Grant McDermott bio photo

Grant McDermott

Economics.
Environment.
Data science.

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Alternative subject line: Saving environmentalism from the environmentalists

My attention has been brought to a new book by the British environmentalist and author, Mark Lynas, called The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans.

I guess that I should really be saving any praise until I read it myself, but \(-\) from everything that I've heard about it so far \(-\) I sense that I'll be finding myself in deep agreement with many of the themes that it touches upon. Here are two review from The Economist and The Guardian. To give you an idea, an excerpt from the former:
[There is a] somewhat inconsistent relationship that a lot of environmentalists have with science. When it comes to the hazards posed to the climate by greenhouse gases they see science as an ally scarcely to be questioned. But when it comes to the hazards posed by radiation from nuclear-power plants or by genes engineered into crops, greens often give equally compelling science a lot less credence—as, until recently, did Mr Lynas. 

A few years ago, though, seized by the magnitude of the threat of global warming, he started to look at nuclear power afresh, and decided it wasn’t so bad: without it there would be a couple of billion tonnes more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. His openness of mind spread: online comments responding to an article he wrote made him realise, to his shame, that though he had read many scientific papers on global warming he had never read any on genetically modified crops. Now he sees biotechnology-based intensive farming as crucial to keeping farms from overrunning forests. And how, he asks, can opponents to the damage done by industrially produced nitrogen-based fertilisers object to the genetic engineering that might let crops produce their own fertilisers as blamelessly as clover does?
Hmmm... Now where have I heard that kind of stuff before? Here's yours truly back in April:
There is a tremendous inconsistency in the way that people[...] approach the respective issues of climate change and GM food.[...] Being concerned about the environment and human health doesn't mean that you can have it both ways, choosing to invoke scientific evidence when and where it is congenial to your position. Those of us who think that climate change is a real issue deserving meaningful action rightly point towards the peer-reviewed science as a first stop for informing our opinions. We would do well to do the same for other contentious issues, such as genetically modified food.
Good boy, Stickman! <Rolls over. Eats biscuit. Barks.>

In a similar vein, an earlier article from The Guardian provides something of a prelude to Lynas's book, asking some important questions along the way. Here's the blurb:
Has the green movement lost its way? 

Anti-nuclear, anti-capitalist, anti-flying: the green movement may have alienated more people than it has won over, and there are now calls for a new kind of environmentalism.
Rather than quoting liberally from the article, I'll simply recommend reading the whole thing.  It's short and, to pique your interest, I'll only highlight the following money quote: "I want an environmental movement that is happy with capitalism[...] and is rigorous about the way it treats science." Going through the above article(s), I hope you'll recognise some of the issues that I've discussed previously on this blog, such as scientific consistency (c.f. GM foods), full and objective cost accounting, as well as the role of market mechanisms and economic valuation in improving environmental outcomes. However, it is the notion that there is some kind of ideological incompatibility between environmentalism and capitalism that bothers me most. How did we arrive at a place where these two goals are somehow viewed as mutually exclusive? Why does having environmental interests somehow imply that you must be a technological atavist, intent on repealing all our material advances and dragging society back to the Stone Age?[*]

Unfortunately, it's late and I'm too tired to solve the world's problems now. (Otherwise...) But I wanted to highlight some of these issues again. Reconciling economic growth and environmental stewardship isn't always straight forward. I know some very smart and open-minded people that will baulk at Lynas's assertion that nuclear is a pretty benign technology in the scheme of things, or even that it is something of a necessary evil to avoid climate chaos... But at least these opinions are formed on the basis of careful analysis rather than knee-jerk reactions.

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: Economic progress can \(-\) and should \(-\) be good for the environment too. The environmental movement would be better off for embracing this fact, and by co-opting the characteristics that make markets work so well elsewhere in the economy.

[*] Yes, unfortunately, there's no denying that there are groups out there that loosely fit that description... And I wish more greens would come around to the fact there are tough compromises to be made... And that the explosion in living standards since the industrial revolution is on the whole a pretty awesome thing... And that nostalgia isn't what it used to be. At the same time, the rabid opposition to certain environmental causes or regulation (cf. the carbon tax furore in Australia) betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what these interventions are meant to achieve. Moving towards fully internalised costs is something to be celebrated, as it helps us make better economic decisions in our day-to-day lives.