I just finished reading Peter Brannen’s interesting book on the five previous major mass extinctions that have struck planet Earth. It is, of course, a book that is very much intended to warn us that we are on our way to the sixth if we do not keep carbon dioxide levels low (CO2 ramp ups and downs are a major factor in all previous extinctions). I am not here to debate that or provide some context, instead, I just wanted to demonstrate what is not going to get people of goodwill to take arguments seriously, especially us economists who are trying to get a better handle on these sorts of things. Here he is on Page 259 (and there is plenty more of this throughout the book, if less direct):
The fate of the world, then, becomes an easily calculable cost-benefit analysis, one amenable to smug op-eds by economists. The corn belt will shift north by so and so degrees latitude, the GDP of certain countries will respond in mind, and it’s all very orderly and predictable.
As many readers know, this has almost become the default view of economists. Simply calling the tool of cost-benefit analysis a pejorative name like “economisticy” of course doesn’t actually count as a serious argument. What is funny about the above quote is that many serious economists are very much wedded to the idea of epistemic humility and modestly in the name of highly uncertain complex processes. So as we apply a health dose of skepticism to very closely model out complex interactions in a crazy global ecological “system” we, too, are skeptical of being able to model out how humans may or may not respond in a very complex social world. But, the argument above is taking the planning economists among us, who may not be very skeptical of our ability to model these things out, and having them “speak” for the profession. Furthermore, the skepticism of we economists about our ability to really understand a highly causal density social world seems to meld nicely with a humble approach to climate and extinctions. I have no idea how the climate will respond going forward, and how likely various tipping points will be in the global ecological niches out there. That doesn’t mean we ignore them, it doesn’t mean we downgrade them or upgrade them, it means we have an open mind to the possibility that we just don’t know, in either direction, what might go on, and think hard about how to navigate a world where this kind of uncertainty pervades.
I wonder if authors take the time to seriously read and think about the ideas of the folks they condemn. We obviously can’t expect everyone to read everything – does the author really think the typical economist who studies ecological questions really things the world is very orderly and predictable? Even if said economists are using models as a way to get a grip on what ways we can connect cause and effect, does that mean economists think the world works that way? Would the author take a similarly skeptical view of the guys doing climate modeling? After all, the GCMs don’t seem to be able to include tipping points in them, they have all kinds of linearities built into them, they include fudge factors to calibrate them, they can’t possibly model the interactions between all of the importance ecosystems impacted by changes in forcings, etc. Yet there is not a shred of evidence in the book that the author is concerned about the quality of the results from climate models So in one hand he holds the idea that if humans keep doing so and so to the planet, then X will happen, and on the other hand, he rejects the economists who may be doing the same thing.
In any case, the book is a fun read, so long as you can get past the every other page insinuation that carbon dioxide is going to kill everything again (he rolls it back at the end, a bit) and is helpful in thinking about how the end times end up happening.
Next up: Chris Thomas’ Inheritors of the Earth. I’m curious how it compares to Emma Maris’ Rambunctious Garden, which I recommend. Of course, Thomas’ book is really popular, here is an Amazon review:
on December 19, 2017Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book but I just read his interview in Vox. This man is completely insane. He considers breeds of dogs and other domesticated animals to be new species (complete hogwash). He somehow equates invasive species to be indicative of biodiversity when they have a completely inverse relationship. He is a disgrace to the field of conservation biology, if that’s what he is claiming he represents.
Very true. The word “cherrypick” provides a perfect description for the examples the author uses to hide his bizarre agenda under the guise of “science”. Of course some piece of nature will thrive after any extinction. Bulldoze a rainforest and there will be at least one species that benefits from the ecological vacuum you’ve created–a third grader could tell you that. The author seems to think his cherrypicked examples justify a hands-off approach to invasive species and other biodiversity disasters.
In the field of conservation, so many people are looking to save themselves from the heartache of watching constant biodiversity loss. Sadly, the opiate-like effects of pretending there’s not a problem are so appetizing that many environmentalists eagerly swallow these ideas whole. But there are plenty of reasons for hope in conservation! I’ll choose to be optimistic and strive for further conservation success, long before I numb my conscience by pretending humanity’s obliteration of other life is simply the new norm.