Environmentalism

Can We Save Nature by Making It Economically Useless?

"Decoupling" human economy from ecology could render large areas of pastures, croplands, and managed forests too remote for exploitation.

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"The way we will save nature is by rendering it economically worthless," declared Ted Nordhaus. Nordhaus, chairman of the Breakthrough Institute, was speaking at "Making Nature Useless," a seminar sponsored by the D.C.-based think tank Resources for the Future. With that one sentence, he summed up the entire session's theme.

The session kicked off Wednesday afternoon with a talk by Iddo Wernick, a researcher at Rockefeller University's Program for the Human Environment, who discussed trends in resource consumption. "Can improving efficiency and changing consumer preferences overwhelm rising population and affluence to reduce the tons of material that Americans use? The world?" Wernick asked.

Wernick and his colleagues collected consumption data on 100 materials that have long been used in the U.S. economy. The commodities were sorted into three categories: those in which both intensity of use (kilograms per dollar of GDP) and absolute consumption (kilograms overall) are falling; those in which intensity of use is falling but absolute consumption is still increasing; and those in which both intensity of use and absolute consumption are increasing.

Thirty-six of these materials fall into the first category, including chromium, iron ore, pig iron, copper, lead, and asbestos. Fifty-three fell into the second group, among them corn, electricity, nitrogen, beef, nickel, and petroleum. Wernick believes that many of these commodities will soon reach their absolute peak—that is, the point where an economy decreases its consumption of a material resource even as economic growth and increases in wealth continue to multiply. For example, nitrogen fertilizer use has been essentially flat since the 1980s even as crop yields have risen. U.S. population increased 80 million since the 1980, yet the country uses no more water than it did then.

Peak Materials
Wernick

And then there are the 11 commodities for which both intensity of use and absolute amounts are still increasing. These include diamonds, gallium, rhenium, niobium, helium, garnets, and chicken. Wernick pointed out that while the absolute amounts of these 11 commodities are still increasing, the actual tonnage is quite small. Except for chicken, most of the commodities in this group function as technological "vitamins" that enhance the efficiency of many other industrial processes and technologies

Why chicken? In part, because Americans are substituting it for beef. Program for the Human Environment director Jesse Ausubel outlined an input productivity hierarchy of meats, analogizing beef to getting 12 miles per gallon, pigs 40 mpg, chicken 60 mpg, and tilapia and catfish 80 mpg.

How do the trends look in the rest of the world? Those data are much sparser, but Wernick was able to find reliable info in some cases. Japanese aluminum consumption, like U.S. aluminum consumption, peaked in the 1990s. Per capita petroleum consumption peaked in the U.S. around 1970 and in Japan and South Korea in the 1990s. China and India are both on the early part of their consumption curves for materials, yet Wernick argues that "while Asian countries are at different stages of development, they show similar patterns of eventual saturation." Ausubel added that Japan and the Europe are paralleling materials consumption patterns identified in the U.S. "I expect that in two or three decades that it will be the same story in China and India," he added.

Nordhaus spoke next. "Why are we using just half of the planet's ice-free land surface?" he asked the audience. Cropland only occupies about 12 percent; pasture, 24 percent; managed forests, 9 percent; cities, 3 percent. About 12 percent of the world's ice-free land, he noted, has been formally set aside for conservation and preservation. What makes that 12 percent different? His answer is that, for the most part, it is too high, too dry, too steep, and too remote. We have saved what we have saved, he suggested, largely because it is not worth anything economically. Most of the lands that are not legally protected but remain unexploited share the same economically off-putting characteristics.

Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute, next suggested that the trends identified by Wernick could lead to the decoupling of the human economy from nature's ecology. This decoupling will be achieved by means of intensification, otherwise known as getting more from less, and substitution, using less environmentally damaging materials. In a sense, decoupling would render increasingly large areas of current pastures, croplands, and managed forests too remote for economic exploitation.

This is precisely the process that Wernick and Program for the Human Environment Director Jesse Ausubel described in their earlier work, in which they predicted that humanity is on the cusp of "peak farmland." If current land-use trends continue, an enormous amount of crop and pasture land will be abandoned and returned to nature by 2060, with the full amount falling somewhere between 146 million hectares (two and half times the size of France) and 400 million hectares (nearly double the size of the eastern U.S.). As an example of a working landscape that went fallow, Ausubel cited the vast Maine woods. Abandoned by the paper companies, those forests have been turned over to the state government, which is now trying to figure out what to do with them.

Urbanization contributes to the process of decoupling economy and ecology, since fewer hungry people engaged in low productivity subsistence farming mean more land for nature. Think of it this way: Right now, about half of the world's population of 7.2 billion still lives scattered across the landscape. By 2050, United Nations demographers estimate that cities could hold 70 percent of a population of 9 billion. World population would be higher, but the globe's rural population would fall from 3.6 billion to 2.7 billion.

During the question and answer session, several audience members expressed concern that none of the presenters had mentioned an explicit role for regulation in hurrying along these environmentally beneficial trends. Nordhaus argued that government research and development policy had played a big role in fostering the technologies that have led to the current fracking energy boom, because it funded horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing R&D as a response to the 1970's "oil crises."  Wernick noted that regulations can cut both ways. On one hand, government directives accelerated the demise of the use of toxics like cadmium, lead, and arsenic. On the other, government subsidies and mandates have led to environmentally damaging increases in the acres devoted to growing corn to burn as fuel in our automobiles.

Analysts with old-fashioned Malthusian mindsets are again decrying the imminent approach of "peak everything" followed by a collapse of civilization. The data presented at Wednesday's seminar points toward a much happier version of "peak everything," as humanity increasingly withdraws from the natural world during the rest of this century.

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60 responses to “Can We Save Nature by Making It Economically Useless?

  1. We should consider this twice.

    1. Can we save nature at the expense of ourselves? Probably yes. The answer here is intensification and substitution. Well, we’re stuck with humanity, there’s no substitution possible at least for the foreseeable future we’re not going to be able to decouple from nature by turning ourselves into robots or whatever. So that leaves intensification which means billions more people living in our cities – more noise, more crowds, less privacy, and of course more control – a more intensive life for us and our associates, the viruses, parasites and pests that depend on us.

      I don’t see how the above is any kind of ideal to work towards to no matter how well it is regarded by economists and sociologists.

      1. Which part of this is the lie? Or the lies?

        1. You tell me. If you can, that is.

  2. “The way we will save nature is by rendering it economically worthless,” declared Ted Nordhaus.

    This assertion tells you two things immediately:

    One, Ted Nordhaus is embarrassingly ignorant of economics.

    Second, Nordhaus loves to commit logical contradictions in single sentences, to wit: the fact that he aims to SAVE nature means it is economically valuable to HIM (at least) because of all the choices he faces every day he chose to talk about this issue in particular.

    1. OM: The goal is make energy (especially) and resources so cheap that humanity abandons land (already happening) and ceases to extract minerals, crops, and timber in damaging ways. Will this happen? Stay tuned.

      1. Re: Ron Bailey,

        The goal is make energy (especially) and resources so cheap that humanity abandons land (already happening) and ceases to extract minerals, crops, and timber in damaging ways.

        Thank you for NOT addressing what I posited above. How can you trust a person who makes such conceptual and logical errors, I ask?

        Anyway, I get the gist of what is being talked about, but there are a couple of things that you seem not to take into account, like the subjectivity of value. Only a individual can say what is a resource to HIM or HER, not someone else. *I* don’t consider copper a resource if *I* don’t use copper for anything, but for my neighbor may be vital. That could sway me to enter the copper business so I can trade copper for money and thus other goods but that wouldn’t make me think that copper is a resource worth “conserving”. Why would I? As long as my neighbor wants it, why not extract as much as I can?

        The other is property rights. I can and should be able to exploit MY PROPERTY without some busybody telling me anything, as long as I don’t interfere with someone else’s property rights. So using the qualifier “damaging” is meaningless. It is nothing more than engaging in moralizing.

      2. It is still utter nonsense Ron. What is happening is that production of things like food is getting so efficient that you need fewer and fewer resources to do the same thing. We only use less farm land because we are able to grow so much more on a given amount of land. So we are not making nature useless. In fact we are making nature more valuable.

        The phrasing makes me suspicious this guy is a moron whose solution to the environment is returning to some kind of pre human state.

        1. I think he wanted to shock people into giving him attention, which seems to be a good strategy in the era of the Internet Blurb. But it’s not hard to see why convicted Misesians would be irritated by the way he framed the issue.

      3. The best way to save nature is for humans to inhabit dense areas away from nature. Unfortunately, zoning laws make high density illegal and force development to occur horizontally. Sprawl is a product of regulations.

        1. those laws are being changed people are now actively trying to get people into the “no new land” use mode and some areas have already enacted such laws. Portland Oregon has already created zoning laws that no longer allows farm land to be subdivided further for development requiring all new residences to be only on already on residential zoned property in other words multiple housing units no more individual detached homes.

      4. Annnnnnd the leading clean power options that these people will allow (to make energy cheap?!) are the enormously land impacting wind and solar power.

        OM is right. This guy is a economic ignoramus. But his ideas seem to have sucked you in.

        Dude, do you even libertarian?

        1. JWW: Yes. BTW, just in case of possible confusion – “Ron” is not Ron Bailey.

          In re Oregon’s idiotic zoning – zoning green rings around cities (Portland) is exactly the wrong policy – causes more land development farther from city centers.

    2. He is misusing “economically worthless”, to be sure. What he seems to be arguing is that if we don’t need to use vast tracts of land to make the things we want and need, then those vast tracts of land will simply not be used, thereby returning to a state that is relatively unaltered by human activity.

      That doesn’t seem ludicrous.

  3. On one hand, government directives accelerated the demise of the use of toxics like cadmium, lead, and arsenic. On the other, government subsidies and mandates have led to environmentally damaging increases in the acres devoted to growing corn to burn as fuel in our automobiles.

    So then there’s no downside to government nudgings!

  4. Seems to me that worthless things get treated poorly. I think it was David Freidman who pointed out that if you want a good, find a real use for it.
    If you want cows, eat beef. If we want trees, make paper.

    1. “Worthless” was probably the wrong word to use. I don’t know if “worthless things get treated poorly” is entirely true either. More indifferently, I’d say.

    2. The preference for conservationists seems to be that as much land as possible is simply left alone, i.e., not treated at all. It doesn’t seem out of the question that this would happen if lots of land was not needed to create the things that consumers want and need.

      Of course, it is also plausible that such land will turn into a dumping ground.

      The mistake these guys seem to be making is in conflating “not needed for resource extraction/development” with “economically worthless”. Of course, recreation and conservation are two alternative uses that certainly are worthwhile to some people, hence land in such a state is not worthless.

      Right now, significant tracts of land are more valuable if used for resource extraction/development than recreation/conservation, as evidenced by the larger profits that can be had from the former vs the latter. These guys seem to be arguing that as resource extraction/development becomes more efficient, more land will become more valuable when used for recreation/conservation, OR will simply not be worth the cost of travelling to/living in given urban alternatives and will hence be abandoned outright.

      1. “OR will simply not be worth the cost of travelling to/living in given urban alternatives and will hence be abandoned outright.”

        Given the tightening has-mat/disposal regulations, I’m sure I know of one use to which this ‘worthless’ land will be put.

  5. We’re having golden goose this Thanksgiving.

  6. We have saved what we have saved, he suggested, largely because it is not worth anything economically.

    Nobody has “saved” anything – except busybody governments. The reason people use less land or the same acreage for production despite a rising population is because of increased productivity and because fewer people like to toil the land. Cities have a special appeal for many. It is not a question of “saving” land for conservation. Conservation of what? For whom?

    Most of the lands that are not legally protected but remain unexploited share the same economically off-putting characteristics.

    Save Nature by salting the fields. That would render them “economically worthless” if remoteness seems too yucky [i.e. too “Markety”] for you.

    1. It might be said, too, that a lot of the land that’s supposedly protected isn’t really protected.

      The Clive Bundy situation aside, there are plenty of environmentalists who will tell you that the BLM isn’t there to protect land from ranchers; it’s there to protect ranchers from environmentalists.

      Meanwhile, “protecting” something as a national park can serve to destroy it.

      http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07…..ivity.html

      1. Not only are Cali’s NIMBY land use laws bad for the poor, but they are bad for the environment as well. People who cannot live in california move to Nevada and Arizona, where they use far more energy for air conditioning. Repealing Cali’s zoning laws, congestion pricing, and the nationwide repeal of free parking mandates would greatly lower America’s energy consumption.

        http://economix.blogs.nytimes……the-trees/

        1. CA’s Ds care about the environment exactly enough to calc the votes resulting from a particular claim they can get the CA press to publish.
          Beyond that, well, think John Gruber.

  7. “U.S. population increased 80 million since the 1980, yet the country uses no more water than it did then.”

    We’ve done some smart things to be able to use more of the water we get our hands on, but we’re still doing some incredibly wasteful things, too–a lot of it because of government.

    For instance, in cities throughout California, the infrastructure is set up to take all the water that flows through the storm drains and get rid of it as quickly as possible. We should be using that water–not getting rid of it.

    There’s also the problem of people being icked out by treated water, and that’s a consumer choice thing–but it’s also regulated by government. Meanwhile, water companies spend a lot of money pumping treated water back out to water sources that eventually gets slurped up and used by other municipalities downstream for drinking water anyway.

    I wish more Californians understood how much water we squander because of the way our water control infrastructure was built. It wouldn’t have been built that way in a freer market, and we’d have a whole lot more water to go around.

    1. KS: It wouldn’t have been built that way in a freer market, and we’d have a whole lot more water to go around.

      Correct.

  8. S: Friedman is correct at the current level of productivity – the way to protect and increase resources is allocate property rights so that people internalize costs.

    Nordhaus’ observation is that natural resources in remote areas tend not to be exploited at all – however, if demand rises enough and technology improves enough, then to the extent that even remote resources remain in the environmental commons, they will be treated badly.

    1. I’m thinking if we had eggs, we could have ham and eggs, if we had ham.
      Reducing ag-use of land is not going to physically make it remote, which seems a poor second to private ownership for preventing harm in the first place.

      1. If we had flying cars, remote land would be much more valuable for residential purposes.

        1. I WAS PROMISED A JET PACK! WHERE IS MY PERSONAL JET PACK?!

          1. I want to see in X-rays!!

    2. If a resource is used in the forest and no environmentalist hears it, was Gaia raped?

  9. Further evidence that the best way to preserve nature is to advance technologically. As for advancing technologically, free markets win.

    1. Advance technologically and make more people richer.

  10. Why chicken? In part, because Americans are substituting it for beef. Program for the Human Environment director Jesse Ausubel outlined an input productivity hierarchy of meats, analogizing beef to getting 12 miles per gallon, pigs 40 mpg, chicken 60 mpg, and tilapia and catfish 80 mpg.

    WTF are they talking about? Beef runs around $6/lb, Chicken $2/lb,Tilapia is about $5/lb and Catfish is $6/lb.

    Fish is not cheap. Fish is as expensive as beef, usually more. Salmon will run you $10/lb when it’s not on sale.

    1. I think they’re talking about it in terms of environmentally sensitive inputs per pound–without taking things like supply limitations and demand quantities into consideration.

      It may be that saffron is worth more than gold per ounce right now, on the open market, but it may take more in terms of environmentally sensitive inputs to grow saffron than to mine gold.

      I mean, that’s why he’s using “mpg” rather than dollars.

      1. I’m skeptical that chicken is less bad for the environment than beef.
        Especially grass-fed beef.

    2. Fish is not cheap. Fish is as expensive as beef, usually more. Salmon will run you $10/lb when it’s not on sale.

      IDK the details because I don’t like their line of thinking, but I assume it’s based around land use rather than resources consumed.

      So, if an acre yields about 500# of beef per year, the same acre would yield 2500# of chicken and 4000# of catfish.

      This, of course, ignores the fact that the catfish will taste like shit, be full of mercury and require several full-time laborers to bring to market.

      1. Also the chicken poop and other stuff that is going to wind up in the water supply.

        Fish farms aren’t all that clean either.

        But their line of reasoning makes no sense. American’s aren’t substituting chicken because it’s more environmentally friendly. They are substituting it because it is CHEAPER.
        The aren’t substituting fish at all. That’s just a total non-sequitor.

  11. “I expect that in two or three decades that it will be the same story in China and India,”

    I think the overall point is sound, but can you really separate it out by country in a globalized economy?

    Imagine if I was making a living by digging up aluminum and making horse statues out of it for $100. I then decided to write software instead, for $200. But I still wanted my horses, so I sent the aluminum horse factory to China. My output would increase, and my local aluminum production/consumption would go to zero, so i would look ‘green’. But in reality, if considered globally, aluminum production/consumption would be unchanged, just relocated.

  12. Side note, if you live in the N. Virginia area, I suggest visiting Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve to witness some of the awesomeness of reclaimed farmland being returned to nature.

    The cool thing about it is that it is in the region’s lowlands along a creek, instead of up in the Blue Ridge, which is where most people go. So, you get kind of a different ecology, which is quickly being consumed by the exanding suburbs. You get to see what N. Virginia’s natural state actually looks like without townhouses all over it.

    1. N. Virgina’s natural state isn’t townhouses? Yes, it was too easy.

      1. I haven’t been home in so long.

        And I read a comment like that and think I don’t ever want to go home again.

        1. You don’t even want to know.

          There are these vast seas of identical brand new townhouses filling up the vacant spaces between the zones of McMansions and the vast seas of slightly older townhouses.

  13. Hello to the more learned of you than I on the subject(probably all).

    I have a question about the environmental impact of graze feeding versus the industrial style. I frequently have arguments with my liberal friends about the subject and contend that the centralized, GMO method of production is more environmentally beneficial due to the shorter time needed in order to bring the livestock to slaughter as well as consuming less land acreage.

    The usual retort falls into the “GMO’s are bad, m’kay” category. The science of that aside, am I off base? Any links available off the top of your head pertaining to the subject would be appreciated. Thanks in advance.

    1. If you’re dealing with the sort of people who just think “GMOs are bad, m’kay?” then they probably fall in one of two categories:

      1. People with a quasi-religious belief that tampering with nature is sacreligious.

      2. People who really just hate corporations, a low.

      Reasoning with either group about the actual environmental effects of anything is pointless.

      1. These kind of people should be forbidden by law from buying anything at a grocery store or from any restaurant.

        They should be made to subsist only on what they grow themselves.

        A few years of that would sure cut back on their numbers.

        1. “They should be made to subsist only on what they grow themselves.
          A few years of that would sure cut back on their numbers.”

          Yep, the festive holiday dinners of rocks and lichen would thin the ranks quickly.

      2. You left out a third category: Misnathropes. The left and enviro-wacko movement are full of them. Odumbass is one of them.

    2. Erasmus vs. Luther|11.10.14 @ 3:20PM|#
      “Hello to the more learned of you than I on the subject(probably all).”

      Keep your eye on this and ‘animal husbandry’ threads.
      There is a guy/gal who posts irregularly and seemingly raises beef cattle; s/he cuts through the BS about ‘grass feeding’, etc, and certainly knows the econ behind it.
      Can’t remember the handle, but just keep an eye out for really knowledgeable posts on the issue.

  14. Urbanization contributes to the process of decoupling economy and ecology, since fewer hungry people engaged in low productivity subsistence farming mean more land for nature.

    This is a bizarre statement. Urbanization =/= modernization =/= technological advancement.

    It should be obvious that a subsistent farm is not intrinsically an environmental backwater relative to a blighted (subsistent?) suburb or that you have to develop the modern skyscraper or apartment complex before you can develop/perfect fertilizer or pesticide science.

    1. I think they’re looking at it as a developed or natural acre.

      If the land goes fallow long enough, it will go back to nature and provide natural habitat for…whatever.

      Decoupled economy and ecology, indeed. The Chinese have been worried about famine since forever. And didn’t the solution always include having more acreage under cultivation before?

      I bet they can blow the Great Leap Forward’s lofty harvest goals out of the water these days.

      1. I think they’re looking at it as a developed or natural acre.

        I know, it’s sloppy thinking and that’s what makes it an odd statement.

        I don’t deny that fewer people die of hunger in the ditches of dirt roads than did in the past, but I wouldn’t suggest that the widespread use of asphalt has contributed to solving the problem or that now, because they die in the ditches of paved parking lots, that urbanization has killed them.

  15. FWIW –

    For the last two decades I have been cultivating large numbers of trees that provide food for wildlife; Cherries, Poplars, Oaks, Walnut, Hickory, Persimmon. I have also stopped cutting muscadine, mulberry and other fruits.

    What I suspected is coming true, finally. Hunting leases are nearly paying more than timber, which suits me just fine.

    BTW Ron, timber is not extracted in a damaging manner. It is a crop. It is harvested, replanted and cultivated. Also, younger trees grow faster, thus removing vastly more poisonous CO2 from the atmosphere than older trees.

    1. Hunting leases are nearly paying more than timber

      Do you have white rhinos roaming your property, or is this a Most Dangerous Game type of thing?

      That’s wild.

      1. white tail deer, hogs, quail, squirrel, cotton tail rabbit, Raccoon.

        I haven’t seen a white rhino. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there, I just haven’t seen them.

  16. I was kind of worried about the entire thing. I’ve never worked from home, But Yeah, I did just join and all is good.
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  17. With enough breakthroughs, can we save libertarianism by making it intellectually worthless?

    1. Russell|11.11.14 @ 12:21AM|#
      “With enough breakthroughs, can we save libertarianism by making it intellectually worthless?”

      You mean as worthless as the left? Not possible.

    2. I doubt it can be as intellectually worthless as this article.

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