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A Human-Precipitated Mass-Extinction?; a libertarian discussion of preferences about things unowned

July 16th, 2009 No comments

For the benefit of the curious and/or idle reader, I`m cross-posting from my little-used personal blog a short post on the above topic and the ensuing conversation.

(I note that my inaugural post at this LvMI-hosted blog covered a related topic:   “Too Many or Too Few People? Does the market provide an answer?“.)

 

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Planet’s First-Ever Mass-Extinction Precipitated by Humans

Should we be alarmed at the current massive die-offs being noted in the animal and plant kingdoms? After all, new species arise and old species die off all the time. Its just nature taking its course, right? Not necessarily. What’s different about this die-off is that this is the only such event precipitated by a biotic agent: humans.

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posted by TokyoTom at 1:35 AM
9 Comments:
 
 
James Rothfeld said…
 
Wrong. One of the largest extinctions in the history of our earth was when oxygen from photosynthetic life forms began to reach levels that were toxic for anaerobic life forms. Granted, the victims were mostly bacteria and some other simple life forms, but – extinction is extinction.

So, humans are not the first biotic agent to lead to massive extinctions.

4/23/2009 01:43:00 AM  

 

TokyoTom said…

James, thanks for honoring me with a visit and comment.

Of course, I mainly blog at LVMI – http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/ – and I`m not really quite sure what I did that caused this post (which is the intro to a longer piece that I didn`t write) to go up, but in any case I appreciate the engagement.

You have a valid point about the great switch from anaerobic to aerobic life, which many people seem to forget about, but:

– obviously the main comparison is which other great extinction events (caused by meteors/ volcanic/ climate events) that affected complex vertebrate and other life, not archaea or bacteria;

– the event you speak of actually CONTRIBUTED to the development of more complex life;

– there is plenty of anaerobic life still around and being discovered (even in rocks miles down), and we really have very little idea as to whether the switch to aerobic life caused any kind of massive loss of anaerobic species; and

– what we are now doing to the oceans – via “dead zones” resulting from fertilizer run-off and further changes expected from warming and pH changes will result in areas not “dead”, but occupied by less complex abearobic bacterial communities.

4/23/2009 03:20:00 AM  

 

James Rothfeld said…
 
Now you are weaseling out, Tom! You did not specify that you were only referring to complex vertebrae, but only seemed to talk about extinctions in general. I think this is arbitrary and obfuscates the point: the point is that extinctions are caused by all kinds of events, and at the time of the event, they are not horrible for most life forms (horrible being a function of going extinct).

The argument that the aerobic extinction contributed to more complex life forms does not really get us anywhere, since there is no reason to assume that higher life could not emerge out of anaerobic life. What can be said is that the aerobic extinction contribute to the emergence of complex aerobic life, but that’s simply proving the assumption, or whatever logical fallacy we are dealing with here. The likely reason anaerobic life is rather simple these days is that it is forced to live in rather confined environs, including the gut of aerobic life.

The world’s oceans seem to have passed through a number of anoxic events, and those life forms that made it through the malaise probably did quite nicely as competition was greatly reduced. I’m sure life as such will make it quite nicely through the next one as well. Whether we humans will make it through it remains to be seen, though I am actually quite optimistic (pessimistic??) that they will. In smaller numbers, but nonetheless.

I think it is too early to judge whether or not the current extinction will in fact be a disaster. I am in fact not even convinced we are really going through a particularly dramatic extinction – the claim about dozens or even hundreds of species going extinct is based on some pretty speculative reasoning.

As far as I know, there have only been about 300 or so documented extinctions in the last few centuries. I also don’t think the the extinction of species limited to very small local habitats should really be counted: if the only place you can find a particular animal is a small island or a specific mountain, I suggest the species is done for no matter what.

I also don’t think that anybody has yet established a relationship between species extinction and human survival (and don’t start with the buffalos – the populations at First Contact were human artifacts).

But, back to the dead-zones in the oceans: I am amused that few ecologists have yet made the link between agricultural subsidies and fertilizer run-off. The link is so blatant and in your face, this oversight is almost telling.

In any case, I came by your blog because that’s where clicking on your name at Crash Landing gets me.

Best,

JR

4/23/2009 06:32:00 AM  

 

TokyoTom said…
 
James, I was not weaselling out, but expanding on a point that you also acknowledged: “Granted, the victims were mostly bacteria and some other simple life forms.”

The fact that remains that if there is a wave of extinctions underway as a result of the rise of opportunistic and technological man (with various man-related extinctions starting millenia ago), this is clearly different from prior catastrophic extinctions, which resulted from external physical impacts on the planet. That`s the comparison being made, and reference to the initial shift to oxic life forms is interesting, but irrelevant.

“there have only been about 300 or so documented extinctions in the last few centuries. “

This of course tells us little, since even now we have no comprehensive catalog of life.

“I also don’t think the the extinction of species limited to very small local habitats should really be counted: if the only place you can find a particular animal is a small island or a specific mountain, I suggest the species is done for no matter what.”

I fear you are right as to the “no matter what”, but your conclusion that the extinction of localized species “shouldn`t count” is a value judgment. Good Austrians will recognize that others have equally valid preferences. Biologists and others familiar with the dimishing diversity of life express a deep sense of loss.

4/23/2009 11:50:00 AM  

 

James Rothfeld said…
 
Tom – I was just teasing about the weaseling in any case. What I am trying to get at is your last point: whether or not any of this is good or bad is in the eye of the beholder. Every activity has externalities – whether good or bad depends on the judgment of those affected, physically or otherwise, including emotionally.

So, yes, localized species extinction is certainly not good for the species affected or those who care about them. Maybe the world would be a better place with dodos and woolly mammoth in it, but maybe not. Who can tell?

I’m sure nomads think settled societies with their strict geographic borders stink, but farmers have little sympathy for dirty herders and their stomping herds.

Will the world be worse off if the only life forms to survive are those that serve human needs? Aesthetically, I would say no, but then again, those who will live in such a world will hardly miss what they have never known.

I don’t lose sleep because there are no more Aurochs, even though I think they were really amazing animals. I also don’t miss the dinosaurs, though other might differ.

In the end, it’s all a question of preference – and who am I to say that my preferences are any more worthwhile than those of others.

Here’s another question I was wondering about, by the way, and it’s serious – if a change in technology would bring about economic ruin for a particular region and its population, simply because it would make their only product useless, would the inventor/users of this technology have to compensate the people who were damaged? Would the users of word processing software have to compensate print employees for lost jobs? Would users of the internet have to compensate newspaper workers for lost jobs? I’m not being funny, it’s an important question that is directly relevant for the question of property rights in the context of environmental change. I am sure you see the relevance. I have no real answer to this (except gut opinion). Any thoughts?

4/24/2009 05:48:00 AM  

 

TokyoTom said…
 
“Maybe the world would be a better place with dodos and woolly mammoth in it, but maybe not. Who can tell?”

I agree completely that this is a question of human judgment. However, we should acknowledge that we are bumping some species off the planet and squeezing others drastically (and many to a completely unknown degree).

“Will the world be worse off if the only life forms to survive are those that serve human needs?”

Are you confident that the species that don`t survive don`t serve human needs? Many we simply have no clue about, while others, such as whales, dodos, passenger pigeons, Steller sea cows and numerous crashed/crashing fisheries have been extinguished and are threatened not because of lack of utility, but simply because nobody owned them.

How much more shall we destroy, for want of investment in property rights/commons management?

” would say no, but then again, those who will live in such a world will hardly miss what they have never known.”

Only partly true, as some of the world that we have been losing has been and will be documented.

“would the inventor/users of this technology have to compensate the people who were damaged?”

Not in a libertarian order. But I fail to see the relevance to “environmental” problems, either those that involve activities that damage the persons or property of others, or damage resources that are communally owned or are owned under regimes that fail to protect the resources. Care to clarify?

5/19/2009 01:04:00 PM  

 

James Rothfeld said…
 
My basic point is that every action has effects at least one person would perceive as injurious to their well-being, and would prefer that it rather not happen. If we were to refrain from all such actions, we would probably lose the freedom to act at all. Fundamentally, I want to argue that a ‘negative externality’ that cannot be dealt within a libertarian order has to be simply accepted as a given along the lines of ‘shit happens’.
If we cannot find a non-libertarian solution to an environmental problem, than so be it. That’s my only point. Nothing more, nothing less. Which is why I agree that in a libertarian order it’s your tough luck that you lose your job because somebody else is smarter. It also means that if, for example, people using a specific aquifer cannot agree on a libertarian solution to its management simply have to suck it up. Or that if I live on a nice piece of land with a pretty view, and my neighbor erects an ugly building with garish design elements spoiling my aesthetic enjoyment, I’ll have to suck it up – unless the two of us can agree on a solution.
I think some environmental problems have no libertarian solution. I don’t know which they are, but maybe we simply have to accept that.
For example, there may be no libertarian solution to fighting asteroids about to hit our planet. Maybe we could collectively deal with it, but maybe not enough people can be bothered – or believe in it – and so the few who care simply have to deal with the fact that they will die, well-knowing that a solution was at hand.

To repeat the point: in my hierarchy of needs, freedom comes before security. If the price of freedom is to live in a world that will experience dramatic changes in climate, and if the only way to avoid is were to give up my personal freedom – then I’ll accept the dramatic changes in climate.

That’s my only point.

5/20/2009 09:55:00 AM  

 

TokyoTom said…
Thanks for the clarifications, James.

I`m not so far away from you, but come to different conclusions: where there are obvious commons problems, those who care about the problem should obviously work to resolve them.

This includes libertarians who are personally most interested in individual freedom, freedom that is imperilled by the state-heavy “solutions” that often underlie the problem (to the benefit of entrenched insiders) in the first place.

Far from leaving the field of battle to others, libertarian ought to be proactively trying to mediate, lest what they value most highly be trampled.

5/20/2009 10:51:00 AM  

 

 James Rothfeld said…
Seems we ran out of disagreements 🙂
5/20/2009 09:47:00 PM  

[Update] Mind Games/Luboš Motl: how an absence of functioning markets means that I’m right, but you’re a delusional, neurotic "zealot"

July 7th, 2008 No comments

[Update below]

My last piece (on Bret Stephen‘s straight-faced but ridiculous dismissal in the WSJ of all concerns about climate change as a “sick-souled religion” and a “nonfalsifiable hypothesis, logically indistinguishable from claims for the existence of God”) brought the following piece of mail, from Luboš Motl, a theoretical physicist who blogs frequently from a contrarian view on climate change.

With Luboš’ kind permission, I offer his email and my response as a further illustration of the common dynamics of misperception and tribal side-taking (as I have noted recently in the context of remarks by Nick Kristof) that feed into conflicts over unowned or unprotected resources (and abound here, where it is difficult to “see” the climate and what influences, if any, we have on it over the course of decades and centuries).

My interlocutor writes:

Dear Tom,

did you write the mises.org text? It’s just terrible. I find it extremely zealous, insulting, and avoiding the essence of all the discussions here – scientific, sociological, and others. Why the hell do you think that “scientists” have concerns? Scientists are not there to have concerns. Scientists are there to understand and predict phenomena. It is green activists and politicians who have or may have “concerns”. I didn’t find anything insulting in the WSJ piece. It was a nice text. The very fact about the frequent and completely irrational usage of words like “concern” is a *proof* of a mass neurosis, as far as I am “concerned”.

Best, Lubos

My response:

Dear Lubos:
 
Thanks for your comment.  Yes, of course I wrote it.  I’m not entirely surprised that you found my piece insulting, as I meant it as a put down – but of Stephens, not you.  In any case, if you did find it insulting, it’s curious that you don’t find Stephen’s piece also insulting: the most offensive aspects of my remarks did nothing but hold the mirror of psychobabble to it, which is entirely fair.  But of course most my remarks were analytical and showed how it is Stephens who is trying to dismiss all debate by ignoring all rational disagreement and attacking a broad-brush strawman that all who worry about anything are irrational.  If I failed to address science arguments for or against global warming it is because of Stephen’s failure to raise them.

It looks to me that it is Stephen’s argument that is zealous; is mine?  Sure, I care enough about this issue to write about it, but does that make me different from him – or you, who troubled to respond to me?
 
You say I “avoid the essence of all the discussions here – scientific, social and others”, but I’m not sure what you mean.  Is it not rather Stephens who has avoided discussing anything but the psychological, and I who have tried to point it out?
 
Your thoughts on scientists are interesting, too.  Are they supposed to be emotionless and amoral automatons, with no reason to actually care about their research or its implications?  Sorry, but you can’t take human nature out of the human, nor the scientist out of society – nor should we.  (If you have an opposite ideal, are you suggesting that you yourself out to stop blogging?)  Perhaps what we could consider is to stop the public funding of science and technology research, as it tends to reinforce government power and the political football of struggles over resources  – where do you stand on that? 
 
You say that it is “only green activists and politicians” who do have concerns, but obviously that’s wrong – you have concerns, so does Stephens and Chris Horner; we all do, and we are all entitled to our own preferences, and it is natural for us to express them when the absence of markets and property rights make words the only currency by which we can express our preferences.  This a very basic observation of libertarian economics, Lubos.  So far from “concern” being a “‘proof’ of mass neurosis”, all that it shows us is that an issue is a politicized one, whereby different interest groups are fighting over the wheel of government and public opinion, since the absence of markets makes it otherwise impossible for them to express their preferences through voluntary transactions.
 
Regards,
 
Tom

Check.

[Update:  Here is Lubos’ response; my further responses are in bold:]

Dear Tokyo Tom,

I apologize but I apparently agree with Stephens that those who want to create “global worries” are a priori irrational. It’s the same sentiment that leads Jehovah’s Wittnesses to predict a new coming of the Lord all the time.

TT:  While some aspects of the “Warmers” and the Jehovah’s Witnesses may be linked, the Warmers are descendent’s of those who raised awareness and fought for control of REAL pollution in the 60’s and 70’s.  Warmers also point to REAL phenomena, like increases in GHG levels, acidifying oceans, dramatic warming in the higher latitudes, pronounced climate zone shifts, etc.

They never learn anything from their failures and try to predict things that can’t be predicted and pretend that clearly very unlikely things are likely. The only different aspect of the AGW cult is that they also include a lot of scientific buzzwords but they don’t do proper science because they don’t abandon conjectures that have been falsified. In some sense, bad science is even worse than pure religion because the conclusions are equally crappy and moreover, it contaminates the good name of science.

TT:  Care to elaborate on your complaints?

You say I “avoid the essence of all the discussions here – scientific, social and others”, but I’m not sure what you mean.  Is it not rather Stephens who has avoided discussing anything but the psychological, and I who have tried to point it out?

I don’t see anything wrong with him discussing the psychological aspect. But he is doing this thing rationally, too. This AGW thing is such a big mass movement that psychology – or psychiatry – is indeed among the most relevant disciplines to study the phenomenon. You didn’t even discuss psychology, at least not rationally. Besides psychology, there are hundreds of science questions involved. But the AGW proponents tend to avoid all these “detailed” science topics, referring to “consensus” and all this irrelevant psychological crap instead – which is why psychology is so important to study them scientifically.
TT:  Stephens’ discussion of the psychology of belief in and of itself is fine.  It’s his pretense that EVERYONE who takes a different view than himself is either masking an ideology or is irrational (or both) that offends, and is obviously unsupportable.  If Stephens is “rationally” engaged in logical fallacies, then he’s being deliberately deceptive; otherwise, he’s engaged in self-deception of the type he accuses others of.
 

Your thoughts on scientists are interesting, too.  Are they supposed to be emotionless and amoral automatons, with no reason to actually care about their research or its implications? 

Of course that an “ideal scientist” is like that because science is ideally disconnected from emotions. And of course that the “real scientist” is never like that. But a person whose main contributions are “emotions” and “concerns” shouldn’t be labeled as a scientist. He might also be a scientist in his spare time but this particular manifestation of his life is not about science, it is about emotions, politics, and activism, so it is plain dishonest to use the term “scientist”.
TT:  I would agree that a scientist may have little or nothing to add to a discussion of policy – and that others should not assume such expertise – but it is not only impractical to not refer to the credentials of a scientist who chooses to get involved in political analysis, but perhaps dishonest not to.  Moreover, scientists may of course have much to offer in policy discussions.

Sorry, but you can’t take human nature out of the human, nor the scientist out of society – nor should we. 

Sorry but I find it absolutely essential to remove the emotional aspect and politics from science. If it is not taken away, it is not science. We clearly disagree about absolutely fundamental things here. Your formulation indicates that you can’t even imagine how it could be taken away – in other words, you can’t even imagine how a scientist could possibly exist. That’s too bad.
TT:  Of course I can “imagine” removing emotion and politics from science; I just believe that it is naive to assume that it is ever going to happen.  Further, there are probably good arguments to be made that science is driven by emotion and subconscious desires, so that “success” in removing them from “science” would actually yield less scientific progress, not more.  The real issue relates to the (corruptible) role science plays in group decision-making.

(If you have an opposite ideal, are you suggesting that you yourself out to stop blogging?) 

I am blogging and in that role, I am a blogger. In fact, I am a kind of full time blogger, in some sense. 😉 And of course, a part of my motivation is to counteract the “activists” who are using science incorrectly. So I am, in some sense, in a similar position with the opposite sign. Unlike them, I don’t hide it. And unlike them, I think it is extremely wrong if the scientific discourse is driven largely by activists of either sign.
TT:  While your stated aims may be admirable, Lubos, they are inescapably a surface manifestation of your own policy goals and preferences.

Perhaps what we could consider is to stop the public funding of science and technology research, as it tends to reinforce government power and the political football of struggles over resources  – where do you stand on that? 

Of course that I see this as a good point. Climate science is a textbook example where the “concern” written above has already materialized – the government funding has completely destroyed the scientific integrity in a whole scientific discipline. When one builds accelerators, there’s a lot of money to be paid. When one wants to research fundamental physics – string theory – one needs to hire very smart people. The same with DNA research etc. etc. But that doesn’t mean that every penny going to something called “science” is constructive. The money in climate science has been deliberately used to hire a lot of average workers and downright morons whose goal was to confirm predetermined ideological cliches. The community expanded 10-fold and not surprisingly, 90% of them are morons who are hired to promote “global warming” directly or indirectly. That’s very bad and the people who are doing these things even today should be executed as soon as possible, as far as I can say. Again, this opinion of mine is politics – it is politics trying to protect science from dirt and collapse.
TT:  Obviously we have common concerns here, although my view is that the unfortunate role of government in climate science has not so polluted the results as to wholly discredit them.  There are lots of incentives to confirm results and to correct bad work, and many organizations with quite different views and interests involved in the cross-checking.
 

You say that it is “only green activists and politicians” who do have concerns, but obviously that’s wrong – you have concerns, so does Stephens and Chris Horner; we all do, and we are all entitled to our own preferences, and it is natural for us to express them when the absence of markets and property rights make words the only currency by which we can express our preferences. 

But it is not correct to use the word “science” to advocate concerns that cannot be substantiated by the scientific method, regardless what the proponents of these concerns are doing in their spare time.
TT:  We are currently conducting an uncontrolled experiment on Planet Earth, Lubos.  Isn’t the real question not whether “science” is involved in measuring changes, parsing through paleodata, making hypotheses and reviewing them in the face of new information, but simply how long we should let the experiment continue and accelerate uncontrolled, before we make private and collective decisions to respond to the changes, including modifying the experiment?  Because the experiment involves common resources, inescapably decisions about maintaining and modifying the experiment are unavoidable “political”, about which all have rights to express concerns, even concerns that seem to concern YOU.

This a very basic observation of libertarian economics, Lubos.  So far from “concern” being a “‘proof’ of mass neurosis”, all that it shows us is that an issue is a politicized one, whereby different interest groups are fighting over the wheel of government and public opinion, since the absence of markets makes it otherwise impossible for them to express their preferences.

That’s completely right. That’s why I fight against this pseudoscientific movement. It is about promoting some people’s interests through government regulation which is already too bad and it is even worse when science enters as a hostage.

TT:  It’s helpful to fight against pseudoscience, but that’s a fight that one should wage on all sides, not merely against those whose policy view you disagree with.  The case against pseudoscience (and wishful thinking) from the “skeptics” is quite strong.  Besides the issue of partiality, it is clearly wrong and not forthright (and perhaps deliberately deceptive) to ascribe irrationality to all those who have different preferences over how to manage the global atmospheric commons.
Best
LM