Discounting the Uncountable

Those of you who follow me at Euvoluntary Exchange may have noticed this post from yesterday. In it, I claim that if you account for depreciation when reckoning the discounted present costs of sea level change (or most any non-extinction slow disruption), gloomy forecasts of ruin lose quite a bit of their bite, particularly when it seems clear that the best way out of the dilemma is economic growth.

I suspect that this argument is unconvincing for a great many people. A great many people will easily recognize that ocean level changes are but one of a suite of devastating environmental outcomes from global climate change. You can’t depreciate your way out of oceanic acidification or sterility. You can’t use an accounting trick to capture the loss of habitat. You can’t even really properly account for an animal’s own valuation of its life. If there is to be an environmental cataclysm, the critters most likely to survive will be the ones that have some sort of reciprocal (be it predatory, symbiotic, or parasitic) relationship with humans. The only hope that economically useless animals have is to continue to rely upon the tender mercy of caring people.

In other words, if the shit hits the fan, they can kiss their grits goodbye. Perhaps it’s just my far mode speaking, but I find this disquieting. And it’s disquieting mostly because this is a tragedy of the planetary commons, and we’re not quite ready to ditch this planet just yet. 

And how to overcome a tragedy of the commons with no toothsome leviathan? Sweet talk is dandy, but incentives are quicker. Contests to reward innovation in alternative energy sources are a nice start. Carbon taxes are at best a stopgap and at worst a confused brake on economic growth (recall that inter alia, oil field exploration and roads are heavily subsidized). There’s a whole big clowder of cats out there in dire need of being herded. Better to give them a mouse to chase than to lay about a-walloping their flanks with a hickory bough.

2 thoughts on “Discounting the Uncountable

  1. There’s two things that would have the biggest impact:

    1. Find a way for natural lands to collect rents from the job they do providing air to breathe and acting as collection basins for rainwater. Then people would buy the land in vast tracts and leave it alone.

    2. Fix agriculture to not use up so much of the Earth’s surface. Most people want to live in cities or towns anyway. The habitats that are endangered are put in danger by farmers, herders, and fishermen. There’s probably a biotech solution here that uses algae or something like it to turn heat, light and air directly into carbohydrates and proteins in stacked urban farms.

    These two solutions are symbiotic. With real estate demand from farming or cattle, the wide open plains would be cheap to buy up by Green-Rent Trusts.

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