Eco-Economics Quackery


Daniel Ben-Ami's essay "The Dismal Quackery of Eco-Economics" at the invaluable spikedonline website is, as the Brits might say, "spot on."

Some highlights below:

There are two recurring themes running through the environmentalist approach to economics. First, an obsession with the need for limits. The environmentalist debate, in numerous different ways, assumes that strict limits must be put on economic activity. Such premises ignore or at least downplay the power of human creativity. Economic activity does indeed often throw up problems—such as pollution—but it also, it will be argued, provides the means to overcome them.

Second, the idea of precaution has more recently become more central to the debate. The prevalent assumption is that people need to be cautious about economic development because it could have harmful unintended consequences in the future. Often such fears are expressed in the language of 'sustainability'. The precautionary approach, unlike earlier forms of environmentalism, acknowledges the power of human creativity. But advocates of precaution tend to see such creativity as a source of problems, usually in the form of risk, rather than a positive attribute of human beings.

Underlying both assumptions is a misanthropic view of humanity. Environmentalism can be seen as a counterattack against a key premise of the Enlightenment: that a central part of progress consists of increasing human control over nature. Instead, environmentalists argue that humans should accept their place as a mere subsidiary of the natural world. In practice this means reconciling humanity to poverty, disease and natural disasters.

Whole thing here.

And in an exercise in shameless self-promotion, for my take on the failures of neo-Malthusianism see my essay, "The Law of Increasing Returns."

NEXT: Nuisance Nonsense

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  1. I like how the article dismisses the idea of unintended consequences. That certainly improves my confidence the writer.

  2. Fits in the paradigm I like to call “People are the problem” vs. “People are the solution”.

    Actually, the eco-left’s argument is more like “Other people are the problem, and *I/we* are the solution”

  3. Unbounded faith in the inevitability of human progress was dangerous when it took the form of communism. I don’t see this writer’s faith in the power of human creativity to solve all problems as being any different.

  4. The attitude and point of view this guy is arguing against surely exists and is surely problematic. But his glib broad-brush association of this POV with the term “environmentalism” is problematic as well. To recognize that environmental problems exist and to seek solutions to them does not inherently imply adherence to the whole frame of mind he opposes, at the same time I concur it is indeed all too common. Heh, I remember a friend telling me that her reaction to her economics course in college was that we need to move BEYOND that, or something like that which basically amounted to a rejection of what she had learned, as if something else were available. Wha?

  5. I think it comes down to a question of who gets to play god. EnvironMental Patients? think what we call progress is scientists playing god, that some Frankenstein’s monster will result, and that we won’t be able to go back again. EnvironMental Patients? usually claim to be athiests, but in reality are earth-worshippers. They position themselves as god’s (earth’s) messenger, and view themselves at a level of importance.

    Of course, if there is no god, even an earth-god, then they become pretty insignificant.

    Assuming for this one paragraph, that every piece of Junk Science (to borrow from Fomento) about global warming is true, should we really do anything about it today? What other problems are we solving with hundred year old technology? Why not solve it in a hundred years when we as a race are so much smarter, when it really needs to be addressed?

  6. Right! It’s like the people who are fixing the paintings and statues in the Sistene Chapel actually have more problems repairing the repairs done in the past than ithey do repairing the revages of time. What if some of the enviromental fixes cause more problems down the road?

  7. Maybe it is nitpicking, but Ben-Ami’s essay has a major problem that fyodor noted above, namely that it attacks a certain element of enviornmentalism he describes (basically)as “malthusian,” but then he proceeds with a more broad-stroked attack on “environmentalist” and “eco-economics” in general (in the first section), whilst ignoring a strong current in more mainstream environmental movements towards acknowledgment that economic growth and human creativity are, in fact, essential elements of a good environment. It seems intlectually dishonest, like he made up his mind and then found texts that justified his position, without looking for anything else, as if all “environmentalists” are of one mind when it comes to economic development.

    Second, his analysis of Garret Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” is flat wrong, which makes me think he did not actually read it, but rather read an interpretation of it in another cited text. Hardin’s essay argues primarily for the establishment of private property rights when a commons exists. He also mis-read the metaphor itself. It is flatly not about “placing limits on economic growth.” The latter is a fallacy perputated by the very “environmentalists” he is arguing against (and acknowledges in the end notes).

  8. For those against environmental regulations, are you *only* against environmental regulations or are you also against consumer protection regulations, such as those that deal with:
    – Banking
    – Insurance industry
    – Food industry
    – Pharmaceuticals
    – Medical industry
    – SEC regulations
    – etc…

    Just wondering…

  9. Chris-

    Uh, yes. And I suspect most others as well. This is a libertarian blog/comment board, after all. If you are hinting that some people who comment may be knee-jerk anti-environmentalists, then yes, that may be true, but I think they still would be consistently against most of the gov’t regs you site.

  10. Chris,

    The key issue for many of us is whether a rule is pre-emptively coercive, that is does it penalize someone who hasn’t violated the rights of anyone else. When regs penalize voluntary behavior, usually with the goal of protecting people from their own bad choices, we’re generally against them. When regs have the effect of penalizing fraud or behavior that leads to some tangible harm (often to third parties), some of us may be more open to them (but others will still be against them!).

  11. dlc
    I just find it interesting that there is a lot of vitriole poured on environmentalists, but not so much on those wanting regulate the stock market (SEC), the food industry, the insurance industry, etc.

  12. Libertarians oppose BUREAUCRATIC regulation but support common law and civil liability LIMITATION on activities that impose costs on others.
    Regulation increases costs, imposes costs on all economic activities, and generally fail to generate optimal solutions to problems.
    Liability, when reasonably implemented only imposes costs on those activities that cause harm to others. (and doesn’t require so much expensive bureaucracy)

  13. Sam:
    Here’s a quote from the EPA
    “EPA is playing a major role in addressing these residential lead hazards. In 1978, there were nearly three to four million children with elevated blood lead levels in the United States. In the 1990s, that number had dropped to 434,000 kids, and it continues to decline.”

    What would be the libertarian solution to lead contamination ?

  14. “Liability, when reasonably implemented only imposes costs on those activities that cause harm to others.”

    So let’s suppose for the sake of argument that unregulated emissions from all of the nation’s manufacturing plants, etc. cause serious health problems. How would you use liability to solve this problem? Class action suit against every polluter? How would you demonstrate in court that the emissions of a particular factory are over a reasonable limit? How would the factory owners be expected to know what a reasonable limit is if the law didn’t specify it? How would you demonstrate that the plaintiffs’ health problems were caused by pollution and not other factors?

    Not to mention that GM can probably afford better legal representation than some citizens’ group.

  15. LisaMarie: You seem to miss the point, which is that the most divergent ideologies will appeal to similar groups of people in different eras. The same belief that one has found the key to human progress (True Communism or the Truly Free Market), the same love of hairsplitting, the same belief that The Tide of History Is on Our Side, the same attraction to abstractions, the same fascination with arguments that seem weird to mainstream people (Are black Americans a “nation” in Stalin’s sense? Can private enterprise provide for national defense?) can be found in many young Marxist intellectuals of a few decades ago and in many libertarian intellectuals of a few decades later…

  16. What if some of the enviromental fixes cause more problems down the road?

    Then we fix those problems.

    The parallels between Marxism and Libertarianism couldn’t possibly be more ridiculous, by the way. The flaw in Marxism, and in leftist ideology in general, is its blind faith in the ability of expert central planners to make the correct decisions for everybody. The Free Market approach holds that the best solutions emerge in the absence of central planning. The modern-day Marxists are the environmentalists, who arrogantly assume that they possess both the ability and the right to correctly dictate the manner in which people must live their lives. They are wrong, as they have always been. The best solution has always been to trust to human creativity and individuality.

  17. (Sigh.) It’s amazing to see how people like Dan and LisaMarie can miss my point, but in a way it actually confirms it. The whole pathos of being an ideologue is that one doesn’t see that he or she *is* an ideologue and doesn’t see the psychological and sociological resemblances between ideologues of different ideologies. But in the case of spiked-online it should hardly even be necessary to stress the resemblances. Read what they said when they were LM or before it Living Marxism. (Yes, those folks at spiked-online were once the Revolutionary Communist Party.) The *tone* is really very much the same. But an ideologue is almost by definition tone-deaf.

  18. Dan:
    “The Free Market approach holds that the best solutions emerge in the absence of central planning.”

    And yet… Libertarians do believe in government for police and national defence. If the Free Market is *always* better than government, why the exceptions for policing and national defence ?

    Also, in Milton Freidman’s book “Free to Choose” (a libertarian text), he argues (at least in the early editions) that pollution is an example of market failure, and that there is a place for government regulation of pollution. As far as I know, Milton Friedman is no raving marxist, enviro-fascist.

  19. DavidT – I would suggest that the conversion of David Horowitz and many of the neocons like Bill Kristol are similar examples. Horowitz started as a Marxist and is now far-right, but the tone and stridency of his writings, and the blind faith he has in his own ideology, has not changed. Horowitz’s autobiography (Radical Son) nicely illustrates this.

    Chris- I think the vitriol is really more of a reaction to some environmentalist’s tactics. People wanting to regulate the SEC aren’t blowing up logging equipment or spray-painting SUV’s. Frankly, as a person who cares deeply about the environment and also believes in the free market, I too find the majority of hard core environmentalists loathsome, or at least far more so than somebody working in earnest to change some USPAP rule for appraisal of farm land.


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