Tuesday, August 26, 2014

environmental talking points and references

This is an appeal for myself and others to study more rigorously the real state of the world, ie. the environmental world and its connections to the political, ethical, philosophical and economic worlds. My study is incomplete but I feel I have done enough to make some valid points and to map out a path of further study. At the least, this article is an annotated reading list which indicates the general direction of my thinking at this stage.

It is difficult to separate your hopes and world view (we all carry around and rely on bullshit detectors, filters and blinkers) from an objective assessment of what is really happening in the world.

At one extreme there is a world view which I will call "deep Green" that we are rushing towards environmental Armageddon. At the other extreme you find cheery technological optimism, that any problems created by our technological advance can also be solved by further technological progress.

In history we find people who have made extreme predictions and have ended up looking foolish. See The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon and Our Gamble over Earth's Future
"University of Illinois economist Julian Simon challenged Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich to put his money where his mouth was and wager up to $1,000 on whether the prices of five different metals would rise or fall over the next decade. Ehrlich and Simon saw the price of metals as a proxy for whether the world was hurtling toward apocalyptic scarcity (Ehrlich’s position) or was on the verge of creating greater abundance (Simon’s).

Ehrlich was the country’s, and perhaps the world’s, most prominent environmental Cassandra. He argued in books, articles, lectures, and popular television programs that a worldwide population explosion threatened humanity with “the most colossal catastrophe in history” and would result in hundreds of millions of deaths from starvation and dire shortages not just of food but all types of raw materials.

Simon, who passed away in 1998, was a population optimist. A disciple of conservative University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, Simon believed the doomsayers’ models gave little or no credit to the power of efficient markets and innovative minds for developing substitutes for scarce resources and managing out of crises. He went so far as to claim that population growth should “thrill rather than frighten us.”
Although Paul Ehrlich's extreme predictions were wrong and the bet was won by Julian Simon it does not follow logically that there may be extreme environmental concerns that we should be dealing with urgently. I think the only valid response to those ringing alarm bells about environmental issues is to investigate deeply the real state of the world. This is a different response to ridiculing alarmists who have been wrong in the past.

Humans are contrasted to nature by the deep Green side of the discussion. I feel that the humans - nature division is a false dichotomy which leads to a contamination of language. Words such as wilderness, sustainability, biodiversity and ecology need to be looked at carefully.

Wilderness is a human social, religious construct. This is powerfully argued from within the environmental movement by William Cronon in The Trouble with Wilderness. The concept of wilderness tends to reinforce a polarised human-nature dichotomy with nature worship on one side and arrogant human "mastery" of nature on the other.

Biodiversity appears to be a plural concept, a pseudo scientific term, partly invented for environ-political reasons, which can't be clearly defined (see James MacLaurin and Kim Sterelny's What is Biodiversity?). No doubt, biodiversity is a "good thing" but there isn't just one biodiversity but a plurality.

Is ecology a science, or, what sort of science is ecology? Mark Sagoff suggests that it isn't a science (What Does Environmental Protection Protect?), that holistic systems ecology is a figment of the environmental imagination, that ecological concepts such as structure, function, stability, resilience (emergent holistic properties) are more or less meaningless terms. In his vision the whole debate about invasive species is a distraction since species migrating is a natural process anyway. However, I lean to those who seem to be more expert on this issue such as Daniel Simberloff, who specifically reject Mark Sagoff's views and who appear to have studied the issue more closely:
"Sagoff [Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 18 (2005), 215–236] argues, against growing empirical evidence, that major environmental impacts of non-native species are unproven. However, many such impacts, including extinctions of both island and continental species, have both been demonstrated and judged by the public to be harmful"
A better descriptor of where we are at is co-evolution in the Anthropocene.
"The Anthropocene is an informal geologic chronological term that marks the evidence and extent of human activities that have had a significant global impact on the Earth's ecosystems" (Wikipedia).
This recognises that we are both part of nature, an evolutionary product, as well as recognising our unique influence over nature, both good and bad.

How can this issue be better framed? Humans who are a part of nature, a tool making product of natural evolution, are destroying huge amounts of the rest of nature and this is bad in its own right (in a spiritual or aesthetic sense) as well as incredibly dangerous for human quality of life too (anthropogenic global warming and other issues - ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, nitrogen cycle, phosphorous cycle, global freshwater use, change in land use, biodiversity loss, atmospheric aerosol loading and chemical pollution). The claim is that we are shitting in our own nest and that is aesthetically ugly and dangerous for our own health.

"Tread lightly on the Earth". This is an ascetic and / or anti consumerist position. eg. Mahatma Gandhi. Poverty ennobles and wealth corrupts. But it turns out that in India Mahatma Gandhi is highly respected for his nationalistic, non violent and humanistic outlooks but less respected for his ascetic, deprivation and traditional viewpoints, that the caste system is natural, akin to an ecological niche. Once again, the modernist beliefs in equality undermines the position of letting things stay as they are. See Shome, Siddhartha's The New India versus the Global Green Brahmins.

But anti-consumerism, for those who are currently advantaged, can be argued from a non Gandhi position as well. See the Vaclav Smil references below.

Pascal Bruckner has written a philosophical critique and addressed the House of Lords about the promotion of fear and mother earth as a sacred object by deep Green ideology. I would see this as an important contribution to human political psychology but one which does not claim to begin to investigate the real state of the physical world.

There is no static balance in nature. Irreversible change has always been the real state of the natural world. See Alston Chase's In a Dark Wood: The Fight over Forests and the Myths of Nature where he critiques the biocentric viewpoints that "There is a balance of nature", 'that nature can be "healthy' or "unhealthy" ' in a similar sense to the human body being healthy or unhealthy, that "in the beginning all was perfect" (a Garden of Eden or Golden Age) and that "Nature is sacred".

Rambunctious Garden is a good metaphor for an environmental future. Not the only metaphor but a good metaphor. This is the title of a book by Emma Marris. Subtitle: Saving Nature in a Post Wild World. She is saying that nurturing nature in the big cities is an important part of the path we go down. It fits my preferred vision of human-nature co evolution in the Anthropocene. However, it does seem to be written more from the point of view of how to think about nature rather than an attempt to assess the real state of the world:
Every single chapter challenged my thinking about how we classify and define what is natural, what’s worth saving, why, and how to got about it. However, I must admit, I began reading with the expectation of spending some time communing with, well, nature. But this book dwells less on experiential factors and more on the meta: it dives deeply into the thinking and philosophical frameworks that undergird the conservation of nature today. http://sciencetrio.wordpress.com/2013/07/12/review-rambunctious-garden-saving-nature-in-a-post-wild-world-by-emma-marris/
Anthropogenic global warming has received more attention than any other issue of late. A reasonable solution to the anthropogenic global warming issue has been articulated: massive increase in R&D in non carbon energy sources, including nuclear (see The Climate Fix by Roger Pielke jnr; The Long Death of Environmentalism by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus).

I agree with the Shellenberger / Nordhaus article which concludes with 12 theses, 8 approaches that won't work and 4 approaches that will work.

Eight approaches that won't work:
  1. better, louder climate science won't transform the global energy economy
  2. fear / scare tactics backfire
  3. environmental justification won't work
  4. anti consumerism won't work
  5. regulation / pricing schemes won't achieve a clean energy economy
  6. climate change is not a traditional pollution problem
  7. a soft energy path (reduced green energy) is a dead end
  8. internalising fossil fuel cost won't work
Four approaches that will work:
  1. R&D into clean energy
  2. embrace nuclear power
  3. the State needs to invest in clean energy
  4. Big, centralised energy is the way to go, not Small is beautiful
But ocean acidification is a relatively understated problem which may lead to extreme marine life destruction through destruction of coral reefs. (see Elizabeth Kolbert's "Ocean Acidification"). Roger Pielke snr has long warned against the issue of ocean acidification as have scientists concerned about the future of Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

Several writers have pointed out that the widening gap between the world's rich and the world's poor (both in terms of money and access to energy) over rides environmental concerns. See Chris Foreman's On Justice Movements: Why They Fail the Environment and the Poor. Roger Pielke's iron law is correct, "that when policies focused on economic growth confront policies focused on emission reductions, it is economic growth that will win out every time" (The Climate Fix, p. 46).

Thomas Wells, in Debating Climate Change: The need for economic reasoning also argues that a pragmatic approach is far more likely to succeed than moralising about the state of the earth.

Poor people and indigenous people, "the wretched of the earth", usually desire modernity. Listen to Marcia Langton's Boyer lectures about how the mining industry, for all their faults, has done more for Australian aboriginals than the Australian government. You can't leave out the poor in your environmental considerations.

The problem with "the noble savage" metaphor is that our progressive Enlightenment values such as equality of women, non violent raising of children, against capital punishment, for democracy are repelled by the values of tribal hunter gatherer societies, once we scrutinise them carefully. Modern people aren't prepared to give up modern values and so "the noble savage" metaphor fails.

Bjorn Lomborg built his reputation initially around his book The Skeptical Environmentalist. Lomborg began by trying to refute Julian Simon's optimism for the future but ended by agreeing with him. Following that he developed the Copenhagen Consensus forums about the best way to spend money to solve world problems. However, Lomborg has come under a lot of criticism for inaccuracies in his work (which he fails to acknowledge) and promoting short term issues over longer term issues. I must admit that I like a lot of what Lomborg does but feel that the criticisms developed at Kare Fog's website, Lomborg Errors, do significantly weaken his case.

There are a few books around about the threat to biodiversity. If you prefer one written by an actual scientist then see Edward O Wilson's, The Future of Life (2003). Others, written by journalists without a strong background in science, include The Sixth Extinction (2014) by Elizabeth Kolbert and The Song of the Dodo (1997) by David Quammen).

I read Edward O Wilson's 12 dot point "strategy aimed at the protection of most of the remaining ecosystems and species" which is on pp. 160-64 of his book along with some other parts of his Ch 7 "The Solution". In summary:
  • Salvage the hotspots, 1.4% of the Earth's land surface protects 44% of known vascular plants and 36% of known mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.
  • Keep intact the 5 remaining frontier forests
  • Cease all logging of old growth forests
  • Save lakes and river systems
  • Define and save marine hotspots, eg. coral reefs
  • Complete the mapping of the world's biological diversity
  • include the full range of the world's ecosystems, eg. deserts, arctic tundras
  • make conservation profitable
  • use Genetic Engineered crops
  • initiate restoration projects, from the current 10% of protected land up to 50%
  • use zoos and botanic gardens to breed endangered species
  • support population planning
I still feel that technological risk taking is a sensible way for the human race to proceed (the proactionary principle critique of the precautionary principle, http://www.maxmore.com/proactionary.html).
People’s freedom to innovate technologically is highly valuable, even critical, to humanity. This implies several imperatives when restrictive measures are proposed: Assess risks and opportunities according to available science, not popular perception. Account for both the costs of the restrictions themselves, and those of opportunities foregone. Favor measures that are proportionate to the probability and magnitude of impacts, and that have a high expectation value. Protect people’s freedom to experiment, innovate, and progress.
R&D, nuclear power and genetic engineering are important parts of the solution. Humans are a tool making species and irreversible change has always been normal. But technological optimism as a blind faith is not a good outlook. Be neither a religious environmental alarmist nor a religious technological optimist. Rather explore the facts of the real state of the earth, without hype.

The Planetary Boundaries analysis asserts that we are headed towards environmental tipping points in a number of fields: climate system, ocean-acidification, ozone depletion, phosphorous levels, land use change, biodiversity loss, nitrogen levels, freshwater use, aerosol loading and chemical pollution. For some critical discussion of this view see Nordhaus, Schellenberger and Blomqvist. The Planetary Boundaries Hypothesis: A Review of the Evidence. They assert that in most cases these are not "tipping points" in a global sense but need to be evaluated according to local conditions. However, they do agree that Climate Change and Ocean-acidification are in grave danger of reaching tipping points.

So, which authors are on the track of documenting the real state of the world? How will issues such as rich-poor gap, energy, biodiversity, global warming etc. work themselves out in the future? I've become very interested in the writings of Vaclav Smil who has written Harvesting the Biosphere: What we have taken from nature (2012) and Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next 50 years (2008). I've only read selected extracts from these books so far and feel that he is neither an environmental alarmist or denier but someone striving to work out the real state of the world.

Some of Smil's other writings (about energy, nitrogen / food and oil - see references) could provide extremely valuable background knowledge about how to think about these issues.


Brand, Stewart. 2009. Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands and Geo-engineering are Necessary.

Bruckner, Pascal. 2013. The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse: Save the Earth, Punish Human Beings.

Bruckner, Pascal. Against Environmental Panic.

Bruckner, Pascal. 2013. Address to House of Lords

Chase, Alston. 2001. In a Dark Wood: The Fight over Forests and the Myths of Nature

Cronon, William. 1995. The Trouble with Wilderness. http://www.williamcronon.net/writing/Cronon_Trouble_with_Wilderness_1995.pdf

Foreman, Chris. 2013. On Justice Movements: Why They Fail the Environment and the Poor.

Kolbert, Elizabeth 2014 "Ocean Acidification" http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/04/ocean-acidification/kolbert-text

Kolbert, Elizabeth 2014. The Sixth Extinction

Langton, Marcia. 2012. The Quiet Revolution: Indigenous People and the Resources Boom.

Lomborg, Bjorn. 2001. The Skeptical Environmentalist

Lomborg Errors. http://www.lomborg-errors.dk/ (Kare Fog)

Marris, Emma. 2011. Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post Wild World

MacLaurin, James and Sterelny, Kim. 2008. What is Biodiversity?

Nordhaus, Ted; Schellenberger, Michael; Blomqvist, Linus. The Planetary Boundaries Hypothesis: A Review of the Evidence.

Pielke jnr, Roger. 2010. The Climate Fix

Planetary Boundaries. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planetary_boundaries

Proactionary Principle. http://www.maxmore.com/proactionary.html

Quammen, David. (1997) The song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction (1997)

Sabin, Paul. 2013. The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon and Our Gamble over Earth's Future

Sagoff, Mark. 2013. What Does Environmental Protection Protect? http://cstp.gmu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Sagoff-environmental-protection-for-CSTP-1-24-13.pdf

Shellenberger, Michael and Nordhaus, Ted. 2011. The Long Death of Environmentalism

Shome, Siddhartha. 2012. The New India versus the Global Green Brahmins. http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/past-issues/issue-2/the-new-india-versus-the-global-green-brahmins

Simberloff, Daniel. 2005. Non-native Species DO Threaten the Natural Environment!

Simberloff, Daniel. 2013. Invasive Species: What everyone needs to know

Smil, Vaclav. 2001. Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch and the Transformation of World Food Production.

Smil, Vaclav. 2008. Oil: A Beginner's Guide.

Smil, Vaclav. 2008. Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next 50 Years

Smil, Vaclav. 2010. Energy Myths and Realities.

Smil, Vaclav. 2012. Harvesting the Biosphere: What we have taken from Nature

Soule, Michael. 1985. What is Conservation Biology?

Wells, Thomas. Debating Climate Change: The need for economic reasoning.

Wilson Edward O. 2003. The Future of Life

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