March 30, 2005
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.
Good Lord, I might actually have to change my opinion of the United Nations. Far from all of them being the bunch of useless wankers that we have come to know and love they’ve actually brought out a report that makes some sense. You’ll have seen it splashed across all of the papers today as this quick roundup from Euractive shows:
Now I’ve only skimmed a few of those reports and they all concentrate on how bad things are, how we’re all going to die tomorrow (or yesterday for some of them). The actual report can be downloaded from the same Euractive page and I’m going to have a quick skip through that as well. But much the most interesting thing I’ve seen so far is the brief on the paper by Greenfacts.org. This little piece on what should actually be done, on what the report is stating could and should happen to prevent disaster actually makes a great deal of sense.
Once you’ve got through the listing of disasters unfolding, you might note that almost all of them involve Garret Hardin’s old point about The Tragedy of the Commons. Where use of a resource is being strained by an increase in demand under a Marxist system of access, some systems managing that access have to be imposed. They can be social (socialist) or private (capitalist) [please note that those descriptions are from Hardin himself] but systems of management there must be.
Again, look at what Greenfacts is actually stating is the solution:
Economic and financial interventions provide powerful instruments to regulate the use of ecosystem goods and services
Market mechanisms can only work if supporting institutions are in place, and thus there is a need to build institutional capacity to enable more widespread use of these mechanisms
Elimination of subsidies that promote excessive use of ecosystem services
Greater use of economic instruments and market-based approaches in the management of ecosystem services
Taxes or user fees for activities with “external” costs
Creation of markets, including through cap-and-trade systems
Mechanisms to enable consumer preferences to be expressed through markets.
There’s even a part of the report where they call for a ban on all trade subsidies and distortions....yes, really, the point that free trade leads to the most efficient allocation of resources seems to have got through.
This is marvellous, a real step forward. We can now all agree with the tree huggers, indeed, the planet is in bad shape, so let’s go and do what the report tells us we should. Abolish subsidies, create markets where they currently do not exist, provide the legal and institutional framework for such markets to work (that is, private property ownership), drag the poor up out of their destitution by incorporating them into the globalized system. In short, the report is telling us two important things. One, that there are problems, and the eco-weenies will of course agree with this. Two, that the solution is more markets, properly structured, so that externalities are properly reflected in the prices paid, something that the greenies will not like, but if they accept the first part of the report they need to accept the second.
What’s not to like?
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Skim read this over lunch and yes I think this is a win win proposal.
But considering both camps would rather cut off their noses...
Posted by: Gordon | Mar 30, 2005 1:46:20 PM
Sorry, can you dumb it down for me a bit: If we drag the poor out of their destitution, won't they use more of Earth's available resources?
That is to say: The only way the first world is able to use as much resources as we do, is because the third world, currently, does not.
Tim adds: Depends on which resources you are talking about. Oil and metals, you might be right (although there are other answers to those questions) but this report is talking about renewable resources, forests, timber, water, pollution, fishing.
For example, when people are using inefficient peasant agriculture techniques, cooking with wood and so on, then forests get cutdown. When agriculture becomes mechanised and more efficient, and people are cooking with electricity, then forest don’t get cut down, there is less need for the land and less need for wood. Which is why forests in the US and UK have been expanding this past century.
It doesn’t work to talk of "resources", one has to ask "which resource"...as people get richer they use more of some and less of others. Take that most basic of resources, land. A hunter gatherer needs many more acres of land to supprt himself than does a settled farmer, to the point where now, with modern farming techniques, we could, if we wished, grow all the food (but not meat, obviously a vegetarian diet) for a family on the average US suburban lot.
This report is, in almost every case, talking about resources where people use less of them in higher technology (and thus richer) lifestyles. So wealth is a solution to many of the problems they describe.
Posted by: Destructor | Mar 31, 2005 4:58:14 PM
Right. I guess the only resource that is getting noticably scarcer, and the resource that lubricates (ha!) the world economy, is oil. Currently, a minority of the planet uses the majority of the oil. If the majority gets industrialized, oil will run out faster, which will cause problems.
The hope is that by the time oil gets too expensive to be practically useful, there will be some 'alternative' fuel source to power our planes and tankers. I've yet to see any useful evidence on what this alternative is, which makes me worry about how I'm going to get my Wheaties when I'm in my forties.
This worry is enough to want me NOT to want the world to 'speed up' industrialization, as oil is not a renewable resource. I'm not highly concerned that we're going to run out of trees or food or water.
Timadds: This specific report is not about oil or metals etc. It’s about ecosystem services, a rather different thing.
Just so you know, there are people working on alternatives to oil, people like me. Part of my living comes from helping those manufacturing and designing fuel cells.
Posted by: Destructor | Apr 1, 2005 11:32:26 AM
I have to say, I'm incredibly impressed/stunned by the amount you manage to post each day.Good stuff.
Yes- my post wasn't in reference to the damage that speeding up industrialization would do to trees and water, since, as you mention, they're not in short supply.
Oil and metals, mentioned by the report or not, are. So speeding up industrialization under any pretence is not something I am particularly for, unless, as you mention, some kind of alternative comes into place.
Tim adds: Well, oil, if we include the oil shales and tar sands that are profitable to extract at this current price, we have several centuries at minimum.
Metals? Really not a problem As Julian Simon pointed out, we can, if we really wantto, extract them from basic rock, and there’s quite a lot of thatabout. Now I actualy work on the metals field, my project for this week to assess the potential profitability of extracting a metal where it is present only as 200 ppm. That is, 200 parts per million in the ore. Gold is regularly extracted at 1 gramme per tonne, or 1 ppm.
We may well run out of large rich deposits of certain metals, but we won’t (in anything under millenia) actually run out of them. My work for nextmonth is to look over a series of technologies to extract metals from wastes of other processes, something I’ve done before. Please believe me, form inside the industry, that there’s no shortage ofcources for all the metals we want for the foreseeable future.
Posted by: Destructor | Apr 4, 2005 2:11:50 PM