People with good intentions might unintentionally do harm


in Economics, Politics, The environment

In the third chapter of Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes and Conway identify an important transition within the environmental movement: from ‘preservationist’ environmentalism to pollution prevention. The former was basically the non-partisan drive to preserve especially beautiful places, like national parks. The latter grew out of the recognition that:

Pollution was not simply a matter of evil industries dumping toxic sludge in the night; people with good intentions might unintentionally do harm. Economic activity yielded collateral damage. Recognizing this meant acknowledging that the role of the government might need to change in ways that would inevitably affect economic activity.

This is initially discussed in the context of acid rain, but it applies just as much to ozone depletion, climate change, and other environmental issues.

I think we are stil waiting for the pollution prevention view to become post-partisan.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan June 23, 2010 at 7:05 pm

“Pollution was not simply a matter of evil industries dumping toxic sludge in the night”

The “evil” aspect of actors in capitalism is not about the intentions of people at all – it’s about structural forces which encourage behaviour which hurts others for the benefit of those who have the power to hire and fire. And it isn’t about the “evil” of the boss either; the boss would be driven out of business if he didn’t fire those employees who dump toxic sludge rather than insist on either expensive safe disposal, or on not producing the sludge in the first place.

Pollution in capitalism isn’t about intentions at all – it’s about systems of power which encourage actions, and for which “intentions” are nothing but potential costs, i.e. inefficiencies.

Tristan June 23, 2010 at 8:49 pm

For pollution to become “post-partisan”, the two main Canadian business parties would need to abandon their structural support for externalizing costs and uncertainty onto those who don’t count.

Milan June 24, 2010 at 1:23 pm

You realize that any time you talk about externalities, you are assuming a market economy in which most economic transactions occur voluntarily between people and companies.

That is what externalities are ‘external’ to.

If you want to adopt a non-capitalist framework, you need a whole different way of thinking about these categories of harm.

mek June 24, 2010 at 4:45 pm

I think sentimentalist Gaia-style environmentalism is simply a leftover from the last century, where advocacy for the environment was almost entirely rooted in a preservationist style largely because climate change hadn’t even been conceived of yet. That style of environmentalism was basically in opposition to technological advancement of any sort, vaguely tied up with a “noble savage” concept, and almost exclusively confined as a philosophy to a hypocritically decadent aristocracy. All of this “preservationist” environmentalism stemmed from this romanticism, and is why it was so easily rebuffed by “serious people.” Consider the explanations offered for the need to protect endangered species such as the panda in 70s and 80s and their consistent appeal to abstract ideals.

While a couple extremist enclaves practicing this style of “environmentalism” remain, I think any comparison to contemporary environmentalism (where we recognize that we are dependent on the environment and must manage it to ensure our continued survival) is pointless, and strives only to paint advocates of climate change mitigation with a “lol hippies” brush. Current environmentalism is pragmatic, not idealist. Save the Earth, because where the hell else are you going to live?

R.K. June 25, 2010 at 9:47 am

Protecting rare and ecologically important places is still something that needs to be done. Look at the Galapagos Islands, for example. Ironically, heightened public interest in nature and evolution is doing much to destroy them, as tourist numbers explode.

Tristan June 25, 2010 at 10:33 am

Externalities are costs which are not considered, because in the “free economic transaction between two individuals”, effects on third parties do not cost either individual (unless regulations are imposed and enforced to deal with the problem).

The problem is to think of an economic interaction as being between two people – all of our actions impact widely. We expect people to know the impacts of their actions on others in matters of law (i.e. British common law allows penalizing subjects for choosing not to look into the bad effects ones actions might be having on others), why not have similar expectations in free economic transactions?

But, the worst aspect of externalities is not that in free relations between individuals there are costs unconsidered, but that we choose to defend the “market” – which we means we choose to defend the non-consideration of external costs. We could go on having an economic system largely based on free transactions, and simply stop defending people’s rights to impose costs on others. This is in the tradition of socializing democracy, demanding that the society be organized with social need in mind instead of maximizing profit (i.e. the Commune’s call for “la république démocratique et sociale”).

You commit the fallacy of false-dichotomy when you assume that anyone critical of capitalism must be able to assert a fully formed post-capitalist framework which fails to fall to any of the errors of attempts at post-capitalist economies in the past. The fact that we don’t know exactly how to undertake all the reforms we’d like, and to achieve the ends we’d like, does not mean we should keep the current colonialist and wage-slavery systems. It is possible within a superficially capitalist framework to disempower the forces of capital (i.e. expropriation and democratic management of industry), and to re-orient political goals away from “maximizing profit” towards “meeting need”.

. July 6, 2010 at 2:21 am

“How Goldman Sachs gambled on starving the world’s poor – and won”

“Here’s how it happened. In 2006, financial speculators like Goldman’s pulled out of the collapsing US real estate market, and they were looking for somewhere else to make their stash of cash swell. They started to buy massive amounts of derivatives based on food: they reckoned that food prices would stay steady or rise while the rest of the economy tanked. Suddenly, the world’s frightened investors stampeded onto this ground and decided to buy, buy, buy.

So while the supply and demand of food stayed pretty much the same, the supply and demand for contracts based on food massively rose – which meant the all-rolled-into-one price for food on people’s plates massively rose. The starvation began.

The food price was now being set by speculation, rather than by real food. The hedge fund manager Michael Masters estimated that even on the regulated exchanges in the US – which take up a small part of the business – 64 percent of all wheat contracts were held by speculators with no interest whatever in real wheat. They owned it solely to inflate the price and sell it on. Even George Soros said this was “just like secretly hoarding food during a hunger crisis in order to make profits from increasing prices.” The bubble only burst in March 2008 when the situation got so bad in the US that the speculators had to slash their spending to cover their losses back home.”

. December 4, 2010 at 10:00 pm

“We have gotten past the stage, my fellow-citizens, when we are to be pardoned if we treat any part of the country as something to be skinned for two or three years for the use of the present generation, whether it is the forest, the water, the scenery.”

Theodore Roosevelt, 1903
Quoted in: McKibben, Bill ed. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

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