Mill, Hayek, and Our Midas Plight

by Eric Zencey on February 8, 2010 · 15 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Economics & Empire

midas plight


Montpelier, VT. A hundred and fifty years ago John Stuart Mill looked ahead to the sort of world we’d have if human population and economic activity continued the growth rates he was seeing in 1848.  He did this in order to argue against the idea that more is always better, but today his reductio ad absurdum reads like dismally accurate prediction.  There isn’t much to like, he said, in a world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature; with every rood of land brought into cultivation, which is capable of growing food for human beings; [with] every flowery waste or natural pasture ploughed up, all quadrupeds or birds which are not domesticated for man’s use exterminated as his rivals for food, [with] every hedgerow or superfluous tree rooted out, and scarcely a place left where a wild shrub or flower could grow without being eradicated in the name of improved agriculture.

It is not literally true to say that we have exterminated every animal we haven’t domesticated, or that “every rood of land” has been brought into cultivation.  The human estate continues to expand, as forests are clear-cut to make way for cattle, as rocky slopes and other marginal lands are brought under the plow.  But this growth in arable land has slowed in the past decade, and it now no longer outpaces the rate at which arable land is lost (mostly through salinization from irrigation) to desertification.  Total cultivated acreage is declining.  As population continues to grow, arable land per person is declining even more rapidly.  One result:  land that’s farmed has to be farmed hard—with techniques that amount to “soil mining,” an unsustainable draw-down of soil fertility that will reduce further the amount of arable land in the future.

While there are non-domesticated species that continue to share our planet with us today, they are there largely because we allow them to be—or because there’s a time lag between our acts (like dumping CO2 into the atmosphere) and the consequences of our acts (like the disappearance of polar bear habitat from global climate change), or because extinction-producing processes currently underway (the cutting of rainforest, for instance) have not yet reached their full expression in the world.

In many places, including the U.S., the few remaining ecosystems that register as “wild” are not large enough to support the spontaneous operation of nature within their juridicially defined borders.   We have to manage the wilderness in order to sustain it—and the oxymoron inherent in “wilderness management” has long since faded from view, as necessity makes routine what logical consistency would have forbidden.

To those born into the fossil fuel era, it seems normal and ordinary that we should have vast energies available to us to effect our will in nature.  It’s all we’ve ever known, and the pages in history books that tell us it was ever different can be dismissed as reporting a remote, quaint and benighted time.  But the handful of centuries that comprise the fossil fuel era are just an instant in geological time, the time scheme in which life evolved, the time scheme in which the natural processes of the planet largely operate.  To put things in a bit of historical perspective:  biologists speak of the Net Primary Productivity of ecosystems, the amount of food energy present within them that comes from the conversion of solar energy into biomass through photosynthesis.  It’s the planet’s energy budget, the fuel for all life. Two centuries ago humans made an insignificant dent in Net Primary Productivity, taking a fraction of one percent, with the rest being available to power Mill’s “spontaneous operation of nature.”  Today, biologists estimate that humans are responsible for consuming or destroying an astounding 40% of the Net Primary Productivity of planetary ecosystems.  The remnants of nature that we have so far allowed to remain must make do with what’s left.  Many ecologists and biologists fear it isn’t enough; systems that evolution designed to make maximum efficient use of 100% of the available solar energy are having difficulty adapting to little more than half of that.  To keep those ecosystems alive and operating in something like a stable (albeit stripped-down) state requires human intervention:  management, regulation, husbandry, legal protection, seeding, subsidy.

Because of the power unleashed by oil, the dystopia that Mill envisioned in 1848 is very much the world we have today——not an Edenic  paradise, not even a garden planet, but a world in which the “spontaneous activity of nature” has been circumscribed, bounded, broken, eliminated.

Call it Factory Planet:  a world in which natural processes are treated as parts of a vast world-machine operated to produce a maximum amount of wealth for humans.

It’s a world that King Midas would have recognized.  Having built our economy beyond the limits of what the planet can sustainably give to us in the form of resource inputs, and sustainably take from us in the form of the wastes it struggles to absorb, we face the problem Midas faced.  He enjoyed his power to transform everything he touched into gold until he sat down to dinner and touched his daughter; that’s when he learned that an unlimited power to create wealth was neither sustainable nor especially desireable.

Like Midas, we’re headed for a similar epiphany.

Factory Planet, as it’s operated now, is not sustainable.  But even were we to make it so—even were we to rein in our productive engines to the level the planet can sustainably support–there’s another problem:  our conversion of nature into wealth at the maximum rate practicable within environmental limits would still leave very little room for something we cherish as much as Midas cherished his daughter.  I don’t mean wilderness hikes or the possibility of encountering whales or polar bears or virgin forest —things that only some of us seem to cherish–but something more far-reaching and widely valued:  democracy and civil liberty.

One strong principle underlying our freedoms—the rights encoded into our Bill of Rights—is the idea that citizens should be left alone in all things except those that directly affect others.  (This distinction between what’s public and what’s private, and not the false ground of release from work or duty or responsibility, is the true foundation of our experience of freedom, Wendell Berry tells us.)  This democratic ideal, fresh and new three hundred years ago, evolved on Garden Planet:  a world in which there was a vast distance between what culture took from nature and what nature could sustainably provide.  Back then, humans lived in ecosystems that were lush, healthy, resilient.  But on Factory Planet the ecosystems that support civilization are strained to the breaking point.  In consequence, acts that were private on Garden Planet have public consequences that make them legitimate subjects of public regulation and control.

For instance:  two hundred years ago if you burned a bit of carbon fuel or clear-cut a forest, it was pretty much nobody’s business but your own.  (This simplifies things:  English kings and nobles did reserve forests and game for their own use and harvest, and some civilizations disappeared because they cut down the forests and mined the soils that sustained them.)  In our era, when every ton of CO2 emissions puts a burden on the planet’s limited ability to absorb it, and when forests and their necessary services to civilization are becoming scarcer and scarcer worldwide, its clear that carbon emissions and deforestation impose real and measurable damage on us all, and are therefore legitimately controlled by public authority in pursuit of the public good.

Or, suppose you live in Colorado and want to catch the rainwater falling on your roof for use to water your lawn.  This is a fundamental prerogative; rain is the free gift of nature, right?  Not in Colorado Compact States.  In the watershed of the Colorado River every drop (and then some) of the river is assigned to a use—mostly irrigation to grow food,  pace Mill–and law forbids property owners to impede the flow of rainwater to the river.

Or suppose you fancy making a living as a fisherman or lobsterer.  Sorry—there’s no room for you on the water anymore, not unless you can be taken on by one of the existing quota holders.  Every ton of fish, every pound of lobster that nature is capable of producing has been anticipated, counted, assigned to a harvester, a market, a use.

Because our economy exceeds the limits of what nature can sustain, we are experiencing an increasing need for resource regimes:  an International Whaling Commission to limit the harvest of whales, a Fishing Treaty to apportion tonnages of catch from world oceans, a Green House Gas treaty to apportion the planet’s strained carbon-absorption capacity, international water compacts to apportion river flow among users, and on and on.

The alternative to this kind of rule of law is the absence of the rule of law—and a world in which “extra-legal” conflict over increasingly scarce resources will flourish.  Countries in a state of war find it difficult to hang on to civil liberties.  Resource shortages displace populations, create failed states, breed resentments on which terrorism feeds, and send nations to war—circumstances under which we’ll see further erosion of civil liberties.

The one option that is not available is to continue things as they once were:  no  resource regimes and growth without apparent limit.  The sad truth is there are limits to sustainable economic growth, and our transgression of those limits will force change of one sort or another upon us.

The conclusion is inescapable:  if we grow farther beyond the planet’s ability to support us, the best option we face is that more and more of our lives will be hemmed in by the imperative to control our collective environmental impact while maximizing our production of food and wealth.  To extend the metaphor:  factories are marvelously efficient, but they are not generally places where humans are given much room to exercise prerogative, discretion, choice or free will.  A factory planet, budgeted right up to the edge of what’s ecologically sustainable, and run for the sole purpose of maximizing the wealth that the human species enjoys, is a planet from which we’ve eliminated the literal ground on which democratic freedoms flourish.

Support for this thesis comes from an unexpected place.  Fifty years ago Friedrich Hayek argued that centralized economic planning like that being done behind the Iron Curtain was The Road to Serfdom. There is, he said, “an irreducible clash between planning and democracy.”  A country can maintain its democratic institutions and civil liberties only if it has a free-market economy and the egalitarian free-for-all of (relatively) unregulated capitalism.  His argument has a great deal of merit and influenced generations of neoconservatives, many of whom have cheapened it quite a bit.  Hayek was not opposed to government regulation of the economy, though the million-selling Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of his long, dry treatise didn’t dwell on that element, and so Hayek’s delineation of the legitimate grounds for governmental control of markets went largely unread and generally underappreciated.  Today many conservatives take Hayek to have supported an idea he would have found abhorrent, that there is no public good other than the one that emerges from the cumulation of private greeds expressed in markets.

Even correctly understood, Hayek’s argument has a serious flaw.  Hayek, unlike Mill, implicitly and comfortably assumed that we could have infinite economic growth on a finite planet; ecological limits to economic development played no part in his theory.  From our perspective fifty years later it’s easier to see that planning is planning whether it’s done to minimize poverty and injustice (as socialists were advocating then) or to preserve the minimum flow of ecosystem services that civilization requires (as we are stumbling toward today).   In the absence of limits on population growth and resource uptake, the free-market economic development that Hayek advocated turns out to have been just The Other Road to Serfdom.

It’s going to take some work to preserve democracy in an era of ecological constraint.  A key element is achieving a sustainable, stable level of human population; if we need to budget ourselves to a finite, sustainable level of resource throughput, then continued growth in the human population will reduce the average standard of living that humans can enjoy, and democracy doesn’t flourish when the standard of living is in decline.  World wide, education of women and girls has a strong effect in depressing birth rates; equal access to education should be seen not just as a civil right, but as a necessary step toward ecological sustainability.

Also paramount is the development of a sustainable economic infrastructure—the smart grid, energy from renewable sources, and conservation of all forms of energy through retrofitting and the gradual redesign of how and where we live, work, travel, shop, grow food, recreate.  Under a stable rate of throughput, such technical change and innovation will be our only avenue of increasing output—a process ecological economists call development to distinguish it from footprint-increasing growth. There is an enormous amount of waste of resources in our system because resources, particularly energy, were underpriced for most of the twentieth century.  We need to pick that low-hanging fruit–and then we’ll need to pick quite a bit more.

But these changes, alone, won’t be enough.  We need, also, a green intellectual infrastructure:  reconstruction and adaptation of the mistaken ideas on which our unsustainable institutions and practices were built.

What ideas needs changing?  First and foremost, economic theory.  I’ve written elsewhere about the need to devise a better measure of our standard of well-being than the current default, GDP, which was never designed to perform that service.  Among the other places in which economic theory presumes that an economy’s ecological footprint can grow forever is the concept of Pareto Optimality.  Back at the close of the nineteenth century Wilfred Pareto helped split Political Economy in two, separating “scientific” economic theory from the messier, less-easily-quantified realm of political theory.  Crucial to the split was his notion that because satisfactions and pleasures are subjective and not interpersonally comparable, all an economist can say, scientifically, is that one system is better than another if it satisfies more needs and wants than another.  The implication:  we cannot be confident that we improve the level of satisfaction in the world if we take a dollar from a billionaire and give it to a starving man to buy food.  For all we know the billionaire might derive as much satisfaction from that last dollar spent as the starving man does buying food.  This counter-intuitive result, as hard-hearted and absurd as it is on its face, remains fundamental to economics as it is practiced today.  It is one strong impetus pushing us toward unsustainable growth.   Thanks to Pareto, in economic circles (and among policy makers who listen to economists), all talk of income redistribution is off the table.  If you care about the starving masses of the world, economics tells you, the only solution is to work to increase production, to produce two dollars where before there was only one.  Thus, through Pareto, a supposedly value-free science became committed to infinite economic growth—a value-laden, quixotic ideal if ever there was one.

Once we recognize that the planet is finite, and that there is a limit to the stream of resources that can sustainably be used to make wealth, we have to face the difficult questions of distribution of wealth instead of simply—childishly, romantically–assuming the problem away.

And, in our calculations of the minimum amount of nature that should be left alone to preserve a necessary flow of ecosystem services, we need to remember Hayek’s warning:  democracy and planning are irreducibly in conflict.  If we want to avoid the technocratic administration and centralized economic planning of Factory Planet, if we want to make unnecessary the development of an international technocratic elite who manage our interactions with earth’s ecosystems in order to preserve the grand project of industrial civilization, we need to preserve some substantial and additional measure of Mill’s “spontaneous activity of nature.”  Only by doing so will we inhabit a planet on which civil liberties remain possible.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar will shetterly February 8, 2010 at 12:49 am

Population may be the best argument for sharing the wealth: As people’s comfort increases, the average size of their families decreases.

avatar Heylucas February 8, 2010 at 9:34 am

Very interesting argument and plenty to think about. The connection between environmental concern and the preservation of individual freedoms is one worth exploring more. In general, environmental concern has been seen to run roughshod over liberties, but in the somewhat doomsday picture you paint, this may not be necessarily so.

There is a good bit of myth making in this piece. I don’t pretend to be bright enough to parse it all out but it just seems that there a lot of assumptions. For starters,
1)Humans\civilization being constrained ecologically is a new thing when its actually been around since the dawn of man
2)That there is such thing as sustainability and what is it that you are trying to sustain?

avatar Bruce Smith February 8, 2010 at 10:15 am

The group mind-set, or value-set, that the “free” market is the only servo (mechanism) in town is now under challenge. We are beginning to perceive that we need to make better use of democratic servos at all levels of society to counteract the adverse effects of the “free” market and especially with regard to sustainability. We also need to pay special attention as to how we can eradicate the selfish corruption that creeps into our use of these democratic servos. In many ways this is not unlike the adaption process manifest in evolution and the Gaia adaption process believed to operate with our own planet. Who can tell maybe we’ll be lucky and one day have man-made “governors” harmonizing with Nature’s “governors.” It’s up to us to shake off the pernicious group mind-set we have now and replace it with one more comprehensive and rational.

avatar Empedocles February 8, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Libertarians do not understand that freedom is an adaptation to environmental conditions. Perfect freedom can only exist in a relatively low population density with many available resources for the sustenance of life. As Hume writes:

“Let us suppose, that nature has bestowed on the human race such profuse abundance of all external conveniencies, that, without any uncertainty in the event, without any care or industry on our part, every individual finds himself fully provided with whatever his most voracious appetites can want…

It seems evident, that, in such a happy state, every other social virtue would flourish, and receive tenfold encrease; but the cautious, jealous virtue of justice would never once have been dreamed of. For what purpose make a partition of goods, where everyone has already more than enough? Why give rise to property where there cannot possibly be any injury?

We see, even in the present necessitous condition of mankind, that, wherever any benefit is bestowed by nature in an unlimited abundance, we leave it always in common among the whole human race, and make no subdivisions of right and property. Water and air, though the most necessary of all objects, are not challenged as the property of individuals; nor can any man commit injustice by the most lavish use and enjoyment of these blessings.

Thus, the rules of equity or justice depend entirely on the particular state and condition, in which men are placed” (An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals.)

Of course the irony is that, impossible though it was for Hume to see, air and water now can be the subject of injustice and that we do now possess the capability to foul the air and water sufficiently that their use and misuse can be brought under the purview of justice. But in all cases environmental destruction is the enemy of liberty, not the restrictions that attempt to protect people’s rights as far as possible, and in all cases libertarians would best serve their desire for freedom by preventing the environmental conditions that require ever greater extension of the jealous virtue of justice.

avatar Howard Merrell February 8, 2010 at 2:16 pm

There is much I find in this article to which to object. As Heylucas pointed out, there does appear to be a good bit of myth-making, or maybe undeserved myth-recognition. Like virtually everyone else who reads here, I have not been involved in the research, but the evidence that polar bears are in decline is, to say the least, open to discussion. Non-domesticated species are in decline? I’m not sure. I know, when driving, I have to watch out for deer more than I used to. I find any argument that entertains a human population reduction as a solution as suspect.
I hope other, better heads with more access to research will interact with these points of the post.

There is, however, an underlying theme to several recent posts. I have no way of knowing whether it is part of a plan by the Porch-masters, or if it is a bit of serindipity.
Mark Mitchel asks in part, should we look to a strong centralized government to meet horrendous needs, like those in Haiti.
Imbedded in Patrick Deneen’s intriguing suggestion that maybe being #2, or 3, or 4 has advantages over being number one, is the implied question: “If we aren’t #1, who will be? And can we trust them to look out for we # less-than-ones?”
Then this post, which indicates that with our horrendous eco-destructive power there must be a power sufficient to keep us from doing so.

To the extent that localists think the answer always is to take power away from the central power. trusting other locales to not pollute the river, kill the Buffalo, or arm themselves and subjugate their neighbors, they are being naieve.
I don’t think it takes much persuasion here on the Porch, but likewise those who think that a Federal program is always the answer, are equally naieve in the opposite direction.

Both notions fail to adequately take into account a basic Theological reality. Perhaps in this world the most basic Spiritual reality: The Depravity of Man.

avatar Carl Scott February 8, 2010 at 3:40 pm

Mr. Merrell, don’t give up on FPR…some of its essays are weak and predictable, as this one largely is (good to be reminded of Hayek the thinker not the caricature, though), but you can learn much here.

I do like your intractable spirit, but could I, though, convince you and myself and especially Mr. Zencey to pause…and read a couple of my favorite poems? They just might teach us more than Zencey’s oh-so-scientific theorists who never tire of saying what it is we all “must” do to avoid the Calamity. Here goes…

Mary Oliver

Night Flight*

Traveling at thirty thousand feet, we see
How much of earth still lies in wilderness,
Till terminals occur like miracles
To civilize the paralyzing dark.

Buckled for landing to a tilting chair,
I think: if miracle or accident
Should send us on across the upper air,
How many miles, or nights, or years to go
Before the mind, with its huge ego paling,
Before the heart, all expectation spent,
Should read the meaning of the scene below?

But now already the loved ones gather
Under the dome of welcome, as we glide
Over the final jutting mountainside,
Across the suburbs tangled in their lights,

And settled softly on the earth once more
Rise in the fierce assumption of our lives-
Discarding smoothly, as we disembark,
All thoughts that held us wiser for a moment
Up there alone, in the impartial dark.

*The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems (1972)

***********************************************

Gerard Manley Hopkins

God’s Grandeur

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

avatar Howard Merrell February 8, 2010 at 5:21 pm

Carl,
We may be cousins. Our Avatars, or Gravatars, or little picture thingees look kind of alike. I guess it is the webmaster’s gentle encouragement for us to post our mug-shots. Problem is most of mine look like mug-shots. When I do get around to posting my picture, you’ll notice that I have enough gray to justify a “Mr.” but Howard will do fine. Makes things more chatty. The folk who aren’t nice to me can call me Mr. That way I can see them coming. I hope I don’t insult you by using your first name.

I haven’t given up on the Porch. Generally folk here, like you, are nice to me. Well, mostly. I find stuff to think about, and some lovely writing that fills a need in my heart.
Thanks for the poetry. It is worth rereading and rethinking. It is good to have our arrogance smacked down.

hm

avatar Rob G February 8, 2010 at 8:34 pm

“Non-domesticated species are in decline? I’m not sure. I know, when driving, I have to watch out for deer more than I used to.”

This couldn’t possibly be because we’re “developing” more and more of their habitat, could it? There may be well be just as many deer in certain places as there always were, perhaps even fewer — they simply have far less space. That’s almost certainly the case in the area where I live outside Pittsburgh.

avatar Bob Cheeks February 8, 2010 at 10:18 pm

If you know this: “Perhaps in this world the most basic Spiritual reality: The Depravity of Man.” I can’t be worried that you’ll give up on FPR or anything else, Howard. If you know that your specie is gifted with Original Sin, it will, in the end, all make sense. It is, after all, the drama of humanity and within that context we experience not only the tension of existence but the love of God layered therein.

Brother Eliot:
“History is a pattern of timeless moments
the point of intersection of the timeless with time.”

Salvation is experienced not in the existential self, with its nagging self-doubt, but in the Logos, as it always has.

avatar Scot February 9, 2010 at 8:18 am

Howard and Rob G.,
Deer populations are exploding for two general reasons: 1) loss of habitat forces them into more urbanized areas to forage, and 2) deer populations in many states are artificially inflated to support the hunting of said species. Natural predators have been extirpated and pockets of habitat have been created to encourage the growth of deer populations. Here in Michigan, as happens every few years, when the population becomes unsustainable (to even human comfort levels) a large-scale cull is recommended. Of course, predictably, no one wants to kill these “large-eyed, beautiful creatures,” and conversely no one wants them in their gardens.

avatar Josh February 12, 2010 at 11:59 am

I am dsimayed at the increasing frequency with which I am finding opoinions on this site that seem to assume we have a “free market.” And the railing against that evil beast. Unfortunately folks, we have for a very long time (actually, to some extent always) had a system of corporatism – not free market capitalism. I would think that such minds as are represented here on FPR would be able to see that truth. Government enforced monopolies and bought votes do not a free market make.

On another note, I do believe climate change to be a problem – and there MAY be some room for government intervention there. But this piece seems to take the stance of the global warming alarmist: “The sky is falling, and we need population control, rationing of resources and a big heaping helping of government control in every aspect of our lives to fix it!” I’m sorry but I just don’t buy that line. I don’t think I have yet imbibed quite enough of the kool-aid to go that far.

avatar D.W. Sabin February 12, 2010 at 5:24 pm

As Carl Scott hints at, one does wonder if Malthus ever travelled to ponder the open ruggedness of Corsica or the vast mountain-scape of the Caucasus or perhaps the Deep Blue Lake Baikal or maybe the immensity of the Congo or even the blanket of great north woods here at home in this day and age. I guess not.

But, he’s not alone. We are all busy at work mucking about in the nest, searching for the next Big Idea while resenting any notion that we might try to make more sense of the small ideas first….you know, so that we might become skilled at the Big Ones before proclaiming proficiency in them.

By all means though, let us have the Grand Show of Government Solutions because they shine in the gloaming like a Big Creole Marching Band , ripping an endless supply of ribald trombone flourishes.

The Free Market is one of the Band’s best Boogie Woogie shuffles. That we like to squawk about it leads me to believe that there really is a Unicorn. Its like when somebody asked Gandhi what he thought of Western Civilization and he replied “somebody should try it”.

There is little that can match Depravity for theatrical effect.

avatar BlueMoonChimneys February 20, 2010 at 1:39 pm

Well, D.W., Carl, et all, I don’t live in a city and I have flown many times over the country and the world, and I also know that because there are no lights doesn’t mean it is arable, or that there isn’t a road there or that people don’t regularly zoom there on their ATVs. I remember a couple of decades ago seeing a map showing everywhere in the US that was more than 50 miles from a road. There wasn’t much where there, and there is even less now.

I am a little tired of the Polar Bear example, whether it is true or not, because it is made less useful by its nature as a cliché. And besides who really cares about polar bears? But what about feminized fish in the Hudson River, or what about the task of replacing around 80+ Billion barrels of oil annually when we discover only one barrel for every three (or is it every six?) we use. Well, anyway, in the comments here I find the lack of appreciation of the scale of the problem that is all to common in such discussions.

Philosopher King anyone?

avatar Eric Zencey April 12, 2010 at 1:01 am

First, many apologies for not being here sooner. After some back-and-forth with the FPR editors on this piece, I simply wasn’t aware that it had been posted. The conversation has moved on without me.

Some responses, however tardy:

In Will Shetterly’s comment, I see the outlines of the Environmental Kuznets Curve, the idea that the way to dispose of pollution is to increase production so that we can “afford” a cleaner environment. The EKC, beloved of the infinite-planet school of economists, has been thoroughly discredited–by data, by research, by logic. The Encyclopedia of Earth has an article on the EKC that lays it out (I’m listed as a co-author, but I assure you–the level of technical detail there is beyond me; I opened the discussion and got out of the way).

Apropos of Heylucas’ post: humans have indeed often lived under environmental constraints. Many previous civilizations failed to adapt to them, with differing consequences; most disappeared. Edward Hyams has a very interesting chapter in Soil and Civilization about the degradation of Attic soils and the role it played in the birth of philosophy–and the role it played in Athens’ foreign policy, and its eventual decline. More contemporaneously, Jared Diamond tells cautionary tales about other civilizations that collapsed in his book Collapse. But what’s new in our era is our exploitation of past solar income in the form of fossil fuel, and our use of it to energetically appropriate niches and resources that were beyond the grasp of humans before the industrial revolution. We have been so successful at this that the expansionist phase we entered into (which is formally identical to the expansion that the population of any species goes into when it gains sudden access to a significant new source of food) has come to seem to many (ecologically and historically ignorant) people like the permanent condition of humanity. It isn’t. What should we seek to sustain? Well, I’d like to see humans living on the planet with a high, and ecologically sustainable, level of material well-being that is broadly shared. That would be unprecedented in planetary history.

I think I agree with Bruce Smith–we have some learning to do. Interesting use of the term “servo.” Ecologists have been talking about feedback loops for quite a while, and I think Bruce Smith is calling for us to develop “soft-wired” feedback loops to deal with the effects of our ideology. Interesting.

Thank you, Empedocles, for the Hume quotation and the thoughtful interpretation of it. Hume was a classic “garden planet” thinker, and the project of reviewing and reconstructing his work in light of the development of factory planet is a worthy one. There’s a Lockean undertone to these passages, and you might be interested in reading the piece I did on Lockean property rights (and the foundations of civil society). It’s titled “Fixing Locke: Civil Liberties for a Finite Planet,” and it was published in Peter Goggin, ed., Rhetorics, Literacies, and Narratives of Sustainability (Routledge, 2009).

Me, a myth maker? I think not. There is a name for the rhetorical charge of making a false charge of fallacy. To paraphrase Hume (who said–I quote inexactly, from memory–”When reason is against a man, a man will be against reason”): when the facts are against you, be against the facts. Infinite growth ideology is notoriously faith-, rather than fact, based; in a famous exchange, a Bush adminisration official actually admonished an interviewer for asking questions that were rooted an the old, “reality based” mindset. Can we agree that reality should be the phenomenal realm to which our discussion refers? Polar bear habitat is indeed disappearing, as is habitat for non-domesticated species worldwide. I am not making this up, and it is an astounding example of resistance to dealing with reality to refer to this as “myth-making” on my part. Citing the fact that you see more deer when you drive is problematic for several reasons. Anecdote is not evidence. And as Rob G. notes, the fact that species are being run out of their preferred habitat means you see more deer in unexpected places, so your anecdote supports the opposite case. “The evidence that polar bears are in decline is, to say the least, open to discussion,” meaning, evidently, that the evidence is not dispositive. (“Discuss” is a bit ambiguous.) The assertion that the evidence on this is ambiguous is factually in error.

Having said that, I do find much to agree with in this from the same writer: “To the extent that localists think the answer always is to take power away from the central power. trusting other locales to not pollute the river, kill the Buffalo, or arm themselves and subjugate their neighbors, they are being naieve.” Yes. I don’t want to see a global earth-and-economy system being administered by an international technocratic elite. Like Mill, I want some room for the spontaneous operation of nature, including human nature, which includes the love of freedom, discretionary choice, and the pursuit of one’s own lights. Let’s have a planet that’s not like a factory; let’s have a planet on which natural systems are resilient enough to absorb some human mistakes, which we will no doubt continue to make.

About poetry: hey, poetry’s great, and probably shouldn’t be parsed the same way arguments are. But, since some of it has been introduced, let’s talk about it. Oliver’s off base when she says

“Traveling at thirty thousand feet, we see
How much of earth still lies in wilderness.”

If she were actually in this discussion, I’d ask her for her operant definition of wilderness; it seems to be “places that are dark when I fly over them,” which would make any farmer’s field–heck, even my house–a wilderness at night. Huh. I have to say no: wilderness is a more like a place where there is a diversity of species in something like a dynamic equilibrium that is largely maintained by its own spontaneous operation. It doesn’t mean “places where I wouldn’t want to be stuck in a car at night without enough gas to get back to the lighted part of the world.” And who would confuse one for the other? Only an ecological illiterate.

Parsing the Hopkins, let’s look at this:

“And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

It’s a nice sentiment. I happen to think that indeed, nature will never be “spent” (taking this to mean, nature doesn’t die), and that the dearest freshness deep down in things (let’s say “ecosystems” instead of things; call me a pantheist, but I’m no animist) will continue even if humans succeed in making the planet inhospitable to any kind of materially advanced human civilization. I’m talking about saving civilization–a civilization that can support civil liberties–not saving the planet. The planet will get along without us (unless we turn it into desert, which, come to think of it, is indeed a possiblity.) But I don’t think Hopkins is working with this distinction, and so it’s probably unfair to interrogate his poem on this issue. It sure would be nice if we could trust to some spiritual power to spread its wings and save us from our short-sightedness. But here I offer a version of Pascal’s wager: what do we lose by supposing it won’t? Nothing. What do we lose if we think it will, and it doesn’t? Everything. The wager suggests we have work to do.

I like the sentiment expressed by Blue Moon Chimneys, but have to say: well, I for one care about polar bears. It’s a little chilling to hear them dismissed so readily. Call them “part of God’s creation,” or “a unique adaptation to an ecological niche that is stunningly sublime in its organization and function,” or call them anything you like, on any grounds that respects life we humans have no moral warrant to cause them to be extirpated from our experience just because we can’t control our use of oil (or, more broadly, our penchant for toys, wealth, and procreation.)

Me, a climate change alarmist? You betcha. Climate change is simple physics and simple chemistry: we put out x amount of these gases, and they have this kind of known effect, and everywhere we go and measure for effects, we see dramatic and sudden ecosystem change in response to overall global warming. After two decades of rigorous scientific debate, and less-than-rigorous public wrangling, the results are in. I think that anyone who continues to deny the reality of climate change is imbibing something stronger than Kool-Aid–a little Huxleyan SOMA, perhaps. But I am most emphatically NOT saying “we need…rationing of resources and a big heaping helping of government control in every aspect of our lives to fix it.” I am saying that if we don’t fix it (and all the other ecologically unsustainable aspects of our productive life), we are going to stumble toward some sort of technocratic state, or we’ll experience eco-collapse. Neither one allows room for civil society as we would like it (unless you’re a fan of anarchy, or totalitarianism.) Me, I’d rather have a world that has room for civil liberties.

If you want to avoid having “a big helping of government control in every aspect of our lives,” I recommend you work to help change the system, making it more sustainable. A sizable tax on carbon energy would be a great start. It could be revenue neutral (phase it in, and phase out the tax on income). It could be be designed to moderate any regressive effects, and the tax would ripple throughout the economy, raising prices on energy-intensive (and therefore unsustainable) products, processes, and choices. A carbon tax would go a long way toward encouraging sustainable choices through the gentle suasion of the market instead of the command-and-control system of government regulation.

Thanks for the discussion….

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