TCS Daily

A Blueprint for Survival, Revisited

By Tim Worstall - April 22, 2005 12:00 AM

So what did you do for Earth Day? Splash on the patchouli oil, drape yourself in tie-dye and dance barefoot in the park? The PJ O'Rourke option? Pour a G&T, lay back on the sofa and watch Flipper? I decided to try and really make a difference, to actually recycle something in the name of Mother Earth. Unfortunately, what I tried to recycle were some old ideas in a second hand book, that being "A Blueprint for Survival" from The Ecologist magazine. This is one of the founding documents of the environmental movement and can be found on line here.

Why unfortunate? Surely peering into the dark corners of ecologic theory should provide me with a few opportunities to sneer and jeer? Surely there is a chance that I can point to some absurdity and thus simply reject all their contentions? Well, yes, there are indeed those opportunities, but what makes it an unhappy experience is that I actually agree with them in two ways. The first is the obvious one, that there is no one out there who actually wants the world to collapse, for our grandchildren to be left boiling/drowning/starving/gasping for clean air (take your pick of catastrophe) if that is indeed what is going to happen. The arguments are whether it is, and if it is, what do we do about it. I mean c'mon, have you ever imagined a business meeting where the guy says "And then, in a 100 years, everyone dies and that's when we really make money!"

I know I'm looking back, that hindsight is 20/20, but I cannot see how this level of analysis ever convinced anyone. Take this phrase:

        "Indefinite growth of whatever type cannot be sustained by finite resources."

This is simply wrong (and a misquotation of Kenneth Boulding to boot), certainly when talking about economic growth (as they are). GDP measures value added in an economy. Even if we had a closed economy, with no new appropriation of resources, we would expect to see growth as new, more efficient technologies were introduced, freeing up our limited resources to do other things, that is, using the same resources to create more value. There is a similar piece of economic nonsense here:

        "...we are sowing the seeds of massive unemployment by increasing 
        the ratio of capital to labour so that the provision of each job becomes 
        more expensive."

I beg their pardon? What sort of nonsense is this? Sure, more capital per laborer makes that labor more productive, but they've got it the wrong way round. The fact that we have lots of capital (that is, the savings from their labor that our forefathers have left to us) means that each unit of labor has become more valuable.

It is analysis like this that leads them to the conclusion that the world must change, and this is where the real relish shines through their writing. They have a vision of small communities, each mostly self-contained, recycling food to ordure to plants, working as craftsmen, happy in a static and unchanging world. This sort of thinking has a long history in England, at least as far back as William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, in fact, it seems to have appeared a generation after the fathers of those propounding it fled what Marx called the idiocy of rural life.

I have no problem with people who wish to live this way, hey, I'm a laissez faire kind o'guy, you know, whatever rocks your boat. Yet it is difficult to read this pamphlet without thinking that the authors would relish the imposition of this upon everyone, a desire to force the world to live according to their plan rather than to the expressed desires of the individuals concerned.

I was going to give up then but I got to their estimations of how long various metals were going to last. Apparently we ran out of gold and silver back in the 1980s, lead and zinc ditto (perhaps someone should tell the London Metals Exchange. They traded 1.3 million futures in those last month. Isn't trading in non-existent products illegal?). Now I know, this is around the time of the Club of Rome report but really, predicting that the world will run out of gold 15 years after your pronouncement?

What makes this error almost inexcusable in my eyes is that they had picked up on an idea fashionable at the time, that of moving from a "flow economy" to a "stock economy". Instead of measuring, being obsessed by, how much new material we extract, we should look at what we already have above ground and work to do the best we can with that. As an idea it's not all that bad, certainly we would want to be as efficient as possible with what we already have, but to then look at the metals industry and not note that it already does this is the work of driveling incompetents. You have probably already heard that all of the gold ever mined is still in circulation above ground (as long as you accept that a bank vault is above ground), but that's the way the whole metals industry works. As a stock industry.

If you were (as I am) looking at a small plant to extract rhenium, you would want to note that the vast majority of that metal sold comes from recycled scrap. At $1,400 a kg I would hope so, too. If you were to enter the gallium market without noting that fully 75% of annual sales are from recycled material you would be a fool. We could even point (with hindsight, to be fair) to the problems of the US steel industry over the past few decades, most of which are caused by the fact that it has been moving from a flow industry to a stock one. We simply don't need that many huge blast furnaces any more, with their ability to turn iron ore into steel. We need small furnaces able to take scrap steel and make it anew. I have no problem with people outside the industry not knowing these things, but to purport to be an expert, to advocate a move to a "stock economy" and fail to note it is, well, I've said my piece above.

Allow me actually to be fair to them as well, they do note worries about CO2 concentrations and the potential for rising temperatures, this reference from 1972 being the earliest I have seen. (Please note, I take the Lomborg line on this. What we do about it is the important question, Kyoto not being the answer.) They advocate economic and thus rational pricing for water, would like to internalize the costs of external consequences and costs of actions (as they put it, make accepted value the same as real value). Also to be fair to them they note that it is not the availability of contraception that reduces family size but the desire for a small family. They even note that wealth helps to create this desire, but insist that it cannot happen globally, as there are not enough resources for all to become sufficiently wealthy. I rather like the fact that it is the IPCC report, the one that takes their CO2 worries seriously, that in some of the scenarios has the entire globe living at current US levels of wealth (i.e. twice that of the time of the Blueprint) with no lack of resources noted other than that very CO2 we all talk about incessantly.

In the end I became extremely depressed by this report for the second thing that they say, something that I fully and absolutely agree with, something which, if I had the skill and talent, I would want to contribute to myself.

        "Our long-term goals, therefore, must be to unite economics and ecology."

Yes! Completely! The ecologist notes the problems, notes the interactions in the environment, the economist advises on how to change behavior so as to mitigate or eliminate the actions causing the problems. What an idea, what a great way for actually organizing the world!

Then I come back to the present reality, 33 years after this noble goal was announced. The environmental movement points to the collapse in fisheries, and the economist says, "Oh, that's a Tragedy of the Commons, we know how to solve those, ownership, property rights..." and the ecologist runs away screaming that profit cannot be allowed. Tropical forests are being destroyed and the economist says "Oh, that's a Tragedy of the Commons... " and the ecologist pays no heed, artesian wells are being over mined and the "Oh we know how..." cannot escape the economist's lips before he is alone in the room. So the process proceeds, those who wish to unite the two disciplines refusing to understand what is being said to them about the one they don't already know, refusing to listen to science that may conflict with their most cherished prejudices.

Now that is a tragedy.

The author is a TCS contributor living in Europe. Find more of his writing here.



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