Archive for August, 2009

The "coward of the county?" A little light on political games and the legal background of EPA`s unavoidable "endangerment" finding

August 30th, 2009 No comments

In April, under a regulatory process that the Bush EPA was compelled to commence by a Supreme Court decision (pursuant to the April 2, 2007 decison in Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007), in which the Supreme Court determined that greenhouse gases are air pollutants covered under Section 202
of the Clean Air Act, which applies to motor vehicles), the EPA issued
a proposed finding that (i) current and projected
atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and five other greenhouse gases (methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs),
perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) threaten the public health and welfare of current and
future generations (due to their
contribution to climate change), and that (ii) emissions
of such gases from motor vehicles contribute to atmospheric concentrations of
key greenhouse gases and thus to the threat of climate change.

The EPA commenced a 60-day public comment period that ended on June 23, but which it has subsequently determined to keep open while it develops its final findings. If the findings are issued, they will compel the EPA to
develop regulatory standards for new motor vehicles under Section 202
of the CAA, and probably as well to develop regulatory standards for utilities, industry and other parts of the economy under other parts of the CAA, which have essentially identical endangerment finding triggers (but which were not the subject of the Supreme Court decision).

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has now stirred up a bit of a kerfluffle about the EPA`s looming final  “endangerment” decision, by requesting the EPA to adopt an unusual, time-consuming trial-like procedure in reaching its decision. What`s really going here?

While no doubt the Bush Administration would have been delighted to consider such a device of postponing any endangerment decision, the Obama Administration`s lack of interest in further delay (having already extended the hearing process by several months) has earned for them from some conservative corners (Chris Horner of the NRO`s “Planet Gore”) the judgment that it is the Obama administration that is being “cowardly“.  Surely there are excellent arguments to be made that the Clean Air Act should not be used to regulate U.S. industry on climate matters, but it is Congress that passes laws and the President who signs them  into law, not the administrative agencies. The Bush administration and Republican Congress could have forestalled the present situation by amending the CAA to exclude CO2; their lack of interest in doing so has forced this matter into the hands of the Obama EPA.

On the other hand, the Obama administration`s hands have been tied by the Bush administration`s inaction, though it is not doubt happy to use the dangling endangerment finding as a Damoclean sword to get Congress moving on climate change legislation (and perhaps as a backup in case Congress cannot be persuaded). However, as the EPA has considerable discretion in determining when to issue its final determination, it can withhold the endangerment finding until it decides: it is really serious about passing climate change legislation, is ready to put significant pressure on Congress to get it, thinks it can live with Congress comes up with, and is willing to live with the consequences of “failure”, in which case it will have to move forward on promulagating GHG emissions regulations for new motor vehicles.

It`s useful in looking at this situation to ponder just how much wriggle room the EPA actually has on substantive issue.  The answer?  Very little.  On this, allow me to quote from respected libertarian resource law professor Jonathan Adler (Case Western, and commenter at The Volokh Conspiracy legal blog and at NRO):

1.  In an April 22 post at the NRO`s Corner, Adler answers the question “D[oes] the EPA Have a Choice?” (emphasis added)

“Many folks on the right, including Jonah,
have criticized the EPA’s decision to issue an endangerment finding as
some sort of power grab.  Implicit in this argument is the idea that
the EPA had a meaningful choice whether to conclude that the emission
of greenhouse gases causes or contributes to air pollution that can be
reasonably anticipated to endanger the public health and welfare (the
relevant legal standard under Section 202).  I reject this premise, and
I don’t believe one has to accept apocalyptic climate change scenarios
to reach this conclusion.  For one thing, the standard is somewhat
precautionary — the language empowers the EPA to regulate despite the
existence of uncertainty.  For another, it would be very difficult for
the EPA to justify a contrary conclusion under current law.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Massachsuetts v. EPA held
that greenhouse gases were air pollutants under the Clean Air Act
subject to EPA regulation.
  This means that the only question for the
EPA is whether such GHG emissions meet the standard above.  Whether or
not one believes greenhouse gases pose a serious threat, the EPA does
not get to make this decision on clean slate. 
For years the EPA has
been stating that climate change is a serious problem.  Indeed, the
Bush Adminsitration, at the very same time it declined to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act,
asserted the Agency’s belief that climate change is a serious problem. 

Therefore, for the EPA to not make an endangerment finding, not only
would it have to argue that the relevant evidence does not support the
conclusion that greenhouse gases could be “reasonably anticipated” to
threaten public health and welfare, but also that the EPA’s many prior
pronouncements about the threat of climate change over multiple
adminsitrations [sic] were wrong.
  Even though courts are quite deferential
to agency interpretations of scientific evidence, this would be a
difficult case to make. 
Courts are more demanding when an agency
reverses course, and the EPA would have an awful lot of contrary claims
to explain away.  Thus, even if the Obama EPA had been disinclined to
make an endangerment finding, I think such a finding could have been
compelled in court.


2.  Adler also commented earlier at The Volokh Conspiracy on the likelihood of the EPA prevailing in the case of any industry legal challenge to an endangerment finding, and the next regulatory steps after the endangerment finding (emphasis added):

The proposed findings will now go through a 60-day public comment
period. Shortly thereafter, the findings will be finalized. Industry
and anti-regulatory groups will almost certainly challenge the findings
in court, and their legal challenges will almost certainly fail.
if one doubts the accumulated scientific evidence that anthropogenic
emissions of greenhouse gases contribute to climate change and that
climate change is a serious environmental concern, the standard of
review is such that the EPA will have no difficulty defending its rule.
Federal courts are extremely deferential to agency assessments of the
relevant scientific evidence when reviewing such determinations.
Moreover, under the Clean Air Act, the EPA Administrator need only
“reasonably . . . anticipate” in her own “judgment” that GHG emissions
threaten public health and welfare in order to make the findings, and
there is ample evidence upon which the EPA Administrator could conclude
that climate change is a serious threat.
This is a long way of saying
that even if climate skeptics are correct, the EPA has ample legal
authority to make the endangerment findings.

Once the findings are finalized, the EPA will then be required to
develop regulatory standards for new motor vehicles under Section 202
of the Act. As a practical matter, the EPA will also have to prepare to
regulate greenhouse gas emissions under other portions of the act, as
the relevant endangerment findings necessary to trigger such regulation
are effectively identical to that which triggers motor vehicle emission
regulation under Section 202. Even if the EPA sought to resist such
regulation, it would be relatively easy to force the EPA’s hand through
additional citizen suits, much like the suits that set the EPA on this
course in the first place.

Regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act will not be a
particularly cost-effective way to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas
emissions. The EPA and White House understand this, but they also
recognize that, under Massachusetts v. EPA, the agency does not
have much choice. Moreover, the threat of Clean Air Act regulations on
greenhouse gases will create significant pressure upon Congress to
replace such regulation with some alternative, such as the
cap-and-trade program.



Categories: adler, endangerment, EPA, Horner Tags:

"Clear-sighted" panic; the role of the corporation in the tragedy of the commons

August 30th, 2009 No comments

This is my fourth follow-up post to “Grist and the tragedy of the panicked enviro“, where I try to clarify the institutional frameworks for understanding and addressing resource problems, in response to confusion in comments by others.

Here is my most recent comment:

Cyberfarer, thank you for your response [here], which is well-intentioned, but both perceptive and blind.

First, I see you’ve adopted a page from the climate “skeptics” playbook, by
applying the self-deceptive ad hominem device of labelling those you
disagree with as “true believers” in something.  This is a partisan
tactic that lets you treat others as enemies, and spares you from the
trouble of listening to them, trying to figure out what they’re saying
and responding the them, as opposed to a black and white strawman that you’ve conjured
up.  Congratulations on mirroring those whom you dislike most.

Second, with all of your clear thinking, like Mr. Sacks, you offer us no
practical advice, just reasons for despair.  Lezlie, who follows you,
at least provides an agenda.

Third, of course, you’ve got me all wrong; I’m not an ideologue, a “true believer” or even an apologist of
any kind the status quo; I’m a concerned human being, a fellow
traveller on Planet Earth and a pragmatist. You’ve been misreading me,
and certainly have not troubled yourself to consider the very pragmatic
analytical tools that I’ve offered to help you figure how to diagnose
and attack the problems that you perceive.

And what have I offered? Nothing more or less than the rather obvious observations that
resources that are not owned and managed – whether privately or by
groups (including, obviously, by communities and native peoples) tend
to be trashed, and that similar problems are experienced where
resources are formally “owned” by governments but essentially used by
elites for their own benefit. I have NOT argued that private property
is the cure-all, nor have I condoned theft nor the manipulation of
governments by elites. In fact, I have rather clearly pointed out that
both theft and misuse of government have been and remain very much a
part of the problem.

Fourth, you continue to misunderstand the nature of our problems, and want to lay everything at the foot of
“capitalism” and “markets”, when the real problem is either the lack of
ownership of resources or government fiat/theft.  Western capitalism is
not responsible for extinctions and environmental devastation that
preceded capitalism and markets, or that has taken place under
state-directed economies. This gets old, but look at the prior
extinctions, messes of the former USSR (and at the Aral Sea today),
Hanford and Rocky Flats, Haiti, and China.

Sure, the consumer and industrial supply demands of markets (not merely in the West) continue
to pull chains of destruction elsewhere in the world, but destruction
only occurs with respect to resources that are not owned and protected
(or where theft by those more powerful occurs). Tofu and meat eaters
alike are indirectly responsible for rainforest destruction, mainly
because governments “own” most the rain forests and don’t prefer to
protect native title where it is recognized, so the conversion of such
land into soybeans (or palm oil to feed government-mandated demands for
biofuels) continues.

In any case, is it more effective to wail about the evilness of corporations that compete to provide us ever more
cheaply things that we choose to buy, or to demand better property
rights protection abroad, pay closer attention to where our food comes
from and end domestic mandates that drive destruction? You’re welcome
to your rants against true believers like me, but I’m personally more
disposed towards trying to be practically effective.

Fifth, you are very right to criticize corporations; Mr. Sacks has had a history
of doing that. Not only do I agree with much of his analysis (which he has not provided here), but I’ve devoted a fair amount of time to examining the entanglement of corporations and government:

Our state governments were wrong to get into competition with each other to
grant corporate status to investor-owned enterprises, in exchange for
fees and later taxes. Corporate status freed investors from down-side
risk, by limiting liability to the amount of capital contributed. This
incentivized: investors to encourage corporations to embark on risky
activities that shifted costs to innocent third parties; the
concentration of wealth in corporations; the corruption of the court
system that once protected third parties from damages caused by others
(by replacing strict liability with balancing tests); and the ensuing
battle – that you noted – over legislatures to regulate corporations
(and courts to enforce regulations). Is there a takeaway on this. other
than continuing to fight political battles to block legislative sweet
deals and theft, including working to revise our corporate order?

Anyway, I wish you well in your tirades.

A few simple thoughts on the evolution of moral codes, and why we fight over them (and religion, liberty and the state)

August 30th, 2009 No comments

A recent post on the Mises Daily pages on the “Religious Roots of Liberty” by the late Congregationalist minister Rev. Edmund Optiz (1914-2006) (originally published in The Freeman, February 1955) provides an opportunity to restate and discuss some of the thoughts I’ve been working though on evolution, group dynamics, religion and on the assertions of some that there is an “objective moral order”.

It seems like quite a bit to chew, I know, but I dared (with the modesty and boldness of the inexpert, of course) to venture a few thoughts.

[And since I’m having problems with formatting here, I am linking to the archived version of this post.]

Say hello to our Cyber Big Brother: Rockefeller and Snowe want to give the President "emergency" authority over private computer networks

August 29th, 2009 No comments

Such authority would purportedly trump all laws to the contrary. Private operators of “critical” computer networks would also have to periodical nform the government of their network infrastructure and make sure their network managers have a new federal license.

More on this obvious nonsense here: (with links from April, when this idead first reared its ugly head)

The draft of S.773 is here:

According to a summary at, the legislation would (I have not confirmed):

  • allow the president to “declare a cybersecurity emergency” in
    regards to “non-governmental” networks and do whatever he feels is
  • establish a federal certification program for “cybersecurity professionals”
  • require that some computer systems and
    networks in the private sector be managed by people who have been
    awarded a federal cybersecurity professional license; and
  • authorize the government to engage in
    “periodic mapping” of private networks deemed to be “critical”, and those
    companies “shall share” requested information with the federal
    government. “Cyber” is defined as anything having to do with the
    Internet, telecommunications, computers, or computer networks.

Say hello to Big Brother.

I`m disposed to wonder (1) How would a Patriot act (thanks, Republicans for helping to pave the way for this!), in the face of such legislation and (2) how it is that anyone would think that the government could do a better job of defending private networks (and information) from cyber attacks than those who build and maintain such networks for their own business purposes, and who have legal obligations to protect their customer`s information?


Tragedy of the panicked enviro IV: not capitalism, but intensive use of unowned resources is the problem

August 28th, 2009 No comments

This is my third follow-up post to “Grist and the tragedy of the panicked enviro“,
where I try to clarify the institutional frameworks for understanding
and addressing resource problems, in response to confusion in comments
by others.

Posted 9:26 pm
27 Aug 2009

… [addressed to T Worstall]

In fact I do
understand what Hardin was saying. Hardin sets up a hypothetcial
situation and then sets about knocking it down. We call that a strawman

But you didn’t address my salient point. We live in an
era of the ascendency of private property and yet we have witnessed an
acceleration of the destruction of our natural heritage. Under the
management and control of private interests, we can witness the
remaining rain forests of south east Asia being raised for palm oil
plantations. Under the control and and management of private interests
we can witness boreal forests being decimated. In fact, over the past
fifty years as control and managenment of resources to pass to private
interests, we witness the acceleration of the their destruction.

The reality puts the lie to Hardin’s strawman argument.

issue of sustainability is not one of private or public ownership as
The Church and its followers would prefer to frame it. The issue is the
central role of profit above all else in our culture.

The free
market economy generates wealth by converting a living planet to a dead
planet; that is, by converting living ecosystems into commodities for
trade and profit. To the free market and its economists, a forest which
provides erosion control, flood control, climate and water
conditioning, habitat, sustenance, and any number of other services not
only to humans but all other species is only valuable in our free
market system when it has been converted to lumber or pulverized for
paper or some other use. That is the true tragedy of the commons. Not
ownership, but the short-sighted stupidity of people and especially of
those worship wealth without understanding its source.


Posted 2:29 am

29 Aug 2009

cyberfarer, I`m sorry, but this couldn`t be more wrong in its
understanding of WHY messes happen (and they undeniably do); the result
is that you (and Sacks) have no clue where to start in trying to solve

The free market economy generates wealth by converting a living planet
to a dead planet; that is, by converting living ecosystems into
commodities for trade and profit.

free market system is really simply people trading what they have to
others for what they want, and it works quite well where resources are
owned (either privately or by communities).  It can, however, be a
powerful engine of destruction for resources that are not owned – such
as for resources sourced where property rights are not protected or the
government (elites) “own” too much.  Thus our continued political
struggles over giveaways of public resources, the destruction of the
Amazon/Indonesian forests (and Philippine under Marcos), and the
collapse of fisheries that fishermen – often just guys trying to make a
living – have no rights to actually protect the resource.

To the free market and its
economists, a forest which provides erosion control, flood control,
climate and water conditioning, habitat, sustenance, and any number of
other services not only to humans but all other species is only
valuable in our free market system when it has been converted to lumber
or pulverized for paper or some other use. That is the true tragedy of
the commons.

are only right in part, as all of these things have obvious value, and
people protect them privately or band together as groups to manage them
wherever they desire and can (and are not prevented by the government).
There is an awful lot of private and community conservation going on
around the world.  The absolute worst cases are where the resources are
owned by governments, with rights to exploit being leased to companies
that have no property rights and thus no longer-term rights or obligations. 

Not ownership, but the short-sighted stupidity of people
and especially of those worship wealth without understanding its source.

absolutely ownership; people and groups compete for resources, and can
preserve valuable ones only when they can PROTECT them by excluding
others (i.e., owning) them

You, like Sacks, think that the only
way to solve problems is to radically change either capitalism (while
ignoring worse destruction takes place outside of free market regimes)
or human nature.  Sorry, but this is blind and stupid, and ignores the
fact that local traction is available for most problems.

See the case of the Amazon, for example:

highly recommend you start studying (not simply free thinking), which
will make your very legitimate concerns much more effective.  I mean,
even the environmental groups are calling for better property
rights/protection for fisheries, species, forests and water.  Are they
stupid and evil too?

Tragedy of the panicked enviro III: learning from Elinor Ostrom about cooperative action

August 28th, 2009 No comments

This is the second follow-up to my post “Grist and the tragedy of the panicked enviro“,
where I try to clarify the institutional frameworks for understanding
and addressing resource problems, in response to confusion in comments
by others.

T Worstall
Posted 5:27 pm
27 Aug 2009

TokyoTom makes most of the points I would wish to make. Except for this
one: you clearly do not understand what Hardin was saying about the
tragedy of the commons. For example, he made very clear that there are
two possible solutions to the degradation of an open access resource.
We can have social (socialist) regulations and limitations or we can
have private (capitalist) property solutions. Those are his
descriptions BTW. Which works best depends upon the society and the
resource. He emphatically did NOT say that pricvate property sultions
were the only ones possible. And nor does any economist say that
private property solutions are the only ones either possible or
desirable. Try reading some Ronald Coase on transaction costs to see


Posted 10:03 pm

27 Aug 2009

Let me add some further nuance to Mr. Worstall`s comment by saying
that Hardin`s fertile observations have fuelled extensive further
research on common property problems, with Elinor Ostrom being recognized as a leading light.

Here is one general bibliography on commons research:

has refined Hardin`s work in the following way (quoting from a review
of Ostrom`s 1990 ground-breaking and extensively researched book
, GOVERNING THE COMMONS, The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action):

Ostrom uses the term “common pool resources” to denote natural
resources used by many individuals in common, such as fisheries,
groundwater basins, and irrigation systems. Such resources have long
been subject to overexploitation and misuse by individuals acting in
their own best interests. Conventional solutions typically involve
either centralized governmental regulation or privatization of the
resource. But, according to Ostrom, there is a third approach to
resolving the problem of the commons: the design of durable cooperative
institutions that are organized and governed by the resource users

“The central question in this
study,” she writes, “is how a group of principals who are in an
interdependent situation can organize and govern themselves to obtain
continuing joint benefits when all face temptations to free-ride,
shirk, or otherwise act opportunistically.”

heart of this study is an in-depth analysis of several long-standing
and viable common property regimes, including Swiss grazing pastures,
Japanese forests, and irrigation systems in Spain and the Philippines.
Although Ostrom insists that each of these situations must be evaluated
on its own terms, she delineates a set of eight “design principles”
common to each of the cases. These include clearly defined boundaries,
monitors who are either resource users or accountable to them,
graduated sanctions, and mechanisms dominated by the users themselves
to resolve conflicts and to alter the rules. The challenge, she
observes, is to foster contingent self-commitment among the members ….

Throughout the book, she stresses the dangers of overly
generalized theories of collective action, particularly when used
“metaphorically” as the foundation for public policy. The three
dominant models — the tragedy of the commons, the prisoners’s dilemma,
and the logic of collective action — are all inadequate,
she says, for
they are based on the free-rider problem where individual, rational,
resource users act against the best interest of the users collectively.
These models are not necessarily wrong, Ostrom states, rather the
conditions under which they hold are very particular. They apply only
when the many, independently acting individuals involved have high
discount rates and little mutual trust, no capacity to communicate or
to enter into binding agreements, and when they do not arrange for
monitoring and enforcing mechanisms to avoid overinvestment and overuse.

concludes that “if this study does nothing more than shatter the
convictions of many policy analysts that the only way to solve common
pool resource problems is for external authorities to impose full
private property rights or centralized regulation, it will have
accomplished one major purpose.”

profile of Ostrom, who is a member of the National Academies of Science
and and Editor of its Proceedings, is here:

Her work can be found here:,+Elinor&hl=en&btnG=Search and


thing worth noting is that the historical and ongoing records are rife
with examples – such as our crashing local fisheries – where government
intervention has done more harm than good.
  In these cases and in
others, Ostrom introduces an analytical approach that is acceptable
widely across the political spectrum, even if differences in opinion
will remain.  See, for example, this discussion at libertarian-leaning
George Mason U:

Categories: Adam Sacks, commons, Elinor Ostrom, Grist Tags:

The tragedy of the panicked enviro II; understanding the "tragedy of the commons"

August 28th, 2009 No comments

This is the first of several follow-up posts to my post “Grist and the tragedy of the panicked enviro“, where I try to clarify the institutional frameworks for understanding and addressing resource problems, in response to confusion in comments by others.

Posted 2:58 am
27 Aug 2009

I’m sorry, but the “tragedy of the commons” is utter B.S. The Western
world has pursued a course of private property and has managed to leave
ecological catastrophe in its wake. The “tragedy of the commons” and
other simplistic market morality fail to understand the essence of that
which it seeks to moderate, the capitalist consumer market premised on
profit and only profit.

The rate of exploitation and the decline
of resources, water, energy, fisheries, soil, minerals, etc., all
occured under a free market, private property paradigm. That is the
facts and the reality. Pretending it isn’t true and wishing for a
morality that doesn’t exist within the free market is juvenile and

The “tragedy of the commons” represents a
hypothetical situation that does not occur in real life. In real life,
corporations own, or vie to own, resources or access to them for the
purpose of extraction and profit and they seek to maximize profits
through economies of scale, that is industrial extraction methods,
drift netting, blowing up mountains, tossing mining waste into clear,
pristine lakes. The money is in the resource and when the resource is
exhausted they will move on to the next one.


Posted 1:38 pm

27 Aug 2009


Thanks for your comments on the “tragedy of the
commons”. Though you are way off base, you provide an opportunity for
deeper discussion.

The tragedy of the unmanaged commons paradigm
is BS?  My flip response?  Go tell it to Gavin Schmidt at Real Climate,
who posted a perceptive essay in May on the tragedy of the commons
dynamics that are affecting climate
and global climate policy
Did you miss this and the relatively productive discussion thread?

the Western
world has managed to create many environmental problems, but we`ve
largely cleaned up our own messes, haven`t we?  While it by no means
excuses our own faults, far worse environmental problems have been
created and are still stewing in Russia and other state-directed
economies, and it`s no coincidence that the vast pollution being
created in China and India are tied to governement-owned enterprise and
an inability of injured people to sue for damages or to stop harmful
activities.  And the great waves of extinctions created as man spread
around the globe tens of thousands of years ago can hardly be laid at
the foot of either the Western world or of private property rights (nor
can the collapse of earlier civilizations).

“tragedy of the commons” is NOT a “simplistic market morality”, but a
description of cooperation problems and incentives relating to shared.
open-access resources.  The tragedy of the commons and problems of
cooperation – and theft – are not even limited to mankind, but permeate
nature.  This perceptive article by Bruce Yandle touches on competition
in nature, and links the ascendance of man to our evolution of
relatively enhanced cooperation:

“tragedy of the commons” paradigm is useful to analyze, but the
paradigm doesn`t “seek to moderate” anything, and is just as useful in
looking at the ways Western nations still contribute to environmental
problems around the world (as I point out here: as it is in examining:

– environmental devastation in Haiti (which has little or no property rights, and vast free-for-all “government” holdings),

deforestation in Indonesia and the Amazon:,

– pollution in China:, and

crashing fisheries around the world as a result of government of marine
resources (producing free-for-alls and fleet subsidies) and a
free-for-all for other unowned or unprotected resources:

On fish, you might note what the organization Defying Ocean’s End (cofounded by Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy,
Natural Resources Defense Council, The Ocean Conservancy, Wildlife
Conservation Society, The World Conservation Union, and World Wildlife
Fund) recently said:…

high bycatch rates, the use of gear types that damage habitat (like
trawls and dredges), and the large subsidies supporting fisheries
(totally over $15 billion per year) are all symptoms of an underlying
problem. In most fisheries that are exhibiting declines in
landings and revenues, overfishing, bycatch, and habitat damage,
actions that result in the symptoms are actually rational given the way
the fisheries are managed. In these fisheries, secure privileges to
catch certain amounts of fish are not specified, so naturally
individual fishermen compete to maximize their individual shares of the
catch. No incentives for conservation exist in this situation, because
every fish conserved can be caught by another fisherman. The
competition to maximize catch often results in a fishery “arms race”,
resulting in the purchase of multiple vessels, the use of powerful
engines and large vessels, and the use of highly efficient gear like

“Most of the solutions that have been implemented or proposed to fix the world’s fisheries center on command-and-control
measures: regulators or courts telling fishermen how to fish through
the imposition of controls on effort (e.g., fishing vessel length,
engine horsepower, gear restrictions, etc.). Prescriptions like these
work against strong economic incentives for maximizing catch, which are
not addressed by such measures, and are of course usually resisted by
fishermen. Often, prescriptions create incentives for “work-arounds”
and set up a cat-and-mouse game between fishermen and regulators
– for example, if regulators impose a restriction on vessel size,
fishermen may purchase two vessels to maintain high catch levels.

in most natural resource problems, more effective solutions will
address the fundamental drivers of unsustainable fisheries. In this
case, the key necessary reform will be to designate secure catch

say: “The rate of exploitation and the decline
of resources, water, energy, fisheries, soil, minerals, etc., all
occured under a free market, private property paradigm.”  This is
clearly demonstrably wrong, and draws entirely the wrong lessons. While
private property is certainly no panacea, neither are they what is
wrong.  Very often, is is governments that have been and are wrong,
though there is certainly some learning going on.

Garrett Hardin`s “The Tragedy of the Commons” certainly represents a
hypothetical situation, it is actually a very powerful analytical tool
for understanding and fashioning solutions to countless “real life”
problems. See Elinor Ostrom et al., Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges, Science, 04/09/99

“In real life,
corporations own, or vie to own, resources or access to them for the
purpose of extraction and profit and they seek to maximize profits
through economies of scale, that is industrial extraction methods,
drift netting, blowing up mountains, tossing mining waste into clear,
pristine lakes.

you describe here is a conflict between preferences over how resources
are used.  Do you prefer a free-for-all, or a situation where those who
use a resource can protect it, negotiate with others who wish to see
other values preserved, and who are responsible for negative
consequences caused to others (not always a part of some property
rights systems), or perhaps a situation where governments make all
resource exploitation decisions?”

“The money is in the resource and when the resource is
exhausted they will move on to the next one.”

money is never in the “resource”, but in the ways that people can use
it or otherwise value it (and of course people also value pristine


Categories: Adam Sacks, commons, Grist Tags:

Grist and the tragedy of the panicked enviro: stop and think, about whether resources are OWNED and protected

August 28th, 2009 No comments

The Grist online environmental magazine lent its pages this week to a pessimistic climate change activist, Adam D. Sacks, former director of the Center for Democracy and the Constitution.  Mr. Sacks, echoing a despairing piece (“Beyond the point of no return”) by Ross Gelbspan in Grist in Novermber 2007, in a piece entitled “The fallacy of climate activism” paints a remarkably grim and obviously heart-felt picture about the prospect of unstoppable climate change and other environmental challenges. 

While we may indeed be irretrievably embarked on what prove to be a very bumpy climate voyage, it`s Sack`s policy prescriptions that are most startling. Here are excerpts of the chief points:

In the 20 years since we climate activists began our work in earnest,
the state of the climate has become dramatically worse, and the change
is accelerating—this despite all of our best efforts.  Clearly
something is deeply wrong with this picture. …

Climate activists are obsessed with greenhouse-gas emissions and
concentrations.  Since global climate disruption is an effect of
greenhouse gases, and a disastrous one, this is understandable.  But it
is also a mistake. …

The first error is our failure to understand that greenhouse gases
are not a cause but a symptom, and addressing the symptom will do
little but leave us with a devil’s sack full of many other symptoms,
possibly somewhat less rapidly lethal but lethal nonetheless.

The root cause, the source of the symptoms, is 300 years of our
relentlessly exploitative, extractive, and exponentially growing
technoculture, against the background of ten millennia of hierarchical
and colonial civilizations.
This should be no news flash, but the seductive promise of endless
growth has grasped all of us civilized folk by the collective throat,
led us to expand our population in numbers beyond all reason and to
commit genocide of indigenous cultures and destruction of other life on

To be sure, global climate disruption is the No. 1 symptom.  But if
planetary warming were to vanish tomorrow, we would still be left with
ample catastrophic potential to extinguish many life forms in fairly
short order: deforestation; desertification; poisoning of soil, water,
air; habitat destruction; overfishing and general decimation of oceans;
nuclear waste, depleted uranium, and nuclear weaponry—to name just a
(While these symptoms exist independently, many are intensified
by global warming.)

We will not change course by addressing each of these as separate issues; we have to address root cultural cause. …

The second error is our stubborn unwillingness to understand that
the battle against greenhouse-gas emissions, as we have currently
framed it, is over.

It is absolutely over and we have lost.

We have to say so.

There are three primary components of escalating greenhouse-gas concentrations that are out of our control …

The most expert scientific investigators have been blindsided by the
velocity and extent of recent developments, and the climate models have
likewise proved far more conservative than nature itself.  Given that
scientists have underestimated impacts of even small changes in global
temperature, it is understandably difficult to elicit an appropriate
public and governmental response….

Bitter climate truths are fundamentally bitter cultural truths. 
Endless growth is an impossibility in the physical world, always—but always—ending
in overshot and collapse.  Collapse: with a bang or a whimper, most
likely both.  We are already witnessing it, whether we choose to
acknowledge it or not.

Because of this civilization’s obsession with growth, its demise is
100 percent predictable.  We simply cannot go on living this way. Our
version of life on earth has come to an end.

Moreover, there are no “free market” or “economic” solutions.  And
since corporations must have physically impossible endless growth in
order to survive, corporate social responsibility is a myth.  The only
socially responsible act that corporations can take is to dissolve.

Some of our most important thinking happens while developing the
problem statement, and the better the problem statement the richer our
That’s why framing the global warming problem as
greenhouse-gas concentrations has proved to be such a dead end.

Here is the problem statement as it is beginning to unfold for me. 
We are all a part of struggling to develop this thinking together:

We must leave behind 10,000 years of civilization; this may be the
hardest collective task we’ve ever faced.  It has given us the
intoxicating power to create planetary changes in 200 years that under
natural cycles require hundreds of thousands or millions of years—but
none of the wisdom necessary to keep this Pandora’s Box tightly shut. 
We have to discover and re-discover other ways of living on earth.

We love our cars, our electricity, our iPods, our theme parks, our
bananas, our Nikes, and our nukes, but we behave as if we understand
nothing of the land and water and air that gives us life.  It is past
time to think and act differently.

If we live at all, we will have to figure out how to live locally
and sustainably.  Living locally means we are able get everything we
need within walking (or animal riding) distance.
We may eventually
figure out sustainable ways of moving beyond those small circles to
bring things home, but our track record isn’t good and we’d better
think it through very carefully.

Likewise, any technology has to be locally based, using local
resources and accessible tools, renewable and non-toxic.  We have much
re-thinking to do, and re-learning from our hunter-gatherer forebears
who managed to survive for a couple of hundred thousand years in ways
that we with our civilized blinders we can barely imagine or understand

Desperate hopes notwithstanding, there are no high-tech solutions
here, only wishful thinking—the tools that got us into this mess are
incapable of getting us out.

All that being said, we needn’t discard all that we’ve learned, far from it. But we must use our knowledge with great discretion, and lock much of it away as so much nuclear weaponry and waste.

Time is running very short, but the forgiveness of this little blue
orb in a vast lonely universe will continue to astonish and nourish
us—if we only give it the chance.

Our obligation as activists, the first step, the essence, is to part the cultural veil at long last, and to tell the truth.


Wow.  It strikes me that though Sacks might very well be right the we have irreversibly embarked on a bumpy climate ride, are we to conclude not only that the best solution is to abandon civilization as we know it and live as hunter-gathers, but that we can actually persuade anyone to abandon the use of energy?  Not only does Sacks offer no prescription from getting here to where he thinks we need to go, but he completely ignores the institutional setting of the problems that concern him (tragedy of the commons), and thus any discussion of potential solutions (fprivate or community property institutions). Certainly environmentalists may wish to start experiments in alternative living – this might provide useful knowledge or even necessary in dire situations – but unless such experiments prove that they can provide shelter and sustenance for the world`s population, they will not address the needs of others who will make their own choices, based on modern civilization and technology.

I left a short message on the Grist comment thread, as follows:

Posted 2:32 am
27 Aug 2009

I`m with Dave, and more so.  There are no useful takeaways from
thise piece, because the author, while showing an understanding of
climate science, evinces no understanding of the institutional factors
that are driving climate change and other resource problems.

Garrett Hardin largely nailed the problem decades ago – the “Tragedy of the Commmons” that results when there are no clear or enforceable property rights (private or communmity) that enable users to protect resources from destructive exploitation.

the environmental nightmare of the formerly communist countries, the
resource abuse in kleptocratic developing countries, and incompetent
bureaucracies, sweet insider deals and poorly managed “public” lands
and fisheries have subsequently informed us of the corollary problem –
the tragedy of the government commons.)

We understand both the nature of our problems, and the directions in which solutions lie.  Let`s have at at `em.

BTW, I realize that we have barely begun to scratch the surface on addressing climate change; this is a tragedy of the commons problem on which it appears we can have only marginal impacts at best.

Categories: Adam Sacks, commons, Grist Tags:

Evolution, religion and our insistence on a still undefined "objective" moral order

August 28th, 2009 3 comments

I refer to my previous posts on the interesting subject of whether there is an “objective moral order”, which Gene Callahan broached in a May blog post, returned to in a subsequent post but abandoned, to be picked up but ultimately punted by Bob Murphy (and again by Gene when he visited Bob`s thread).

While I certainly agree that man has an exquisite moral sense, my own view is that that sense and capacity are something that we acquired via the process of evolution, as an aid to intra-group cooperation,

– as Bruce Yandle has suggested,

– as argued by Roy Rappaport (former head of the American
Anthropology Assn.)
in his book “Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity” (which I have discussed here) and – as I have recently discovered –

– as David Sloan Wilson has argued in his book “Darwin`s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society“.

I note that the NYT has recently run a series of posts on related topics

In my view, our moral sense, rituals and “sacred postulates” (later,
religions) have played a central role in the evolution of man as a social animal, by
providing a fundamental way of ordering the world, the group`s role in
it, and the individual`s role in the group – thereby abating commons
problems both within and created by the group. The religious
lies at the root of our human nature, even as its inviolable, sacred
truths continue to fall by the wayside during the long march of
culture and science out of the Garden of Eden. While we certainly have made progress (partly with the aid of “universal” religions) in expanding the boundaries of our groups, we very much remain group, tribal animals, fiercely attentive to rival groups and who is within or outside our group, and this tribal nature is clearly at work in our cognition (our penchant for finding enemies, including those who have different religious beliefs that ours).

But I didn`t really kick off this discussion – why are Callahan and Murphy so reticent to describe what it is they think they mean when they assert that there are “objective moral truths” and an “objective moral order”?  (I can understand why I seem to have earned the clear hostility of one them; after all I have proven by my persistence or thickheadedness to be, if not an “enemy”, then in any case not one of the august clear-sighted.)

Here are a few questions I left with them at Bob`s most recent post:

Are those who believe that there is an objective “moral” order
asserting that, for every being – regardless of species – that there is
a uniform, objective moral order in the universe? Or is the argument
that there is an object moral order only for conscious and self-aware
beings, and none for organisms that are not conscious, or are conscious
but not self-aware?

– Or is the argument that the “objective”
moral order exists only for humans, and perhaps someday can be
identified and located in universally shared mental processes, based on
brain activity and arising from shared genes?  Will such objective moral order still exist if all mankind ceases to exist?

– Or is the
objective moral order one 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)?

– Is the human “objective” moral order universal, for all individuals – of whatever, gender or age – across all history?

– Is an objective moral order something real that 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)?

– And
if the objective moral order is a part of the universe, can we apply
the scientific method to confirm its existence of and explore its
parameters, and to explain (and test) it with “laws”?

– What are some of the parameters and laws governing the moral order?

If I`m being self-deluded about the willingness of those who believe that there IS an objective moral order to explain it (and to evidence it in their actions), I hope a good reader or two will let me know.

A note to Joe Romm about big, bad, carbon-tax-supporting Exxon and the API

August 28th, 2009 No comments

Joe Romm has a post up at Climate Progress that is highly critical of the U.S. oil industry, his ire no doubt triggered by the news that the American Petroleum Institute (API) is coordinating a series of “Energy Citizen” rallies by oil industry employees that target U.S.
Senators in 21 states

Romm`s post largely focuses on past efforts by Exxon to influence the debate by emphasizing Exxon`s PAST role in funding others to cast doubt on the science of climate change – a campaign that Exxon appears to have abandoned – and the greater part of the post consists of a requote of a recent commentary by Bloomberg reporter Eric Pooley, “Exxon Works Up New Recipe for Frying the Planet“.  It seems to me that neither Romm nor Pooley has done a good job of establishing a case for laying their current ire at the foot of “carbon-tax” Exxon.

I left the following comment at Romm`s blog, and look forward to his response after it slips through moderation:

Joe, I understand your suspicions of Exxon, but even as they are convenient whipping boy, they are not coal firms, which I`m sure you understand are a much greater climate threat and which are treated so favorably under Waxman-Markey.

Moreover, you and Pooley paint over your lack of substantiation with very broad brush strokes that are more fairly directed to other members of the API. Granted Exxon is a bit late, but:

– they have expressly agreed that climate risks merit mitigation policies,

– CEO Rex Tillerson has specifically advocated carbon taxes (for which he is good company with Jim Hansen, most economists – and now even Margo Thorning of the ACCF!),

– they are making substantial investments in climate research and biofuels; and

– they are not supporting the API`s fake “citizens” meetings.

Why is Exxon still Public Enemy #1 for you, and not Peabody and other coals firms – and the states and US government, who are hooked on royalties?

I agree with the many economists who strongly prefer a rebated carbon tax. I would love to hear your scientific and political calculation that leads you to favor cap and trade.

Categories: carbon pricing, Exxon, Joe Romm Tags: