Archive for May, 2009

Man & religion: Is there is an objective moral reality? In which I hazard a few thoughts

May 26th, 2009 6 comments

I make no pretense of having any formal training in philosophy, but it strikes me that the answer is no.

I post here a few thoughts I penned in an exchange with Gene Callahan at his blog, Crash Landing on May 18 and 19, in connection with conversation that Gene was conducting with budding philosopher Danny Shahar (who also comments on climate change skepticism):


At 9:25 AM Blogger Gene Callahan said…
Well, Vichy, you have correctly identified a problem. Unfortunately, just as when someone is yelling “A cliff!” to another person who is rushing towards it while declaring “I care nothing about cliffs!” the “problem” exists for only one of us.
At 4:02 AM Blogger TokyoTom said…
“the “problem” exists for only one of us.”
Yes, Gene – for the one without a glider or parasail.
Likewise, any “objective” moral order would be true only relative to the physical and mental endowments of the species and, as each individual has objectively different cognitive and other physical endowments, and of such species` individual members.
If we limit the discussion to humans (Homo sapiens sapiens), at most, it seems to me that we can speak of is being genetically endowed (via a process influenced by natural selection over eons) with a range of moral beliefs, which find differing expressions given our gender, environment etc.
Yandle touched on some of this here:
At 4:06 AM Blogger TokyoTom said…
For clarity, we aren`t endowed with beliefs per se, but with a capacity for them.
But what we end up with is heavily influenced by our upbringing/social millieu, gender/brain chemistry etc.
At 7:50 AM Blogger Gene Callahan said…
“Likewise, any “objective” moral order would be true only relative to the physical and mental endowments of the species and, as each individual has objectively different cognitive and other physical endowments…”
Of course slime molds do not think, “Hmm, it’s wrong to steal.” But how is the relevant? Does the existence of blind people make you doubt that light is objectively real, or think, “The laws of light propagation are only true for sighted people”?
The same point shows the irrelevance of cultural millieu, upbringing, etc. to the question of objective moral truth. Of course these things influence what our moral beliefs are! Did you think I was unaware of the existence of other cultures?
But, again, what is this supposed to demonstrate? Does the fact that before 1900 no human being believed in quantum mechanics, and today few people understand it yet, mean that there is no objective truth about the topic?
At 11:54 AM Blogger TokyoTom said…
Gene, while I consider it objectively true that human individuals display a moral sense, I see it as a biological trait (based on genotypes but with a wide and heavily environment-influenced phenotype) that exhibits a range across the species.
Outlines of the moral sense can be generalized, but each individual possesses his own, which may be quite different.
Needless to say, or biologicial relations, if as conscious and self-reflective as we, would have a different moral sense.
At 12:01 PM Blogger Gene Callahan said…
Right, Tom. And that relates to the question of whether or not there is objective moral truth just how?
(We all have unique sense organs. Does that mean that there can’t be any objective truth to the statement ‘Light travels at 186,000 miles per second?)
At 10:23 PM Blogger TokyoTom said…

Gene, while my own sense organs are limited, flawed and play tricks on me, it does seem to me that there is an objective world outside of me. At least, my experiences lead me to believe so. 

Scientific method and technology allow us to discover ever more about such objective reality (even while giving us conundrums about the particle/wave duality of electromagnetic radiation, and bizarro world of quantum mechanics).

The physical world is real, not only to us, but to other life forms that have entirely different ways of sensing, experiencing and interacting with it.

“Light”, including parts of the EM spectrum that aren`t directly visible to man, and sound (vibrations that can be sensed) exist in the real world, Gene.

But where is the “objective moral order”, that exists independent of humanity (or other life forms that act in ways both familiar and unfamiliar to us), communities and individuals?

Even if there were an objective moral order apart from our own feeble abilities to perceive it, it seems to me far more useful to regard our thinking about it in the context of our human nature, as beings subject to group selection pressures.

At 5:11 PM Blogger Gene Callahan said…

Tom, other than just saying, “Well, physical things just are objectively real and moral truths just aren’t, ha-ha!” I don’t see you arguing for your position in any way at all. Sure, if you assert from the start that physical things are objectively real (or so it “seems to you”, huh, Tom — kind of subjective there!) and moral truths aren’t, then of course that is the conclusion you will reach at the end.

So what?

At 10:04 PM Blogger TokyoTom said…

Gene, thanks for coming back on this, but have you addressed my comments fairly, or just taken a long time to punt?

I think I`ve been probing rather than reaching conclusions, much less ones ending “ha-ha!”

In part, I`m trying to figure out what YOU mean by an “objective moral truth”, which appears to be something real and can be tested for despite the inability of a particular observer to perceive directly – like beings that can`t directly perceive light (or like us who can`t personally physically observe much of what technology allows us to).

Is that what you mean?

And are you asserting that, for every conscious and self-aware being – regardless of species – that there is a uniform, objective moral order in the universe? [Leaving aside the question of how this objective moral order applies to type of organisms that are not conscious, or are conscious but not self-aware.]

Or are you only talking about an objective moral order that exists only for humans, that perhaps someday can be identified and located in universally shared mental processes, based on brain activity and arising from shared genes?

Or an objective moral order that exists for some humans, but not all – depending on physical development of the brain as we mature (with the development of some being impaired via genetic or other defect)?

Sure, if you assert from the start that physical things are objectively real (or so it “seems to you”, huh, Tom — kind of subjective there!)Yeh, kinda tricky how despite the fact that, in our search for understanding we have to rely on a brain that plays all manner of tricks on us, I agree with your basic premise that some parts of the world we inhabit is objective.


Duelling climate policy parables: in the face of RealClimate`s "tragedy of the commons", MasterResource`s Emperor has no clothes

May 26th, 2009 No comments

I`ve done a bit of blogging over the past few weeks regarding the “The tragedy of climate commons” post by climate scientist Gavin Schmidt and ensuing discussion at the RealClimate website.  Schmidt wrote the post in response to the implied suggestion by Chip Knappenberger at the MasterResource blog that, since unilateral policy action by the US would by itself be unlikely to significantly affect future climate (given the the rapid growth in CO2 emissions by China, India etc.), the wisest course for the US would be to do nothing.  

Knappenberger has now responded to Schmidt, this time with a parable of his own.  Knappenberger has good points, but he and Schmidt are talking past each other.  Since Rob Bradley, CEO of the Institute for Energy Research (BTW, no longer funded by pro-carbon-tax Exxon, all of you Exxon-haters out there) and founder/manager of MasterResource, won`t let me post at his self-proclaimed “free-market energy blog”, I put up a few thoughts at RealClimate, which I copy below (one typo fixed and link added below):


Allow me to stir the pot a bit, as it doesn`t appear that anyone has noticed Chip Knappenberger`s response to Gavin, in tbe form of his own climate parable, using the “Emperor`s new clothes” theme.

Waxman-Markey appears as the new clothes, with Chip apparently taking on the role of the bright and persistent voice of the insufficiently jaded little boy who can`t help but to see the truth, and bravely refuses to be cowed.

Some of the criticisms of W-M seem fair to me – after all, they manifest precisely the reasons that Jim Hansen has taken a strong stance in favor of more transparent and rebated carbon taxes over the pork and bureaucracy that comes with cap and trade.

1. But Chip is still failing to address the main premise of Gavin`s tragedy of the commons fisheries analogy: there is a commons problem that requires coordinated action (a multi-player, repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma), and the only way out requires initial measures at trust-building, with more effective measures to follow when the parties can agree on burden sharing and enforcement.

Thus Chip is simply perpetuating the problem that I have noted here:

“Unfortunately, what passes for discussion on climate change (and other environmental issues) is too often people talking past each other (frequently with all of the hallmarks of a tribal battle): some correctly see a looming commons problem that requires government regulation but ignore the risks of pork, partiality and wasted resources in the policies themselves, while others, not anxious for government to expand its regulatory purview, downplay or dismiss the resource problem and focus on the downsides of government action or the motives of those calling for government action (while ignoring those invested heavily in a status quo that is replete with moral hazard).

Capitalism, the destructive exploitation of the Amazon and the tragedy of the government-owned commons

2. Further, while Chip has good reason to criticize all of the pork that is loaded into the W-M hairshirt – there certain ARE plenty of corporate interests seeking to use climate policy to get sweet deals from government – it`s more than a bit coy of him to paint the critics of W-M as relative innocent truth-tellers, while somehow failing to note all of the sweet deals built into the status quo that fossil fuel firms, utilities, automakers and their investors have long enjoyed. (Not to mention that these interests have hardly been turned away from the W-M and other pork troughs.)

Chip`s convenient oversight might have something to do with the fact that the public advocacy firm he shares with Pat Michaels is funded by coal interests, as Marion Delgado points out in #677, and as I have previously discussed directly with Chip: Pat Michaels – scientist AND paid advocate. Correspondence with Chip Knappenberger.

It doesn`t end there, unfortunately, as Chip is posting on the “MasterResource” blog run by Rob Bradley, who is CEO of the coal-industry-funded Institute for Energy Research. For the sin of pointing out the political-favor-protection game that IER and MasterResource are engaged in, Rob Bradley has exercised his Constitutional right to ban me from the MasterResource blog (mid-conversation with, but without notice to, Chip, as it turns out).

So sure, let`s fight the pork as best we can, Chip, but let`s not ignore the fact since there are NO property rights in the atmosphere or climate, markets are not protecting it, but instead steadily producing an ever-growing tragedy of the commons. Care to acknowledge that, or to offer any suggestions?


Capitalism, the destructive exploitation of the Amazon and the tragedy of the government-owned commons

May 25th, 2009 5 comments

Searching for solutions to problems is admirable, but the effectiveness of such efforts will be limited if they are based on a faulty or incomplete understanding of the problem.  

Many of those who have some familiarity with the “tragedy of the commons” paradgim outlined by Garrett Hardin can identify a free-for-all when they see one, but fail to understand the perverse role that governments often play in perpetuating such situations.  While there may be a productive role that government can play in ameliorating destructive exploitation, it is undeniable government involvement can be counterproductive as well.

Further, while modern markets and technological advances certainly increase the pressures on “common”, open-access resources, trying to change “capitalism” or “global trade” systems may be much less productive than addressing the institutional failure at the location of the particular resource.

These thoughts come to mind in connection with ongoing discussions regarding the application of the “tragedy of the commons” paradigm to fisheries and to climate change.  Unfortunately, what passes for discussion on climate change (and other environmental issues) is too often people talking past each other (frequently with all of the hallmarks of a tribal battle):  some correctly see a looming commons problem that they believe requires government regulation but ignore the risks of pork, partiality and wasted resources in the policies themselves, while others, not anxious for government to expand its regulatory purview, downplay or dismiss the resource problem and focus on the downsides of government action or the motives of those calling for government action (while ignoring those invested heavily in a status quo that is replete with moral hazard).

To further illustrate, I take the liberty of copying below portions of a discussion with Myanna  Lahsen at Roger Pielke, Jr.`s Prometheus blog in 2007 (emphasis added):

Concluding paragraph of the linked Lahsen & Nobre paper:

“While solutions to sustainability problems in the Amazon in some cases might be found through technology, the problems themselves are responses to national- and global global level economic structures that perpetuate poverty, ignorance, and unsustainable, short-sighted extractive approaches to natural resource management. To truly understand and address environmental degradation in the Amazon, one must thus strengthen understanding and recognition of the connections between sustainability problems and global and regional structures of power and inequality, including the impact of capitalism and liberal globalization on environmental practices, standards and policies (Bunker, 1985; Campos Mello, 2001). Unsustainable uses of the Amazon, and the associated land-related violence, human rights violations and exploitation in the region, are influenced directly or indirectly by global markets in (and, hence, global consumption of) export commodities such as soybeans, meat and timber. Recognition of such connections render evident that the causes of local-level problems in the Amazon and their solutions are, in practice, far from purely local, suggesting that the most deep-cutting solutions depend on systemic changes at the global level.

Ms. Lahsen, allow me to make a few comments. Roger has just steered me here from a different thread.


1. I think you are absolutely correct that the incentive structures of funding institutions and the individual incentive structures of the scientists involve are key reasons why so little applied science connected to developing sustainable practices in the Amazon has come out of the LBA. But they are not the only reasons.

Few scientists take naturally to politics. Even when important public policy issues are at stake, the efficacy of those scientists who do choose to step into the policy arena may be severely limited, as is clear from the climate change debate in the US. Decision-makers act or delay action based upon perceptions of self-interest and the interests of constituencies they identify with.

Scott Saleska alludes to this when he refers to the travails of Hansen and the changing official agenda of NASA.

This problem is even more acute in the Amazon, where land tenure and land use practices are highly politicized, and where speaking out in ways that affect the strongest interest groups is outright dangerous, not merely to one’s career, but to one’s health.

2. There are plenty of scientists who engage in applied science – but mainly with respect to fields of application where there is a strong demand from the private market. I suspect that the only area where applied science is in significant demand in the Amazon is for agricultural science and technology in the areas that have been converted to soybean farms. Interest in silvaculture and ecosystem protection may grow if groups interested in preserving forests or growing trees can find a greater voice, both politically and legally.

3. In your conclusion, you rightly refer to international factors that fuel “sustainability problems” (viz., deforestation) in the Amazon, but these are very thinly sketched out and deserve greater attention. But even more importantly, I think you misunderstand the relative importance of the various institutional failures that are driving the destruction of the Amazon, and are wrong to conclude that “the most deep-cutting solutions depend on systemic changes at the global level”.

While global markets create incentives for some to cut and export logs and others to burn forests and raise cattle or crops for export, the rest of the developed world faces the same the markets and still does not destroy its forests – in fact, forests are growing in the north. Trying to tackle Amazonian deforestation by destroying export markets, “capitalism” or “liberal globalization” is simply Quixotic (if not counterproductive), and the implication that embargoes should be placed against Brazilian products derived from forest destruction are objectionable not only on grounds of practicality but morally – shall we beggar Brazilians to protect the forests that we find more valuable than they do?

The principal problem is simply that by and large nobody owns the forests in the Amazon (or in other tropical ares), or where there are indigenous peoples and others who do, these rights cannot be effectively enforced. Most of the Amazon is government owned, but the government does not care (and is probably incapable even if it desired) to protect its forests against politically well-connected cattle and farming interests. As is frequently the case when the government “owns” resources, those resources are very vulnerable to depredations by national elites.

The result in the Amazon is that forests are essentially a free resource that can be easily taken from the public treasury and converted into private wealth – and local interests that wish to protect forests (from rubber tappers like Chico Mendez to indigenous peoples and their sympathizers, like priests and nuns) are dealt with brutally and with essential impunity , as you have recognized. Like the open and secretive ways that fossil fuel interests have made efforts to protect their free use of the open-access atmosphere, we can expect that entrenched interests in Brazil will try to forestall measures that eliminate their free plundering of public forests and forests titled to the powerless.

While there is indeed a problem that there is no mechanism presently in place by which wealthier nations could pay Brazil to protect the Amazon, such steps are being discussed, but will still require effective enforcement on the ground to be at all meaningful.

Accordingly, rather than looking to “systemic changes at the global level”, one should recognize that the causes of local-level problems in the Amazon and their solutions are, contrary to your conclusion, in all tractable senses purely local to Brazil [and other Amazonian countries].

The destructive exploitation of the Amazon is a paradigmatic case for the problems of sustainable development everywhere. To have wealthy societies, we must have instititions that eliminate destructive exploitation by establishing clear and enforceable rights (whether private, collective or public) to property.

This means that one effective investment in research will be towards low-cost technology that helps resource owners on the ground to identify their property, to provide warnings of trespassers, and evidence that can be used to bring private or public proceedings to protect property.



Posted by: TokyoTom at January 17, 2007 10:36 PM

Dear Tom,
You frame the problem as a strictly local one, and we beg to differ.
Global consumption patterns drive natural resource use. Growing demand for soybeans in China, and to feed cattle in Europe in the wake of the mad cow disease scares, is centrally driving soybean production in the Amazon, for instance, which has greatly accelerated deforestation in the Amazon in recent years. The oscillations in deforestation rates correlate closely with the prices of soybeans on global markets.

Yet another global, systemic cause of deforestation as well as human rights abuses in the Amazon is neoliberalism, which has weakened national governments, especially in Latin America, as we mention this in the paper and back up by reference to scholarly studies.

Finally, we take issue with your suggestion that “The principal problem is simply that by and large nobody owns the forests in the Amazon.” As indicated in critiques of Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” theory, private property is not a solution. Indeed, much of the destruction of the Amazon is on private lands.


Myanna Lahsen and Carlos A. Nobre

Posted by: Myanna Lahsen at March 6, 2007 09:11 AM

Hi Mayanna,

You write, “Finally, we take issue with your suggestion that “The principal problem is simply that by and large nobody owns the forests in the Amazon.” As indicated in critiques of Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” theory, private property is not a solution. Indeed, much of the destruction of the Amazon is on private lands.”

Here’s a website that says:

“In Brazil, 65 percent of forested area is in public hands, but the proportion reaches 75 percent in the Amazon region. According to Azevedo, the new law, accused of “privatising” the forests, seeks precisely the opposite: to combat de facto privatisation through illegal means. Currently, more than 80 percent of illegal lumber production comes from public lands.”

So that website is saying 75 percent of the forested area in the Amazon region is in public hands, and that 80 percent of illegal lumber production comes from public lands.

Do you disagree with either of those numbers? If so, what do you think the numbers should be?


Posted by: Mark Bahner at March 6, 2007 07:24 PM

Oops. This is the website that had those figures on land ownership and illegal logging:

Posted by: Mark Bahner at March 6, 2007 07:29 PM

Myanna and Carlos:

Many thanks for the response.

However, you misinterpret me. First, I have NOT said that the problem is a strictly local one, and I completely agree that global consumption patterns are closely tied to natural resource use. Any rational observer of the international economy will see not only that market economies are great at creating wealth where private transaction occur relating to OWNED resources, but are also great at the destructive exploitation of resources that are not effectively owned or protected.

The Amazon is a classic case of the latter. There are essentially two possible approaches to the problem – one can try to put a stick in the gears of the global markets for foreign resources (by destroying export markets, global “capitalism”, “liberal globalization” or “neoliberalism”), or one can focus on trying to ensure that Amazonian forests are more effectively owned and protected.

Which of those seems to you like a more manageable task? (And if you chose the former, don’t forget the ethical questions I posed to you on them.)

I don’t think that the problem is an easy one at all, and I commend you both for trying to tackle it. However, I think that solutions, if any are to be found before the Amazon is gutted, will most likely be found in trying to ways to help people on the ground identify and protect resources that are important to them – and in trying to co-opt the wealthy elites who are essentially plundering Brasilians’ “national wealth” by using brazen physical power.

How can this be done? Imaginative people can think of many ways. A few come immediately to mind. One is to push the Brasilian government (and foreign aid agencies) to stop subsidizing the development of physical infrastructure like roads and power, so that those who would profit from destruction have to pay all of their own costs. It would help to identify clearly those who are converting forests, but this is not strictly necessary if taxpayers can be made aware that they are being fleeced twice – in the theft of government property and in the subsidization of it. Perhaps the government could even be persuaded to get out of the land ownership business altogether, and have all of the land auctioned off to the highest bidders. Police forces, courts, land registration offices and technologies that help identify land and trespass would all be beneficial. Markets can also be harnessed to tap “green” demand for sustainably owned and maintained resources, thus further empowering natives.

Please also understand that I am not advocating solely “private” ownership. Community ownership of resources may be quite effective. But government ownership of resources is simply a recipe for those resources to be ripped off – literally or figuratively – by those with the best politcal connections/the powerful, and at the expense of the little guy/disenfranchised.

Some focus on the demand side can also work – if PR light can be shed on the home economy firms colsest to the exploitation. But this is very difficult to do, as one purchaser can easily be replaced by another, and there’s always the Chinese, who really don’t care what we might have to say.

I’m happy to expand/expound further if you’re inclined.

Posted by: TokyoTom  at March 16, 2007 05:40 AM


Why does everyone calling for or condemning government "green power" mandates ignore the frustrations resulting from public utility monopolies and regulatory Balkanization?

May 23rd, 2009 8 comments

The incessant calls for – and criticism of – government-funded/mandated “green/clean power” pork both ignore root causes and potential common ground.  As a result, both sides of the debate are largely talking past each other, one talking about why there is a pressing need for government policy to address climate change concerns (concerns underscored by the May 19 MIT study), while the other is concerned chiefly about the likelihood of heavy-handed mis-regulation and wasted resources.  This leaves the middle ground unexplored.

While there are plenty of root causes for the calls for legislative and regulatory mandates in favor of clean / green / renewable power, such as:

  • concerns about climate change,
  • the political deal in favor of dirty coal under the Clean Air Act, 
  • the enduring role of the federal and state governments in owning vast coal fields (the royalties from which it does not distribute to citizens but go into the General Pork Pool), 
  • the unwillingness of state courts, in the face of the political power of the mining industry, to protect persons and private from pollution and environmental disruption created by mining,
  • the deep involvement of the government in developing, encouraging and regulating nuclear power,

the most obvious and proximate root cause is something that attracts far too little attention – the frustration of consumer demand for green energy, and the inefficient and inaccurate pricing and supply of electricity.  It`s prettty clear that the grant of public utility monopolies and the regulation of the pricing and investments by utilities greatly restrict the freedom of power markets, from the ability of consumers to choose their provider, to the freedom of utilities to determine what infrastructure to invest in, to even simple information as to the cost of power as it varies by time of day and season, and the amount power consumers use by time of day or appliance.

With freer markets, we would see much more competition, better pricing, much more cost-saving (and conservation), and more money flowing into green power. So why is so little attention being paid to all of the gains that could be achieved from less – and more rational – power regulation?

Allow me to provide a few quotes and links to those interested:

1.  Lew Rockwell, President of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, “The Real Cause of Blackouts” (July 27, 2006):

Now, if markets were in charge, a heat wave would not be looked at as a problem but as an opportunity. Entrepreneurs would be swarming to meet demand, just as they do in every other sector that is controlled by markets. The power companies would be praying for heat waves!

Just who is in charge of getting electricity to residents? A public utility, which, in the absurd American lexicon, means “state-run” and “state-managed,” perhaps with a veneer of private trappings. If you look at the electrical grid on a map, it is organized by region. If you look at the jurisdiction of management, it is organized by political boundaries.

In other ways, the provision of power is organized precisely as a central planner of the old school might plan something: not according to economics but according to some textbook idea of how to be “organized.” It is “organized” the same way the Soviets organized grain production or the New Deal organized bridge building.

All of centralization and cartelization began nearly a century ago, as Robert Bradley points out in Energy: The Master Resource, when industry leaders obtained what was known as a regulatory covenant. They received franchise protection from market competition in exchange for which they agreed to price controls based on a cost-plus formula — a formula that survives to this day.

Then the economists got involved ex post and declared that electrical power is a “public good,” under the belief that private enterprise is not up to the job of providing the essentials of life.

What industry leaders received from this pact with the devil was a certain level of cartel-like protection, the same type that the English crown granted tea or the US government grants first-class postal mail. It is a government privilege that subjects them to regulation and immunizes companies from business failure. It’s great for a handful of producers, but not so great for everyone else.

There are many costs. Customers are not in charge. They are courted only for political reasons but they are not the first concern of the production process. Entrepreneurial development is hindered. Our current system of electrical provision is stuck in time. Meanwhile, sectors that provide DSL and other forms of internet and telecommunication services are expanded and advancing day by day — not with perfect results but at least with the desire to serve consumers. …

How New York and California consumers would adore a setting in which power companies were begging for their business …. Competition would lead to price reductions, innovation, and an ever greater variety of services — the same as we find in the computer industry.

What we are learning in our times is that no essential sector of life can be entrusted to the state. Energy is far too important to the very core of life to be administered by a bureaucracy that lacks the economic means to provide for the public. How it should be organized we can’t say in advance: it should be left to the markets. …

What we need today is full, radical, complete, uncompromised deregulation and privatization. We need competition. That doesn’t mean that we need two or more companies serving every market (though that was common up through the 1960s). What we need is the absence of legal barriers to enter the market.

2.  Lynne Kiesling, Senior Lecturer in Economics at Northwestern University and former director of economic policy at the Reason Foundation; participant in debate at Reason online “Carbon: Tax, Trade or Deregulate?

[M]ost people fail to realize that the abysmal job we do of pricing electricity contributes substantially to our energy use. The only resources that are priced as badly as electricity in our economy are highways and water.

Retail competition and choice for consumers would increase the offering of time-differentiated dynamic pricing, which shifts resource and electricity use across time. Research shows that this promotes conservation and more efficient use of electricity, increases offerings of green power to consumers who want to choose a green power option, and increases the incentives to develop and adopt technologies, such as price-responsive appliances, that enable private individuals to control their own energy use.

So the message from me is this: It’s a complicated, imperfect world, and the policies we can adopt that induce innovation and harness diffuse private knowledge will be the most effective for this long-term problem.

3.  Paul Joskow, current President of the Alfred P Sloan Foundation and former head of theMIT Department of Economics (now on leave) and former director of the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research; speech at the National Press Club in September 2008:

For almost 50 years this sector was stuck in an organizational and regulatory framework that may have been well matched to the electricity generation and transmission technology available in 1935, but was surely poorly matched to changes in technology, new technological opportunities, contemporary investment needs, or current economic and environmental challenges. Then in the early 1980s, electricity sector reformers began to stir, responding to concerns about the system of regulated vertically integrated monopolies inherited from the 1930s. The “good old days” of regulation represent a view to the past with rose colored glasses. The system of regulated vertically integrated monopoly was plagued by cost overruns associated with nuclear power plants, poor operating performance for both nuclear and large fossil-fueled plants, poor fuel procurement decisions, wide price differences between neighboring areas, excess generating capacity, inefficient dispatch and economy energy trading between generating companies, regulatory incentives to keep old inefficient plants operating rather than retiring them, too many small utilities to take advantage of economies of scale, institutional and technological barriers to using the transmission network to access lower cost power, productivity lags, and inefficient retail prices. The system …was unnecessarily costly and inefficient.

Reformers looked to the favorable experience with restructuring, competition, and regulatory reform in other sectors and with electricity in other countries to help to solve the problems associated with the fragmented electric power sector made up of over 100 vertically integrated geographic monopolies. Municipal distribution companies and large industrial customers were especially aggressive at promoting reforms focused on open transmission access, the creation of transparent organized regional competitive wholesale markets, and (in the case of large industrial customers) retail competition.

A large number of states initially embraced this restructuring, competition, and regulatory reform vision and began to implement it. In 2000 it looked like restructuring and competitive market reforms were going to sweep the U.S. electric power industry.

Then came the California electricity crisis, the collapse of Enron and a number of merchant generating companies, increased volatility to natural gas markets and associated volatility in wholesale electricity market prices, and a long march upward in fossil fuel prices ultimately resulting in rising retail electricity prices in both regulated and restructured states. Most of the states that were leaders in restructuring during the late 1990s, when natural gas prices were low and there was excess capacity, initiated reforms during a period when regulated prices for generation service were expected to be much higher than perceived comparable competitive wholesale market prices. The expectation was that over time retail prices would fall. This forecast was based on the assumption that low prices for natural gas in particular would continue and that a new system built on efficient CCGT technology would evolve. At that time, a major “problem” that many of these states had to cope with were the “stranded generation costs,” primarily associated with what were perceived to be costly nuclear power plants, that were expected to result from the introduction of real wholesale and retail competition. This was expected to be a “transition problem” because it was expected that competition would result in market prices that would fall to levels below the embedded costs of nuclear plants and older fossil plants that would have otherwise been used to calculated (higher) regulated retail prices.

However, as natural gas and coal prices continued to rise far above anyone’s expectations, many of these states soon found that competitive market prices were rising dramatically along with natural gas prices (which affect competitive wholesale electricity prices in most regions of the country) — arguably rising to levels above what regulated prices would have been today under the status quo ante (though this requires a difficult counterfactual analysis). This, of course does not mean that these electricity sector reforms were a failure. In states that adopted the restructuring, wholesale and retail competition model, retail prices now reflect marginal supply costs, as they should to give consumers the right price signals to use electricity wisely. Rather it means that regulated prices are or would have been too low to give consumers appropriate incentives to make wise consumption decisions.

In evaluating restructuring, competition and regulatory reform one must understand all of its efficiency and distributional properties, not just at short run price effects. From an efficiency perspective, the restructuring reforms implemented at the federal level and in some states have led to numerous cost reducing successes in the face of rising fossil fuel prices.  These include dramatic improvements in the performance of divested nuclear plants, significant improvements in the performance of fossil plants that now face market incentives, roughly 200,000 GW of new (mostly merchant) gas-fired generation has been added to the system between 1999 and 2004, while the risk of cost overruns, fuel price fluctuations, demand variations, and availability problems experienced by some of these plants were shifted to their owners through the market rather than borne by consumers through cost-of-service regulation. There is good empirical evidence that the expansion of the boundaries of RTOs (e.g. PJM) have led to significant changes in power flows and more efficient dispatch of power plants, while inefficiencies are observed at the boundaries of RTOs that have not agreed to be consolidated (e.g. NY/NE). Gradual improvements in wholesale market designs have increased the efficiency of these markets and have restored investment incentives. Moreover, retail prices now respond quickly to changes in wholesale market prices, providing consumers with the right price signals rather than the wrong price signals resulting from retail price regulation. And these price signals are properly differentiated by time and location to reflect marginal supply costs, rather than the depreciated original cost of generating plants built 50 years ago. Demand management programs linked to short-term supply and demand conditions are expanding quickly as well in the reform regions.

Of course, the full reform program has not been implemented in large areas of the South, the West, and portions of the Midwest. The partial electricity reform equilibrium that we appear to be in now will not serve the country well and is potentially quite unstable. We have a system that is 1/3 reformed and 2/3 stuck in the structural and regulatory paradigm of the 1935s or somewhere in between.

The problems created by an antiquated industry structure and incompatible mix of state and federal regulation have not gone away. They are lurking out there to undermine achieving the goals that I enumerated earlier. Absent a comprehensive national electricity policy framework this sector is and will perform poorly in meeting the four sets of goals that I discussed earlier.

Joskow has spelled out his specific proposals for reform, which I note here.

4.  Google, September 19, 2008 press release – “Partnering with GE on clean energy“:

Today we announced that we’re joining forces (PDF file) with GE to use technology, information and corporate resources to drive the changes necessary to empower consumers with better energy choices. We will focus on improving power generation, transmission and distribution – a combination of technologies that could be known as the “smart grid.” (It would be fair to refer to electricity technologies in common use today as a “grid of only average intelligence.”)

The existing U.S. infrastructure has not kept pace with the digital economy and the hundreds of technology opportunities that are ready for market. In fact, the way we generate and distribute electricity today is essentially the same as when Thomas Edison built the first power plant well over one hundred years ago. Americans should have the choice to drive more fuel efficient cars – or even electric cars – and manage their home energy use to reduce costs, and buy power from cleaner sources, or even generate their own power for sale to the grid.

We all receive an electricity bill once a month that encourages little except prompt payment. What if, instead, we had access to real-time information about home energy use? What if our flat screen TVs, electronic equipment, lights and appliances were programmed to automatically adjust to save money and cut energy use? What if we could push a button and switch the source of our homes’ electricity from fossil fuels to renewable energy? What if the car sitting in our garage ran on electricity – the equivalent of $1 per gallon gasoline – and was programmed to charge at night when electricity is cheapest?

This vision is what unites Google and GE. We’ll start by working together in Washington, D.C. to mount a major policy effort to enable large-scale deployment of renewable energy generation in the United States.[deregulation? mandates?] We’ll also work on development and deployment of the “smart” electricity grid that will empower consumers, utilities, and technology innovators to manage electricity more efficiently and lower their carbon footprint. Finally, we’ll collaborate on advanced energy technologies, including technologies to enable the large-scale integration of plug-in vehicles into the grid and new geothermal energy technologies known as enhanced geothermal systems (EGS).

As I have noted elsewhere

While Smart Meter / Smart Grid programs have been growing, there is still considerable market fragmentation and rights of consumers have not been clearly spelled out. According to Google, while some state regulators have ordered utilities to deploy smart meters, their focus has been on their use by utilities and grid managers, and not on consumer rights to the information they generate.  As a result, Google is engaged in policy advocacy as well; says Google:

“deploying smart meters alone isn’t enough. This needs to be coupled with a strategy to provide customers with easy access to energy information. That’s why we believe that open protocols and standards should serve as the cornerstone of smart grid projects, to spur innovation, drive competition, and bring more information to consumers as the smart grid evolves. We believe that detailed data on your personal energy use belongs to you, and should be available in an open standard, non-proprietary format. You should control who gets to see your data, and you should be free to choose from a wide range of services to help you understand it and benefit from it. For more details on our policy suggestions, check out the comments we filed yesterday with the California Public Utility Commission.”



5.  Jerry Taylor, senior fellow at Cato Institute, “The Right Way to Fix the Grid“, August 19, 2003 (New York Post):

Yes, the need for more investment in the grid seems clear. The system was designed to handle a limited number of transactions, not the large interstate exchanges of electricity now common. Moreover, transmission capacity has been stagnant relative to the growth in power generation, stressing the system even more.

Why has the grid deteriorated?

* Transmission projects are considered, approved and paid for at the state level – but the benefits cross state lines. And state-level decision-makers understandably resist using ratepayer dollars to pay for investments that will mainly help out-of-staters.

* In much of the country, incumbent utilities and state politicians actively resist improving the grid. Vertically integrated companies (which own the generating plants, transmission lines and distribution networks within a service territory) often fear that a more robust transmission system would boost potential competition.

Many politicians also oppose grid improvements because new transmission capacity would make it easier for out-of- state customers to bid-away the cheap power from in-state consumers.

* Returns on transmission are regulated, so utilities have found that they can make more money by investing in virtually anything besides transmission infrastructure.

* With many regulatory fights still unresolved, and the potential for profit thus unclear, investors have delayed risking their money on the grid.

The solution now in vogue to solve these problems is to give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission more authority over transmission investment. State regulation of transmission is, after all, an archaic relic of another era; and all who use the transmission system are vulnerable to the weakest links in it.

But forcing utilities to invest in transmission upgrades through increased federal regulation is too crude and blunt a policy hammer. It may get the job done to some degree, but running industries by federal dictate is less efficient than ensuring that proper incentives exist for the industry to operate efficiently on its own.

Instead, why not try deregulating the grid? Kill the cap on transmission profits. Jettison the state regulations that protect transmission companies from competition. Cease the endless political debate over how the transmission lines ought to be organized and managed and let grid owners discover for themselves how to most efficiently run their businesses – something market agents are more adept at learning than legislators or regulators.

Most analysts are convinced that the transmission system is a natural monopoly, and so recoil at the very thought of competition to the grid. But it already exists, in the form of natural-gas pipelines.

All new power plants, after all, are natural gas-fired. They can be located far from urban areas and their product shipped to urban areas via the electricity-transmission system, or they can be located in urban areas and their output shipped locally.

The competition between gas and electric transmission is no worse than the competition between cable and satellite television service providers.

Deregulation would also mean an end to rules that force grid owners to do business with anyone who wants access to their wires. Transmission providers should be allowed to negotiate the terms and conditions for both putting power into the lines and for taking it off.

Those who own the power lines, after all, have a greater incentive to ensure that their lines run safely than do the regulators who watch over them, particularly since they wouldn’t be able to rely on regulatory bodies to guarantee them a rate of return on their investments.

Deregulation can’t guarantee that blackouts would never again occur. But it would almost certainly lead to a faster flow of dollars into overdue investments in reliability and a far wiser use of such dollars than would the orders and mandates being contemplated in Washington.

More by Taylor on power regulation here and here.

Any Austrians who have read through this may be familiar with these words from Roy Cordato:

“by placing environmental problems within the context of personal and interpersonal plan formulation, we discover that they are not about the environment per se but about the resolution of human conflict. …

“Humans cannot harm the environment. Instead, they can change the environment in such a way that it harms others who might be planning to use it for conflicting purposes.”

“The focus of the Austrian approach to environmental economics is conflict resolution. The purpose of focusing on issues related to property rights is to describe the source of the conflict and to identify possible ways of resolving it.”

“Environmental problems are brought to light as striking at the heart of the efficiency problem as typically seen by Austrians, that is, they generate human conflict and disrupt inter- and intra-personal plan formulation and execution.” 

Do Austrians and others have their problem-solving caps on, focussed on aiding conflict resolution?  Or are they instead simply fighting over the wheel of government, in a way that ensures the continuing frustration of the concerns that many have about apparently very serious climate change risks? 

Question at Bob Murphy`s: can ending a tragedy of the commons create jobs / enhance wealth?

May 22nd, 2009 5 comments

Check out the comments to Bob Murphy`s post that rightly but shallowly criticizes the “green jobs” mantra, EDF Summarizes Bastiat in One Picture.  I refer to Rockwell and Block.

Categories: Block, Bob Murphy, commons, rockwell Tags:

New MIT study: Climate roulette odds much worse than thought; "There’s no way the world can or should take these risks."

May 22nd, 2009 2 comments

Only those making out like bandits (or those not paying attention) are particularly happy with the Waxman~Markey bill that made it out of committee the other day.  The dissatisfaction was exemplified by this post by environmental journailst Tom Yulsman

But a new MIT study, the disturbing and startling results of which were announced on May 19, underscores the reasons for concern.  I reserve my comments on the study for later.

Here are some excerpts:


Headline:  Climate change odds much worse than thought; New analysis shows warming could be double previous estimates


The most comprehensive modeling yet carried out on the likelihood of how much hotter the Earth’s climate will get in this century shows that without rapid and massive action, the problem will be about twice as severe as previously estimated six years ago – and could be even worse than that.

The study uses the MIT Integrated Global Systems Model, a detailed computer simulation of global economic activity and climate processes that has been developed and refined by the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change since the early 1990s. The new research involved 400 runs of the model with each run using slight variations in input parameters, selected so that each run has about an equal probability of being correct based on present observations and knowledge. Other research groups have estimated the probabilities of various outcomes, based on variations in the physical response of the climate system itself. But the MIT model is the only one that interactively includes detailed treatment of possible changes in human activities as well – such as the degree of economic growth, with its associated energy use, in different countries.

Study co-author Ronald Prinn, the co-director of the Joint Program and director of MIT’s Center for Global Change Science, says that, regarding global warming, it is important “to base our opinions and policies on the peer-reviewed science,” he says. And in the peer-reviewed literature, the MIT model, unlike any other, looks in great detail at the effects of economic activity coupled with the effects of atmospheric, oceanic and biological systems. “In that sense, our work is unique,” he says.

The new projections, published this month in the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climate, indicate a median probability of surface warming of 5.2 degrees Celsius [9 degrees F!] by 2100, with a 90% probability range of 3.5 to 7.4 degrees [6.3 to 13.2 degrees F!]. This can be compared to a median projected increase in the 2003 study of just 2.4 degrees [and the temps reported are averages, with many places warmer]. The difference is caused by several factors rather than any single big change. Among these are improved economic modeling and newer economic data showing less chance of low emissions than had been projected in the earlier scenarios. Other changes include accounting for the past masking of underlying warming by the cooling induced by 20th century volcanoes, and for emissions of soot, which can add to the warming effect. In addition, measurements of deep ocean temperature rises, which enable estimates of how fast heat and carbon dioxide are removed from the atmosphere and transferred to the ocean depths, imply lower transfer rates than previously estimated. …

While the outcomes in the “no policy” projections now look much worse than before, there is less change from previous work in the projected outcomes if strong policies are put in place now to drastically curb greenhouse gas emissions. Without action, “there is significantly more risk than we previously estimated,” Prinn says. “This increases the urgency for significant policy action.”

To illustrate the range of probabilities revealed by the 400 simulations, Prinn and the team produced a “roulette wheel” that reflects the latest relative odds of various levels of temperature rise. The wheel provides a very graphic representation of just how serious the potential climate impacts are.

“There’s no way the world can or should take these risks,” Prinn says. And the odds indicated by this modeling may actually understate the problem, because the model does not fully incorporate other positive feedbacks that can occur, for example, if increased temperatures caused a large-scale melting of permafrost in arctic regions and subsequent release of large quantities of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas. Including that feedback “is just going to make it worse,” Prinn says.

The lead author of the paper describing the new projections is Andrei Sokolov, research scientist in the Joint Program. Other authors, besides Sokolov and Prinn, include Peter H. Stone, Chris E. Forest, Sergey Paltsev, Adam Schlosser, Stephanie Dutkiewicz, John Reilly, Marcus Sarofim, Chien Wang and Henry D. Jacoby, all of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, as well as Mort Webster of MIT’s Engineering Systems Division and D. Kicklighter, B. Felzer and J. Melillo of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole.

Prinn stresses that the computer models are built to match the known conditions, processes and past history of the relevant human and natural systems, and the researchers are therefore dependent on the accuracy of this current knowledge. Beyond this, “we do the research, and let the results fall where they may,” he says. Since there are so many uncertainties, especially with regard to what human beings will choose to do and how large the climate response will be, “we don’t pretend we can do it accurately. Instead, we do these 400 runs and look at the spread of the odds.”

Because vehicles last for years, and buildings and powerplants last for decades, it is essential to start making major changes through adoption of significant national and international policies as soon as possible, Prinn says. “The least-cost option to lower the risk is to start now and steadily transform the global energy system over the coming decades to low or zero greenhouse gas-emitting technologies.”

This work was supported in part by grants from the Office of Science of the U.S. Dept. of Energy, and by the industrial and foundation sponsors of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.

Categories: MIT Tags:

Food, water, agrotech & climate change: More "NeoMalthusian" charlatans, this time at National Geographic

May 20th, 2009 1 comment

[note: my title has a bit of snark, designed to point out the emptiness of some anti-Enviro scare-mongering.]

A reader of my previous post  –  regarding Ron Bailey`s review of the concerns that “famine-monger” Lester Brown recently wrote about at Scientific American  – points me to a similar article, this time the feature article in the June issue of National Geographic.  The article, entitled “The Global Food Crisis; The End of Plenty”, is worth a read.

I look forward to Ron Bailey`s further comments; in the meanwhile I post a few excerpts below (with emphasis added):

“Agricultural productivity growth is only one to two percent a year,” warned Joachim von Braun, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., at the height of the crisis. “This is too low to meet population growth and increased demand.”

…. Such agflation hits the poorest billion people on the planet the hardest, since they typically spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food. Even though prices have fallen with the imploding world economy, they are still near record highs, and the underlying problems of low stockpiles, rising population, and flattening yield growth remain. Climate change—with its hotter growing seasons and increasing water scarcity—is projected to reduce future harvests in much of the world, raising the specter of what some scientists are now calling a perpetual food crisis. [page 2]

Yet with world population spiraling toward nine billion by mid-century, these experts [from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research,  a group of world-renowned agricultural research centers that helped more than double the world’s average yields of corn, rice, and wheat between the mid-1950s and the mid-1990s, an achievement so staggering it was dubbed the green revolution] now say we need a repeat performance, doubling current food production by 2030.

In other words, we need another green revolution. And we need it in half the time.


Ever since our ancestors gave up hunting and gathering for plowing and planting some 12,000 years ago, our numbers have marched in lock step with our agricultural prowess. [page 3]

The industrial revolution and plowing up of the English commons dramatically increased the amount of food in England, sweeping Malthus into the dustbin of the Victorian era. But it was the green revolution that truly made the reverend the laughingstock of modern economists. From 1950 to today the world has experienced the largest population growth in human history. After Malthus’s time, six billion people were added to the planet’s dinner tables. Yet thanks to improved methods of grain production, most of those people were fed. We’d finally shed Malthusian limits for good.

Or so we thought. [page 4]

Today, though, the miracle of the green revolution is over in Punjab: Yield growth has essentially flattened since the mid-1990s. Overirrigation has led to steep drops in the water table, now tapped by 1.3 million tube wells, while thousands of hectares of productive land have been lost to salinization and waterlogged soils. Forty years of intensive irrigation, fertilization, and pesticides have not been kind to the loamy gray fields of Punjab. Nor, in some cases, to the people themselves. [page 6]

But researchers have found pesticides in the Punjabi farmers’ blood, their water table, their vegetables, even their wives’ breast milk. So many people take the train from the Malwa region to the cancer hospital in Bikaner that it’s now called the Cancer Express. The government is concerned enough to spend millions on reverse-osmosis water-treatment plants for the worst affected villages.[page 7]

Africa is the continent where Homo sapiens was born, and with its worn-out soils, fitful rain, and rising population, it could very well offer a glimpse of our species’ future. For numerous reasons—lack of infrastructure, corruption, inaccessible markets—the green revolution never made it here. Agricultural production per capita actually declined in sub-Saharan Africa between 1970 and 2000, while the population soared, leaving an average ten-million-ton annual food deficit. It’s now home to more than a quarter of the world’s hungriest people.[page 8]

But is a reprise of the green revolution—with the traditional package of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation, supercharged by genetically engineered seeds—really the answer to the world’s food crisis? Last year a massive study called the “International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development” concluded that the immense production increases brought about by science and technology in the past 30 years have failed to improve food access for many of the world’s poor. The six-year study, initiated by the World Bank and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and involving some 400 agricultural experts from around the globe, called for a paradigm shift in agriculture toward more sustainable and ecologically friendly practices that would benefit the world’s 900 million small farmers, not just agribusiness. [page 10]

So far, genetic breakthroughs that would free green revolution crops from their heavy dependence on irrigation and fertilizer have proved elusive. Engineering plants that can fix their own nitrogen or are resistant to drought “has proven a lot harder than they thought,” says Pollan. Monsanto‘s Fraley predicts his company will have drought-tolerant corn in the U.S. market by 2012. But the increased yields promised during drought years are only 6 to 10 percent above those of standard drought-hammered crops.

And so a shift has already begun to small, underfunded projects scattered across Africa and Asia. Some call it agroecology, others sustainable agriculture, but the underlying idea is revolutionary: that we must stop focusing on simply maximizing grain yields at any cost and consider the environmental and social impacts of food production. Vandana Shiva is a nuclear physicist turned agroecologist who is India’s harshest critic of the green revolution. “I call it monocultures of the mind,” she says. “They just look at yields of wheat and rice, but overall the food basket is going down. There were 250 kinds of crops in Punjab before the green revolution.” Shiva argues that small-scale, biologically diverse farms can produce more food with fewer petroleum-based inputs. Her research has shown that using compost instead of natural-gas-derived fertilizer increases organic matter in the soil, sequestering carbon and holding moisture—two key advantages for farmers facing climate change. “If you are talking about solving the food crisis, these are the methods you need,” adds Shiva.

In northern Malawi one project is getting many of the same results as the Millennium Villages project, at a fraction of the cost. [page 11]

Canadian researchers found that after eight years, the children of more than 7,000 families involved in the project showed significant weight increases, making a pretty good case that soil health and community health are connected in Malawi.

Which is why the project’s research coordinator, Rachel Bezner Kerr, is alarmed that big-money foundations are pushing for a new green revolution in Africa. “I find it deeply disturbing,” she says. “It’s getting farmers to rely on expensive inputs produced from afar that are making money for big companies rather than on agroecological methods for using local resources and skills. I don’t think that’s the solution.”

Regardless of which model prevails—agriculture as a diverse ecological art, as a high-tech industry, or some combination of the two—the challenge of putting enough food in nine billion mouths by 2050 is daunting. Two billion people already live in the driest parts of the globe, and climate change is projected to slash yields in these regions even further. No matter how great their yield potential, plants still need water to grow. And in the not too distant future, every year could be a drought year for much of the globe.

New climate studies show that extreme heat waves, such as the one that withered crops and killed thousands in western Europe in 2003, are very likely to become common in the tropics and subtropics by century’s end. Himalayan glaciers that now provide water for hundreds of millions of people, livestock, and farmland in China and India are melting faster and could vanish completely by 2035. In the worst-case scenario, yields for some grains could decline by 10 to 15 percent in South Asia by 2030. Projections for southern Africa are even more dire. In a region already racked by water scarcity and food insecurity, the all-important corn harvest could drop by 30 percent—47 percent in the worst-case scenario. All the while the population clock keeps ticking, with a net of 2.5 more mouths to feed born every second. That amounts to 4,500 more mouths in the time it takes you to read this article.

Which leads us, inevitably, back to Malthus. [page 12]


Now, can we discuss these issues without calling each other names?


Ron Bailey and the triumph of Reason? Neo-Mathusians and other "charlatans" exposed!

May 19th, 2009 2 comments

Last year around this time I criticized Reason science correspondent Ron Bailey, for a rather empty post trumpteting dark warnings of “green fascism” in the wake of last year`s grain shortages.  This year Ron is back, with a new post out (“Never Right But Never in Doubt“) in which he attempts to make light of the concerns that “Famine-monger Lester Brown” recently outlined in the May 2009 Scientific American Magazine (“Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?“).  While Ron has dressed up his act a bit this time, the old reflexive enviro-bashing remains, along with an inclination to dodge the hard questions that Brown raises.  Instead, we are left to wonder, has Scientific American been taken over by the green fascists?

Disappointingly, Ron`s latest attempt to bring down Lester Brown also disappoints – not because Ron doesn`t have fair criticisms to make, but because he can never bring himself to engage on the fair concerns of Lester Brown and the editors of Scientific American on issues of population, unmanaged commons and the environment.  Instead of throwing light on the areas of institutional failure that underlay the concerns of “green fascists”, “famime-mongers” and neo-Malthusians, Ron likes rhetoric, and closes by calling Brown an “old charlatan”.

Does Brown deserve all of this rhetoric?  No, even while it is perfectly appropriate to disagree with some of his analysis.

Let me set the stage for my review of Ron`s latest piece by citing some of my comments on his prieceding post:

Ron, I’m surprised that you would go to the effort of spreading rather thin hype about “Green fascism” without bothering to explore from a libertarian perspective whether the Green fascists have grounds for concern, what the institutional underpinnings of environmental and “overpopulation” problems might be, or what our own connections to those problems are.

It’s rather simple, really: we see both cleaner environments and the demographic shift in relatively wealthy nations that protect property rights, as families and other economic actors are largely forced to bear their own costs, which provide incentives to keep both pollution and families under control.

Where populations are still growing rapidly – and environmental degradation continues apace – are societies that do not protect property rights, so that economic actors do not internalize all costs, and families to a significant degree face a free-for-all over resources that are not effectively owned or protected.

“Development” thus presents many aspects of a “tragedy of the commons”, a tragedy that we feed with our own consumer, commercial and industrial demand, which is sourced from assets that are not clearly owned, but are simply up for grabs – whether we are talking about the strip-mining of the oceans, the replacement of the Amazon and SE Asian tropical forests with soybeans and palm oil/biofuel plantations, or industrial and commercial enterprises that don’t bear the costs of their pollution (or of the power plants supplying their electricity).

The “Green fascists” see the destruction at the end of the chains of demand that we in the West pull and the destruction resulting from population growth that is unchecked by the pricing signals from effective ownership, and they are rightly concerned. That they fail to understand the institutional underpinnings is of course to be regretted, but it is a failure that can be remedied by a little education.

That you chose not to use your knowledge of the dynamics of “tragedy of the commons” to educate but instead to decry “Green fascists” is a similar failure, and one that I hope you will regret and try to remedy.

As it is, it seems as if you enjoy the emotional rewards of partisan struggle more than really exercising your noggin or making a contribution to directing attention to where solutions to where real problems might lie – in improved property tights protection and governance in the developing world.

Care to contribute, or just to raise an alarum about the evil greenies?



In his latest post, Ron summarizes Brown as “argu[ing] that the world’s food economy is being undermined by a troika of growing environmental calamities: falling water tables, eroding soils, and rising temperatures.”  But even this miscasts Brown, who except for concerns about the over-pumping of the Ogallala aquifer in the high plains of the US Midwest, is clearly focussed mainly not on threats to agriculture in the developed nations, but in the developing ones.  Puzzlingly, Bailey largely agrees with some of the principal areas that Brown points to as reasons for concern, but brushes them off without real discussion or apparent justitication, mainly by telling us how things are no so bad in the developed nations.

First, regarding water, Brown mentions both obvious unstatainability of agriculture as is in places with rapidly falling water tables (particularly China and India) and where the melting of mountain glaciers means lower water supplies during the summer (including China).  Bailey shows off his understanding of the underlying dynamic of an unowned aquifer and the failure to price water correctly, but assumes, without aparent foundation, that water pricing policies will be adjusted without before any agricultural disruptions occur:

“It is true that water tables are falling in many parts of the world as farmers drain aquifers in India, China, and the United States. Part of the problem is that water for irrigation is often subsidized by governments who encourage farmers to waste it. However, the proper pricing of water will rectify that by encouraging farmers to transition to drip irrigation, switch from thirsty crops like rice to dryland ones like wheat, and help crop breeders to develop more drought-tolerant crop varieties.”

Who`s going to make sure that water subsidies will be ended and that water will be “properly priced”?  It doesn`t happen by magic, Ron.

Next, Ron attacks Brown on soil erosion – by conceding the point in developing nations but then presenting a red herring by switching focus to developed nations:

“To be sure, soil erosion is a problem for poor countries whose subsistence farmers have no secure property rights. However, one 1995 study concluded that soil erosion would reduce U.S. agriculture production by 3 percent over the next 100 years. “

The developing world is rife with problems of unsecure land tenure – heck, Zimbabwe is crashing as we speak for that very reason – but instead of enaging on this, we hear that everything is peachy in the US.

Finally, we turn to Brown`s fear of the effects of man-made global warming on agriculture.  Here, too, Bailey completely ignores the developing world in favor of looking only at the US.  Even in our case, Ron first notes that there is “an ongoing debate among experts”, but concedes that  some researchers have concluded that the impact of global warming on U.S. agriculture is “likely to be strongly negative.”  But by pointing to biotechnology research in making crops more heat and drought tolerant as a basis for optimism at home, Ron has essentially conceded that Brown (and the scientists and those funding them) have a basis for concern.

Further, Bailey notes that he agrees with Brown on two points:

“Brown is right about two things in his Scientific American article: the U.S. should stop subsidizing bioethanol production (turning food into fuel) and countries everywhere should stop banning food exports in a misguided effort to lower local prices.”

But rather welcoming Brown`s correct analysis on these points – notwithstanding Bailey`s prior warning that Brown and others were sure to call not for freer agricultural markets but for “green fascism”  –  Bailey can`t resist dissing Brown:  “Of course these policy prescriptions have been made by far more knowledgeable and trustworthy commentators than Brown.”

But despite this evidently weak dismissal of Brown`s concerns on the merits raised in the Scientific American article, Bailey somehow feels justified in completely dissing Brown.  Why?  While it is true that (1) advances in agronomy to date have expanded food supplies to meet the demands of a burgeoning world population (so Brown`s population “bomb” has yet to explode) and (2) Brown lost a famous bet with economist Julian Simon over future commodity prices, how are we doing on the institutional and environmental front in the developing world?  

– are we continuing to wipe out the ocean`s fisheries (which lies behind the Somali shift to piracy), to change ocean chemistry, and to replace important estuaries with shrimp farms?

– are we destroying “public” tropical forests (wrested from natives) and convert them to soybeans and oil palms, despite a long desire by the West to protect their inhabitants and wildlife?

– how sustainable is agriculture in China?

– aren`t we facing continued pressures from population in the developing world to convert wild lands to marginal agriculture?

– how are we doing with water supplies, water tenure and water pricing?

– aren`t we facing continued problems with insecure land tenure?

As I noted recently in comments on the Real Climate thread on tragedies of the common, where markets are unchecked by property rights (and consumer pressure, regulation, trade agreements), they are very effective machines of destruction.

It`s a lack of understanding of this that makes market conservatives right / enviros wrong on SMALL issues (such as Brown`s bet with Julian Simon on commodity prices), but wrong on the BIG ones. Those ranting about “neo-Malthusians seeking to destroy civilization” are simply ignoring or are blind to how consumer and other markets are destroying unowned, unmanaged Nature around the world.

These are the types of problems that have long troubled Lester Brown – and I think Ron Bailey as well.  In any case, Bailey should recognize all of them as problems that stem from a lack of clear and enforceable property rights, in some cases driven by government theft or incompetence.  So why does Bailey feel that the most constructive approach to persuasion is to abjure the elucidation of underlying problems, facilely dismiss concerns and to attack Brown`s motives, by calling him an “old charlatan”?


But this is the type of engagement that we continue to see from “libertarians” and conservatives (such as Robert Bradley and George Will), who seem to reflexively regard enviros as the “enemy”, as opposed to the lack of property rights or the underlying statism that gives rise to the problems that bother the enviros.  Thus we see not a triumph of reason, but of partisan hostility and mudflinging, sometimes as a mask for support for status quo rent-seekers.

It`s all enough to make an inquiring mind ask, will the real charlatans please stand up?  Or sit down?  Or start living up to the principles they say they espouse?

Enviro-Trek IV: In which your intrepid reporter boldly discusses "tragedy of the commons" and "property" with corrupted climate scientists and AGW co-religionists!

May 18th, 2009 No comments


Further to my prior posts, here are my more recent comments over at the remarkable RealClimate thread started by climate scientist Gavin Schmidt, to specifically discuss the “tragedy of the commons” paradigm in the context of domestic and international wrngling over climate policy:


544:  TokyoTom Says: 

530: “our temporary endowment of hydrocarbons … [is] currently almost a monoculture and it has developed a set of entrenched players who feel very threatened when confronted with the possibility that consumers may have a choice about where to plug in their toasters.”

Doug, you`ve correctly identified that SOMEONE feels threatened about where people plug in their toasters, but it ain`t the fossil fuel industry. but the so-called “public utilties”, which are NOT owned by fossil fuel producers, and have persuaded states to give them local monopolies and to wall them off from competition, in exchange for regulation of how rates are set.

Consumers get screwed all around, since they can`t purchase power from whom they want, by type of generating source, by time of day (peak v. off-peak), largely can`t easily monitor their own use, have limited ability to put back power to the utility, and because the utilities have no incentive to invest in long-range transmission (which would allow greater competition among generators) unless the local regulator is willing to allow cost recovery.

As the whole pent up demand for green energy is caused by the state/local grants of monopoly, perhaps environmentalists, rather than pushing for more government involvement, might consider asking for and end to public utility monopolies:


545:  TokyoTom Says: 

#438: “But Rene isn’t talking about incorporating private ownership as part of a management strategy, but rather selling off the resources and getting rid of any collective from-above management strategy altogether, from forbidding government managers from setting goals (for instance, sustainability) at all.

When these schemes work it is typically due to some sort of collective mechanism above and beyond the whim of the individual owner of a fishery or other stock.”

dhogaza, you persist in finding an enemy in every friend. Nowhere has Rene (or I) advocated ANY form of privatization scheme, much less insisted on one that eliminates all government oversight (which of course, for as long as governments exist, is impossible anyway). In any case, in all of the cases where open-access-type resources are centrally managed, we can only expect gradual steps away from that, as politicians like to maintain their positions as gatekeepers for favors and we rarely see bureaucrats volunteer to lighten their own oversight purview.

“We have exceptions where individual owners put long-term sustainabiliity and non-economic values as a priority (I mentioned Gilchrist lumber here in Oregon as an example). But these are notable precisely because they’re *exceptions*.”

I understand your concern about the timeframes in which humans act, but there is an irreducible difficulty in fashioning institutions with longer-term views, as they are all populated by people. Even resources in the hands of governments are subject to human whim, such as Cheney`s allocation of scarce water in Oregon in ways that favored Republican farmers over salmon, Native Americans and fishermen, and Bush`s widescale gas leasing in the Front Range, against the opposition of ranchers and hunters.

Further, you and others keep forgetting that many private owners lead the way in environmental protection; many state parks have their roots in privately preserved land that, in order to avoid the tax man, were subsequently handed over to the state. The Nature Conservancy (which represents its individual members) protects valuable parcels not by seeking government regulation, but by buying them (or conservation easements) outright.

Another problem you point to is that of conflicts between community interests and the interests of individual owner and interloping buyers (individuals or firms). It seems to me that the greatest problem relates not to the ownership of property, but to the willingness of giant corporations to listen to the communities in which they operate. Some do a better job than others, but I do think that the problems with corporations also has its roots in gifts by governments to relatively wealthy investors: Many large firms are run in order to put money first in the pockets of executives, with employees and investors next, under circumstances that encourage risk-taking rather than truly conservative behavior (as can be seen from the financial crisis).


547:  TokyoTom Says: 

#408: “The “climate commons” are the biggest ones of all. They cannot be contained, users cannot be easily left out. Even market-based solutions demand an international enforceable regulation to forbid, tax or at least know who´s emmitting how much, and who has to pay to whom for what.”

Alexandre, thanks for your comments; I largely agree.

The fact that the atmosphere is a global commons means no government can act effectively alone; that`s why Gavin`s metaphor of the multi-party international negotiations as a tragedy of the commons is apt. It`s also why fear of government “fiat” is rather misdirected, as in essence all major emmitting governments (and their chief constitutencies) have to reach a COMMON agreement. The situation is much like ranchers reaching terms of use on a range, and fishermen agreeing how to manage a fishery:


550:  TokyoTom Says: 

#484: “Tosh, to put it bluntly. The ratio of greenwash to real change is vast. Moreover, only retail businesses are subject to any significant consumer pressure even to undertake greenwashing. It has been legislation and in some cases international agreements that have mitigated damage from food adulteration, lead in fuel and paint, acid rain, and ozone-destroying chemicals.”

Nick, “tosh”? Now I`m really offended! ;)

I never argued that consumer pressure was by itself adequate in all cases. Presumably you agree that consumer pressure has proven to be useful, even as you downplay it. The fact of greenwashing is itself an indication that consumer opinion matters, even as people remain susceptibly to deception – which is why there remain entrepreneurial opportunities for certification organizations. consumer reporting, etc.

I would love to see some consumer boycotts of unsustainbly caught bluefin, in order to lead the way for regulatory/treaty changes that I certainly agree are needed, and the role of moral suasion and struggle for the moral high ground is not to be denied on the climate change issue (which is why Gore in some ways is a self-hamstrung figure – the man wouldn`t know a hairshirt if it hit him in the face).


608:  TokyoTom Says: 

#419: Missed this:

“Slavery was brought up because of the idiotic contention posted that owning something means you take good care of it. And, BTW, some Libertarian philosophers have touted “voluntary slavery” as a solution to unemployment. You see, you have a property right in yourself, so you also have the right to sell it.”

Barton, I don`t speak for Rene, but I think the chief point is the largely uncontroversial contention that people are more likely to take better care of things that they own, relative to the possessions of others or things that nobody owns. Feel free to quibble about the failures of property rights, but are we completely disagreeing on the big picture and what drives the “tragedy of the commons”?

As for slavery, surely you can recognize that what those libertarians are discussing are still voluntary transactions between consenting person, not the theft and enslavement of others by violence and force. They are just not the same.

As to the former, do you have any idea about the ways that many of our forefathers funded their expensive passage to the young colonies/US? Ever hear of “indentured servitude”?


Bureacrash and Al Gore: Is CEI on a problem-solving, "libertarian" mission, or just another cynical supporter of statist beneficiaries of status quo?

May 15th, 2009 No comments

CEI funds, staffs and supports the relatively young, growing and interesting Bureaucrash” grassroots libertarian social action site, by which CEI tries to tap into some of the discontent with government that has bloomed over the Bush presidency.  I`ve opened an account there and cross-posted some of my blog posts.

I received the attached by email from Bureaucrash:

A message to all members of Bureaucrash Social


Be sure to visit
to see how politicians and bureaucrats are trying to turn 2009 into
1984 by taking control of the entire economy via energy policies.  CEI
has produced a video showing that Al Gore and those like him are really
just Big Brother in green clothes.

You can write your Congressman today and make your voice heard by clicking on the “Write Your Congressman” link on the page.

In liberty,

Cord Blomquist

Visit Bureaucrash Social at:

I responded directly at the Bureaucrassh post (which may be accessible only to those who have registered); I copy my response below

Cord, I think CEI has been playing a counter-productive role for quite some time, and is still doing so.

Rather than taking the lead in (1) finding property-rights based or related approaches to blindingly obvious commons problems
– caused either by open-access without property or by government
regulation and favoritism/kleptocracy – in important local, regional
and global resources (tropical deforestation (theft of native title),
the atmosphere (AGW and pollution in US, China & India) and oceans
(crashing fisheries, dead zones & rising pH), or (2) calling for
deregulation to enhance competition, consumer choice and efficiency in
the “public utility” sector, CEI has played a denialist, delayist and ad hom game, all in ways quite contrary to libertarian principles
– principles that seek ways to resolve problems by enhancing the
ability of people to express their preferences through market

This is puzzling, since there are many topics on which libertarians can
productively engage with enviros, who are starting to see the merit of
property rights approaches to fisheries, and whose frustration on power
issues is readily understandable, as Lew Rockwell has noted: The Real Cause of Blackouts

Given CEI`s unproductive and in-your-face approach to environmentalists, despite all of obvious problems and unexplored ground, one is tempted to wonder whether CEI`s purpose is not to achieve any positive action, but
– by talking about how environmentalists are always wrong and by
talking a great game about market principles while steadily ignoring
the way that government has long been used to benefit particular
special interests –simply to defend the status quo, which obviously
is NOT based on pure free markets, but massive governmental
intervention that benefits particular firms and investors.