Monthly Archives: May 2008

Still looking for the light switch: The mathematics of climate change and what it means for climate change politics

One of the most extraordinary things about the equations that describe planetary motion is that they allow us to predict the positions of the planets in the future. We can forecast solar and lunar eclipses with great accuracy. Furthermore, small deviations from predictions allowed astronomers to guess the existence of the previously unknown planets Uranus and Neptune. This predictive power is very impressive – and therefore very, very beguiling. In a complex and messy world, we like being able to predict things.

As a consequence, as David Orrell describes in his book Apollo’s arrow, Newton’s great achievement has led modern western society and most of its practising scientists to believe that all other natural phenomena also can be described mathematically and, more importantly, accurately predicted.

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Risks and scenarios – are we heading for a political “perfect storm”?

Further to Be careful what you wish for:

Brian Fallow from the New Zealand Herald writes about the fiscal risks facing the New Zealand Government.

The chapter on ‘Risks and Scenarios” from the Budget Economic & Fiscal Update 2008 makes for interesting reading too.

What worries me is that we might be heading for a political “perfect storm”: A right-wing (National) government, governing without the encumbrance of coalition partners, facing a recession and a (tax-cut caused) fiscal crisis, amplified by an Exchange Rate crisis (forcing interest rate rises that compound the recession) etc…in such circumstances I’d be willing to bet on deep and extensive privatisation of State assets (education, health, water, Kiwibank); benefit system “restructuring” (i.e. cuts); and other expenditure cuts (e.g health, education, social services).

Throw in a couple of extreme weather events, and given the level of our external debt, we might end up on the phone to the IMF begging for structural readjustment.

Let’s hope not!

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Happy talk, keep talkin’ happy talk

Helen Johns and Paul Ormerod, “The unhappy thing about happiness studies”, real-world economics review, issue
no. 46, 20 May 2008, pp. 139-146

In previous posts, I have referred to cross-country data about reported levels of happiness, and suggested that these surveys support the notion that increases in GDP per capita, beyond a certain point, don’t make people happier. I have further suggested that this is encouraging given that if we are to deal with the problem of climate change in an ethical manner, this will require a drop in income for rich-nation inhabitants.

But in recent paper, Helen Johns and Paul Ormerod critique happiness studies and dispute that policy conclusions can be drawn from the results of such studies. I find their critique and conclusions persuasive, for the most part. It is important to note that they are not critiquing or supporting the policy positions that have been supported by happiness data, but rather the meaningfulness and use of the data. In the end, perhaps this serves as another reminder of the limitations of utilitarianism as a guide to policy-making, and of the inevitability of making ethical and value choices when making public policy decisions.

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Be careful what you wish for

Unless there is a huge political earthquake in New Zealand, the coming General Election is going to give us a government led by Labour or by National. Both parties have promised tax cuts. In deciding who to support, voters need to be aware of the consequences of those tax cuts, and to consider the likely response of the next government (depending on its make up) to those consequences.

People are certainly feeling the pinch from higher fuel and food prices, and from higher interest rates – the hope of some kind of relief must be appealing. But tax cuts won’t offer much relief, even in the short-term, and the likely longer-term consequences may give many pause to think (if they pause to think).

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Peaceful economists

Sure, studies might show that economists are more selfish, but they’re not all bad :,)

Economists for Peace and Security works to inform social scientists, citizens, journalists and policy-makers worldwide about the full costs of war and conflict, and to propose feasible alternative approaches to building international security.

They offer, for example a U.S $2 trillion estimate of the full cost (…well, for the U.S. economy, at least…) of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq (by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes) assuming pull-out by 2010.

Note: A trillion dollars is a million million dollars.

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Emancipation vs neo-colonialism in the environmental movement

Environmentalism can mean very different things to different people, as some of the previous articles on Well Sharp have shown most clearly. How can we try to make sense of this diversity of opinion? In two articles published in the same issue of Environmental Politics, Brian Doherty and Timothy Doyle offer a very interesting attempt to do just that. They identify three distinct ‘story-lines’ or frames for environmentalism – post-colonialist, post-materialist, and post-industrialist – that are dominant in different regions of the globe.

These authors base their work on reported studies (by themselves and colleagues) conducted in Bosnia, Burma, France, Hungary, Iran, and Madagascar, and on organisations such as Friends of the Earth International, Greenpeace, People’s Global Action, the global trade union federation ICEM, and WWF UK.

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This unconquerable world – power, nonviolence, and hope

Joanthan Schell’s “The Unconquerable World: power, nonviolence, and the will of the people” is a profoundly hopeful book. Schell analyses power and looks at the history of the world and of the war system. He shows that nonviolent people power, in the long-run, truly is mightier than force and Empire. Some brief notes follow. Continue reading

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When faced with the problem of climate change, what’s a good capitalist to do?

In his book The Future of Capitalism, Lester Thurow, professor of economics and management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, posed the following question:

“What should a capitalistic society do about long-run environmental problems such as global warming?”

His answer sounds a little too cynical, even for an economist:

“Using capitalist decision rules, the answer to what should be done today to prevent such problems is very clear – do nothing.”

Was Thurow was being unfair? What do business people themselves have to say on the matter?

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Trust is the key to engaging communities in green politics

Why does anyone bother to join social activist organisations, and commit time and energy to their causes? It is a problem worth considering because non-members (‘free riders’) enjoy the benefits of successful social change just as much as the members do, though only the members incur the costs. This might suggest that, on the basis of a purely rational ‘social cost-benefit analysis’, most people will not bother to join, say, unions or environmental organisations when they can get the benefits for free. This incentive to not bother supporting these organisations is often described as the ‘collective action problem’ or the ‘free-rider problem.’

However, since it is clear that many people do join a wide variety of such organisations, the question might be put another way: What are the incentives that overcome the self-interest of the free-rider mentality?

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Is Inequality Bad for the Environment?

Is Inequality Bad for the Environment?

James K Boyce. April 2007. Working Paper #135, Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts Amherst. (15 pages of text not including notes)

“The irony was inescapable and terrible: In a land where they lived lightly on the earth, the poor themselves were regarded as pollution.” (p.3)

The idea that a Blue-Green political coalition is feasible and/or desirable rests, I would argue, on the notions that environmental policy can be separated out from other policy, and that meaningful environmental gains can be had without addressing the fundamental structures of our capitalist societies and economies.

Unfortunately for those who would like to avoid the ugliness of power, social injustice, and conflict (perhaps while wandering in a pristine wilderness not peopled by indigenous peoples or other humans), such notions are not very plausible.

In this paper, James Boyce provides theoretical analysis and empirical evidence to support the contention that social and political inequalities among humans are harmful for the environment, and that efforts to address those inequalities need to go hand-in-hand with efforts to protect the natural world.

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