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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Econtalk: David Owen's Conundrum

So I took a two year hiatus from Econtalk.  But I'm back.  There's a lot at Econtalk that I think is pure milarky--not the data or the econ terms.  It's the editorializing that they do between the two.

Anyway.  I'm back.  For the podcast, go here.  And for David Owen's book, Conundrum, go here.

There wasn't much in this podcast that was news to me.  Maybe its because I live in New York City, maybe its because all of my friends are scientists, I don't know.  But there were a few things that bothered me.

First of all, the conceit of the book is simple.  There are unintended consequences to even the best efforts at conservation and efficiency.  Russ Roberts is a professor, and he deals with a lot of students, who maybe aren't that sophisticated.  So it can be forgiven that he holds up Owen's work as an example of how making fuel efficient cars, and seeking renewable forms of energy can have harmful consequences to the environment that they strive to protect.

However, I know better.  And all of my friends know better.  Again, with the caveat that my friends are scientists and politicians...

And the rub is this, we know there are unintended consequences.  The move to ethenol has euthanized the entire fishing population of the Mississipi River.  We know this stuff.  Windmills kill migratory bird populations and have harmful effects on bat colonies.  New popularity of natural sugars like honey have virtually made the honeybee extinct.  We got it.  More fuel efficient cars make people more inclined to drive more and make up the difference.  Well, duh.

But you've missed the point if you think that's a reason to stop trying, to stop innovating, and to stop efforts at conserving.  Russ Roberts makes the point in his podcast, towards the end, where he's saying, (paraphrased) "it doesn't matter if everyone in the world picked up their garbage and drove less, it still wouldn't be enough to fix the problem."  I hear that in Republican think all the time.  "Sure, you can tax the rich all you want, but its still not going to plug the whole in the deficit."

Well, you've all missed the point.  Every.  Little.  Bit.  Counts.  And if the one hundred water bottles that I didn't drink last year aren't in a landfill right now, or in the middle of the atlantic ocean, then that's a big deal.  And that's something to be proud of.  As I've quoted in the past, "The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."  The work goes on.

Owen's larger point of course, is that it's consumption that drives the consumer binging that so plagues the landfills.  And sure, he's right.  But there's a fix to that too.  Education.  The reason for education isn't just to fill the seats at factories, or law offices across the country.  It's to engender good morals, good tastes, good scientific knowledge and reasoning skills, and to realize that great pleasure can be derived from very modest means.

One last point.  Owens spends quite a bit of time talking about how New York is the greenest city in America.  Yup.  We knew that.  Russ Roberts snarkily said (paraphrased) "and its not because of the raised conciousness," and Owens replies, "no, it's because of the subway system!"  Again, thanks for the snark buddy, but we knew that too.

I have a fantasy where in the future, most humans dwell in megapolises with flying, multi-level, public transit systems.  And outside of those gigantic geodesic domes?  Supporting farmsteads and factories, using recycled air, and funneling waste products into pits that recycle and reuse 100% of it, piping the materials back into those same farms and factories.  And even further, just at the horizon and extending hundreds of miles to the next megapolis?  Untouched wildlife, rainforest and desert, ice capped mountains, and oceans teaming with life.

Of course, wait, I've just given grounds to Russ Robert's real fear.  The tyranny of the left.  He's mentioned this in a few podcasts since I've been back, this oblique fear (paraphrased) "yeah, I guess we could live in a sort of tyranny, where environmentalists have all sorts of regulations.  I think they would (dramatic pause) do other things too. (insert: like rape all your babies)"  Yeah.  Cause there have been so many of us.  I mean, I guess they might cite Stalin, but Stalin was a political opportunist and a butcher, not an idealogue or even a polemist.  And it would be really atrocious if people like George Zimmerman wouldn't be allowed to procure guns, and join vigilante groups, in states that enforce rules like "stand your ground."  Seriously Russ, at worst, I think you're looking at less games like Doom 3-D and Grand Theft Auto 18.  Maybe more female empowered pornography.

After this diatribe, Russ then makes a very reasonable point:  Well, maybe we should get used to the idea that we are a consumerist society and try to come up with ways to cope with that.  Uh.  Wait.  Seriously.  Seriously?  WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK WE'VE BEEN TALKING ABOUT?!

Russ, no one wants to take away your lexis and force you to eat grass fed, locally raised beef.  We're all taking a stab at making things better, we're all working on it in our own way, at our own pace.  Maybe that's not enough to save the world, but its a better start than some people can even conceive of. I saw on a talk show the other day, and a woman proudly attested to the fact that she only drinks bottled water.  Said she goes through four cases of it a month.  Are there really people like that anymore?  I thought that was a hangover of the nineties!  That's what we're talking about Russ.  Helping that girl to realize the damage that she herself has caused, and hoping that she takes positive action, that really won't cost her a hell of a lot, will save her time, money, and will save us a whole lot of trash.

The podcast was crappy.  And I blame that on Russ Roberts.  He wasted a lot of time on these political sort of specious arguments and not enough on the details I usually tune in for.  I would have loved to hear more about how locavore isn't always efficient or desirable.  On the webpage they cite an article called "The Locavore's Dilemma: Why Pineapples Should Not Be Grown in North Dakota." That makes sense and confirms a whole lot of things I've thought about before.  But a read of the first 500 words of that article shows already that it isn't an article about economics, as much as it is a crybaby libertarian griping about the media.  Seriously, not a single number until about 1200 words in, and then--the number isn't even a statistic, it's a hypothetical.

Let me explain it to you again Libertarians.  You may hate us and find us annoying, think we're a freakin' broken record, repeating the same thing over again, but---we're not forcing you to do anything.  And to the extent that we can influence policy--that's called Democracy.  That's how the process works, and given the number of corporate dollars in it, its amazing we get anything accomplished at all.

Even the most extreme locavores I know, recognize that there are certain things that they want to eat that the local economy just doesn't produce.  They either skip it altogether, improvise with something else, or, wait for it...make an exception!  Just because you think in black and white, doesn't mean that we have to.  As to reforming the economy to make the improbable to the impossible happen where it oughtn't, that's not what locavorism is about.

Finally, Roberts absurdly states, that even if global warming is true (which he doesn't believe, his exact words are "I'm agnostic to the science") we should be spending our time and dollars on thinking of ways not to prevent it, but to deal with it as it progresses.  Again.

Wow, the resource bucket must be pretty shallow if we can't work on both problems at once.  Way to use your gray matter there Russ.

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