems: e.g., the Newfoundland cod fishery was destroyed under Canadian government management, West coast salmon fisheries are similarly threatened, and tropical forests are being converted to soybeans and oil palm because governments don`t care to protect the rights of the natives who dwell in them.

(The way governments fail libertarians are rather attuned to; while it may grate to hear this after the gross mismanagement of the Bush/neocon/Republicans, perhaps even liberals can acknowledge that they have a point, even if they don`t want to listen to fear of "socialism" from the right.)

Finding institutions to end destructive exploitation and manage open-access commons is a real struggle; Bailey points in the right direction for some solutions, but he downplays the size of the task ahead and the need for those who care to work at solutions.

More of my thoughts here:

Too Many or Too Few People? Does the market provide an answer?

Using the State to solve common resource problems?

Mises on fixing externalities: progress along the Kuznets curve is not magic, but the result of institution-building



Dano said...

The Kuznets curve is a measurement tool, not a goal, as resource constraints preclude all societies traveling that path. Unless their populations are drastically less, of course.

As EO Wilson said in reply to a question about earth's carrying capacity for humans: If the consumption levels are like Japan's and the US, then 200 million.

The economy is a wholly-owned subsidary of the environment, not the other way around.



TokyoTom said...

Dano, I`m not sure I follow you.

The Kuznets curve is simply a purported phenomenon, and neither a goal nor a measurement tool. However, anyone interest in avoiding environmental damage (damage to people, property and parts of the shared environment that they care about) should be interested both in understanding the dynamics of the phenomenon and in finding ways to speed a society`s advance towards lesser environmental damage.

I`ve blogged a number of times on Kuznets here; I`d be delighted to have your thoughts: