Carpe Diem

In observance of the ‘green holy day’ Earth Day: The science of economics versus the religion of environmentalism

Some required reading in observance of the “green holy day,” aka Earth Day (April 22), from Steven Landsburg’s book “Armchair Economist,” in the chapter titled “Why I Am Not an Environmentalist: The Science of Economics versus the Religion of Ecology“:

The hallmark of science is a commitment to follow arguments to their logical conclusions; the hallmark of certain kinds of religion is a slick appeal to logic followed by a hasty retreat if it points in an unexpected direction. Environmentalists can quote reams of statistics on the importance of trees and then jump to the conclusion that recycling paper is a good idea. But the opposite conclusion makes equal sense. I am sure that if we found a way to recycle beef, the population of cattle would go down, not up. If you want ranchers to keep a lot of cattle, you should eat a lot of beef. Recycling paper eliminates the incentive for paper companies to plant more trees and can cause forests to shrink. If you want large forests, your best strategy might be to use paper as wastefully as possible [MP: e.g. print as many emails as possible]— or lobby for subsidies to the logging industry. Mention this to an environmentalist. My own experience is that you will be met with some equivalent of the beatific smile of a door-to-door evangelist stumped by an unexpected challenge, but secure in his grasp of Divine Revelation.

This suggests that environmentalists — at least the ones I have met — have no real interest in maintaining the tree population. If they did, they would seriously inquire into the long-term effects of recycling. I suspect that they don’t want to do that because their real concern is with the ritual of recycling itself, not with its consequences. The underlying need to sacrifice, and to compel others to sacrifice, is a fundamentally religious impulse.

Suggesting an actual solution to an environmental problem is a poor way to impress an environmentalist, unless your solution happens to feed his sense of moral superiority. Subsidies to logging, the use of pesticides, planned extinctions, and exporting pollution to Mexico are outside the catechism; subsidies to mass transportation, the use of catalytic converters, planned fuel economy standards, and exporting industry from the Pacific Northwest are part of the infallible doctrine. Solutions seem to fall into one category or the other not according to their actual utility but according to their consistency with environmentalist dogma.

31 thoughts on “In observance of the ‘green holy day’ Earth Day: The science of economics versus the religion of environmentalism

  1. Actually, the tree population and coverage of the whole Northeast has been rising for decades and decades as trees lost their value for heating, replaced by fossil fuels.

    This lesson cuts two ways: Trees became more plentiful when they lost value, but it was fossil fuels that made trees less valuable.

    By that as it may, please recycle your plastic and cans, or dispose of it properly.

    The free market fails when it comes to trash and pollution, and the price signal rewards those who excrete most cheaply—-to themselves.

    And lastly, please do not pollute someone else’s private property, water, land or air. You should honor property rights in full, not just when convenient.

    I

    • The free market fails when it comes to trash and pollution, and the price signal rewards those who excrete most cheaply—-to themselves“…

      Apparently you missed the point of what Penn & Teller was saying in that video clip…

    • Actually the cause in the Northeast is older, it started with the Erie Canal and then the railroads. These transport mechanisms drove farms from New England to the richer and easier to farm lands of the midwest. The Erie canal started it my moving making the farms of upstate New York competitive with New England farms. The rails completed the deal both in terms of the better grain growing conditions in the Old Northwest and then accross the Mississippi. Secondly the refrigerated rail car moved livestock from the Northeast west also. (Recall that originally rails shipped the beef to the East, then the refrigerated rail car move the butchering to Chicago). Farms in the Northeast could not compete and went back to trees.

  2. The supposed reasoning is that environmentalists should support paper and wood industries because that mean more paper and pine trees will be planted? Will Landsburg then be arguing environmentalists should support farms as they support much flora and fauna: sure it’s all food plants and animals but all plants and animals are all the same and there’s no difference between a spotted owl and a chook or wheat versus wild grass.

  3. Environmental types largely supported the “cash for clunkers” program which took the position that used cars should be trashed and replaced by new ones rather than continue to be cycled.

    • Actually cars are recycled over time, first they go to the wrecking yards where useful pieces are reclaimed for other cars, then eventually to a crusher and back to the steel plant. It was just a question of when the recycling started. (In CFC you just ensured that the engine went to the crusher and got melted down again).

  4. There is environmental religion and environmental fact. There is economic religion and economic fact.

    If an old growth forest is logged, that habitat is changed for hundreds if not thousands of years. Trees are not interchangeable and logging changes more than the trees. It changes light penetration, local temperature, effective available moisture, soil quality etc. With these changes in habitat, flora and fauna (look it up) are existentially impacted. This is environmental fact. If you go in and replant with “trees,” you won’t at all replicate what was there. So I object to the notion that what’s important is maintaining the “tree population” and that it is desirable to promote the logging industry to plant replacement trees by not recycling. For an economist to believe it is desirable to do this constitutes a religious statement.

    Now you can say you don’t care, it doesn’t matter, I don’t value that. I won’t object. But after awhile, it starts to matter. Converting the Amazon rainforest to agriculture and reducing the oceans ability to support phytoplankton start to get my attention. Why? It’s not because I find bathing in phytoplankton and camping in the Amazon as religious experiences. It’s because that’s where much of the planet’s oxygen is produced. So, I’m interested in how the economists could deal with these “externalities.”

    More generally, I visit this forum to learn more about “freedom” and “democratic capitalism” and related economics. I am learning, even though I find this a mostly hostile location. If you are interested in making this more than an echo chamber, I’d suggest a different, non-Taliban tone/approach. Should I and those I represent simply move on?

    • I suggest you read The Environmemtal Skeptic to find out just how much religious dogma your comment contains. As for the tone of the comments, obviously wrong comments, like yours, are easily shredded. True to religious zealotry shown by many religous bigots, when confronted with reality, many retreat to fantasy. It’s cute you tell us to “look it up” when it’s clear you haven’t and base your comment on the preachings of the environmentalist alter.

    • Edward E Horton: With these changes in habitat, flora and fauna (look it up) are existentially impacted. This is environmental fact. If you go in and replant with “trees,” you won’t at all replicate what was there.

      That is correct, and is a valid argument to the original post.

      Ken: As for the tone of the comments, obviously wrong comments, like yours, are easily shredded.

      The statement seems obviously true, and supported by a great deal of scholarship. However, we’d be happy to hear your take.

      • Thank your for pointing out that my comment is “obviously true, and supported by a great deal of scholarship”. Usually, you do your best to avoid seeing the obvious.

        • Ken: Thank your for pointing out that my comment is “obviously true, and supported by a great deal of scholarship”.

          Hmm.

          Edward E Horton: With these changes in habitat, flora and fauna (look it up) are existentially impacted. This is environmental fact. If you go in and replant with “trees,” you won’t at all replicate what was there.

          Prima facie true.

          Ken: As for the tone of the comments, obviously wrong comments, like yours, are easily shredded.

          The only thing lacking is an actual argument.

          • Edward E Horton: With these changes in habitat, flora and fauna (look it up) are existentially impacted. This is environmental fact. If you go in and replant with “trees,” you won’t at all replicate what was there.

            Prima facie true.”

            Exactly the religious fact based dogma one expects from the so-called “environmentalists”. Simply making an assertion the way the religious nut Horton did is most definitively not “an actual argument”. Rather it’s faith based sentiment that appears true upon “first blush”, but is not true when empirically studied.

          • Edward E Horton: With these changes in habitat, flora and fauna (look it up) are existentially impacted. This is environmental fact. If you go in and replant with “trees,” you won’t at all replicate what was there.

            Ken: Simply making an assertion the way the religious nut Horton did is most definitively not “an actual argument”.

            No, the snippet is a claim, which “at first sight” appears to be true. You waved your hands, but didn’t actually make any counterargument.

            Ken: Rather it’s faith based sentiment that appears true upon “first blush”, but is not true when empirically studied.

            Are you saying that loss of habitat doesn’t not impact species? Are you saying that replanting trees returns the forest its original condition? What empirical evidence?

    • edward-

      ” It’s because that’s where much of the planet’s oxygen is produced. So, I’m interested in how the economists could deal with these “externalities.””

      if i may ask:

      do you have any evidence that the oxygen levels on earth have declined in a manner that is dangerous or even remotely harmful? i am trying to figure out if you feel this is a hypothetical future risk or somehting that is already happening.

      to speak of externalities is well and good, but, unless they are doing harm, spending time and effort on redress seems inappropriate.

      an end to the CO2 drought of the last glaciation and the current levels that, while still low by the standards of the last 500 million years, are better than they were are causing a boom in plant life and photosynthesis.

      there is a reason that commercial greenhouses us CO2 concentrations of 2-3X those currently prevailing in the atmosphere.

      i would suggest reading donohue in geophysical research letters.

      more CO2 results in more photosynthesis which results in more oxygen.

      so, ironically for many environmentalists, if one wants more oxygen, more co2 is a good way to promote such an outcome.

      if one wants less pollution (and, while i do not believe co2 is even slightly dangerous or a pollutant, clearly, many things ARE pollutants and can be dangerous/damaging) then wealth seems to be the answer.

      the simple fact is that environment acts like a luxury good. poor societies consume very little, but rich societies, after a certain point, begin to consume it disproportionately. thus we see forest cover increasing for decades in the us and europe.

      ideally, one addresses this through property rights.

      you have the right not to have your property or person harmed by pollution.

      in practice, this can take several paths.

      one of the notable thinkers about such things was coase and i would recommend his works to you.

      one of his core positions is that the best remedy for an externality depends on the situation.

      in a system with a large harm with a clear cause and a small, easily identified number of folks harmed, then one using a court system or direct negotiation.

      a good example would be if my rail-car full of oil derailed and spilled in your yard.

      i cause damages, i am liable, we negotiate/go to court, i pay.

      the idea is to avoid regulation wherever possible and instead establish rights. you have a right to the property of your yard, i have a right to use the railway to ship oil. if i violate your right, i am on the hook.

      one can do similar things with pollution.

      you can have a right to pollute or i can have a right not to be polluted on. whichever we choose, we can then negotiate based on who values what.

      if you value polluting at 10 and i value not being polluted upon at 15, then, even if you have the right to pollute, i can pay you not to and still be better off than letting you.

      but this puts the onus on me.

      on the other hand, if you value polluting at 15 and i value having you not pollute at 10, you can pay me to allow you to do it and make us both better off.

      but if you value pollution at 10 and i value having none at 15 if i have a right to clean air/water/whatever then you CANNOT pay be and win. the value maximizing outcome is you shut down. but again, that still maximizes overall utility.

      that is the essence of coase: establish rights and let people bargain for what they value.

      the one pace this can break down is if the “harm” is too diffuse making negotiation too difficult and unwieldy.

      if you have a power plant that emits sulfur dioxide and causes acid rain across a whole region, damaging 2 million people to the tune of $3 each, they are not individually going to pursue you. (though they can form a class action ) but even so, proof it was YOUR sox that did the harm is difficult etc.

      in such a case, it may be worth contemplating regulation or mandated pollution trading, but it should always be a last resort when no other option is practical and still ought to be based upon rights, not fiat.

      positive externalities can get tricky.

      to take a simple and local example, imagine i plant a flowing tree in my yard. you live next door and enjoy the smell. while it would seem silly and out of step with social norms for me to try to charge you for enjoying my magnolia, on the other hand, if i decided to cut it down and you would no longer get to enjoy it, i doubt your would claim to be able to demand damages from me either.

      you enjoyed it for free, but it was never yours.

      you could, of course, offer to pay me not to cut it down and offer to provide its upkeep if you enjoyed it enough and, at some price, you could probably get me to agree.

      oxygen from a rainforest works like that.

      it is a (presumably) positive externality. you may well benefit from these amazonian trees.

      but that does not entitle you to keep benefiting from the positive externality produced by the property of another and more that you have a right to demand i keep the magnolia tree.

      if you want to keep them, you may have to buy them. one can claim a right not to be polluted upon, but not a right to the free enjoyment of a positive externality that would deprive others of the rights to use and exploit their own property.

      here, we get back into coase. if you really want it, you may have to pay as much as the best proposed use or buy the land entirely.

      i have generally admired the nature conservancy. they raise money, buy land, put it into trust, and see that it remains pristine. but they do not seek to take by fiat or violate rights. they engage in voluntary commerce to pursue and end they value.

      folks like the sierra club seek to mandate land use through governmental coercion. they lobby for laws that take or dramatically limit the use of property without compensation or permission. i find such practices to be anathema to a just society with individual liberty.

      does that help in terms of externalities?

      one other point i might raise:

      “democratic capitalism” is a bit of an oxymoron.

      the point of capitalism is NOT democracy nor is democracy needed for capitalism.

      what is needed are rights and those rights must have primacy over democracy.

      pure democracy, unfettered by rights, cannot support capitalism as, if we can just vote ourselves your property or vote you into slavery, one can hardly run a capitalist system.

      • also:

        for the sake of clarity in future discussions, it may be useful to define a couple terms in specific ways to see if we can communicate clearly.

        “freedom” is a tricky word. if we describe perfect freedom as “being able to do whatever you want” then it does not really exist. such freedom from any stricture comes with no protection from others and leaves one in a war of all against all. thus, it is not terribly free as such an individual lives in constant fear.

        thus, we ceed certain freedoms in order to gain what i will call liberty.

        you value not being killed. if you value that more than you value the ability to kill others, then you have the basis for a pact with likeminded folks. they agree to respect you right to life, you agree to respect theirs, and you are all better off.

        you gain more in terms of personal safety than you lose in ability to kill.

        do the same with property, speech, etc and you wind up with a structure of natural rights.

        you give up what might be called “absolute freedom” to gain the liberty of being able to walk down the street not fearing for your life or property.

        of course, you can never really give that freedom up.

        you are free to attack someone at any time. but doing so places you outside of the social contract and will bring down the society upon you as you are no longer entitled to liberty in it.

        so, a word like “freedom” is too ill defined to be terribly useful here.

        but if we use, instead, liberty, to mean the respect for your natural rights and you respect for those of others, then we have a basis to start speaking about how one can derive a just government and system of economics.

        does that makes sense?

      • morganovich: i would suggest reading donohue in geophysical research letters.

        It’s been known a long time that increased CO2 can lead to greening. The Donohue study, however, adjusts for changes in precipitation, so that an area might be getting browner, but less brown than it might have been. In any case, the amount of greening is insufficient to significantly impact expected increases in CO2.

        morganovich: more CO2 results in more photosynthesis which results in more oxygen. so, ironically for many environmentalists, if one wants more oxygen, more co2 is a good way to promote such an outcome.

        The oxygen from combustion of fossil fuels comes from the atmosphere. Increased fixation by plants removes oxygen from the atmosphere.

        morganovich: one of the notable thinkers about such things was coase and i would recommend his works to you.

        You might want to read Coase yourself. He points out that transaction costs are rarely low enough to work in the real world, in particular, when harm is diffuse as with pollution.

        • “Increased fixation by plants removes oxygen from the atmosphere. ”

          not in comparison to the amount they produce through photosynthesis.

          as ever, you ignore most of the discussion and seek to fixate on details to avoid coming to the broader conclusions supported by the evidence while misrepresenting the views of others.

          coase points out that in a great many cases, transaction costs are low enough for individuals to deal with, and such costs are far lower today is the internet age.

          he also (as i explicitly said) speaks of cases where the costs are too low as a place where regulation (based in rights and as a last resort) may be appropriate.

          of course, as i specifically said that above, it would appear that rather than my needing to read coase, YOU need to read others’ comments before misrepresenting them.

          had you done so, you would have sen this:

          “the one pace this can break down is if the “harm” is too diffuse making negotiation too difficult and unwieldy.

          if you have a power plant that emits sulfur dioxide and causes acid rain across a whole region, damaging 2 million people to the tune of $3 each, they are not individually going to pursue you. (though they can form a class action ) but even so, proof it was YOUR sox that did the harm is difficult etc.

          in such a case, it may be worth contemplating regulation or mandated pollution trading, but it should always be a last resort when no other option is practical and still ought to be based upon rights, not fiat.”

          and avoided demonstrating, once more, just how mendacious commenting style is and that you rarely bother to even read the things you comment upon and cite.

          • morganovich: not in comparison to the amount they produce through photosynthesis.

            Sorry, we stated that backwards. Anyway, oxygen levels are not an issue. CO2 is only an issue because it is a greenhouse gas.

            morganovich: coase points out that in a great many cases, transaction costs are low enough for individuals to deal with

            Um, no.

            Coase, The Problem of Social Cost, Journal of Law and Economics 1960: In order to carry out a market transaction it is necessary to discover who it is that one wishes to deal with, to inform people that one wishes to deal and on what terms, to conduct negotiations leading up to a bargain, to draw up the contract, to undertake the inspection needed to make sure that the terms of the contract are being observed, and so on. These operations are often extremely costly, sufficiently costly at any rate to prevent many transactions that would be carried out in a world in which the pricing system worked without cost.

            morganovich: in such a case, it may be worth contemplating regulation or mandated pollution trading, but it should always be a last resort when no other option is practical and still ought to be based upon rights, not fiat.

            Sure. That includes most air and water pollution, as well as climate change.

          • more of “dishonest zach” misrepresenting the discussion, arguing by fallacy, and claiming facts not in evidence while trying to devolve into picayune straw men.

            so, in repsone to the notion that coase agreed that many transactions COULD be handled by negotiation but that some could not, you point out just the ones that cannot and then act as though that demonstrates anyhting other than your mendacity, inability to read for comprehension, and inability to parse basic logic.

            you then also ignore the fact that oxygen is a positive externality, and therefore functions differently and has a different optimal rights structure.

            air and water pollution vary depending on range, severity, and many other issues.

            “anthropogenic climate change” is not a real issue.

            i note that you have yet, in all these months, to provide even one climate model that has evidenced forward predictability.

            the models failed zach. they got it nearly totally wrong. CO2 is a positive, not a negative externality.

          • morganovich: you point out just the ones that cannot

            As Coase pointed out. It’s exactly the sort of situation, pollution, tragedy of the commons, that Coase’s Theorem does not apply. Not only are transactions cost high compared to damage, but information is far from perfect.

            morganovich: air and water pollution vary depending on range, severity, and many other issues.

            Sure, and if someone dumps sludge on your land, you can simply take them to court. But if someone dumps into the stream or atmosphere, there’s little you can do. The damage is too diffuse, the information required to show particularized harm is too vague.

            morganovich: i note that you have yet, in all these months, to provide even one climate model that has evidenced forward predictability.

            That’s false, of course. You can start with Arrhenius 1896.

          • morganovich: they got it nearly totally wrong. CO2 is a positive, not a negative externality.

            An excellent example, by the way. The damage is too diffuse, the information required to show particularized harm is too vague, the money working against reasonable solutions too great, for Coase’s theorem to be of use.

          • Z: “But if someone dumps into the stream or atmosphere, there’s little you can do. The damage is too diffuse, the information required to show particularized harm is too vague.

            Perhaps “too vague to show particularized harm” means “no actual harm”.

            If you can demonstrate harm or potential harm and identify a source you have a path to a solution.

            morganovich: “i note that you have yet, in all these months, to provide even one climate model that has evidenced forward predictability..”

            That’s false, of course. You can start with Arrhenius 1896.

            LOL

            We see you’re still at it, Dishonest Zach.

            Predicting that changes in atmospheric CO2 levels due to burning of fossil fuels might be large enough to have an effect on atmospheric temperature – something that’s not now controversial – is hardly the same as predicting future temperatures as recent models have attempted to do, with resultant spectacular failure.

            As you you well know, Arrhenius made no actual temperature predictions other than to calculate an inaccurate value of sensitivity, ignored clouds completely, and thought he had explained the cause of recent periodic glaciations, something we now know is false.

            morganovich: “they got it nearly totally wrong. CO2 is a positive, not a negative externality.

            Z: “An excellent example, by the way. The damage benefit is too diffuse, the information required to show particularized harm benefit is too vague, the money working against reasonable draconian solutions too great, for Coase’s theorem to be of use.

            There – FIFY.

          • Ron H: Perhaps “too vague to show particularized harm” means “no actual harm”.

            It’s typical to be able to show that the rate of disease is increased with pollution, such as asthma with particulates, but showing that a specific case of asthma is caused by air pollution can be intractable.

            Ron H: Predicting that changes in atmospheric CO2 levels due to burning of fossil fuels might be large enough to have an effect on atmospheric temperature – something that’s not now controversial –

            Well, it’s not controversial in scientific circles, but there is still controversy created by the denialist crowd.

            Ron H: is hardly the same as predicting future temperatures as recent models have attempted to do, with resultant spectacular failure.

            Global heat continues to increase. Predicting how that heat propagates through the system is still a difficult problem.

            Ron H: Arrhenius made no actual temperature predictions other than to calculate an inaccurate value of sensitivity, ignored clouds completely,

            He determined a value for climate sensitivity close to the modern value.

            Ron H: There – FIFY.

            While the globe as a whole is warming, regional effects are still very uncertain. As we said, the information is too diffuse to apply Coase’s Theorem, as well as any potential harm or benefit.

          • Global heat continues to increase. Predicting how that heat propagates through the system is still a difficult problem.

            How do you know? What form does that heat take, and how is it measured?

          • It’s typical to be able to show that the rate of disease is increased with pollution, such as asthma with particulates

            That’s what class actions are for, as morganovich pointed out.

            but showing that a specific case of asthma is caused by air pollution can be intractable.

            Of course, but it’s not necessary to prove that a specific case was caused by a specific particle from a specific source.

            Well, it’s not controversial in scientific circles, but there is still controversy created by the denialist crowd.

            The denialist crowd, eh? Who, exactly, are they? Here we see your true colors.

            No one seriously disputes the nature of CO2 as a greenhouse gas. The disagreements are over other things.

            Global heat continues to increase.

            That is one of the things in dispute.

            Predicting how that heat propagates through the system is still a difficult problem.

            Which means there is no reasonable course of action to be taken, and no harmful policies need be implemented as countermeasures at this time.

            He determined a value for climate sensitivity close to the modern value.

            A value that’s at least twice what any reasonable person today accepts as realistic.

            Of course as always you fail to mention that Arrhenius expected warming due to anthropogenic CO2 to be beneficial, in fact he believed that increased warming would break the cycles of glaciation.

            While the globe as a whole is warming, regional effects are still very uncertain. As we said, the information is too diffuse to apply Coase’s Theorem, as well as any potential harm or benefit.

            That’s right. Harm hasn’t been demonstrated, there are likely potential benefits, and predictions of potential harm are unrealistic. There is no reason to invoke Coase on this issue.

          • Ron H: What form does that heat take, and how is it measured?

            The heat is measured as increases in temperature. Measurements are made with Nansen bottles, and with Argo floats.
            http://www.nodc.noaa.gov/OC5/3M_HEAT_CONTENT/sl_therm_2000m.png

            Ron H: That’s what class actions are for, as morganovich pointed out.

            Class action suits consist of a group that have a common injury or injuries, but there may only be a statistical correlation.

            Ron H: Of course, but it’s not necessary to prove that a specific case was caused by a specific particle from a specific source.

            If you can’t show that your injury was caused by the plaintiff, then you can’t collect damages.

            Ron H: No one seriously disputes the nature of CO2 as a greenhouse gas.

            There’s not significant scientific dispute about anthropogenic climate change, but there is a great deal of cultural conflict, including about whether CO2 acts as a greenhouse gas. Like most so-called skeptical movements, they have a big tent, and include multiple inconsistent claims.

            Ron H: That is one of the things in dispute.

            There’s no significant scientific dispute.
            http://www.nodc.noaa.gov/OC5/3M_HEAT_CONTENT/sl_therm_2000m.png

            Ron H: Which means there is no reasonable course of action to be taken, and no harmful policies need be implemented as countermeasures at this time.

            If we put water on the stove, we can determine that it’s temperature will rise, even if we can’t predict exactly how the steam will bubble.

            Ron H: Harm hasn’t been demonstrated, there are likely potential benefits, and predictions of potential harm are unrealistic.

            A degree or two probably wouldn’t be harmful, and the net benefit may balance any detriment. But warming is expected to be several degrees Celsius over the next century. It’s not reasonable to claim this won’t have profound effects on the environment.

  5. I believe this quote from “That Mitchell & Webb Look” in the vegetarian sketch seems on point: “Pigs are expensive, pink and annoying. But they’re also delicious which is why we breed so many of them. There might be a few polar bears left if more people wanted one for breakfast.”
    (Ignoring, of course, the fact that there are *plenty* of polar bears left.)

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