Millennium Ecosystem Assessment - responses to responses

by Richard on March 31, 2005

In his comment on my post yesterday, Mike said

The problem that is becoming widespread is the over-reaction that is causing ridiculous, radical solutions, where in fact sensible, rational ones, based upon the facts that we have should be.

I hate to disagree with Mike, but on this occasion I do. The problem is not that people are rushing around over-reacting to the dangers of environmental degradation but that we’re refusing to take it seriously enough, instead choosing to take refuge in the “warm fuzzy” activities such as paper and bottle recycling which might well be of negligible value. (Though at least, as Sarah said, these things keep the environmental issue in people’s minds)

But recognizing and acting upon the rising environmental threat does not mean turning our back on science and technology, nor does it mean a return to hunter-gathering. It means rather identifying and persuing appropriate technologies which will enhance rather than degrade the creation. Mike might well be right that we require industrial growth for our prosperity, but not all growth is equal. What is certain is that the way we do things now is completely unsustainable.

I’m more used to disagreeing with Josh Claybourn, and I’m not at all surprised to find myself doing so again. He notes that the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment says that, “Because many ecosystem services are not traded in markets, markets fail to provide appropriate signals that might otherwise contribute to the efficient allocation and sustainable use of the services” and implies that the report is therefore calling for a free-market solution to the problem. My reading of what’s there is anything but that. I wouldn’t deny that the market has a rôle to play, but the report also (and crucially) says “The establishment of market mechanisms also often involves explicit decisions about wealth distribution and resource allocation, when, for example, decisions are made to establish private property rights for resources that were formerly considered common pool resources. For that reason, the inappropriate use of market mechanisms can further exacerbate problems of poverty.”

Markets could be established that might address these problems, but they would require unprecedented international co-operation for a regulatory framework that could in no sense be called “free”.

The record of the “free market” on environmental issues is not a happy one. Whether it is CFC’s, lead in petrol, factory chimney emissions or any of a host of environmental problems that have faced us before, what has saved us has not been “the market”, but the pressure of unpopular activists leading to regulatory change. I see no reason to suppose that the present situation will prove to be any different.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }


Joshua Claybourn 04.01.05 at 3:43 am

My reading of what’s there is anything but that.

Your reading, then, is drastically different from all other scientists and experts who’ve read it. You can disagree with markets but you’re also disagreeing with the report.


Mike 04.01.05 at 4:33 pm

I don’t think you do disagree with me Richard; I certainly don’t disagree with you. My point that we’re not making rational solutions I can quite happily equate with your notion that we’re not doing enough; the fact that we’re not doing enough means that rational decisions made by the right people aren’t being made.

I fully agree that present trends are unsustainable, but my point about industrial growth is still very relevant. the only way we’re going to solve problems of unsustainability is to reach a position where we are able to design and implement technologies that are efficient, safe etc. This can only be done in an affluent, industrial society. It’s impossible to think that developing nations can actually invest in sustainable technologies while at the same time pulling themselves out of poverty. there are many indications that would suggest that initial industrialisation and market-led growth, in the interim period, would in fact be more beneficial to the environment than sustained poverty in the developing world. Remember, the major threats are soon to come from China, India, Brazil; what we must do with our data is reach a compromise as to how these nations can efficiently develop so that poverty is reduced, but without causing too high a degree of irreversible harm.

Consider this. All available data shows that pollution in Europe and North America was far greater in the 19th century than in the late 20th. In the present age, despite the fact that we haven’t done enough, we have the capability to do so. We must consider giving the rest of the world this chance first.

Then we might be able to get somewhere.


rad 04.01.05 at 8:06 pm

My recent research on the increasing energy demand for fossil fuels by growing economies majorly China and India, also enlightened me about the growth level of CO2 emmissions expected in these countries. As an economist, i understand how in a country (India) which depends on coal for producing about 70% of its energy, cannot possibly do much even if its people are aware. Poverty aside, lack of sources -financial and technological, and administrative limitations deter wider implementation of environment friendly processes at a micro level. To give a small example, several MNCs which perhaps under legal bindings cannot undertake certain processes in their own country, conviniently do so in ours like ours. Out of several reasons in the list, “better” technology is more costly.
So, awareness alone is not the solution. Given, imposition of a market system to that , i doubt it will sell like mobile phones. In my view then, steps as recycling are initiatives, yet not means-to-end. Unfortunately, even if new seeds are sown where older ones are cut, a new forest would arrive many years later.
Awareness, but which somehow generates consciousness and changing priorities in view of environmental impact - when our governments decide about construction of dams (and world bank provides funds before even looking at the blueprints…) seem to promise something
Obviously the task of slowing down the damage, let alone reversing, is mammoth. I am not sure if poverty should be given greater weight than environment problems. Its debatable.
On a positive note though, environmental studies,has been introduced as a major module in most Indian schools, starting this session. I have some hopes.


Richard 04.01.05 at 9:29 pm

Josh - I’m glad to know that you count me among the “scientists and experts”! Too kind! ;) The truth is, I should learn not to write about complex issues when it is getting late and I’m tired. My meaning could have been clearer. I was not disagreeing that the report was calling for market solutions. It was your use of the phrase “free market” that made my hackles rise just a tad — the ‘markets” the MER evisages would be anything but that, surely?

Mike - see above. I probably do agree with you, though I wouldn’t put it quite as you do. What’s clear is that if China “develops” into anything like the US or even Britain, the planet is up a certain creek without a vital instrument.

Rad - thanks for your optimistic note! I don;t think environmental problems and poverty should be seen as two seperate problems though. The two can be tackled together.


Mike 04.02.05 at 12:42 pm

I also agree that the two should be tackled together; this is my whole point. Yet do we deny China the opportunity to develop? You see, on one side, people tell them not to burn so much coal, but on the other side, people tell them not to go nuclear. What do they do, stay poor? will that really be an achievement for the human race? They stay poor, and because of it, continue to neglect the environment.

As you say, and as I have been stating, the two should be tackled together, and as much as some might not like it, we have to strike a balance between human well-being and environmental well-being, and this has to be seen in short, medium and long-terms.

I have never thought that the issue is whether anything SHOULD be done, for as far as i am concerned, that is a given. However, I am concerned about HOW it should be done, and I don’t think policies (eg Kyoto) that neglect to be incorporated with poverty reduction and industrial growth in the developing world are going to work.


eric 04.02.05 at 10:24 pm

In response to #5, the brilliance of Kyoto is that in fact it DOES “penalize” the industrial countries more, explicitly recognizing the need and desire for poorer countries to develop economically. Unfortunately, that is also what killed it in the US.

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