General

It all follows an apparent logic: there are massive environmental catastrophes which the market is failing to solve. This is because there is continued exploitation or degradation of stocks or buffers – public goods – which the market cannot express in its own terms; private gains then come at a public cost. Therefore, we must fix the market and internalize these external costs by properly valuing our natural capital.

To use an example by Pavan Sukhdev, the Amazon is a rain factory and its transpiration is essential for the survival of everyone downwind.  But – he infers – since those beneficiaries don’t pay for this benefit, there is no correlative incentive for Amazonian locals to maintain the provision of this ‘service’ and so keep from deforesting. This is all so tragic, he thinks. The benefit of that service should be properly measured, extracted from its end users, and (presumably) redistributed to either the producers or owners of that natural capital. This would align incentives and so maintain the production and consumption of valuable services.

This is the fever dream of environmental economics: the services provided by our natural capital (naïfs might still call it nature) will finally be properly represented once natural scientists and economists team up to assess what these services are and who benefits from them, and by how much. Values will be represented in commensurable, exchangeable, and individual terms – preferably monetary ones – and, now that these values will all be represented in one grand unified system, there will be no more needless destruction of natural assets.

Do I sound at least a little sympathetic? I’m trying to sound sympathetic. Okay, fine, I’ll stop trying.

This is a contorted, autofellating perversion of economics. Not only does it sanctify the shakiest practical and moral assumptions of orthodox theory; it roundly rejects the best ones. Let me explain.

First the shakiest assumptions: all value is human value; everything under the sun can be reduced to costs and benefits for humans; those costs and benefits are commensurable (reducible to one common scale) and so can be represented by utility or money; since the goodness is representable in monetary terms, so too is it exchangeable. In this case then, all natural value is tradeable human value.

Of course, focusing on these commitments is to ignore whether or not we could ever have complete enough knowledge about the way nature works to know its benefits for humans (see previous post). But that criticism notwithstanding, the problem of value incommensurability which rears its head elsewhere in economics does so with a vengeance when we consider the natural environment. Just as you couldn’t possibly decide the number of pop tarts which has equivalent value to watching your child take her first steps, so too could you not decide the *true* human value of a cow which produces greenhouse gases, causes soil erosion, indirectly consumes Brazilian rainforest, dumps fertilizer, and provides eventual McNourishment to someone.

But buried in this aspiration for fully commensurable and exchangeable natural values is the more secret dream that every part of nature could be privately owned (again: see previous post). This debate will forever rage in normal economics, but it takes on a special kind of absurdity in the natural world. Our planetary and ecological systems are functionally integrated systems – made of component parts which play essential stabilizing roles in tandem with other ones, and which cannot be separated from them. A grassland is like a gerbil; made of components, either pollinators or spleens, which cannot be separated from the containing whole without killing it. Parts cannot be separately owned and exchanged. (The same argument could be levied socially: society is a functionally integrated system which follows an order that private property cannot properly respect or sustain.)

So taking just those two tenets – commensurability and exchangeable private ownership rights – it seems pretty audacious to suggest we could get the natural world to behave in the ways they demand. But it becomes clear that these tenets are maintained, not because it seems like nature could cooperate, but because economics demands them of us.

Now is the point when the environmental economist will say “yes, yes, these are problems but we must measure and represent these values, however incomplete they are! Otherwise these natural stocks and flows will be entirely ignored and degraded.” This specious pragmatism betrays his deeper capitulation to economics’ ethical ethos: that values can only come in this individualized form. If he doesn’t have the flexibility to imagine other ways of valuing, like moral argument or political negotiation, then his appeal to a gerrymandered market is understandable. It reminds me of Thatcher’s famous submission to the gods of the market: “there is no alternative”.

However this fixation on the market as the true source of values pairs rather poorly with the economist’s admission that the market has failed – dramatically – to capture the value of nature. Given the failure to imagine other value systems, the economist can only recommend ‘fixing’ the market with our expert scientific knowledge of what nature does for us – knowledge which individual consumers or investors don’t have. To him, we must use the state apparatus to intervene in prices and so approximate the complete, perfect market which we’ve been unable to attain thus far.

If the environmental economist has so far celebrated the worst features of orthodox theory, this is where he rejects the best ones – the second failure.

The decision about what parts of nature matter, how much, and for whom, is an immense political problem. But economists don’t see it that way. For them, it is a matter of expert measurement and judgement; the weighing of costs and benefits. The problem is simple: since interests conflict and since the natural world is so bottomlessly complex, any measurement of costs and benefits will be incomplete. Worse, such an accounting system will be arbitrary since there is no way of holding these experts to account for their choices; they are insulated in the back rooms of a bureaucratic machine.

When these arbitrary measurers are given real power to shape markets by imposing prices, or to decide where to build dams and windmills, then this is nothing less than a political tyranny. There are no strong mechanisms for connecting these decisions to the will of people, whether citizens or consumers and producers. It’s fair to say that the classical proponents of free markets would be abhorred by this since they were all political liberals. For them it was essential that people have the autonomy to value things as they see fit and to exchange with others; this was necessary to free them from the tyrannies under which they struggled.

This should help us see that the environmental economist’s heavy-handed commitment to fixing markets concentrates power into an elite class of technical experts, and that this is no less than the total abandonment of the politically liberal heartbeat in classical economics.

The absurdist shadow play of environmental economics is thereby complete.  They sanctified the worst parts of conventional economics, blinded as they were to any value system which wasn’t individualized, commensurable, and exchangeable – however little sense it made for the natural world. Worse, their effort to follow through on these commitments impelled them to a final tragicomic embrace of arbitrary bureaucracy and the tyrannical rule-of-experts, disinheriting them from the moral core of classical economics: political liberalism.

Philosophically and morally contorted, these economists went on to twist and fold our national and international political administrations into such unrecognizable shapes that only they could look normal.

 

General

Here’s an op-ed I wrote a few months back which never saw the light of day:

Pipelines are tedious to talk about, especially when we bludgeon one another with the importance of the economy or the environment. It’s tedious because it’s not the important conversation. Heresy, I know, but in the aftermath of the federal government’s new interim principles for the environmental assessments by the National Energy Board, these are the bludgeonings we can expect.  The Conservative’s natural resources critic Candice Bergen took a first whack: “At the end of the day it’s about jobs”. You know how this one goes.

But, actually, this time it’s different and the punches about the economy aren’t landing quite so squarely. This is because these new interim principles aren’t directly about the approval of specific pipelines like Energy East. What they are about is how we should make decisions about these pipelines, and about whose voices get included in making that decision. They’re about what kind of democracy we want.

And there’s nothing better than a pipeline to force this conversation. Think: they are born in backcountry, have huge and uneven economic value, flow through farmland, provincial borders, indigenous lands and cities, and end up at the sea with global effects. Everyone has a stake. Existing at this scale, Rona Ambrose is on the money when she raises the scepter of national disunity, but she’s wrong to think this makes decisions about pipelines an obvious ‘yes’ to appease despairing westerners.

There are economic benefits for some of us and environmental costs for others, often both for all of us. Who, then, makes the decision? In a democracy, the answer is “we do”, but who is the ‘we’ when the pipeline has such a wide range of effects for different people? Ah, well, there’s the rub.

A couple of safe answers are on the extremes: not every farmer in its path should have a veto, and it shouldn’t be left to a federal bureaucracy which only looks at jobs statistics. Somewhere between the two we have the existing NEB charged with a mandate for ‘consultation’, balancing the need for public legitimacy with the realities of having to govern and make centralized decisions about our pipelines.

So then how much consultation is needed, and with whom? These are difficult questions but, importantly: they are the right questions. Even posing them requires us to acknowledge that the decision should somehow be ‘ours’ democratically. A federal bureaucracy which tinkers with statistics but fails to consult citizens will never have this legitimacy. This is what Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr alludes to when, defending these principles, he notes how few major NEB projects have gone ahead in recent years. They failed, he says, because they lacked public confidence. In this light, we should interpret the interim principles as a way of saying that the NEB needs to be more democratically legitimate – more closely tied with citizens. Consider two of the five principles:

–  The views of the public and affected communities will be sought and considered;

–  Indigenous peoples will be meaningfully consulted, and where appropriate, impacts on their rights and interests will be accommodated

Just how much consideration communities will get and just how meaningful the consultation will be is yet to be seen – and is a balancing act all its own – but placing these requirements front and center makes a strong statement about what is at issue: how we govern ourselves and who is included in the political “we”.

Marking these as priorities is a way of disqualifying the zealots who shout “it’s all about jobs” or “it’s all about the environment”, dogmas which fail to recognize these resource decisions as essentially political problems. From this perspective, “the economy” and “the environment” are not the words on which we should hang these choices. As singular nouns, they are set beyond our reach; they are outside of politics, cordoned off as special and non-human. This is not to say that we don’t need environmental science or economics – we desperately do – but we must treat them as tools, not as distant gods which demand certain sacrifices from us.

It is when politicians or other experts claim special knowledge of the will of these gods, economic or environmental, that we are lead into the kind of holy war with which we as a public are so familiar. Experts duel and most of us feel compelled to declare an allegiance to one or the other. And meaningful democratic politics is the biggest casualty.

We should then find cause to celebrate whenever this feud appears to loosen into a conversation about how it is that we should make these decisions. By requiring expanded political dialogue, it seems that large parts of the NEB interim principles could mark just such a shift. But even if that’s too hopeful a reading for the time being, such democratization needs to become true of our national environmental assessments. Holy war only leaves carnage.

General

I recently saw The Fraser Institute express the hope that everything in the biosphere will eventually be owned as a marketable commodity, “every square inch”.

And I was like:

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So I thought it would be worth taking a moment to show a couple of the things which this dystopian nightmare hypothetical future assumes are possible, leaving it to you whether or not they’re plausible – nevermind desirable.

There are two basic assumptions I won’t pick a fight with: First, that all value is utilitarian; that “man is the measure of all things”. And second, that there could be a legal administration big enough and efficient enough to handle all the property rights and enforcement of contracts (which if we’re talking about every square inch of the  biosphere – from land to the water table to the atmosphere to underground mineral deposits – is a very, very big administration). Let’s just pretend these aren’t problems.

I’d rather take a narrow focus on the following question: what kinds of characteristics does something need to have to become private property or an exchangeable commodity? Some criteria seem obvious. Imagine a piece of gold: it is solid, measurable, immobile, immutable, and belongs to an identifiable class of things which other people can recognize and value. All of these qualities seem to make it an ideal candidate for ownership and exchange. What about something like a fishery? A population of fish is not obviously solid, not easily measurable, highly mobile, mutable (its demography is always changing), and although it may be mostly one species, there may be so much individual variation that a general classification will miss a lot of details that matter to traders (at least compared with gold, which is simply classified by atomic structure). This at least seems to explain why fisheries are much harder to own and exchange than gold.

Some cases are harder still, like the atmosphere: it is gaseous, mostly immeasurable, always mixing and stirring, and doesn’t belong to a class since it is a sui generis entity.

So because of their physical or functional properties, some things are easier to turn into tradable commodities than others. But there’s an important proviso: it’s not directly the physical and functional properties which matter; it’s our classifications which do the work, and classifications don’t always match up with physical or functional properties.

Consider wheat. Before the western expansion of the American railroad, wheat was sold by the sack. Buyers would inspect the quality directly and haggle about price. But with the railroad came grain cars, silos, and the mixing together of wheat from different origins. There still had to be some sort of quality discrimination but since the buyer could no longer inspect it before purchase, there had to be a new set of classifications: No.1, No.2, No.3, and rejected wheat. Suddenly wheat came in standardized classes which varied on one dimension where, until then, the farmer and buyer had to consider a large number of characteristics. That is, where wheat had been a discrete unit – sold by the sack – it was now a continuous flow; where it had been diverse, it was now homogeneous. In effect, it became more of a commodity. (Interestingly, it was at precisely this time that a futures market came into existence in Chicago. Since the commodity now existed as an abstracted set of standards, people could trade in promises on the future – the actual quality or quantity of wheat at any time didn’t matter as much.) But wheat didn’t become more of a commodity because of its physical properties; it became more of a commodity because of the way people chose to represent and classify it. And this classification had less and less to do with the natural world. Differences in the ecologies of farms were ignored, as were many characteristics of the grain. A rift was created between the tradable thing and the thing itself.

This strikes me as the most basic rebuttal to those who want to commodify the world and turn it into one big market. The problem is that some things just don’t have the right properties for being traded as commodities, and that creating an abstract classification which makes them tradable will necessarily neglect many of their properties which we may think are important. If we are trading in abstractions and ignoring many actual properties, then it should be unsurprising if the market fails. Farms will lose their topsoil, fisheries will be depleted. This is not a market worth celebrating.

To put the argument in another way:

(1) The natural world is made up of all kinds of things and processes; some are easily classified, isolated, and traded as commodities, some are too complex, functionally entangled with their environments, or mobile to be so classified.

(2) Treating something as a tradable commodity doesn’t only depend on its physical properties but also on our classifications, like the wheat.

(3) The market pressure for standardized classifications (to make things comparable and tradable) will ignore a great deal of diversity and many of the properties of the now-commodity, either its physical properties or its functional role in local ecosystems, etc.

(4) Some of these properties and functional roles will be unknown to us, and will have effects which we would say mattered if we knew about them – like discovering that a fishery was a keystone species in a whole ecosystem.

(5) Since our ignorance about the composition and function of the natural world is still great, commodifying it and trading it will surely be destructive in many ways.

(6) Such a market would fail by any standard of efficiency.

 

I’ve left a lot out, but I just want to finish by pointing out the part of the argument that does all the heavy lifting. Let’s call it the epistemic gap – that we don’t know enough about the world to properly represent it in our own terms. This is clearly value-laden. If we think that everything is functionally tied up with everything else, and that we don’t know the ways in which it is so tied, then we are going to say the epistemic gap is too wide to represent things as commodities – the risk of destruction is too high. If we don’t think that there are any functional connections (as with bits of gold lying around) then the epistemic gap won’t matter. Which one we think we’re dealing with will change from case to case but will also be driven by our ideology of what we think nature is like.

So where the issue seems to turn – unsurprisingly – is whether or not we see nature as a complex, interactive, and evolving system which is full of mysteries, or whether we see it in mechanical terms – full of discrete piles of things just waiting to be used. It’s at least worth noticing that the commodificationist ambitions of marketeers assume the latter from the start.

General, Science and Democracy

Let me briefly express and then partially exorcise a general worry about current environmental discourse: that it’s depoliticizing. And let me do it in staccatos.

  • Climate Science and Environmental Science are often asked to make pronouncements on enormous and highly variable objects of study.
  • Their conclusions, then, are highly abstracted, highly technical, and non-contextual.
  • This situation is in some ways analogous to specialist talk of ‘the global economy’ – insofar as it is highly abstracted and decontextualized.
  • This technical expertise in economics  tends to blur into technocratic political leanings; the question of ‘what we should do’ can be answered, for these people, by sophisticated Cost-Benefit Analysis.
  • This technical exercise in aggregation is profoundly elitist and anti-democratic. There is no role for discussion, argument, or deliberation.
  • A parallel worry applies to Climate Science – that a highly technical and abstract level of analysis would lead to a technocratic kind of politics. This attitude is not uncommon. James Lovelock (of ‘Gaia’ fame) expressed outright contempt of democracy not so long ago.
  • So – moving quickly – there is an overall worry that technical epistemic expertise in problems which are highly abstracted and decontextualized can slide into an ideal of technocratic political expertise which – it goes without saying –  threatens the political life of the rest of us.

Indeed, this political tilt of many scientists is only surprising with regards to its tedious repetition. Francis Bacon, for one, had the utopian vision of scientists as both epistemic experts and technocrats in The New Atlantis (1627).

Now, caricatured as it is, I think this is a legitimate worry. But it’s not an inevitable one. In fact, I think this is all more or less a consequence of various self-deceptions we have about how science works. Chiefest of these deceptions is the myth that science is a discipline which is free of values – that it represents facts about the world and that’s that. This is the mother of all errors and maybe I’ll summarize some arguments against it in later posts but there are many other dubious assumptions which could be challenged like, say, that science is fully empiricist and free of metaphysics (false – it mostly operates on unquestioned foundations about reality, like that it’s mechanistic) or that our relationship with the truth is an individualistic matter of assessing evidence for our hypotheses (highly contestable, for too many reasons to mention).

There has been a lot of important work in the Philosophy of Science to try and correct these errors, and it leads in one general direction: that science can and should be socialized and democratized. Our epistemic goals and our practical or moral goals are all tied up together; our scientific projects are inextricably bound with the rest of our politics.

If our image of science can change like this then not only does the worry about possible technocratic domination dissolve, but we also see that it was the assumptions about science which failed us. The political anxiety starts to look contingent and remediable once we realize that it was premised on a very poor image of how science works. We get a new way forward when we see that our science doesn’t have to be awkwardly compromised with technocratic ambitions. As a departing shot of optimism, I would add that this new kind of vision also holds promise for resolving the environmental and political stalemates in which we already find ourselves – but that may seem too optimistic to be credible. I hope to expand on these themes in coming posts.

General

Welcome to my fresh, new blog!

As suggested by the pompous header, this is my imaginarium for making sense of our shared social and political life in a natural world. Easily seduced by ecology and easily nauseated by economics, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to make these disciplines speak to a world with a precarious climate by working through philosophy of science and politics instead.

The world needs generalists, now more than ever. Most of us are trained to think and work in one world – economics, ecology, the law, etc – and to negotiate ceasefires with the other worlds when they are too powerful to be dominated. Environmentalists begrudgingly tolerate the inevitable human cancer, economists quietly accept that they don’t know how to price the spotted owl, and lawyers realize that it’s very difficult to appeal the melting of an ice sheet. But each field maintains their perfect vision for how things would run, from the completed market to the globalized French salon of the Enlightenment where people can exchange arguments in peace.

Anything less is, to them, a regrettable compromise – a tenuous stalemate in what’s otherwise a holy war. Nothing shows this more clearly than the mainstream conflicts over oil pipelines; environmental and economic gods are invoked and the barricades are erected. We live in a totaler krieg – a state of all-out war between competing transcendent visions.

Coming to terms with a changing climate gives us the opportunity to get over seeing these pauses as stalemates and instead see them as the possible locations for a meaningful integration. It becomes just as obvious that free trade deals can undercut sustainable agriculture as it does that an environmental mysticism about ‘the unity of nature’ isn’t far off from totalitarian politics. Pull a string here and it unravels over there. Everything is tied up with everything else and there is no perfect vision, no transcendental point of view worth pursuing. The war could just end.

This is both the simplest and hardest thing to understand about getting on in our world. At first it seems so obvious: of course everything is connected. But giving up on a universal, transcendent ideal is hard work; we all live in Plato’s shadow. If we work up the courage to escape it, some pretty big stuff disappears. A god’s-eye-view is the first to go. What else? Moral absolutes? A philosophical phantasm. The deliverances of pure rationality? Just as bad. Even ‘nature’ itself may have to go so long as it connotes a mute realm of facts ‘somewhere out there’ (this is maybe the hardest pill to swallow, but it is an idea that is gaining currency in an epoch we are starting to call ‘the anthropocene’.) But, of course, most environmental science and activism is animated by concern for this privileged realm called ‘nature’. Can we respect this duty while also avoiding the transcendentalism which locks us into a holy war and stymies progress? I don’t know. Like I said, getting out from under Plato’s shadow is hard work.

Trying to keep our feet on solid earth, staring our problems in the face and planning our next steps. This is the urgent work of generalists and is the work I plan to entertain on this site.

Most of my posts will probably be simple or silly. There will be a peppering of book reviews as I work through that book plinth beside my desk which just seems to grow. There will also probably be poetry. I will probably tinker with the page for a while as I add new stuff. For now, this site will probably be a solipsistic chatter into the void, but I look forward to starting a conversation with you other internet dwellers.

Graham Bracken