Thursday, May 20, 2004

News Item: Tragedy of the Commons and Paul Ehrlich

Here is an article from the Wall Street Journal. My comments in [ ].

We're Doomed Again
Paul Ehrlich has never been right. Why does anyone still listen to him?

Thursday, May 20, 2004 12:01 a.m. EDT

Environmentalist Paul Ehrlich has proved himself to be a stupendously bad prophet. [Ehrlich is a biology professor at Stanford.] In 1968 he declared: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines--hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death." They didn't. Indeed, a "green revolution" nearly tripled the world's food supply. In 1975, he predicted that, by the mid-1980s, "mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity," in which "accessible supplies of many key minerals will be facing depletion." Far from it. Between 1975 and 2000 the World Bank's commodity price index for minerals and metals fell by nearly 50%. In other words, we abound in "key minerals." Naturally, Mr. Ehrlich has won a MacArthur Foundation genius award--and a Heinz Award for the environment. (Yes, that Heinz: Teresa Heinz Kerry is chairman of the award's sponsoring philanthropy.)

So why pay him any notice? Because he is a reverse Cassandra. [Nice term to remember: Reverse Casandra.] In "The Illiad," the prophetess Cassandra makes true predictions and no one believes her; Mr. Ehrlich makes false predictions and they are widely believed. The gloomier he is and the faultier he proves to be as a prophet, the more honored he becomes, even in his own country.

Any thinking person will thus want to know, accolades aside [accolade = praise], what actual effect "One With Nineveh" will have on the intellectual environment. The title is taken from "Recessional," the poem in which Rudyard Kipling warned Victorian England that it, too, could fall, like the capital of the ancient kingdom of Assyria. Mr. Ehrlich--writing with his wife, Anne--asserts that "humanity's prospective collision with the natural world" means that "what is at risk now is global civilization."
"One With Nineveh" begins by recycling the now familiar catechism of environmentalist doom, but most of it is devoted to the Ehrlichs' hugely ambitious plans for reorganizing the world's economy and systems of government to ward off apocalypse. Homer used the word hubris to refer to this aspect of human nature.[Hubris is excessive pride or arrogance.]

The "prospective collision with the natural world" is supposed to happen when human population, economic growth and technological progress reach some horrible point of intersection on a chart of global doom. In the Ehrlichs' simplistic summary, environmental Impact equals Population x Affluence x Technology, the notorious I=PAT identity. Impact is, of course, always negative. One notes that the three factors aren't merely added together; their allegedly deleterious effects are multiplied.[Deleterious means bad.]

History shows that the I=PAT identity largely gets it backward. Population is at worst neutral, while affluence and technology, far from harming nature, actually promote its flourishing. It is in the rich, developed countries that the air becomes clearer, the streams clearer, the forests more expansive. While the Ehrlichs put forward a few good ideas--such as replacing income taxes with consumption taxes and eliminating government subsidies--most of their analysis consists of antimarket screeds and hackneyed corporation-bashing.[Screed = a long, monotonous speech or piece of writing.]

The Ehrlichs also underplay the good news. Globally, women are having fewer and fewer babies, so the world's population will likely peak at around eight billion in 50 years or so. [The UN report we talked about the other day said the world population would stabilize in 2200 at 11 billion.] The agronomist Paul Waggoner has argued that if farmers around the world can raise their productivity to current U.S. levels--even using current technology, nothing newer--they can easily feed 10 billion people, with better diets. [Agronomy is the application of the various soil and plant sciences to plant management and the raising of crops.] And they can do so, according to his projections, using half the land they now farm, thus sparing more land for nature. The chief hope for that result is precisely the market that the Ehrlichs decry, and the economic dynamism that comes with it.

Of course, there are environmental problems, although not the global warming the authors fear. (Satellite data now suggest that such warming will be mild over the next century--about a degree Celsius.) But the depletion of fisheries and tropical forests is real enough. Alas, the Ehrlichs and most of their ecological confreres miss the central reason for it: the tragedy of the commons, where nobody owns a resource--forest, fish, water--and thus no one has a reason to protect it. By contrast, enclosing the commons, by assigning owners, internalizes costs and benefits, and allows markets to determine the value of any given resource. With characteristic wrongheadedness, they advocate instead eroding property rights, thus enlarging the commons and tending to make environmental problems worse.

In 1971, Mr. Ehrlich told Look magazine: "When you reach a point where you realize further efforts will be futile, you may as well look after yourself and your friends and enjoy what little time you have left. That point for me is 1972." What is Greek for "this is ridiculous"?

[The tragedy of the commons is mentioned in the article. This term -- TOC -- is from an article by Garrett Hardin that appeared in Science in 1968.

A commons usually refers to a resource that is shared by a group of people and no one of the people own the resource. For example, suppose people share a lake (for boating and water) but no one owns the lake.

Hardin said that if no one owns the lake, individuals will likely misuse the lake. What does that mean here? They may throw trash into the lake, overfish it, take too much water from the lake, etc.

Why would they do this? Because their actions have no costs and if they don't take the fish, someone else will; or because their actions are seen as so insignificant that they do not matter. A person throws a piece of paper into the lake and thinks that it is only one tiny piece of paper, how much damage can it do.

The problem, said Hardin, is that because (1) no one owns the lake and becaue (2) each person sees his actions as insignificant and (3) it is better to get from the lake before others get from the lake, that in the end we will have a very different lake than the one people really want. It will be overfished and polluted (with trash).

It is interesting that no one wants this to be the outcome, but the outcome arises nevertheless because of the fact that no one has an incentive to act differently.

What will take care of the problem? The lake should be owned -- the common resource must be turned into a private resource. Then, the owner will make sure the lake is not overfished (or else he loses money), polluted (or he loses money), and so on.

In Hardin's original article, the solution to many of the TOC problems is to turn common property into private property.]

By the way, the poem "Recessional" by Kipling (Nobel Prize winner in Literature) is mentioned in the essay above. Here is the poem.

GOD of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart;
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire;
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard—
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding calls not Thee to guard.
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!


Post a Comment

<< Home