December 10, 2010, last update

Defining the Problem


The government’s role in environmental issues is currently seen as something like neighborhood code compliance. It should stop people from littering and make sure the place looks nice. It’s handled very much as an afterthought, as something far removed from the core functions of defence, law, and order. Government is supposed to regulate the interactions of people. The environment is just where we live. But with technology comes increased power. People can change the environment to the extent of destroying livelihoods and lives. Suddenly, the environment is a massive way people affect people. Environmental regulation has gone from being an afterthought against littering to being a core function of government.

If rights are the essential limits that enable free societies, and if they apply equally to everyone, preserving the environment is the first, not the last, function of government. After all, given that people’s activities have effects on the physical world, then equality among people means that everyone has the same right to affect the environment. Imagine if every man, woman, and child on the planet polluted as much as the worst offenders. What we’ve done is give a few people the privilege to pollute and use resources out of all proportion by virtue of having been first or having more money. There is not one shred of fairness in that, and the consequences for the livability of the whole Earth are just what you would expect from gross injustice. Environmental issues are a fundamental component of social justice. One could say they are the fundamental component since without a viable physical environment none of the other rights have any meaning.

It’s intimidating, or discouraging, or both, that the very first field of activity under consideration requires a realignment of everything we do if the principle of equality is actually applied. The assumption of equality has become so ingrained that evidence to the contrary can be hard to grasp. The truth is that we have miles to go.

If everyone can pollute and use resources equally, then it follows that social justice requires completely clean, sustainable, and renewable agriculture, technology, and industry. The same holds for individual activities. There’s no question that we’re so far away from justice that it would take time to reach it. The transition would have to be measured and planned if it wasn’t to create more suffering than it solved. And there’s no question on a practical level that it’s a real challenge, considering our current technologies, to move from burning through our planet toward living on it.

Facts (not decisions)


One problem continually crops up in this technological age: the distinction between facts and decisions is not clear enough. They are not the same thing. Treating them as interchangeable causes problems instead of solving them. A decision can’t generate a fact, or vice versa, and yet people seem to expect discussions to generate evidence and more study to indicate a course of action. Looking for things in the wrong place is a sure way not to find them.

There’s also a lack of clarity about the distinction between facts and ideas. In the wonderful words of Moynihan, you are entitled to your own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts. Yet it’s common to hear people say they don’t “believe in” a given problem, and then to expect their belief to be accommodated, as if it really was a religion that deserved protection. I discussed issues involved in delimiting objectively verifiable facts (as opposed to truth) at greater length in the Free Speech vs. Noise section of the Rights chapter.

The main point here is that we do have an effective way of finding objectively verifiable facts. It’s called the scientific method. Not using science, and acting as if the facts can emerge from a political discussion, is a waste of time. It’s as silly as arguing about whether the planet is round. It is not a mark of balance, seriousness, or complexity to do that. It’s a way of showing one doesn’t understand the topic. A discussion of environmental issues has to encompass the complexity of competing interests, but that does not include ignoring the available evidence.

It would, of course, be a departure to require a government to pay attention to the facts, but it’s necessary for real equality. Without an explicit requirement to get and use the evidence, we are entitling some people to their own facts. Lack of access to information, whether because it’s actively hidden or poorly presented, deprives people of their single best tool to make good decisions. Then they can plausibly be told to leave it to the experts. But worst of all, obscuring the facts is the least visible and thus most effective weapon of those with a hidden agenda. It’s the primary tool of those who want to take more than their fair share. Having the facts and giving them their proper role is not a minor issue. It’s central to a fair government.

I have to go off on a tangent here, since I’ve come down solidly on the boring side of the debate about whether facts are out there or something we shape inside our heads. In any practical sense, facts are objective … facts and we have to adapt to them. But there are a number of gray areas on the path toward figuring out what those facts are.

First, if we rely on science, it’s essential that scientists ask the questions that need answers. The very questions being asked can steer thought on a subject. That’s a huge, almost invisible issue precisely because it’s hard even to see the questions that aren’t being asked. (I touch upon it here.) It’s beyond the scope of a discussion on the environment to explore that particular philosophical point, but it does have to be addressed effectively in any system of government that would like to be reality-based. And that won’t be easy because, among other things, it implies changes in the reward structure of academe. (Discussed briefly in Education). Further, even though they may know which questions need asking, scientists can easily be herded into avoiding topics by depriving them of funding. Awareness of these background issues is essential in order to neutralize them, not as a reason to deny the usefulness of science. It’s a reason to make sure there are no pressures channeling the questions scientists may ask.

Once science has spoken on an issue, the only problem for non-scientists is figuring out which experts to believe. It’s not simple for non-specialists to evaluate technical evidence, nor should they have to. That’s what the specialists are for. As a scientist myself, I think there’s a rather easy answer to this dilemma. It may not be the best one, but it’s a start.

What we should do is measure the degree of agreement among the specialists, who can evaluate the evidence. And we should measure that agreement not by a poll, because scientists are notorious for waffling, but by tracking the conclusions in peer-reviewed journals. Sample size might be a problem for insufficiently studied questions, but the burning issues of the day generally receive a good bit of attention. Then all one has to do is decide which level of agreement among scientists is significant. Since we’re dealing with human beings, perhaps it would be appropriate to take the level social scientists use: 90%.

It’s not unknown for a scientific consensus to be overturned, and it’s great fun to point out the few examples (such as phlogiston and land bridges), but it is very uncommon. New discoveries happen all the time, and as consensus develops it’s refined by more and better data, but those are both different from being flat wrong. Conclusions that stand the test of time while subjected to the scientific method are rarely flat-out wrong.

Following better-than-90% agreement among scientists is a much safer bet than most of the bets we take in life. When the vast majority of scientists agree, we can take it that the evidence is solid and the issue in question is settled, even if we don’t understand how they got there. It’s the same as accepting that the law of gravity is not in serious dispute, even though most of us don’t understand the physics involved. (Up on their own high level, that includes the physicists looking for the Higgs boson, come to think of it.) Just because, before Newton, people had a different explanation for the lack of levitation doesn’t mean that different “beliefs” about gravity must be entertained.

Presenting the right information is only half the battle. Not presenting the wrong information is perhaps a bigger and harder task. I’m not sure that it’s even theoretically possible when news is for-profit. Sensation will always make a quicker buck than education. And yet, when there’s something as sensationally dangerous as global warming, the “news” media can’t be bothered to discuss context or consequences. The structural fault may be that entertainment ceases to be entertaining when it reminds viewers of real problems, and people generally would rather be entertained than bothered. In a for-profit environment, “news” isn’t just a minor irritant obstructing knowledge. It may well inevitably become the antithesis of understanding.

That is a non-trivial problem when fairness requires accessible information. It’s another case of conflicting rights, one where it’s foolish to hope free speech can solve the problem of costly speech. I’ve tried to come up with some ideas about how to approach a fact-checking, truth-in-speech goal, which I mentioned in the Free Speech vs Noise section. Whatever methods prove most effective, the important point is that there do need to be standards for what constitutes actual news. People have no way of knowing what’s true in unfamiliar topics, and it’s essential to make it easy for everyone to distinguish fantasy from reality. It’s also essential to prevent silencing of any opinions and alternate interpretations. It’s a difficult balancing act. The rules are bound to be imperfect and in constant need of improvement, but there do have to be truth-in-speech rules.

So the first step in dealing with environmental issues is to get the evidence, the actual evidence, not the evidence according to anyone who stands to make money by the result. None of that can be a political process and give reality-based results. Then one tallies the weight of the evidence. It’s not hard to do and specialists in government and watchdog groups could provide that information. I’ll give a few examples of a very informal tally of the evidence in the controversies about genetically engineered food, nanoparticles, and global warming.

The popular concern about engineered food, embodied in the colorful term “frankenfoods,” is of some kind of genetic damage from these mutated organisms. That would require genes in frankenfoods to infect humans through a process called lateral gene transfer. That’s never been observed between large organisms like corn or cows and humans. Transfer of genetic material from bacteria to humans has occurred and it’s been studied (e. g. Science, 2001). It’s a rarer event than, say, a large meteor strike. A search of the literature allows one to say there is well over 99% agreement that genetic damage to humans is not the problem.

On the other hand, if you search for ecological damage from lateral gene transfer, allergic reactions to modified proteins, or nutritional damage to humans due to the poor farming practices facilitated by the genetically modified organism, then it’s a different story. (The nutritional damage is due, I suspect, to the fact that about 75% of genetically engineered crops involve genes for RoundUp, or glyphosate, resistance. At least it did the last time I looked, around 2006. In that case, crops are engineered to resist large doses of herbicide so that very high doses can be applied. That reduces weed competition until resistance ratchets up. For a while, yields are higher. Obviously, using vast quantities of RoundUp is not conducive to either nutritional quality or ecological health.) I haven’t tallied the papers to know what the level of consensus is, but even a cursory glance shows that there’s evidence of a problem, enough to make it worth looking into.

A more difficult example is nanoparticles. There’s plenty of research showing that wonderful and amazing things are just around the corner, or even already here, because of nanotechnology. That’s great, and we’re gearing up to pursue it in the usual way. No holds barred. Meanwhile, there are disquieting rumbles in the biomedical research that the particles are the right size to interact with cells, and that some of them may even be carcinogenic in much the same way as asbestos fibers. It’s a new field, and without a review of the literature I couldn’t tell you whether there’s an emerging consensus on this. What is clear is that there is some danger here. The question then becomes what to do about it. More study? Mandating better containment of nanoparticles preventively (and expensively)? Halting all use of nanotechnology? Decisions about future action are choices, not facts, and have to be approached differently, as I’ll discuss in a moment.

Or take yet one more topical example: global warming. Far over 90% of climatologists say the data show our activities are warming the planet far beyond the averages seen in hundreds of thousands of years (e.g. Nature). For those who want more, a couple of summaries of data here and here, and a recent article showing how feedback loops and thermal storage take the situation beyond our ability to influence. With that kind of consensus, the issue is settled (and has been for years). Global warming is right up there with other facts established well beyond the 90% consensus standard, such as the harmfulness of smog, the carrying capacity of given ecologies, evolution, and reduced lifespan from smoking.

Once the fact-based step is done, the next one is deciding what to do about it. Science may be the best tool for figuring out if there’s a problem and for finding possible solutions. But it can not make the decision on which solution to use. That involves making choices, not discovering facts. It’s foolish to think a friendly discussion could find a fact, and it’s equally foolish to think science can find a decision. A decision will never emerge from more study. That will only produce more facts. (At best.) Facts inform a decision, but they can’t make it, and pretending otherwise is just a way of taking decisions out of our hands and giving them to interested parties or the inexorable march of events.

Costs and Choices


Before going into what equitable decision-making might look like, it’s vital to recognize the role of costs in making a decision.

There’s a funny assumption that runs through the thinking about environmental costs. It’s embodied, for instance, in the polls asking people what they’re willing to spend on, say, air quality. The answers are generally on the order of fifty cents a day, and this is then taken in all seriousness by economists as a starting point for discussing realistic tax costs of environmental policies. It’s as if they truly believed in a free lunch.

There is no free lunch. The choice is not between paying fifty cents or nothing. The no-cost scenario does not exist. The money will always be spent. It may be spent directly on clean air or indirectly on disease, reduced food production, or a hundred other things. In all cases, there’s a cost.

When it’s stated plainly like that, nobody denies it, and yet it’s always waved away as being irrelevant in something called the real world. That makes no sense. The real world is the one without a free lunch. Perpetual motion machines are the fantasy. It doesn’t matter how abstruse the downstream math is, the machine will not work. Everybody knows that, too. Pretending otherwise, however, lets the unspoken gamble continue. It’s the bet that someone else will pay the price while we get the goods. That’s what it’s really all about.

Without digging very far, people will admit that’s what they’re doing. Sometimes they even put it on bumperstickers. “Nuke their ass. Steal their gas” for example. Or talk to someone about downstream costs, and the response is liable to be, “In the long run, we’re all dead.” No, actually, we aren’t, unless the whole human race goes extinct. What they’re really saying is that other people’s grandchildren don’t matter. (Their own will presumably somehow be immune.)

If there were some way to ensure that all the costs could be passed to powerless people, then at least from a biological standpoint the damage would be limited and the system wouldn’t necessarily collapse. But the most voiceless group of all is future people, and the big problem with the future is that it doesn’t stay put. It becomes now. We’re becoming the people who’ll pay the price even though we won’t get the benefits because those were already taken. At that point, it ceases to look like such a bright idea.

So, since what I’m trying to do here is delineate a fair system, the first point to make about costs is that they are never zero. We don’t get to decide whether to spend money or not. We only get to decide when to spend it and how high a price to pay. Paying early for intelligent intervention is always the cheapest solution. Letting events happen and then trying to recover from disaster is always the most expensive. In between, there’s a range of relationships between prevention and price. Somebody always pays and, in fairness, that should be the people who incur the costs.

To go back to the clean air example, the real question is not “Do you want to pay for healthy air?” It’s “Would you rather pay for healthy air or for dirty air?” Nor is it, “How much do you want to pay?” It’s “Which choice, with it’s associated price tag, do you take?” In a fair system, the costs of any choice have to be attached to that choice. If all the pluses and minuses are explicit up front, the optimum choice is often easy to see.

That obvious method of pricing isn’t already applied for the simple reason that industries are not currently regulated that way. Governments allow them to pass costs on to people and to future generations. Accountants then label those costs “external” to the companies’ own balance sheets and they don’t book them. In many ways it’s astounding that, when you come right down to it, an accounting rule is the proximal cause of our environmental disasters. However, unlike the environment itself, regulations can be given a do-over.

I’d like to stress that it is possible to make estimates of costs, including downstream medical and ecological costs. Even if it’s nothing but a minimum and maximum boundary, it gives a pointer to the order of magnitude involved. The newer and less known the technology, the more the estimates will need refinement as data become available. But that does not affect the vast majority of estimates for the simple reason that the bulk of technology is necessarily not new. There are always data available to estimate most risks, costs, and benefits. When there is over 90% agreement on what the data show, then that belongs in government, voter, and news information. There’s also nothing except special interests to stop those estimates from being clearly presented in ways that can be grasped at a glance, and that can link to layers of medium and complete details for interested voters and specialists.

Decisions (not facts)


Finding and presenting the facts may not be simple, but making the right decisions is even harder. The pressure from interested parties ratchets up, which makes the essential task of ignoring them that much tougher.

The general steps to a decision would be similar to the official process now. Start with gathering and providing information, follow that with a call for comments, a ruling, and possibly appeals. However, fairness requires much higher transparency and accountability. It also requires that the fair and open process results in the actual rulings instead of being a way to keep people busy while the real decisions are made elsewhere.

Environmental decisions are a special case of decision-making generally, which I’ll discuss in the first Government chapter. Decisions can be grouped into three quite different types.

The most far reaching kind should perhaps be called unexamined assumptions rather than decisions. They’re orientations more than conscious thoughts and people can dislike examining them, but that doesn’t stop them from influencing choices and outcomes. For instance, the issue of when to take action is probably most acute for environmental issues. There’s a big difference in costs and benefits depending on whether one chooses prevention or cure, and since it deals with the physical world, it’s not usually possible to start over after making a mistake. Absolute prevention, that is, doing nothing unless it’s first shown to be harmless, would mean real safety. It would also mean that nobody could ever make a move, because everything, including sitting in a room and growing fat, has some level of harm or risk associated with it. The opposite approach, waiting for problems to happen and then curing them, allows a great deal of room for initiative, but it also puts us in our current interesting situation where we get to find out if any of the disasters actually have a cure. The balance of risk-taking — and the associated danger of disaster and benefits of innovation — is a community decision. One could almost say a cultural decision.

On a less lofty level are broad issues of policy. For instance, which mix of power sources to use in a given area if wind and tidal are feasible as well as solar. Broad policies are more a matter of priorities than facts, except perhaps at the extremes, and are appropriately decided by consensus processes, such as voting.

The vast majority of decisions are specific: what to do in a given situation to get a given outcome. These require knowledge and constant attention detail, in other words they require professionals. Making voters decide specific questions results in voter fatigue and, at best, near-random choices based on anything but the boring facts. Responsible officials with the necessary background need to be appointed to make these decisions. I mean that adjective “responsible” literally. Officials who make decisions against the evidence that lead to predictable bad outcomes should be held personally responsible for them.

All types of decisions, if they’re to be rational and equitable, depend on transparency in the whole process, explicit criteria, and the right to appeal.

Transparency means more than making details available. The experts of obfuscation have figured out how to deal with the requirement to provide details. They drown people in data. Providing all the data is essential, but transparency also means well-summarized data, graphically presented in the clearest way possible. It means cognitively, not just physically, accessible information. It also means that every step of the process, the facts, deliberations, rationales, and outcomes, should be clear.

In one respect, though, there could be less transparency than we have now without losing accountability. So far, the rules about recording every word and note don’t seem to serve much purpose. Some quite spectacular corruption has festered right next to those rules, flouting them effortlessly. When recordkeeping does prevent corruption, then it must be required. But theatre should be reserved for the arts.

Explicit criteria in a fair system would be simple. Double standards should not be in evidence at any point. Given that criterion, least total cost is the yardstick to differentiate among choices. That’s not to say that least total cost has some sort of moral superiority in itself or that it’s always the best yardstick. It applies in this case because a government is, in effect, a way of deciding how to spend other people’s money, and the only right answer after the demands of fairness are satisfied is that as little as possible should be wasted.

Total cost is only easy to discuss, not easy to determine. It’s really short for “the sum of tangible and intangible costs plus the community’s priorites.” Some of the costs and benefits will have an obvious price tag. Others, like how much the community cares about visual pollution versus product price may be very hard to pin down. Total cost is necessarily nebulous. However, nebulosity in and of itself doesn’t stop businesses from coming up with an estimated price. Few things could be more intangible than good will, yet it’s regularly estimated in accounting. Costing such things out doesn’t require any conceptual breakthroughs. It’s only some of them, the ones which reduce profit, that are supposedly too hard to handle. And that, as I’ve said several times, is just an excuse to pass the hidden costs on to someone else with no voice in the matter.

While I’m on the subject of intangibles, I’d like to make the point again that there is no way to avoid dealing with them. Estimates are necessarily not perfect, and they always need refining as more data come in. People also disagree about the very premises of the estimates since priorities vary. However, none of that is a sufficient excuse for pretending that things like future costs or quality of life don’t exist. Ignoring them doesn’t make them go away. All it’s done is take away our control over the process.

No matter how nebulous important intangibles are, some estimate of them is better than none. The way to mitigate the associated uncertainties is not ignorance but clarity about the assumptions and data behind the estimates. The probable range of estimates, not just the best guess, must be explicit. When the assumptions and their implications are clearly stated, people can make their own adjustments based on their own priorities. But once all that has been done, once we’ve given the intangibles our best guess and made clear what that guess is based on, then we have to go with it. As I said earlier, refusing to consider significant complicating factors because they make the question messy is a sign of avoiding real answers.

The right of appeal, which provides a check on arbitrary or corrupt decisions, is important to keep feedback loops short. Different kinds of appeal are appropriate for different deficiencies. If a decision ignored vital facts, it needs review by experts and a legal process to sustain or overturn it. That would be true whether the disputed decision was made by officials or voters. Majority vote can’t decide facts. A discussion of the legal process in is the first Government chapter. If the deficiency was in not holding a vote when it would have been appropriate, or in the voting process itself — for instance, not making all relevant facts available — then the petition would be for a vote on the topic. That process is discussed in the section on voting. Since the idea is for it to be a real check, not just a means of harassment for people with vested interests, some level of general support needs to be required as discussed in that section.

The argument against a decision has to be based on the same goal, fairness and least total cost, and it would have to show where and why the decision taken, whether by officials or voters, missed the optimum. The suit wouldn’t necessarily have to be heard if careful consideration indicated that the people complaining did not have a reasonable interpretation of the facts on their side. That decision could itself be appealed some limited number of times. If they did have a case, however, and if they prevailed, then the decision would be nullified and the official who made it, especially if it wasn’t the first such error, would be that much closer to losing their job.

That brings me to the officials, the actual people whose job it is to implement regulation when it will do the most good for the least cost. It takes a great deal of expertise to recognize those points. When the process is done right, it will look to the general public like nothing has happened. There won’t be any disasters that need fixing. They will have all been prevented. And yet innovation will never be hampered.

Back in the real world, there will always be officials who are less omniscient and who need to be prodded in the right direction. Methods to that end are discussed under Oversight. The officials who need so much prodding that they’re more trouble than they’re worth need to find other lines of work. The definition of that point at which officials need to be fired might vary a bit across communities, but there needs to be an explicit point. Otherwise the tendency is always to excuse bad behavior from those in charge.

Last, there needs to be recourse against those who’ve been negligent, incompetent, or criminal. Which brings me to the next section on what to do about problems.

Problems and Penalties


Human factors cause two very different obstacles to progress on environmental issues.

The first is that pursuing perfect environmental policies too singlemindedly would cause more hardship than it prevents. There’s a gap between what’s right and what’s attainable because we’ve let the distance grow too big. It’s one more case where rights have to be balanced to achieve fairness. With time, if we moved toward sustainability, this obstacle would evaporate.

The other one, however, would not. We’ll always have people who try to trash the environment for personal gain. Selfishness doesn’t disappear in the face of fairness. It’s merely contained.

Each of these obstacles requires it’s own approach. Going slower than one would like out of consideration for the people involved may be necessary in the first case, but is toxic in the second one. I’ll talk about mitigating some of the transition problems first, and then discuss the so far unlabelled class of crimes against the environment.

A big issue whenever there’s talk of balancing competing interests is that before you know it, all the balance winds up on the side of all the money. It’s too easy to use the gap between what’s right and what’s possible as an excuse to slide into an ever-diminishing definition of “possible.” As in other situations when the easy way out is to avoid conflict with vested interests, it’s essential to explicitly and consciously compensate for the effect of power on decision making. The only valid reason to go slow is to spread the hardship of transition for the majority of people over enough time so that there’s an optimum between achieving a sustainable system and the cost and effort required. It’s about the greatest good of the greatest number, not the greatest good of the biggest pile of money.

Even when the ideal is not yet attainable, some ways of getting there may be better than others. I’ll state the obvious: for any damaging industry, the solution in a rational world is to reduce the damage to the minimum, to make sure that no people are hurt by it, and to reduce need for non-renewables by every possible recycling method.

One way of reducing damage is to switch from methods that create hard-to-handle diffuse pollution, and instead use processes that cause more easily controlled point source pollution. For instance, pollution from isolated large power plants is easier to contain than that from millions of vehicles. Least total cost solutions would concentrate pollution to its most controllable minimum and then make sure it does not escape into the environment at large.

Materials research that helps find renewable substitutes would be promoted. That research is also part of the price of using non-renewables. In a far future time, space-based industry might make finite resources functionally infinite. (That’s a boring and practical reason to continue exploring space, besides the much more fun one of boldly going where no one has gone before).

The cost of doing what is needed to cancel out the damage from damaging industries is simply the cost of doing business. Putting those costs on the books where they belong would mean that prices contained real cost information, which is always said to be desirable for markets. Fair pricing would also make it much easier to evaluate alternatives as they’re developed.

If some damage is allowed in the interests of making transition costs less painful, then there has to be an explicit floor below which more damage is unacceptable. That goes back to the point that paying nothing is not a real option. That floor has to be compatible with improving sustainability and needs to meet standards of scientific validity. Communities could move toward sustainability faster, if they feel able to handle the cost, but they couldn’t move slower. It’s eminently clear by now that hyperslow motion toward a goal is just another way of avoiding it.

A minimum rate of progress toward sustainability means doing better than running in place, but determining that rate is the same type of problem as pinning down other environmental issues. The minimum rate has to be estimated because we can’t have perfect knowledge that tells us exactly what the limits are. But the one thing a minimum rate of progress does not mean is pretending there’s no answer merely because there’s no precise one.

An example of one possible way of determining limits is to commission studies, say three of them, from specialists who represent the range of ideas in that particular field. Those three studies, the “no-limits,” “strict limits,” and “middle-of-the-road” ones, could then be put out for widespread, double-blind peer review and comment. The study (or studies) judged to have the most robust methods and conclusions would then be used to set policy. If two of them are in a tie, a midpoint between them could be used. And then, since our knowledge is necessarily approximate, the decisions should be reviewed by the same process every so often, maybe every ten years, like the Census. It probably goes without saying that such a method is not perfect and should be improved, but I hope it also goes without saying that it would be a lot better than what we have now. Almost anything would be.

Limits mean different things in different industries because there’s varying potential to approach the ideal. There’s no reason why, eventually, agriculture couldn’t be a non-polluting, sustainable industry. There’s no reason why energy production couldn’t come very close to that ideal. At the other end of the scale, there is no way for an extractive industry to be theoretically sustainable (barring faster-than-light travel, I suppose) or completely non-polluting. And, although it’s possible that in some far future time civilization will cease to need metals, I don’t see that happening soon no matter how fair a society is.

On various levels geared to their own requirements, industries will always need practicality adjustments to the ideal of purity and sustainability. That departure from the ideal incurs costs to compensate for the damage. The important point is that the expense of those adjustments should be paid when they’re made, and not dumped on a future that has no vote in the matter. If all costs are included, the tendency to use up the planet will be de-incentivized, to use business’s own doublespeak.

In a bit of a class by itself is individual pollution, things like backyard barbecues, household chemicals, and batteries thrown into the trash. This is where people’s desire for a healthy environment meets not only the cost but also the inconvenience. It’s not just some faceless fat cat who has to shape up. There tends to be less action on this front than one might expect from the widespread support for “green” issues.

The reason for the recalcitrance comes from the other sticking point with regard to individual pollution. It’s a similar problem to mass transit. There is no way for an individual to have mass transit, and there is no way for an individual to clean the whole environment. Only a social solution is possible to a social problem. That makes it very discouraging when there’s no social direction behind those goals.

However, when there is, then individual action fits that paradigm. In places with excellent mass transit, such as Holland, it’s a significant way of moving people, with all the attendant social benefits. Likewise, when the whole society makes it simple to recycle, to keep houses clean without violent toxins, and so on, individual pollution might well cease to exist. People don’t contribute to pollution and resource depletion because it makes them feel good. We do it because we have no other sufficiently easy choice.

Individuals do have a massive effect on the environment in another way, one that isn’t usually classed with environmental issues. Without effective and universal policies of sustainability, the number of people on the planet is the single biggest determinant of how much damage we do. Infuencing the number of children people have cuts across so many rights, freedoms, privileges, and issues that it needs a chapter of its own. I’d just like to stress here that population is, obviously, an environmental issue. If one admits the principle that we don’t have the right to ruin the environment for each other, then it applies to individuals just as it does to industry.

Those were some of the human problems associated with environmental issues. The last issue is human crimes and penalties.

Punishments are supposed to be proportional to the crime committed, so the first question is where does environmental crime fit in the scheme of things? Is it a property crime? A crime against humanity? Something else entirely? Dumping a load of packing crates in an empty field is an environmental crime, but it’s pretty much down there with littering. It would hardly qualify as the crime of the century. Closer to the other end of the scale is something like the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident. Sickening thousands of people, killing some of them, causing birth defects, and making a whole section of our planet a no-man’s land does qualify as a new and awful kind of crime. It’s hard to even imagine what would be the appropriate penalties for something like that. There is no way to recover what was lost, and any punishment is insignificant in the face of the suffering caused.

We’re pretty clear on the minor nature of the first type of environmental crime. But the kind which causes physical harm to people doesn’t seem to be on the legal radar yet. The kind that murders a whole species doesn’t even have a name. Environmental crimes are all punished as if they’re a harmless white-collar infraction of some arcane legalism about property. Not all of them are. Some are wholesale robbery, assault, poisoning and murder. The fact that they’re bigger than ordinary crimes does not make them better. It makes them worse. They need to be punished accordingly both for the sake of justice, and to help those who are slow to understand what’s at stake.

One problem peculiar to environmental crime is figuring out who to punish. In the Chernobyl example, is it the people who decided to build a reactor? The ones who decided to build that type of reactor? The ones who decided that running without maximum safeguards was worth the risk? And who are all these people? It’s one of the hallmarks of modern industrial society. No one is responsible.

That’s the primary change needed in law and custom. The people holding the final word on decisions affecting the environment have to be held personally responsible for those decisions. Right now, there’s so little sense of the seriousness of the crime that the same people who committed it can generally retain their jobs as if it was just some accident that happened on their watch. In fairness, responsibility can’t be palmed off on a legal fiction of corporate entities without any actual corpus. Actual human beings with the actual power have to hold the actual responsibility. Those are the same rules that apply to everyone else. If people were less deafened by the call to power, it would be considered absurd to jail shoplifters while putting decision-makers in an accountability-free zone.

Environmental issues are perhaps the most important area where the feedback loop between those making the decisions and those dealing with their consequences has to be so short that there’s no difference between the two sets of people. A system that makes it simple for small voices to call big ones to account should help to reach that goal.

Restitution is always a factor in environmental cases. Recovery always costs money, and that money should come first from the pockets of those responsible for the problem. It doesn’t matter if the scale of the costs makes any indvidual fortune a drop in the proverbial bucket. No assets controlled by a responsible party should be off-limits, there can be no sheltering of funds from the consequences of environmental misdeeds. Fairness requires that.

The bottom line is that the environment is the precondition for every aspect of quality of life, and for life itself. Crimes against life have to be treated with the same seriousness whether they’re small- or large-scale.

Cost of Transition


How to get from where we are, here on the brink of ecological disaster, to the promised land of sustainability is, of course, the burning question. As a matter of method rather than principle, it belongs to the purview of economists and specialists in the relevant sciences, but it’s such a barrier to action in many people’s minds that it needs to be discussed if the principles are to have any plausibility.

Money is the only stumbling block, but it’s enough. Everybody would like to live in a non-polluting, sustainable society. We just don’t want it to cost anything. Since that’s what we’re afraid of, let’s face it squarely. How much would the transition cost?

There are numbers available on the cost of switching to renewable energy economies. For instance, the IPCC 2007 Report on climate change (p. 21) points out, “In 2050, global average macro-economic costs for mitigation towards stabilisation between 710 and 445ppm CO2eq are between a 1% gain and 5.5% decrease of global GDP. This corresponds to slowing average annual global GDP growth by less than 0.12 percentage points.” After a thorough summary with links to dozens of original sources, another estimate is a cost of 0.11% of GDP per year to stay below 450ppm.

Higher estimates come from Stern’s landmark 2006 review of the economics of climate change. (Wikipedia has a summary.) His estimate is that 1% of global GDP is the cost of averting “the worst effects” of climate change, usually pegged at 450ppm CO2eq, although recent data indicates a number closer to 400ppm or even lower. Note that his target is at the lowest end of the range studied by IPCC 2007, so implementing it is bound to be more expensive.

That brings up the question of what the scientifically valid target should be. There are plenty of indications that feedback loops have been insufficiently included in climate change models, and that therefore the situation is much more dire even than most predictions so far (i.e. 2009). According to the grand old scientist of climate change, James Hansen, we’d have to return to a level below 350 ppm to avert unacceptable (read impoverishing and lethal) warming. (An explanation of the relationships between CO2 ppm and temperature increases is here.) The take-home message is that aiming for less than 450ppm CO2eq is not excessive or idealistic. It’s on the optimistic side of what it will take to avert disaster. And since averting disaster is the minimum acceptable course, whatever it takes to achieve that is the lowest cost fairness allows, even if it’s more expensive than anyone likes.

Even more interesting, in some ways, is Stern’s estimate of what it will cost to do nothing. Twenty percent of GDP. Again: 20% of GDP. That kind of reduction in GDP was last seen in the US in the Great Depression, when there was over 25% unemployment, tent cities, hunger, and beggared rich people committing suicide. The comfortable people became uncomfortable, and found themselves suddenly among those who don’t matter. That is the cost of doing nothing.

Before continuing, I’d like to mention briefly a couple of the criticisms from some economists leveled at any report that implies the cost of transition is feasible. One is that they review the work in question and point out that it underestimates costs. When there’s validity to the objection, it’s generally because the review takes time. When about a year has passed between the review and the original study, that year of doing nothing has already raised the price of mitigating the increasingly bad situation. It’s not so much that the estimate was wrong as that they prove how quickly inaction raises the price.

The other objection tends to be that the price of doing something is totally unrealistic. The economists’ explanation assumes that the amount of money people save in current economies is indicative of what they’re able to spend on the costs of transition. Since the percentage saved is less than the estimated costs of transition, the transition is supposed to be unaffordable. They dress it up by using mathematical models and their own definitions of common and uncommon words, but the whole effort fails because garbage in always means garbage out. This is the old notion that we can choose to pay nothing. We can’t. Saying, “But I don’t want to pay anything!” makes no difference, even when you say it in mathematics.

The choice is paying 20% (or more) by doing nothing or paying less to prevent disaster. Whether the “less” is 1%, 2%, or even 5% is not the point. The point is that is is much less. Even the critics can see that.

There is also some evidence that costs may actually be lower than expected. As I discussed in an earlier post, the cost estimate does not include the benefits to GDP from local business opportunities, improved property values, reduced need for environmental mitigation, and so on. That’s been estimated to increase GDP by as much as several percent in developing countries, which need it the most.

So, let’s take the 1% of GDP number as a reasonable middle-of-the-road estimate of what it would take to move to clean, sustainable energy within 40 years. Given an estimated current global budget of around $43 trillion, that’s around $430 billion per year. It’s easier to understand those numbers if they’re brought down to earth. For someone who’s well off and making $50,000 per year, 1% of annual income equals $500. That would buy meals at a good restaurant once every couple of months. Or a very good wide-screen TV. Or a few days’ vacation. The amount is tiny. [Update 2009-03-23: Well, when it’s not being poured down a rathole, it’s small. When spent to bail out banks with no oversight, it doesn’t feel so good.]

On the other hand, the amount is huge. A recession is any drop in GDP. ( A depression is a big drop: 10% or more.) Some people suffer during even the smallest drop, usually the most vulnerable. A family of four living on $11,000, the poverty level in the US, might become homeless in a month if their pay suddenly dropped by $110. Someone living on one dollar a day (over a billion people in 2005) could die if it turned into 90¢.

Also, it’s not only energy that needs realigning. Waste treatment, recycling, industrial practices all need huge changes that will initially cost more than current practices. My guess is that those would be less costly than the enormous, system-wide undertaking of moving to different energy sources, but let’s say it’s about the same. So, say 1% for energy transition, 1% for other industry transitions, and another percent for agriculture transition. A three percent reduction in growth of GDP happens regularly, and the world does not end, although it can be very hard on the vulnerable. The solution is to spread costs so that they’re borne by those best able to do so. That requires planning, coordination, and cooperation. That requires the most powerful — wealthy people and large businesses — to pay much more of the costs than the powerless. That’s the problem, but that’s different from unaffordable or impossible.

Those estimates are for a transition within 40 years. Whatever the actual estimate, it could be halved by spreading it over 80 years, assuming the extension didn’t mean progress toward sustainability stopped. Those estimates, or something close to them, are the costs if we started now. Every year that passes while business as usual makes the problem worse reduces the amount of time we have and raises the price of doing nothing. Never forget that doing nothing is the most expensive option of all.

I can’t begin to say how much it stuns me that for fear we may miss out on the national equivalent of a widescreen TV, we’re gambling the fate of the only planet we have. It’s insanity.

It does not have to be that way. (I need to repeat that.) It does not have to be that way. Yes, it would take global cooperation and regulation. Yes, it would take concerted action, such as people do in time of war. As in war, our survival is at stake. Unfortunately, though, we have only ourselves to fight against. Instead of the satisfying work of whacking enemies, the problem requires global cooperation and international institutions capable of planet-wide enforcement on the same scale as the planet-wide effects of environmental damage. It’s all very unheroic.

But it is affordable. Environmental fairness is just as practical as all the other kinds. It’s environmental unfairness that’s impractical. If we don’t spend what is necessary to move to a clean, sustainable future, then we won’t have one. It’s that simple.