Sunday, August 10, 2008

Environmental disaster and governmental authoritarianism: a marriage made in hell

Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post has a major op-ed piece picked up by the News Journal today, explaining that environmental crises around the world are fare more complicated than just global warming.

Stipulated.

But then he goes into this riff on regulation and free markets:

The basic problem is that there are so many of us now. Four centuries ago, there were about 500 million people on Earth. Today there are that many, plus 6 billion. We're rapidly heading toward 9 billion. Conservatives say that we just need to focus on maintaining free markets and let everything sort itself out through the miracle of the invisible hand.

But the political tide is turning against unfettered free markets and toward greater regulation. Climate change policy is part of that: Somehow we've got to embed environmental effects into the cost of energy sources, consumer goods and so on. The market approach by itself has let us down.

Viewed broadly, it appears that humans are environment-destroying creatures by nature. The notion of the prelapsarian era in which we lived in perfect harmony with nature has been shattered by such scientists as Jared Diamond, the author of "Collapse," and Tim Flannery, who wrote "The Future Eaters."

If everything gets simplified and reduced to a global warming narrative, we'll be unable to see the trees for the forest.

Consider the June issue of Scientific American, where you'll find a photograph of a parched lake, the mud baked into the kind of desiccated tiles that scream "drought." The caption says: "Climate shift to unprecedentedly dry weather, along with diversion of water for irrigation, has converted this former reservoir in China's Minqin County into desert."

"This former reservoir?" Look closely, and you can see concrete walls in the background. This is not a natural place: It's a manufactured landscape. This part of China is an environmental disaster that has very little to do with climate change and much to do with high population and intensifying agriculture.

We saw reports of more wildfires in California. Sure, people will lay some blame on climate change. But there's also the matter of people building homes in wildfire-susceptible forests, overgrown with vegetation due to decades of fire suppression.

The message that needs to be communicated to these people is: "Your problem is not global warming. Your problem is that you're nuts." You should definitely worry about global warming. But you don't need to worry about global warming when your house is on fire.


What's truly interesting and paradoxical about this segment is that Achenbach first rips free markets for not constraining environmental harm, and then follows with an example of environmental disaster from China, one of the most authoritarian, regulative governments on the planet.

The grim reality that Mr Achenbach ignores is that in speaking of outright environmental disaster, we should be speaking of the Russia and the former Soviet Union, China, and other regions in which governments have the power to regulate anything they please.

The areas in which environmental damage has actually been held in some check (though not perfectly) are those in which top-down forces (hierarchy and regulation) have a dynamic interaction with bottom-up forces (free markets and emergent networks) because the Earth's environment is a perfect example of a complex non-linear system.

Complex non-linear systems do not lend themselves to accurate predictions because they respond to large numbers of variables simultaneously, display sensitive reliance on initial conditions, and display chaotic responses to stimuli.

None of these things are governments good at managing, because people who develop political and public policy strategies invariably assume they are working in a linear environment.

Which is why giving the government complete control--as in Russia and China--is invariably a recipe for environmental disaster.

But, hey, Mr Achenbach had a column to fill, so you can't expect subtlety.

Final note: if you're going to cite sources as having shattered earlier pre-conceptions, try to do better than Jared Diamond's Collapse, which received mixed reviews when it came out, and is a horribly uneven, pretentious book that makes a lot of promises in the introduction that the author fails to keep.

1 comment:

tom said...

Then again, anyone who says things like "But the political tide is turning against unfettered free markets and toward greater regulation", is so deep in their own little fantasy world as to be impossible to communicate with.

The closest we've gotten to unfettered free markets in the past hundred years is in places where the governments have collapsed completely or have no control and free markets have emerged as a means of survival.

And the fact that these are typically places no sane person would want to live has nothing to do with market failure, and everything to do with how bad the former government messed them up before it lost control. For example (if we can believe P.J. O'Rourke) Peshawar and the tribal areas of Pakistan circa 1989, as described in Parliament of Whores, or present day Somolia (if we can believe Peter T. Leeson of the Cato Institute).

The political tide can't get much farther away from free markets. The market approach has not let us down.

Politicians seeking ever greater control over every aspect of our lives have lied to us by pointing at the unintended consequences of regulation and calling them market failures, and mainstream journalists such as Joel Achenbach are either total dupes or willing accomplices when they fail to call bullshit on these lies.