Friday, June 08, 2007

Unpopular Optimism about Ecology

Keywords: Mike Nickerson; Amory Lovins; environment; supply-side; demand-side; efficiency; population growth; economics

Yesterday I organized a dinner in a Chinese restaurant for some of my friends to talk about the with , who has a new book on the subject. He asked us to go around the table saying what our general orientation is. I was last. As usual lately, I found myself on a different wave length from my friends, for reasons that I attribute simplistically to my and their pessimism. Most environmentalists nowadays have a bleak, Malthusian vision of upcoming hardship, whereas I think that our lives can actually be more agreeable than at present. Well, maybe not our own lives because we're old now. But the solutions to the world's problems should not be intrinsically difficult. People can live well in the future too.

Admittedly, there must be some short-term cutbacks, as we "reduce our ," to use a term that I don't entirely like. We must curtail some activities that we are used to. So it's important to priorize, cutting back where it makes a difference, and allowing ourselves pleasures that are truly important. I'm not sure we've thought through our priorities yet.

For example, I think that in the summer, air conditioning is sometimes essential to make life bearable, so I will cut back elsewhere before I do that. And . Yes, I will keep buying certain imported foods, especially coffee and citrus fruit. But I'm more. It is hard to justify foreign travel for pleasure, and I think it's hard to justify keeping a house in town plus one in the country. (Not that I've ever owned two houses myself.)

I don't even think are particularly beneficial to society. When I go to a conference it is to meet people and keep up or initiate interesting, stimulating relationships. We need to find better ways of getting acquainted personally, perhaps . I think maybe it would be more enjoyable to post about what interests us than to go to a conference to get acquainted. Maybe even on-line discussions of a new book or film, with four or five participants, will allow new ideas to emerge in conversations and hence new relationships. Such can make life more pleasant instead of less so.

But one way to make sure we allocate our resources toward pleasures that have high priority is to let prices guide us. are wonderful things. But my friends don't think so; they are mostly opposed to materialism and to capitalism, even though they live as affluently as any millionaire. I think markets don't always work perfectly, but price signals could help encourage or discourage the that make our "footprints" so large today. Let's quadruple the tax on gasoline, for example, while reducing income taxes; the results will be revenue neutral but can correct our misplaced priorities. Lots of our troubles result from actually subsidizing economic behavior that is harmful. Fisheries, for example. I read recently that the reason we're depleting fish stocks in the ocean is that countries actually offer tax breaks to subsidize the huge trawlers that are doing the worst damage.

Mostly, the thing that makes me deviant in every dinner party lately is that I do believe there are "technological fixes" to our problems — in the form of greater and efficiency. I don't think that the main solution will come from the decision of individuals to reduce their consumption or their standard of living. Instead, technological innovations in design can allow us to reduce our "footprints" collectively, so long as we exercise the slightest self-restraint in our lifestyle choices.

For one thing, the economy is "dematerializing." Already our jobs less often require us to manipulate physical products, as factory work or farming did, but more often to provide services that are based on knowledge or artistry. This trend can grow. Yes, people can offset that benign trend if they insist on flying around the world as or or keep demanding imported luxuries, but changes here should not be very painful, for no one will suffer much from spending more time at home.

Moreover, I believe that if a person invests intelligently in producing the kind of new solutions the world needs, we'll all benefit and she in particular can get rich selling her innovation. That is not a popular notion among my friends, who consider themselves socialists and therefore hate money-making schemes -- especially “globalized” ones: the kind that involve foreign trade. Maybe I have been reading too much . (See photo). In fact, I've been reading his wonderfully stimulating, optimistic book, Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use, by Ernst von Weizsacker, Amory B. Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins — and I'm loving it. Here on page 252 they acknowledge having changed sides on an important issue. Whereas they had previously criticized high-tech solutions to ecological problems, today they characterize themselves as “”:

“We felt that the fabulous new technologies, though no doubt very powerful, also had costs and side effects. For this irreverence, the cornucopians dubbed us 'technological pessimists.'

“Twenty-odd years later, some of the ‘technological fixes” have proven more powerful than anyone had expected. However, the winners were not fast breeder reactors and solar power satellites, but rather microelectronics, miniaturization and labor-saving production technologies ....

“Gigantic water projects lost out to drip irrigation and efficient household appliances. Oil shale lost to mineral wool, heat exchangers and hypercars. In short, supply-side wizardry proved, in general, uncompetitive against resource-efficiency technologies. ...

“It is the former ‘technological pessimists’ like us who are now the ‘neo-cornucopians’!

“It may not be possible to buy full sets of demand and supply-side solutions. because they all compete for resources and some actually preclude others. ... Successful purchase of both increased supply and increased efficiency yields the worst of both worlds — the costs of the increased supplies without the revenues to pay for them.”

Lovins and his upbeat, un-Malthusian co-authors anticipate around the world, while efficiency will gain by 2-4 percent annually during this century. If the efficiency gain is two percent, the outcome will be pretty good, and

“a truly attractive scenario emerges from the 4 per cent gains assumption. The 21st century need not be depressing at all. If our ‘neo-cornucopian’ visions come true, even the gravest worldwide distribution problems can be solved without any part of the world's having to accept significant sacrifices in well-being.”

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