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What Happened To 90s Environmentalism?

0. Introduction

I grew up in the 90s, which meant watching movies about plucky children fighting Pollution Demons. Sometimes teachers would show them to us in class. None of us found that strange. We knew that when we grew up, this would be our fight: to take on the loggers and whalers and seal-clubbers who were destroying our planet and save the Earth for the next generation.

What happened to that? I don’t mean the Pollution Demons: they’re still around, I think one of them runs Trump’s EPA now. What happened to everything else? To those teachers, those movies, that whole worldview?

Save The Whales. Save The Rainforest. Save Endangered Species. Save The Earth. Stop Slash-And-Burn. Stop Acid Rain. Earth Day Every Day. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Twenty-five years ago, each of those would invoke a whole acrimonious debate; to some, a battle-cry; to others, a sign of a dangerous fanaticism that would destroy the economy. Today they sound about as relevant as “Fifty-four forty or fight” and “Remember the Maine”. Old slogans, emptied of their punch and fit only for bloodless historical study.

If you went back in time, turned off our Pollution Demon movie, and asked us to predict what would come of the environment twenty-five years, later, in 2018, I think we would imagine one of two scenarios. In the first, the world had become a renewable ecotopia where every child was taught to live in harmony with nature. In the second, we had failed in our struggle, the skies were grey, the rivers were brown, wild animals were a distant memory – but at least a few plucky children would still be telling us it wasn’t too late, that we could start the tough job of cleaning up after ourselves and changing paths to that other option.

The idea that things wouldn’t really change – that the environment would neither move noticeably forward or noticeably backwards – but that everyone would stop talking about environmentalism – that you could go years without hearing the words “endangered species” – that nobody would even know whether the rainforests were expanding or contracting – wouldn’t even be on the radar. It would sound like some kind of weird bizarro-world.

Just to prove I’m not imagining all this:

This is the volume of Google searches for “rainforests” over time. It goes up each year when school starts, and crashes again for summer vacation. But on average, there are only about 18% as many rainforest-related searches today as in 2004.

“Endangered species”, 25%

“Pollution”, 43%

And these are just since Google started tracking searches in 2004. The decline of 90s environmentalism must be even bigger.

So what happened?

Every so often you’ll hear someone mutter darkly “You never hear about the ozone hole these days, guess that was a big nothingburger.” This summons a horde of environmentalists competing to point out that you never hear about the ozone hole these days because environmentalists successfully fixed it. There was a big conference in 1989 where all the nations of the world met together and agreed to stop using ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons, and the ozone hole is recovering according to schedule. When people use the ozone hole as an argument against alarmism, environmentalism is a victim of its own success.

So what about these other issues that have since fizzled out? Did environmentalists solve them? Did they never exist in the first place? Or are they still as bad as ever, and we’ve just stopped caring?

1. Air And Water Pollution

Have you seen what Chinese cities look like on a smoggy day? Trick question: neither have the Chinese. The US used to be like that. I grew up near Los Angeles during the 1990s. My mother tells the story of a time when I was very young and my grandparents came to visit from the Midwest. “It reminds us of home,” they said, “it’s so flat.” “We’re surrounded by mountains”, my mother told them. We were. You couldn’t see any of them.

Environmentalists crusaded against this. Here are the results:

A lot of the credit goes to the Clean Air Act, passed in 1963 and tightened in 1990. Along with its more visible (pun intended) effects, scientists suspect it has prevented about 200,000 deaths from lung disease and a host of other cases of asthma, bronchitis, and even heart attacks.

It’s hard to find great data on water because there are so many different kinds of water and so many different ways it can be polluted. But just to choose a random very bad thing, here’s mercury levels in Great Lakes fish:

I don’t know of anyone claiming this is anything other than a response to stricter environmental laws.

As a result of these victories, people are no longer as concerned about air and water pollution. From Gallup:

This seems like a clear case of good work.

Verdict: Environmental movement successfully solved this problem.

2. Acid Rain

Acid rain is a combination of rain and pollution which gets very acidic and destroys plants and structures. It was a staple of very early 90s environmentalism, and understandably so: the prospect of acid falling from the sky and dissolving everything is very attention-grabbing. I remember the discourse focusing on statues; George Washington’s marble face slowly melting under sizzling raindrops makes a heck of an image.

I am not the first person to notice that Washington’s face remains mercifully unmelted. In 2009, Slate asked Whatever Happened To Acid Rain?. EPA Blog, 2010: Whatever Happened To Acid Rain?. 2012, Mental Floss: What Ever Happened To Acid Rain? By 2018 the Internet had advanced, so here’s the Whatever Happened To Acid Rain Podcast. Even the Encyclopedia Britannica, itself a good candidate for a “Whatever Happened To…” piece, has a What Happened To Acid Rain article.

Most of these sources say environmentalists solved acid rain by cutting down on emission of sulfur dioxide, the main offending chemical. A Bush I era cap-and-trade policy gets a lot of the credit in the US, but it looks like it was a broader effort than that:

There’s less clear data on rain acidity, but all my sources agree it has modestly declined in the US, thought it is still “between 2.5 and eight times more acidic than it should be”. Lakes and rivers are slowly recovering. On the other hand, in newly-industrializing countries like China and India, rain is becoming more acidic and they’re going through some of the same issues we were in the 80s.

This picture is slightly complicated by some people who claim acid rain was always exaggerated and “we solved it” is a convenient retreat from acknowledging this (for what it’s worth, these people tend to be global warming skeptics too). Most of them point to the 1990 National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program, a giant government investigation into the acid rain problem. I found a 1990 New York Times article on the report here:

A comprehensive Federal report that was supposed to resolve the issue of how much damage is caused to forests by acid rain has come under criticism from some distinguished scientists who are reviewing it.

The critics said that the report gave an incorrect impression that air pollution was not causing any large-scale problems for forest ecosystems. They also said that the report, still in draft form, ignored a number of studies suggesting serious air pollution problems.

But other experts contend that the general conclusion of the report is essentially right. The report concluded that with the exception of damage to red spruce at high elevations in the East, forests in the United States are not suffering serious damage from acid rain […]

The report now being reviewed is the final draft, completed at a cost of nearly $500 million. It examines the effects of other pollutants, like ozone, as well as acid deposits, and it concludes that air pollution causes far less environmental damage than has been feared.

An interim report issued by the study group in 1987, before Dr. Mahoney became director, was sharply criticized by many scientists. They contended that it tailored research findings into conclusions that matched the political goals of the Reagan Administration, which opposed new controls on air pollution. No such criticism has been leveled at the 28-volume final draft, which has been generally praised as a sound scientific document.

There is, however, some unhappiness among scientists with the volume dealing with forest health and productivity in the United States and Canada.

Dr. Ellis B. Cowling, associate for research at North Carolina State University’s College of Forest Resources, said in a telephone interview: ”The tone is that we don’t have a problem except in southern California, and with red spruce at high altitudes. That is not a fair statement of the state of scientific knowledge.” He added, ”Perhaps the authors were a bit too hasty in reaching conclusions.”

Dr. Cowling, who is highly regarded by colleagues as a conservative, solid scientist, wrote a memorandum to the authors of the forest health volume. He offered a series of suggestions for changing the wording of conclusions in ways that he said would reflect the state of science more accurately.

The first of those would change a finding that stated, ”The vast majority of forests in the United States and Canada are not affected by decline.” To be more consistent with the data, Dr. Cowling said, the conclusion should read: ”Most forests in the United States do not show unusual visible symptoms of stress, marked decreases in the rate of growth or significant increases in mortality.”

Just because symptoms of forest decline are not currently visible, Dr. Cowling argued, does not rule out the possibility that they are under way.

This article also provides a summary of contemporaneous responses to NAPAP, which quotes study director James Mahoney’s summary of his own report: “The sky is not falling, but there is a problem that needs addressing.”

I cannot find anyone really challenging the NAPAP report nowadays, so I provisionally accept that the damage from acid rain, while real, was exaggerated at the time.

There’s a related debate about how much the lakes and streams affected have recovered. Some lakes and streams are naturally acidic; there is some debate over what percent of lake/stream acidity is natural vs. acid-rain-related. In recent years this debate has focused on whether lakes/streams have recovered after the SO2 decline; if they haven’t, this might suggest their problems were never human-activity-related in the first place.

Global warming skeptic blog Watt’s Up With That claims they haven’t:

Possibly the greatest evidence against harmful effects of acid rain is the fact that acidic lakes have not “recovered” after most sulfur and nitrogen pollution was removed from the atmosphere. The 2011 NAPAP report to Congress stated that SO2 and NO2 emissions were down, that airborne concentrations were down, and that acid deposition from rainfall was down, but could not report that lake acidity was significantly reduced. The report states, “Scientists have observed delays in ecosystem recovery in the eastern United States despite decreases in emissions and deposition over the last 30 years.” In other words, the pollution was mostly eliminated, but the lakes are still acidic.

You can find the report here. Like all long government reports, the details are ten zillion different trends in different directions that don’t form a cohesive narrative, and the executive summary is “things are good in all the ways that suggest we deserve more money, but bad in all the ways that suggest we need more money”, It is complicated enough that you shouldn’t trust my excerpting, but at least to me the relevant excerpts seem to be:

Levels of acid neutralizing capacity (ANC), an indicator of the ability of a waterbody to neutralize acid deposition, have shown improvement from 1990 to 2008 at many lake and stream long-term monitoring sites in the eastern United States, including New England and the Adirondack Mountains. Many lakes and streams still have acidic conditions harmful to their biota even though the increases in ANC indicate that some recovery from acidification is occurring in sensitive aquatic ecosystems

And:

Despite the environmental improvements reported here, research over the past few years indicates that recovery from the effects of acidification is not likely for many sensitive areas without additional decreases in acid deposition. Many published articles, as well as the modeling presented in this report, show that the SO2 and NOx emission reductions achieved under Title IV from power plants are not recognized as insufficient to achieve full recovery or to prevent further acidification in some regions.

So Watts seems to be mostly wrong when they say lakes are not recovering, but mostly right when they say ecosystems are not recovering. But NAPAP has some explanations for why ecosystems are not recovering: first, if you poison a lake and kill everything, then even if you remove the poison later everything is still dead. Second, there are complicated natural cycles that gradually wash old deposited land-based pollution into lakes, and it will be a long time before all the pollution deposited on land gets fully washed away. Third, maybe we haven’t fought acid rain hard enough.

I think a lot of the epistemic work here is going to get done by people’s respective stereotypes about the trustworthiness of global warming denialists vs. big government agencies whose budget depends on there being a problem. But my impression is that Watts’ claim that poor recovery suggests acid rain was never a problem don’t hold up very well.

In any case, it’s undeniable that rain has become a lot less acid lately, and likely that this has at least modest positive effects on some ecosystems as well as on the built environment. Anti-Confederate protesters have replaced acid rain as the number one threat to our statues. Our precious, precious statues. Someday they will be safe.

Verdict: A little of everything: partly solved, partly alarmism, partly still going on.

3. The Rainforests

Maybe the most typical image of 90s environmentalism is men in bulldozers clear-cutting a rainforest, while tapirs and tree sloths gently weep.

Or maybe it was the declining-rainforest-coverage-over-time-maps. I feel like about one in every three posters I saw as a child looked something like this:

This is a fake example. Please stop asking me where I am getting the data from.

I thought surely nothing could be easier than digging up a few of them and seeing whether their 2020 predictions were right. But I can’t find them anywhere. According to the Internet, there is no such thing as 90s-era maps showing declining rainforest coverage over time. Can anyone else locate these?

Anyway:

Here’s a graph of the size of the Amazon over time (source, note that the y-axis is not at zero). At 90s levels of deforestation, the Amazon would have disappeared in about 200 years. At current levels, it will disappear in about 400 years.

Here’s the Congo (somewhat dubious source, same caveat). At the rates shown here it will be gone in 250 years – but it seems to have slowed after the period on the graph.

And here’s Southeast Asia (source, same caveat). At this rate, the southeast Asian forest will be gone in 150 years, though some new papers are suggesting we may be underestimating the deforestation rate.

Overall it looks like deforestation may have decreased modestly in the Amazon (and possibly the Congo) since the 1990s. It has not decreased significantly in Southeast Asia, and whatever decreases have happened are not relevant to the scale of the problem.

The only good news is that all those “rainforests will be gone by 2050” posters were just wrong; there is more rainforest than that. But not that much more.

Verdict: The problem still exists, and we are just ignoring it now.

4. Endangered Species

So just find how many species go extinct each year, and whether it’s a lot or a little, and then we’ll know what’s going on with this, right? Ha ha, as if.

On the one hand, the UN Environment Programme says that “150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct every 24 hours.”

On the other, nobody can name more than a single-digit number of species that go extinct in any given year. The 2017 list includes five: a bat, a cat, a flatworm, a lizard, and a snail. This matches longer-term surveys: Ceballos et al (2018) find that about 477 vertebrate species have gone extinct since 1900 – again, about five per year. And a recent survey found only four to eight bird species had disappeared since the turn of the century.

I have no idea where the 150-200 number per day comes from, and neither does anyone else. The closest I can find to a justification is this WWF page, which reminds us that if there are 100 million animals species, and “the extinction rate is just 0.01% per year”, then at least 10,000 species go extinct every year (=200-300/day) – but all of these numbers are completely made up.

One could try to justify these estimates with something like “assume only one in a thousand species has been discovered and is monitored well enough to detect its extinction, so if we detect five extinctions per year then five thousand must be happening” – but I’ve never heard anyone actually say this. Also, with apologies to all the undiscovered species, if they’re so tiny and uncommon as to never get discovered, it doesn’t seem like their extinction is going to change very much.

Five known species going extinct per year may sound like a lot if you’re thinking it’s something like “rhinos, pandas, whales, spotted owls, and leopards”. But realistically there are 385 species of shrews. We could spend our entire yearly extinction budget on shrews for the next sixty years and still have more than enough kinds of shrews left to satisfy basically anybody.

I’m trying to think what the best counterargument to this would be – the best case that we really do need to consider species extinction a dire concern.

Maybe this is too vertebrate-centric, and there are lots of insects and plants and such going extinct all the time? But this List Of Recently Extinct Insects suggests that of about 6000 known insect species, only 50-100 have gone extinct in the past century. And one of those was this giant earwig which I really think the world is better without.

Or maybe we can’t directly predict the future from the past. Imagine 1000 square miles of rainforest with a homogenous distribution of species. Clear-cut 50% of the rainforest, and no extinctions. Clear-cut 90% of the rainforest, still no extinctions. Clear-cut 99%, maybe a few extinctions if you’re unlucky. Then clear-cut the last remaining 1% and everything dies. It seems like something like that might be happening – see for example this report that global animal populations have declined 58% over the past forty years.

But any concept of endangered species that focuses on “many well-known species will be gone soon” doesn’t seem consistent with the evidence.

Verdict: Partly alarmism, partly still going on.

5. More And More Trash Piling Up Until The Whole World Is Just A Giant Mountain Of Trash

Wait, what? Was this really a concern? Did I really spend my primary school years being told that if I didn’t vigilantly recycle everything, one day I would be submerged beneath a sea of trash, breathing by means of a trash snorkel? Am I hallucinating all of this?

As usual, it turns out to be the Mafia’s fault. In the 1980s, mob boss Salvatore Avellino took over New York City’s landfill industry, and in a shocking development which nobody could have predicted, was corrupt. New York City soon ran out of landfill space. Somehow all of its excess trash ended up on a barge called the MOBRO-4000, because the Eighties, and this barge apparently sailed up and down the east coast of North America searching for a place to deposit its trash. In its many exciting adventures it reached the coast of Belize, got involved in a confrontation with the Mexican Navy, and finally went back to New York, where at some point landfill space was found and the crisis was over.

But a giant boat full of trash made a really memorable image, and it got nationwide news coverage, and environmentalists took advantage of this to tell everyone there was no more landfill space anywhere in the world and we all had to recycle right now. According to Wikipedia:

At the time, the Mobro 4000 incident was widely cited by environmentalists and the media as emblematic of the solid-waste disposal crisis in the United States due to a shortage of landfill space: almost 3,000 municipal landfills had closed between 1982 and 1987. It triggered much national public discussion about waste disposal, and may have been a factor in increased recycling rates in the late 1980s and after. It was this that caused it to be included in an episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit! (season 2, episode 5) in which they debunk many recycling myths.

I’m even absolutely right in remembering primary school lessons centered around garbage covering the Earth and killing everybody. Here’s a New York Times article from 1996 – ie after the crisis had a little bit of time to fade – lightly mocking the new curricula that followed in its wake:

After the litter hunt in Ms. Aponte’s science classroom, it was time for a guest lecturer on garbage. A fifth-grade class was brought in to hear Joanne Dittersdorf, the director of environmental education for the Environmental Action Coalition, a nonprofit group based in New York. Her slide show began with a 19th-century photograph of a street in New York strewn with garbage.

“Why can’t we keep throwing out garbage that way?” Dittersdorf asked.

“It’ll keep piling up and we won’t have any place to put it.”

“The earth would be called the Trash Can.”

“The garbage will soon, like, take over the whole world and, like, kill everybody.”

Dittersdorf asked the children to examine their lives. “Does anyone here ever have takeout food?” A few students confessed, and Dittersdorf gently scolded them. “A lot of garbage there.”

She showed a slide illustrating New Yorkers’ total annual production of garbage: a pile big enough to fill 15 city blocks to a height of 20 stories. ‘There are a lot of landfills in New York City,” Dittersdorf said, “but we’ve run out of space.”

From the same beginning-of-the-backlash period we also get this 1995 Foundation for Economic Education piece, Are We Burying Ourselves In Garbage?:

A popular idea in public discourse today is that the United States produces an overwhelming amount of trash–so much that our landfills will not be able to handle the quantity. The most eloquent symbol of this viewpoint was the “garbage barge,” which in the late 1980s left Long Island and could not find a port or country willing to accept its 3.168 tons of refuse. [But] the actual data (such as they are) on the amount of municipal solid waste produced present us with more questions than answers.

This article also deserves note for hitting on a brilliant solution:

The crisis mentality has distorted judgment of waste disposal. The notion that modern America is especially wasteful is demonstrably wrong, both in terms of the last decades as well as the last 100 years. The idea that our landfills are literally “running out” is even less credible. If in the next century major portions of the United States really need to export their refuse to other states, a “gold mine” for refuse burial does exist: South Dakota. This state is geologically, economically, and politically almost ideal for massive municipal solid waste management.

None of this is a joke. This is how your parents did Discourse, people.

But it turns out capitalism works: if there’s a shortage of landfills, that incentivizes people to create new landfills. Also, the world is very large and it is hard to cover a significant portion of it in trash. There was a brief blip as cities figured out how to pay for more waste disposal, and then nobody ever worried about the problem again. Recycling remained inefficient and of dubious benefit, and never really caught on.

There is still an international problem as Third World countries struggle with infrastructure issues around trash disposal. You still see occasional articles like Huffington Post’s People Are Living In Landfills As The World Drowns In Its Own Trash, from earlier this year. But I think in general nobody in the First World still considers this a major problem.

Well, almost nobody:

Verdict: Alarmist. So, so, alarmist.

6. Peak Resource

Is the earth’s ballooning human population using up resources at an unsustainable rate?

Technically the answer must be “yes”, since by definition nonrenewable resources have to run out at some point. But when? Long after we have escaped to space and gotten access to shiny new resources? Or soon enough that we have to worry about it?

A big part of 90s environmentalism involved worrying that it was the latter. A particular concern was “peak oil”, the point at which we had exhausted so much of the world’s oil that production rates declined every year thereafter and oil started becoming gradually rarer and more expensive. Wikipedia has a helpful table of people’s peak oil predictions. I’ve highlighted the ones that have already passed in red.

Almost everyone working before 2000 thought we would have reached peak oil by now. But here’s world oil production over time:

And the price of oil:

What happened? People discovered fracking and other paradigm-shifting techniques to extract oil from shale, which opened up vast new previously-inaccessible oil fields. The peak oil predictors might call this unfair – they calculated correctly given the technology they knew about – but the whole argument of the people who say we don’t have to worry about peak resource (sometimes called “cornucopians”) is that technology will advance fast enough to satisfy our resource needs. In this case they were right.

What about non-oil resources?

In 1980, leading environmental scientist and peak-resource proponent Paul Ehrlich made a bet with cornucopian economist Julian Simon about how resource prices would change over the next decade. The Simon-Ehrlich Wager has become a famous example of futurology done right – two people with different theories implying different predictions coming together, agreeing on exactly what each of their theories implied, and then publicly committing to put them to the test. According to Reb Wiki:

Simon challenged Ehrlich to choose any raw material he wanted and a date more than a year away, and he would wager on the inflation-adjusted prices decreasing as opposed to increasing. Ehrlich chose copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten. The bet was formalized on September 29, 1980, with September 29, 1990 as the payoff date. Ehrlich lost the bet, as all five commodities that were bet on declined in price from 1980 through 1990, the wager period.

Looks pretty good for Simon and the cornucopians. But the article continues:

Ehrlich could have won if the bet had been for a different ten-year period. Ehrlich wrote that the five metals in question had increased in price between the years 1950 to 1975. Asset manager Jeremy Grantham wrote that if the Simon–Ehrlich wager had been for a longer period (from 1980 to 2011), then Simon would have lost on four of the five metals. He also noted that if the wager had been expanded to “all of the most important commodities,” instead of just five metals, over that longer period of 1980 to 2011, then Simon would have lost “by a lot.” Economist Mark J. Perry noted that for an even longer period of time, from 1934 to 2013, the inflation-adjusted price of the Dow Jones-AIG Commodity Index showed “an overall significant downward trend” and concluded that Simon was “more right than lucky”. Economist Tim Worstall wrote that “The end result of all of this is that yes, it is true that Ehrlich could have, would have, won the bet depending upon the starting date. … But the long term trend for metals at least is downwards.”

How about today? An econblogger is still keeping track of the Ehrlich-Simon wager, and finds that as of August 2017, Simon (who is now dead) is still winning; a basket of the five metals involved still costs less than it did in 1980.

Can we zoom out even further? There are a bunch of commodity indices that do for commodities what the Dow Jones does for stocks. I chose the Standard & Poor Goldman-Sachs Commodity Index kind of randomly because they were a familiar name and it was easy to find which goods they included. I’m not quite sure I’m doing this right, but this seems to be the most relevant graph:

The price of commodities in general is still lower than in 1980 (also, with this graph it becomes clear Ehrlich was really unlucky in which year he started his wager).

I have never heard anyone claim that this represents an environmentalist victory: I don’t think there was any large-scale attempt to conserve or recycle chromium/tungsten/whatever that led to its current abundance. I think this was just a victory for resource extraction technology.

There are still theoretical reasons to think we have to run out of stuff eventually. But in terms of how the past 25 years have treated 90s-era concerns about resource depletion, it’s hard to answer anything other than “savagely”.

Verdict: Alarmist

7. Saving The Whales

I remember frequently being told we had to do this. Apparently it paid off, since a global moratorium on whaling was signed in 1982.

The ban is not perfect. Indigenous peoples are allowed to hunt whales in traditional ways. Japan pretends their whaling is for “scientific purposes” and has so far gotten away with it. Norway and Iceland never signed the moratorium and continue to whale.

But overall, things are going pretty well. There aren’t a lot of graphs, but the International Whaling Commission (which despite its name is against whaling) says blue whale populations are increasing at about 8%/year, humpback whales around 10%, and fin whales around 5%. Those sound pretty good, but they have to be taken in context:

Okay, fine. There’s one graph. But it’s really depressing. See that tiny micro-bump at the end? That represents progress.

Verdict: Environmental movement successfully solved this problem.

8. Concluding Thoughts

This was not a very conclusive exercise. When I add these up – as if that were at all an acceptable thing to do! – I get 2⅓ that were solved, 2⅚ that were alarmism, and 1⅚ that continue. So there is not much to be said about them as a group. Some were solved through heroic effort. Some turned out to be completely made up. Some of them are still out there but have stopped capturing the public’s attention.

Victories I can understand. It’s the latter two categories that confuse me.

How did the non-problems fade away? There was no moment when some brave iconoclast posted ninety-five theses to the door of the local recycling center and said “No! There is not a landfill crisis!” I mean, John Tierney wrote things along those lines, and did a great job of it. But he’s not a household name and there was never a time when everyone said “Oh, John Tierney is right, let’s stop worrying about this.” The people who stopped worrying about this never heard of John Tierney. At some point people just went from being very worried about the landfill crisis to shaking their heads and saying “The world getting full of trash? Sounds pretty stupid.”

And the story with peak resources seems entirely different. You will still occasionally see people saying “The Earth can’t support our greed, soon we will run out of everything”, and reasonable people will nod along with this and admit it is very wise. But you hear it like once a year now, as opposed to it being a constant refrain. This idea was never intellectually defeated at all, at least not on the popular level. It just faded away.

Was there some rarified level of intellectual debate where these ideas lost out? And then, denied their support from the commanding heights of the ivory tower, did journalists stop writing about them, schoolteachers stop teaching them, and then eventually the public – who have no will of their own and have to be told what matters – wander off and do something else?

Or was the change bottom-up? Did the public, after the millionth editorial on the trash crisis, say “Okay, whatever”, such that journalists realized this was no longer a good way to sell newspaper subscriptions? Is there a natural news mega-cycle of a decade or so, after which the public gets tired of hearing about a certain story, the intellectuals get tired of talking about it, every possible angle has been explored, and people move on, whether or not it was solved? Does this explain why the rainforests, a real problem that is still going on, similarly lost public attention?

Or maybe climate change took over everything, became so important that everything else faded into the background. This is certainly how it feels to me. Whenever I hear about the rainforests nowadays, it’s as a footnote to some global warming story where they add that we should save the rainforest as a carbon sink. Whenever I hear about landfills or recycling today, it’s in the context of trash giving off greenhouse gases. It feels almost like some primitive barter system has been converted to a modern economy, with tons of CO2 emission as the universal interchangeable currency that can be used to put a number value on all environmental issues. Can’t figure out a way to convert whales into a carbon sink? Guess they’ll have to go.

(I wrote that, then remembered I lived in 21st century America, did a Google search, and sure enough there are dozens of articles arguing that saving whales is an efficient way to neutralize greenhouse gases)

But as attractive as this picture is, it’s hard to find the supporting data. There’s just not hard evidence that we care more about global warming than we did fifteen or twenty years ago:

Here’s the Google Trends. There was a lot of interest in 2006, which I think gets attributed to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in that year, but not a lot of signs of increase today.

Here’s Gallup. It at least shows a spike starting in 2016 – but given its timing and the lack of obvious 2016 global-warming related events, I think it’s probably just another Trump backlash effect.

If global warming is eating all the other environmental issues, it doesn’t seem to be extracting that much nutrition from their corpses. And the ozone hole – probably the most global-warming-like issue of the last generation – managed to gather popular support at the same time that people were worried about a host of other things. I don’t know. Maybe given the public’s tendency to get bored of an issue after a decade or so, global warming has to cannibalize the rest of environmentalism just to survive at all. Depressing if true.

Or maybe it’s a zeitgeist thing. For some reason, it’s hard to imagine 2018 being the Year Of Rainforest Concern. There’s something very 90s Optimism about worrying about the rainforests, something where even the warnings of doom have a cheerful ring to them. I remember a Rainforest Charity Box at my local mall as a kid, promising that if you donated $10, you would save a brightly colored parrot, and if you donated $50, you might save a jaguar. Who thinks that way these days? Now if you donate some amount to stopping global warming, you will have won yourself a lecture from a bunch of people telling you that still doesn’t mean you have the right to feel good about yourself, and the world is going to fry regardless. Have we just passed the point where anybody can care about crisp mountain streams or frolicking snow leopards any more?

The most important thing I take away from the exercise is a sort of postmodern insight into the way environmental issues are constructed. This is definitely not me saying they are all made up; many of them are very real. But the mapping from real crisis to social panic is tenuous, contingent, and historical. Sometimes random things that shouldn’t matter get magnified into the issue du jour; other times giant world-threatening crises manage to slip everyone’s attention.

Imagine that twenty years from now, nobody cares or talks about global warming. It hasn’t been debunked. It’s still happening. People just stopped considering it interesting. Every so often some webzine or VR-holozine or whatever will publish a “Whatever Happened To Global Warming” story, and you’ll hear that global temperatures are up X degrees centigrade since 2000 and that explains Y percent of recent devastating hurricanes. Then everyone will go back to worrying about Robo-Trump or Mecha-Putin or whatever.

If this sounds absurd, I think it’s no weirder than what’s happened to 90s environmentalism and the issues it cared about.

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688 Responses to What Happened To 90s Environmentalism?

  1. Worley says:

    What you describe as ’90s environmentalism started well before that. In Alston Chase’s “Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber” https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2000/06/harvard-and-the-making-of-the-unabomber/378239/ notes that circa 1958, when Kaczynski was at Harvard, the ideas in his manifesto were cliche.

    But there’s a related issue I like to see some discussion of: The strange cycle of alarmism and denial. If you read the latest government report, by 2100 global warming is expected to cost the US economy about 10% of GDP, some $10 trillion/year. Conversely, the cheapest way to avoid that seems to cost about 5% of GDP, or $5 trillion/year in 2100. Back When I Was A Boy, a gain of $5 trillion/year was the sort of argument to motivate Republicans, who were the Party of Business.

    Instead, environmentalists seem to always focus on the most dire possible outcomes, which are the least likely. So anyone at all skeptical who looks into environmentalism sees a deliberate effort to present the most extreme possibilities. This fosters cynicism on the part of people who aren’t deeply committed, which weakens support for taking sensible actions. This then incites environmentalists to be even more loud and lurid.

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  4. DakotaMcKee says:

    First time commenter, long time lurker:

    I wanted to write something here because I’m in a program on science writing and this was a question I too had, why climate change dominates discussion to the exclusion of other environmental issues that are tangential, in particular waste disposal and localized pollution (air and water). We’re currently witnessing a broad rollback of regulating these problems in the US and as such are having almost a cultural referendum of sorts on the state as environmental steward … and nobody is talking about it! That’s crazy to me. So I appreciate you posting this.

    That said I feel like some of was written here was dismissive (the use of “alarmist” to categorize species preservation and garbage) and am surprised that the conclusion by many of the posters below seems to be that the fact that these problems have disappeared from public discourse is evidence that they may never have been that big of a problem at all. That whale graph is not at all encouraging. The characterization of the problem of waste has at best been transmuted-the fact that we could in theory build one collective trash heap the size of a fraction of Rhode Island ignores many problems including the mass exportation of garbage and recyclables, litter and pollution in the oceans, general resource depletion, and the high levels of toxicity of certain e-waste and other trash (nuclear energy waste???).

    I don’t think it’s fair (this is more on commenters below) to interpret a shift in priorities by environmental groups as proof that they are inherently ephemeral Cassandras, jumping from one exaggerated crisis to another. The oft-cited but misleading Erlich/Simon bet lends credence to this way of thinking. First, if a problem is “solved”, even temporarily, or we haven’t hit the predicted crisis point, that doesn’t mean the problem never existed. As a child we’re told to watch out and not get hit by cars. If you make it to adulthood having not died in a traffic accident, that doesn’t mean the adults warning you were “alarmist”, or that you can walk out into the middle of the street whenever you want.

    Second, even if environmentalists were proven wrong about their concerns, this isn’t a case of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” There’s a difference between a compulsive liar finally losing credibility to the point where even theirs truths can be dismissed (cough cough “Watt’s Up With That” cough cough) and someone who points out a problem and due to incomplete information or unforeseen future developments/breakthroughs, turns out to be wrong about their prediction. If an environmental claim is based on sound science or evidence, it should be taken seriously. There shouldn’t be a higher burden of proof inherently for claims of environmental damage simply because thus far technological advancements have outpaced ecological destruction. If anything, environmental warnings should be taken MORE seriously since unlike social constructs, the environment/biosphere forms the foundation that we are dependent on for survival.

  5. musicmage4114 says:

    Now if you donate some amount to stopping global warming, you will have won yourself a lecture from a bunch of people telling you that still doesn’t mean you have the right to feel good about yourself, and the world is going to fry regardless.

    11. Argument From My Opponent Believes Something, So They Wrote An Essay Questioning The Effectiveness Of A Practice I Support, Which Is Kinda Like A Lecture, And Lecturing People Is Mean

    Come on, Scott, you’re better than this.

    I suspect this was the product of a brief moment of defensiveness, so I can at least understand where it comes from. Having acknowledged that, I still think it’s an uncharacteristically disingenuous and dismissive characterization of Monbiot’s essay.

    • Simulated Knave says:

      …I’m pretty sure he’s just talking about the generalized naysaying of modern activism – nothing anyone does is good enough unless it solves all problems completely.

      • musicmage4114 says:

        If that is indeed the case, then the inclusion of the link undercuts the rhetoric and obscures the intended meaning.

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  7. Galle says:

    Wasn’t concern over global warming itself a component of 90s environmentalism? It wasn’t the be-all, end-all of environmentalism the way it is today, but I definitely remember looking at little diagrams explaining the greenhouse effect in second grade.

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  9. wiserd says:

    The rainforests justifiably are considered slightly less important than they once were. The rainforests were previously said to be the ‘lungs of the planet.’ It turns out ocean phytoplankton are far more relevant in producing oxygen from CO2 than we once thought.

    (I wonder to what extent Ebola and similar disease reservoirs also played a role in turning people against certain natural reserves. Maybe not much, but I wonder…)

  10. dbezan says:

    This article was good, but a couple of things need to be said…

    First, the environmental movement has never been concerned with the price of tungsten. Simon was attacking a straw man, and Ehrlich took the bait and looked stupid, but whether commodities are cheap in the future is a concern only for humans/cornucopians, not the biosphere.

    Second, the article doesn’t mention overpopulation, probably because it was already a taboo subject in the 90s, so it doesn’t fit the premise. But it’s the one issue that matters most for the environment – preservation of rainforests and endangered species and even tungsten will ultimately have to give way in the face of human population growth. And it’s the one issue that cornucopians got most wrong; they predicted the “demographic transition” would solve the problem, and in fact too few people would be a problem in the future. The global population has grown by 50% since 1990 and it hasn’t slowed down much. That means even some of the problems that were “solved” aren’t really going to stay solved.

    • echidna says:

      The demographic transition happened as expected (or faster?) pretty much everywhere except Africa. In Iran, for example, the birth rate is now 1.66 children per woman (2016 data). India at 2.33 is still above replacement rate, but trending down. China is below replacement. Africa will also get there.

  11. Corundum says:

    I am surprised at your lack of concern over species extinction given the numbers you quote.

    “But this List Of Recently Extinct Insects suggests that of about 6000 known insect species, only 50-100 have gone extinct in the past century.”

    Are you saying it is not worrying that “only” 1-2% of the known species in an entire taxonomic clarr disappear in a single century? In any case, this extinction rate is without a doubt outpacing the speciation rate (which, although it is hard to measure exactly, is generally regarded as slow, http://pages.nbb.cornell.edu/shawlab/PDF/annurev-ento-120710-100621.pdf).

    Add to the issue that species diversity is often a good indicator for the health of a ecosystem, and I think you are portraying species extinction here as far less worrying than your evidence actually suggests.

    Edit: Just realized that I should include this quote from you also:

    …see for example this report that global animal populations have declined 58% over the past forty years.

    To me, this quote belongs squarely under “alarming statistics that you sort of glossed over.” Doesn’t widespread declining populations numbers put us at risk for accelerated extinction rate in the near future? Also, reduced populations are lose resilience, meaning that if the extinction rate does start to accelerate we will have far less time and require far more resources to react and save key species. Once again, I think you presenting a picture far less worrying than your evidence actually suggests.

    • Mark Bahner says:

      “Are you saying it is not worrying that “only” 1-2% of the known species in an entire taxonomic class disappear in a single century?”

      It certainly doesn’t seem worrying to me. We now have CRISPR technology that makes it science, rather than science fiction, to talk about bringing back species from extinction:

      Bringing back extinct species

      So even if 1-2 percent did become extinct without intervention in the coming 100 years, it should not be particularly difficult to bring them back from extinction.

      • Rm says:

        It is still science fiction, however, and so it will remain until (or, rather, if) much more genetical and other information can be extracted from remains. Perhaps we shall be able to create something which will eat and reproduce; but would that mean re-creation? There will be founder effects on the ranges of any kind of nameable characteristic of the organism, and there will be no way to say in what way the new ranges are different except to a very rough approximation. Making a new animal within a hundred years – yes, definitely; bringing one back – no, and I think, never.

        • Corundum says:

          I think Rm brings up some good points about founder effects. I would also like to add that Mark’s point that we might soon have the capability to make genetically similar organism to extinct species further supports my original point that the long you let population decline persist, the more effort it takes to recover a species. His scenario is merely the logical conclusion of that trend–if you let a population decline to zero, in order to bring it back you will have to incur the cost of genetically re-engineering it on top of the costs it would take to breed it, protect its habitat, and reestablish it in the wild. (And that doesn’t factor in the cost of whatever damage is caused to the ecosystem at large during the time when the species is entirely absent and unable to fulfill its ecological niche.) In the long run, it would be far cheaper and easier to recognize the warning flag of population decline and preserve the species now rather than having to pay additional interest for our laxity later.

  12. Rm says:

    I’ll muddy some water here, if I can.

    I’m not sure about the time scales, but it seems to me that in the matter of species extinction, the gradual development of national or even more local Red Data Books would shift the attention away from world-level extinctions. Part of the thing we tried to do was convincing people they cannot do much for the Siberian tiger from Ukraine, but they can stop buying spring wilflowers. We did it on purpose, and we saw a desirable effect of police becoming interested in enforcing the already established law (not “the desirable effect” which would be “growing populations of spring wildflowers”, & not “a different desirable effect” of “no wilting posies left behind to kindly fertilize the forest after the selfies are taken” – there are a lot of effects I could wish for). But the fact remains. Targeting tiger-scale things requires a lot of resources, and not just people and money; but in a poor country, that is what you are limited by. And since globally rare species are sometimes locally abundant, I might, for example, care about the Siberian tiger, but if I were to live in Siberia, I might be actually more worried by the fate of a different species.

    Also, I take your comment about the earwig to be the new standard of flippancy, and I shall gladly follow it to the logical conclusion.

  13. Mark Bahner says:

    “But just to choose a random very bad thing, here’s mercury levels in Great Lakes fish:”

    “I don’t know of anyone claiming this is anything other than a response to stricter environmental laws.”

    Another distinct possibility is the replacement of mercury cell chlor-alkali manufacturing facilities by membrane-based chlor-alkali production. Membrane-based production is much more energy efficient, and is generally less expensive than using mercury cells.

    Mercury-cell chlor-alkali plants…actual emissions are most likely “lost mercury”

  14. MostlyCredibleHulk says:

    Looking at this graph, by 1982, when whaling was banned, it was at the end of very long and steep decline: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whaling_in_the_United_States#/media/File:Whaling.png
    Maybe it’s because there was no whales left, or maybe it was because the need for whale oil, which has been using as lubricant, had been replaced with superior alternatives.

    US whaling industry, once employing about 1% of US workforce (akin to 2x auto industry now) and fifth largest industry in the country, was dead by 1930s. US bans for use of whale oil postdate it by 40 years.

    So I’m not sure the efforts of the environmentalist movement to save the whales really did much, or the industry essentially died out by then (either because of shifting demand or because of the decline in the whale population) and the ban only affected small and insignificant number of whalers.

  15. MostlyCredibleHulk says:

    I always thought AGW is the new leading cause for concern for people in the “humans are ruining the Earth” mood. And you can’t have too many leading concerns at once – people can’t worry about too many things simultaneously, at least not actively. I see that Google trends does not confirm it but maybe Google trends is missing something, because I hear about AGW and related concerns almost every day, and I haven’t heard about other concerns mentioned for years (except for peak oil, where people regularly dig up old predictions to have a good laugh at their expense). Maybe it’s just called “climate” or “carbon impact” or a dozen other words which everybody knows what they mean.

    Except: trash panic is still pretty active, it just mutated a bit – now it’s the fight with plastic bags (almost done – all the cool kids agreed plastic bags have to be banned wherever the cool kids can pass local regulations) and plastic straws, motivating it by oceanic pollution. As US generates minuscule amounts of plastic oceanic pollution, especially compared to China/South Asia, and yet less are sourced from consumer waste, most of these efforts are completely ineffectual waste of time and money, but do they feel virtuous!

    • peak.singularity says:

      The state of global understanding about peak oil is just sad.

      In 1956 King Hubbert predicts peak oil for the USA in 1965 and the world in 2000.
      The whole idea of oil peaking is ridiculed, and his predictions forgotten… until the USA actually hit peak oil in 1971, shortly followed by the 1973 oil shock.

      In 1998 Laherrère and Campbell predict “The end of cheap oil” (lower than $20/barrel back then), and global conventional peak oil around 2010. They also mention that high enough oil prices will make unconventional oil profitable, but express doubts about the industry reacting fast enough, and about the environmental damage (they don’t mention CO2 – IIRC they were climate change skeptics, at least back then).
      The International Energy Agency categorised them as “pessimists”, and made its own prediction of 2013-2014 for peak conventional oil, with an associated oil price ceiling of $25/barrel (at which point unconventionals were assumed to start to become profitable and keep the oil price from going higher).
      Then oil prices hit their maximum of $160/barrel in 2008.
      In 2010, the IEA put the peak conventional oil in the past, in 2006.

      Since then, unconventional oil – including an unexpected one, see my P.S. – has more or less filled the gap… but when you compare how the cost of extraction for pre-1970 drilled oil was a few percent of what it sold for (and in 1930-1970, the oil price was firmly under $20/barrel in 2014 dollars),
      compared to how the debt accumulated by the american “shale” oil industry keeps rising from from $50 billion in 2005 to nearly $200 billion by 2015 (with oil prices ranging from $35/barrel to $160/barrel),
      with 2018 IEA expecting the US peak tight oil starting in early 2020s (with slow decline afterward), and Laherrère in 2019 (with symmetrical decline),
      well, it doesn’t look good ! (with emphasis on the risk of the debt bubble popping)

      And all this without forgetting the “little” issue of climate change, which, if taken seriously, rather tends to indicate that extracting unconventional oil is not really compatible with maintaining the Holocene optimum conditions !

      Also, is it that hard to understand that waiting until conventional peak oil hit (with the accompaniying high oil prices and oil price volatility) was NOT a good idea if we wanted to build the heavy infrastructure required to do away with the oil dependance (as Hubbert suggested in 1956, with at the time, nuclear power in mind), so as to hope to mantain some kind of industrial civilization ?

      P.S.: What is bugging me : why has no-one predicted the tight oil US “miracle” ??
      It’s not like horizontal drilling and (hydraulic) fracturing are (taken separately) new technologies, fracturing dates to the 1860’s, directional drilling dates to at least the 1920’s.
      Meanwhile, experts seem to only have mainly considered tar sands (and other heavy oils) (check), and shale oil (aka kerogen = “uncooked hydrocarbons”) (for which it’s doubtful that it will ever become economically viable, and if it does, at what price??).

      And even if we DO get yet another “miracle” similar to tight oil… what will be the cost to the economy and the environment (both local and global) ?!?

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  17. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    I wonder whether rain forests will become more of a hot topic now that Brazil has a right wing government– not just that there might be more destruction, but that bad behavior by a right wing government gets more attention.

  18. I can’t reply to the replies to my replies, up above, which I assume is a feature around here rather than a bug. So i’ll give it a try here.

    “The knocking-down dams thing seems like it might make some environmental issues better, but if they’re generating hydropower, that’s an extremely cheap source of CO2-free power.”

    The overwhelming majority of river dams in the US either were never for the purpose of hydropower or no longer perform that function; for obvious reasons that particular usage only really works in certain parts of the country. You can download American Rivers’ Excel running list of removals from their website; almost all of the dams that have been removed were providing either zero or trivial amounts of hydropower. There are more than enough more such non-hydropower dams left to keep the Army Corps busy for decades to come.

    Meanwhile it’s worth keeping in mind that while hydropower dams are cheap to operate (no fuel cost), they are not at all cheap to build in the first place at scale and they do have a certain lifespan just like any other type of infrastructure. The Klamath River removals are actually being subsidized by the power company because those huge dams are old and creaky and the power company penciled it out: the company is better off paying $200M towards the removals than a much larger amount to repair/replace those dams.

    “But [the dams being removed] aren’t where the critical biodiversity diversity is.” This is a strange statement…I just ran it past the PhD ecologist who heads our project team and he looked at me like I was smoking something. (He’s a Pacific Coast guy by training, grew up in the Adirondacks, now works in the Midwest.) He did offer one quick conceptual point: “What matters for the total ecological benefit of removing a dam isn’t just how much water flow is being freed at that point but how much of that river’s length is. Taking out a dam that is 50 miles above the next dam can help a lot more species a lot more than taking out a bigger dam that is 5 miles above the next one.”

    “The ongoing creation of the Oldsted Dam on the Ohio River will be directly responsible for the extinction of at least one freshwater mussel species.” True, sadly. You’re preaching to the choir right here about what we’ve done to our Great Rivers complex (the Mississippi/Missouri/Illinois/Ohio system). What’s most aggravating today is that it doesn’t even make pure-economics sense anymore: as a freight-shipping mode that system is now ridiculous, couldn’t even operate without massive irrational public subsidies. [The Olmsted boondoggle is admittedly incremental, the Ohio has been dammed at that spot for a long time, but that doesn’t change the overall point.]

    “Tennessee River, Cumberland River, Ohio River, and Duck River, no dams removed” — patience my friend, some smart and energetic people are working on that. In the grand scheme this whole concept is still pretty new…the general strategy is to do a bunch of smaller tributaries first, getting people and governments used to the idea and happy with the results, and work it on up to the main streams. It’ll take a long time in your area if successful but that’s often how worthwhile stuff gets done.
    https://www.cumberlandrivercompact.org/our-work/dam-removal/
    http://www.harpethconservancy.org/programs/restoration/dam
    https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/tennessee/stories-in-tennessee/dam-removal-opens-up-roaring-river/

    “I’m glad that whatever state you live in has solved the [roadside] herbicide issue. I can assure you that the states of Kentucky and Tennessee have not.” I’m in the Midwest, that’s why I wrote “in the tallgrass prairie region.” The shift on this topic in our big flat states has been (is being) quite remarkable; the monarch butterfly is now kind of the charismatic megafauna on this point. Our state DOT’s now actually brag to each other about how much new monarch habitat they are creating by not herbiciding their ROWs and by mowing much less.

    Same general comment regarding invasive plants, except that I know the Midwest is far from the only region where a lot has been learned and is being practiced on that front. In our region, and a lot of the West and also places like the long-leaf pine region to your southeast, one brilliant tool for this is prescribed fire: it burns out a lot of invasives but our natives are adapted for it. Until pretty recently prescribed burning was basically only on public and land-trust lands but now we have private landowners hiring contractors to do it. And hence that native-plants-contracting sector is growing by leaps and bounds: Cardno JFNew, Applied Ecological Services, Aramark, Pizzo, etc.

    • liate says:

      I can’t reply to the replies to my replies, up above, which I assume is a feature around here rather than a bug. So i’ll give it a try here.

      It’s a limitation of wordpress comments. (I assume to make sure that comments don’t become unreadable thin?) The normal workaround is to just continue replying to the parent comment, possibly with “@[username]” at the start.

      (Also, blockquotes make long quotes easier to read; you can use the quote button below comment composition box, or just put the quote inside <blockquote> tags)

    • aimward says:

      Well, then, here’s a question. Many of the dams (setting aside that they were built during the 30s-40s-50s depression/WWII/etc infrastructure/spending cycles) were intended for controlling the spring floods. These floods were a significant part of the rural environment decades ago, which have largely disappeared in the popular consciousness precisely because the flood cycle was, at least partially, now managed by the Corps of Engineers.
      Have the dam-busters missed this part of the risk factor associated with removing these systems? Or have I just missed where it’s being discussed? Because I definitely see no parallel efforts aimed at mitigating this risk as the hydro-flow control systems are (intended to be) removed.

      • The Nybbler says:

        Have the dam-busters missed this part of the risk factor associated with removing these systems?

        No, bringing back the spring floods is one of the desired results.

  19. panome says:

    Hmm, I think (as one would expect) at least some of what’s relevant today varies by country.

    I live in Australia, and we are very aware that life depends on water. (Those articles I’m sure people have been reading about the Johannesburg water restrictions? We never had water restrictions to that extreme, but things like hosing down a driveway or a car are ones I associate with movies. You don’t do that here. I remember seeing “if it’s yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown, flush it down” at a friend’s place in the millennium drought; 3min showers, all that.)

    As such, the environmental issues you see in the paper or on bumper stickers that *aren’t* climate change are about water. Coal seam gas and fracking are protested not because of climate change, but because of the concern they’ll pollute the groundwater. Similarly, every so often you see a terrifying map of the Great Artesian Basin — the groundwater that allows for farming in dry parts of eastern Australia — and how fast we’re going through it.

    This is one resource issue that isn’t going away, and that climate change is making worse. It’s been a decade since the drought broke (there’s another one, but that’s only affecting rural areas) and, as you say, you don’t see nearly as much about it anymore. I find it rather terrifying.

    • aimward says:

      It’s amazing what people can get used to, when it happens slowly. When I was a kid, the big thing in the San Antonio Texas area was that their water rights were insufficient; the long time residents were complaining that they were forced onto water rationing every summer. (Specifically, the gripe that made the papers was that commercial carwashes were forced to shut down in July/August; not being able to water lawns was the real complaint.)

      The population then (approx 1990) was on the order of 200k in the city limits, 1000k in the broader area. Current metro population for San Antonio is of order 2500k; water rationing is now ubiquitous every year, and it makes almost no news at all (don’t live there currently, locals might have a slightly different view of this in terms of local news coverage).

      To top it off, the Texas state surveys at the time indicated that the San Antonio water rights could only support, sustainably, approximately 1500k total in the San Antonio metro area. Needless to say, that’s a memory long gone; the San Antonio-Austin-Dallas corridor and its growth has completely overwhelmed any sustainability plans in place (and there actually were plans in place at the state level, there’s just no way to do anything other than accommodate the influx that actually happened and hope for breathing room at some point).

      • panome says:

        Huh, that’s interesting. Yeah, it’s amazing how quickly people adjust to the status quo, especially if it can be publically seen that there’s not really another choice. With Sydney, it wasn’t so much about water rights as just the dam is at 30% and going down. Sydney built desal plants right as the drought broke, and I’ll be fascinated to see whether they get used next time!

        Just anecdotally, it seems that it’s the variance/perceived unfairness that stops people from adjusting. I’m thinking of, for example, the increased congestion in Australia’s capital cities (more people = more cars). I read a really interesting study showing that the average commute times have increased, but only by say 4min. What *has* massively increased is the variance. A particular trip might take twice as long as usual once a fortnight, which really frustrates people.

        On a similar line, but with water, there’s still a lot of argument and conflict about the allocation of water in the Murray-Darling basin across the states and the towns within them (as well as to the environment, but not much goes to that). Just a guess, but I feel like it might be how much it varies year to year, and the perceived disparities between different towns and states. Versus say city-wide water restrictions that are the same for millions of people.

  20. Hoopdawg says:

    I don’t know about peak oil. Global EROEI is falling fast, in large part due to falling fossil fuel extraction efficiency. Fracking really doesn’t help, it’s really poor in that aspect; bio-fuels are even worse. If anything, more and more people are getting more and more convinced that not just the oil industry, but the whole economy may be screwed.

    The paradigm shift observable right now is the push to hybrid/electric cars, consistent with industry itself deciding oil should probably be phased out before our dependency on it really starts dragging us down.

  21. ajfirecracker says:

    Before you credit the Clean Air Act of 1963 with current environmental success, you should look at the trend line pre-1963. It was already going down at a similar rate to the post-63 reduction in pollutants.

    See this EPA report showing that the trend in the 1960s was no better than the trend in the 40s and 50s: https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2017-11/documents/trends_report_1971_v1.pdf

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I never know what to think of this kind of argument.

      The Gods of Straight Lines are good at what they do, but they work through mortals. Does Moore’s Law mean that any given transistor scientist making a great discovery doesn’t deserve credit, because Moore’s Law shows transistors were on track to decline even before the discovery was made? Or is the trend working through that scientist, who still deserves 100% of the credit for the amount their discovery contributed to miniaturization?

      • ajfirecracker says:

        That’s a fair point – maybe the EPA was just another regulatory body in a growing field of regulatory bodies

        My perception is that there was relatively little regulation of air and water prior to the EPA and the reduction was mostly the result of technological progress and increased standards of living (trends which continued independently of the EPA)

        If your perception was that pre-EPA environmental regulation was widespread, I think that’s wrong but it would explain why you wouldn’t be bothered by seeing that the EPA had no impact on the trend

  22. zmazlish says:

    First time commenting and I haven’t taken the time to read through other comments so someone else probably already said this, but isn’t one plausible theory for declining interest in environmental issues just that other more controversial political issues have cropped up? Relative to the last 18 years the 90’s were probably a little less politically tumultuous. Slight shifts in attention to 9/11, the Iraq war, and culture wars/polarization of last 10 years might have all sucked more attention, creating a relative gap in coverage for environmental issues. In this way environmental issues like “save the rainforest” can almost be seen as a “luxury good.” Just as people only start caring about the precise origin of their Coffee beans at a sufficient level of wealth maybe people only devote attention to certain environmental issues when everything else around them is a sufficient level of not gone-to-shit.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Why should there be more controversial political issues now than the 90s?

      • Tatterdemalion says:

        Two obvious plausible answers are “random chance” – some eras are more politically heated than others, and there may not be a simple explanation – and “the rise of the internet, especially internet 2.0”, which changed how people interact with and relate to one another and to politics.

        I have no idea if either is correct, and can’t see an obvious way to test either without running some control versions of the last two decades through the Matrix, but I don’t think either is easily disprovable or obviously wrong.

        • One other possible answer is the collapse of the Soviet Union. As long as it looked as though there was an enemy threatening our existence, people had some incentive to get along. There has been some attempt to use Islam as a substitute but it’s not nearly as convincing, due to the lack of ICBM’s and warheads.

          • Aapje says:

            @DavidFriedman

            Indeed, for example, there was more of an incentive by rich and powerful to sacrifice for the rest of society, out of fear of getting gulaged.

            With the ‘end of history,’ this became less of a concern.

      • Jacobethan says:

        Isn’t “The Toxoplasma of Rage” supposed to be an attempt at modeling exactly that?

        People talk about the shift from old print-based journalism to the new world of social media and the sites adapted to serve it. These are fast, responsive, and only just beginning to discover the power of controversy. They are memetic evolution shot into hyperdrive, and the omega point is a well-tuned machine optimized to search the world for the most controversial and counterproductive issues, then make sure no one can talk about anything else.

        And

        Lost is the ability to agree on simple things like fighting factory farming or rape. Lost is the ability to even talk about the things we all want. Ending corporate welfare. Ungerrymandering political districts. Defrocking pedophile priests. Stopping prison rape. Punishing government corruption and waste. Feeding starving children. Simplifying the tax code.

        Put into that frame, one might speculate that the “90s environmentalist” issues are relatively much closer to being “things we all want,” and in that sense progressively less able to command attention.

  23. esrogs says:

    reductions achieved under Title IV from power plants are not recognized as insufficient to achieve full recovery

    Was “not recognized as insufficient” supposed to read “not recognized as sufficient”?

  24. Basil Elton says:

    The second before the last paragraph doesn’t sound absurd at all if one recalls all those nuclear arsenals and the MAD equilibrium. They are still in place, ready to fire, yet none talks about them apparently just because they kind of fell out of style.

  25. Worley says:

    A bunch of unrelated observations:

    One factor may be this change in the US economy over the past 20 years: Environmental fixes often have the question, “Can we afford this?” That makes sense as a legitimate policy question, and is often a bedrock of arguments against whatever environmental policy is being advocated. But what changed in 2000 is that China entered the world economy. Suddenly, industry could easily move to a place where environmental regulation was a lot weaker. Now that was probably not so important as the fact that labor was much cheaper in China, but environmental regulation falls particularly heavily on industry. And the workers who have been displaced by the decline of US manufacturing are now a substantial voting bloc, and they’re probably affecting the tenor of public discourse. It’s one thing to say “To get rid of the smog, you (and everyone else) will have to pay $500 more for your auto” and “If we try to get rid of the smog, your job will go to Shanghai (but not the jobs of the environmentally-conscious citizens pushing to eliminate smog).”

    Bjorn Lomborg published “The Skeptical Environmentalist” in 2000. It surveyed 40 or so environmental problems, and noted that most of them were either overstated or in the process of being mitigated. That book may have influenced the discussion significantly.

    There has always been a noticeable faction that has been very pessimistic that not only global capitalism, but any form of industrialized life is a corruption of humanity and will destroy the earth. Once you start looking for it, you’ll notice bits of it in lots of places. But the skeptical parts of the public can spot it too, and it makes them distrustful.

  26. Jaskologist says:

    A lot of the credit goes to the Clean Air Act, passed in 1963 and tightened in 1990. Along with its more visible (pun intended) effects, scientists suspect it has prevented about 200,000 deaths from lung disease and a host of other cases of asthma, bronchitis, and even heart attacks.

    I’ve been hanging around here too long, because my first thought reading that was “only 200k in 55 years? That seems like a really low return!” How much did that cost us?

    And now I want an EA analysis of the benefits of repealing the Clean Air Act and spending that money on bed nets instead.

    • Mark V Anderson says:

      Now that’s something that never occurred to me! Good point. Although I think that 200k is very conservative in counting the benefits of lowering the levels of smog. As Scott says, helping asthma, bronchitis, etc., and truthfully there is a benefit to person in the country who breathes cleaner air. The benefit is a lot more than lowering deaths.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      It’s 200k lives per year (but much more complicated than that).
      It’s also not the effect of the 1963 clean air act, but of the 1990 extension, which surely has diminishing returns. It’s ramping up linearly 1990-2020.

      • It’s 200k lives per year

        That isn’t what the quote says. It’s wording was:

        Along with its more visible (pun intended) effects, scientists suspect it has prevented about 200,000 deaths from lung disease and a host of other cases of asthma, bronchitis, and even heart attacks.

        Do you have a source that puts it as lives per year?

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Yes, I followed the citations to the source.

          What other possible interpretation is there of my comment?

          • Ghillie Dhu says:

            What other possible interpretation is there of my comment?

            That you had read the quote in Scott’s OP and misinterpreted it (these comment sections are chock full of examples of people doing just that); to my eyes, the raw text supports @DavidFriedman’s reading, so his request for clarification seems in good faith & your response seems needlessly confrontational.

            ETA: I found the table excerpted in the Wikipedia article on page 5-25 of the cited report.

  27. Mike K says:

    Right. Taking environmental concerns seriously means restricting immigration into developed countries and population control in Africa. Overton window moved past those a while ago.

  28. Irein says:

    This post makes an excellent compliment to Richard Powers’ The Overstory, a novel about trees and activists trying to save them.

  29. Markus Karner says:

    The same thing happened to socialism as a solution to solve world poverty. As neoliberalism slowly took over the world in the 90s and lifted entire continents out of poverty, people gradually stopped talking about socialism as the solution. But it wasn’t a well-reflected shift of opinion, out of analysis of the situation, and newly-found conviction that capitalism actually works, yes, including the occasional crisis. As a result, once the next occasional crisis of capitalism hit in 2008, all the old convictions and false remedies came back in fashion, with Sanders and Corbyn in the US and UK for example, but just as quickly, morphing into nationalistic socialism = right wing populism, just like it did in many countries int he 1920’s and ’30s.

    People as a rule just don’t think their opinions through. They contract them like a disease, socially, and then they keep them more or less forever, in a latent stage.

    • cassander says:

      I believe the original quote is from Max Planck, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”, which has been more succinctly summarized as “science advances one funeral at a time.”

    • Worley says:

      To someone who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, when the UK was actually socialist (in regard to a number of heavy industries), I find it bizarre that people can now claim to be “socialists” who merely advocate a generous welfare state … and far-left people will accept that claim. I take this as the final demise of socialism in the true, 19th century sense.

      • Markus Karner says:

        There is some truth to this, and beyond the UK, as hardly any industry remains nationalised these days in Western industrialized countries. The total tax burdens as government spending viz. GDP have not gone down however, and in most cases, have gone up. Right now they’re about 50% in Europe, 40-ish in the US, and rising. This, even though top marginal tax rates have generally come down.
        Edit – generally there was a downward trend in many countries from the 80s to 2008, since then reversed.

        So, while government ownership of the means of production is low now, government control over people’s incomes is at very high levels. Yet, people talk of “austerity” and how governments are “failing to do enough” (i.e. take away even higher proportions of income), even, of all countries, in France (yellow vest protests) where government spends a whopping 55% of GDP. Also, I recall that Corbyn does intend to re-nationalise industry.

      • cassander says:

        In the mid century, socialists wanted to nationalize the commanding heights, like the steel, auto, and chemical industries. Today socialists want to nationalize medicine, finance, and education, which are the commanding heights of the modern economy. The UK, due to some unique constitutional arrangements, managed to go further along the early type socialism than most, and some of that was reversed (for the same reason), but that doesn’t mean socialism is dead. the The basic impulse hasn’t changed, just the precise targets.

  30. The only good news is that all those “rainforests will be gone by 2050” posters were just wrong

    I think this is an example of a more general explanation of your initial puzzle. Whether or not a problem is real, the partisans greatly exaggerate it. Eventually the future arrives, the catastrophe that was supposed to have happened by now obviously hasn’t, so people switch to a new exaggerated catastrophe. How can rain forests vanishing in three hundred years compete with hundreds of millions of climate refugees in just another twenty or thirty?

    • Deiseach says:

      Whether or not a problem is real, the partisans greatly exaggerate it.

      Which is the entire crying wolf problem. I can read one more online screed about how climate change deniers are a bunch of science-hating superstitious rich white polluting colonialist selfish denialists who have an entire agenda around hating everyone not like themselves, and we only have five/ten years to save the world before it is too late, but I won’t believe it because I, and a lot of other people, grew up while six different environmental disasters were being described in the same terms and would inevitably kill us all dead, and yet here we still are.

      People get cynical because of the overuse of “the sky is falling” to drive the general public to do things, and that makes the True Believers* and activists double-down on even more extreme “the sky is falling” to overcome the ennui, and that in turn makes people even more cynical, and so the wheel turns.

      *Your eight year old or younger kids aren’t sufficiently scared about climate change? Here’s how to encourage them to read up on it and be terrified they’re going to die in the next decade develop a passion to save the planet!

      You’re not sure how to start the conversation with your children about climate change? That’s fine! First, you have to consider the age of your kids, if they are below eight years old, it’s advisable to show them a climate change children’s books and aim to strengthen their relationship with the environment by telling the how awesome the planet is.

      And then you get the out-there folks like this guy who believes very fervently in climate change, to the point that he has an entire belief system constructed around “hurricanes and tropical storms are artifically created in a desperate attempt to cool the US while the planet is burning”. This is what happens when you take it way, way too seriously.

  31. sscta says:

    > The closest I can find to a justification is this WWF page, which reminds us that if there are 100 million animals species, and “the extinction rate is just 0.01% per year”, then at least 10,000 species go extinct every year (=200-300/day) – but all of these numbers are completely made up.

    Seems like a very similar argument is made by proponents of AI risk.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      …no it doesn’t. Or at least if it does, you’re going to have to explain what you mean.

  32. gillenandrew says:

    I created a webtool relevant to point #6 on peak resources. It allows the user to examine different time periods (from 1960-2018) and resource bundles (around 70 resources). You can find the webtool at: https://andrewjgillen.shinyapps.io/resourceprice/

    I was solidly in the pro-Simon camp prior to creating the tool, and created the tool in part to see if the pro-Ehrlich folks were cherry picking in claiming he would have won if X… After creating the tool and looking at the historical record for different resource bundles and time periods, I still lean towards the Simon camp in general, but am much more sympathetic to the Ehrlich camp than I was before, as it it extremely easy to find resource bundles and time periods for which Ehrlich would have won.

    • quanta413 says:

      Thanks! Cool tool. You can see the economic crash in the prices of a lot of energy sources and materials in 07-08. (At least I don’t know what else that would be). And in some foods it looks like you can see what might be seasonal trends. Like in U.S. banana prices.

    • bonewah says:

      Im not sure exactly what you mean by pro-Simon or pro-Ehrlich camp, but its worth noting that Simon was pushing back against Ehrlich’s claim of global Armageddon, not minor price changes. The point of Simon’s bet was that not only was there not going to be total ecological disaster, but things wouldn’t even be worse then they were at the time.

      Even if tungsten, for instance, were more expensive when the bet concluded Ehrlich’s claims of total resource depletion would have still been laughably false.

      • gillenandrew says:

        Good point bonewah, this bet was a small part of both of their bigger points. I was only referring to this slice part related to changes in resource prices. Given the failure of Ehrlich’s global catastrophe predictions to come to fruition, I think Simon is clearly the winner in the big picture sense. But I also think Simon’s win on the big picture and for their historical bet resulted in me leaning too much in the cornucopian direction. Those lopsided wins by Simon left me overly confident that resource prices weren’t increasing, but after creating the tool, I saw that wasn’t consistently the case. So a better way of saying it is that I’m still pro-Simon on the big picture, but pretty agnostic on changes in resource prices.

    • mobile says:

      > it is extremely easy to find resource bundles and time periods for which Ehrlich would have won.

      This gives way too much credit to Ehrlich. Ehrlich and Simon were not commodities market analysts arguing about how to time the market. They were towering intellectuals making bold predictions about the future of humanity, and commodity prices were just a proxy for human welfare. The substance of the bet was more like “will any resource prices reach sustained levels that will result in net human misery”, and there are not many resource bundles or time periods where Ehrlich could win that bet.

      There would not have even been an Ehrlich camp but for the historically high resource prices of the 70s that Ehrlich extrapolated to a dystopian future of scarcity and intense competition. So it’s hardly as simple as saying Ehrlich just picked an unlucky time to make the bet.

    • ChrisA says:

      Andrew
      The timing of the bet was not random, there had been a ramp up in prices which Erlich claimed was due to the imminent shortage, Simon’s view was that this was simply another commodity cycle which occurs all the time when market predictions of demand are below actual demand. The bet would never have been offered if the commodity cycle had been at the bottom.

  33. wanda_tinasky says:

    Random confounding possibility: the 90’s, if my math is correct, immediately followed the 80’s, and the 80’s saw little Ronnie the Hafling (with his trusted companion Georgewise) march into Moscow and cast the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom, crumbling the foundations of Barad-dur and the Berlin Wall alike. With no more Balrogs of Communism left to haunt the dreams of the Western World, could it be that 90’s environmentalism was just displaced Cold War anxiety? We were so used to contemplating global armageddon that we couldn’t just go cold turkey when the Soviets went tits up.

    Kind of makes me wonder what neoliberalism was like in Gondor under the reign of Aragorn I. Did college students chain themselves to Ents? Did anyone try to burn down the Grey Havens in order to preserve the dwindling elvish resources?

    • Deiseach says:

      Kind of makes me wonder what neoliberalism was like in Gondor under the reign of Aragorn I. Did college students chain themselves to Ents? Did anyone try to burn down the Grey Havens in order to preserve the dwindling elvish resources?

      According to Tolkien, the Entwives were dead (from a letter of 1954) :

      I think that in fact the Entwives had disappeared for good, being destroyed with their gardens in the War of the Last Alliance (Second Age 3429-3441) when Sauron pursued a scorched earth policy and burned their land against the advance of the Allies down the Anduin (vol. II p. 79 refers to it). They survived only in the ‘agriculture’ transmitted to Men (and Hobbits). Some, of course, may have fled east, or even have become enslaved: tyrants even in such tales must have an economic and agricultural background to their soldiers and metal-workers. If any survived so, they would indeed be far estranged from the Ents, and any rapprochement would be difficult – unless experience of industrialized and militarized agriculture had made them a little more anarchic. I hope so. I don’t know.

      Did the Ents ever find the Entwives? Letter of 1972:

      As for the Entwives: I do not know. I have written nothing beyond the first few years of the Fourth Age. …But I think in Vol. II pp. 80-811 it is plain that there would be for Ents no re-union in ‘history’ — but Ents and their wives being rational creatures would find some ‘earthly paradise’ until the end of this world: beyond which the wisdom neither of Elves nor Ents could see.

      And even in the reign of Aragorn’s son, while there may not have been burning down the Havens, there was plenty of pointless adolescent destructiveness:

      (from a letter of 1964)
      I found that even so early there was an outcrop of revolutionary plots, about a centre of secret Satanistic religion; while Gondorian boys were playing at being Orcs and going round doing damage.

      (from a letter of 1972)

      Except the beginning of a tale supposed to refer to the end of the reign of Eldaron about 100 years after the death of Aragorn. Then I of course discovered that the King’s Peace would contain no tales worth recounting; and his wars would have little interest after the overthrow of Sauron; but that almost certainly a restlessness would appear about then, owing to the (it seems) inevitable boredom of Men with the good: there would be secret societies practising dark cults, and ‘orc-cults’ among adolescents.

    • Witness says:

      could it be that 90’s environmentalism was just displaced Cold War anxiety?

      Seems plausible to me. Growing up in the 80s and 90s we had all flavors of apocalyptic and post-apocalytic dystopias to fuel our entertainment. Strains of it still survive, but it doesn’t permeate the landscape the way it used to.

  34. PlatoReject says:

    I think a major component of what you are talking about is a general paradigm shift (at least on the left) in how we think about the individual’s relationship to whatever the excesses are of industrial capitalism. In the 90s, people believed on some level that coordinated individual action on the level of “sorting out your plastics from your paper products” could somehow be enough to thwart major environmental and industrial trends. There was always a steady supply of humor mined at this mindset’s expense, probably from the same people who laugh whenever someone says “every vote counts.” But as people have become more educated about the scale of climate change, and also generally more hostile towards corporations for reasons that have less to do with environmentalism and more to due with their understanding of economics, the attitude has changed. I have seen a lot of debates crop up on places like Tumblr and Facebook around banning plastic straws, or reducing your carbon footprint, and the winning comment is always something like “you could give up driving for the rest of your life and the Koch brothers will still murder the planet with their factories, only when power is wrested from the .1% will we ever have a true shot at utopia, TLDR; seize the means of production.” I’m sure your mileage may vary on how rational a shift in thinking this is, but it is definitely a sizeable shift. I’m in my late 20s, and I can comfortably say that most people in my generation have completely given up on the idea that individuals can really fix anything they perceive as broken in society through altering their habits, and that nothing other than a massive political and economic re-alignment somewhere between democratic socialism and the October Revolution can do the trick. Now why no one has made a public school video that says that… *shrugs*

    • reasoned argumentation says:

      I’m in my late 20s, and I can comfortably say that most people in my generation have completely given up on the idea that individuals can really fix anything they perceive as broken in society through altering their habits, and that nothing other than a massive political and economic re-alignment somewhere between democratic socialism and the October Revolution can do the trick.

      Well they are half right and this actually strikes me as less power seeking than most environmentalism in a way because the mismatch between the goals and means isn’t there. As an example, banning incandescent bulbs is petty power seeking specifically because shifting away from them saves a rounding error in energy consumption and energy is subject to the price mechanism anyway meaning people are naturally incentivized to use less and if you force less use to light homes then you simply depress the price by that much and overall energy consumption remains nearly unchanged. Policy does nothing but inconvenience people for no gain? Pure petty power seeking. Stopping all economic activity would be disastrous but it has the virtue of actually making a dent in “energy use” if you’re concerned about that.

      • cassander says:

        I think a modification of the bootlegger and baptist explanation is valuable here. most people voting for light bulb bans aren’t trying to seek power, but they are trying to feel virtuous and the ban is a, to them, costless (or at least cost invisible) way of doing so.

      • Guy in TN says:

        if you force less use to light homes then you simply depress the price by that much and overall energy consumption remains nearly unchanged.

        This is just conjecture. There’s no economic law that says “for every dollar of savings in one area, spending will rise by the same amount in another”.

    • Jacobethan says:

      I’m sure you’re right about some such shift taking place. But the issues that have most conspicuously faded from the discourse while persisting in fact are things like deforestation and species loss, and I don’t think anybody ever thought of those as a matter of fixing individual consumption habits in the developed world. They’re more land use and property rights issues of the kind that are classically open to direct state action.

      Put another way, if everybody really is going back to playing old-school revolutionaries, “re-allocate rights to natural resource exploitation” is sort of like the first thing you’re supposed to try out to get into the character.

      • PlatoReject says:

        I think you are under-estimating how irrational the outlook really was. I mean, I distinctly remember people coming to my school and literally singing and dancing to raise money for a charity that would just tag along behind the bulldozers and replant trees in the rainforest (South Park even did a parody episode of this, IIRC). I think its telling that in the old Captain Planet cartoon, the multi-ethnic teenagers raise a Superman-like being who trashes whatever particular plot the evil corporatists have launched, but never actually just dismantles their entire power structure. Despite all the obvious problems, the mainstream outlook in the 90s was just way too free-market friendly for that kind of anti-business messaging. Ethical consumption under capitalism wasn’t yet a mainstream concept, but I think that’s because it was just considered the default, rather than the exception. However, I admit I’m extrapolating a lot from my own memories and sense of how things have changed.

  35. conradical says:

    If you view these issues as an isolated system, perhaps the postmodern interpretation seems appealing. But what else correlates with these trends?

    How would you describe the general economic sentiment of average America during the 80s and 90s?

    In the context of that answer, what sort of trend lines might be drawn about growth and consumption? How might those trend lines concern the kinds of people predisposed to “societal concern”. More broadly: where does “societal concern” rank on Maslowe’s Hierarchy of needs?

    And how would you describe the general economic sentiment of average America in a post-2007 world?

    In the context of that answer, is environmentalism and sustainability likely to achieve cultural resonance? Even the most uneducated of Americans today is aware that all of the pollution is coming out of China & other industrializing nations…

    Of course it is. All that pollution is a byproduct of industrial activity which is no longer happening in America on any appreciable scale.

    • albatross11 says:

      The US has a very large industrial output–the second highest in the world, after China. (We’re the third highest if you count the whole EU as one country, but maybe that will go back the other way after Brexit.)

      This chart shows US industrial output over time. Note that it has continued to grow over time, albeit with some big drops during recessions.

  36. fnord says:

    That particular commodity index is like 70% oil and oil products, so it’s probably duplicative of the oil prices discussed earlier and not particularly informative about other resources.

    That said, I don’t think it really changes the bottom line.

  37. eigenmoon says:

    I second the previous comment about Google Trends.

    They do not agree with the Gallup polls which show no significant change from 2004. Maybe only the minimums of the annual cycle should be counted?

  38. doubleunplussed says:

    For what it’s worth, I am sceptical of using Google Trends on this timescale for these topics.

    Basically, as a percentage of all searches, specialised, technical topics and things taught about in schools have been dropping over the last decade or so as the internet has increasingly been used for less specialised and less academic purposes. This does not imply they are decreasing in popularity, it just means more ‘normies’ are using the internet than in the past.

    For example, search for academic topics like “chemistry”, “engineering”, “literature”, they all show a long-term downward trend to some extent, even though presumably interest in these topics is the same as it always has been. I think that’s all we’re seeing with most of the environmental stuff.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      That doesn’t seem true, see the last section of the linked Google Trends article.

      • doubleunplussed says:

        Good that you looked into the idea, but I find your results unconvincing. Mainly for the reason outlined in the comments of that post: that many of the increasing trends are actually fairly introductory stuff and so have risen as high-schoolers have been using the internet more for their classwork. If you get super technical (but not so specific that there is not much data), I continue to see downward trends for pretty much everything.

        Pretty much all physics theories are dropping:

        General relativity, special relativity, electromagnetism, thermodynamics (only slightly down), quantum mechanics, optics, atomic physics.

        In computer programming, Python is rising because the language is actually becoming more popular, but you’ll notice it was dropping before 2008! I doubt the language was ever decreasing in popularity.
        “gcc” the GNU C compiler has plummeted in trends-popularity, despite having basically the same status as always. “Linux” has dropped dramatically, to 10% of its former highs, despite being more popular and widespread than ever as far as I know. “Ubuntu” has a rise and then a significant fall (the rise is because it didn’t exist before 2004!), and it is also more popular than ever as far as I know, so that fall is unexpected if it’s measuring real popularity devoid of normie effects.

        This isn’t a biased list, I’ve included every example that I searched for whilst writing this comment.

        How about some mathematics? Better be college-level.

        “Linear algebra”, ok, that one is basically constant (with semester sawtooths). Interesting. “Complex analysis” is down, so is “differential geometry”. “fundamental theorem of calculus” is up. Huh, maths seems to not follow the trend as well. Maybe calculus and linear algebra have risen with like, machine learning interest? Or are taught in high schools in the US? I did plenty of calculus in high school but we didn’t talk about the fundamental theorem (by name) until real analysis or something like that.

        Ok, what’s something else really nerdy. Electronics? “CMOS” is way down. “Impedance” is down.

        I’m less familiar with social sciences/arts, but since this post is about environmentalism it would be good to show if they have the same trend. “phonetics” is down. “international politics” is down. “feminism” was going down but increased since 2011 or so. Hm, this coincides with my preferred start date of the current culture war (elevatorgate). Maybe this is an academic decline combined with a real increase in popularity. “gender studies” is similarly slightly down then up. “globalisation” is down. “international relations” is down. “public health” is down. “anthropology” is down.

        Yeah, I think it’s a pretty clear picture.

        • Bugmaster says:

          It could be that interest in scientific/technical/scholarly topics is dropping across the board, as people are becoming less interested. Is there a way to correlate these trends with e.g. college admissions into the related majors ?

          • doubleunplussed says:

            Searches for “Arts degree”, “Science degree” and “Engineering degree” are all going up, so that might indicate popularity is going up rather than down. Of course this is also something likely to be searched for by young people going into college, who are more likely to be using the internet to do it than in 2004, so it increasing over time is also consistent with the great-internet-normification theory even if the popularity is constant.

            This article says the number of STEM degrees are increasing over the last decade faster than non-STEM degrees.

  39. Cerastes says:

    For the endangered species section, I think you’ve got a lot of things wrong, enough that it could require revision, IMHO.

    First, while there is likely some “alarmism” in the highest rates, the general idea is that we’re not only losing known species, but also unknown and barely known species, especially when you consider invertebrates. Remember, vertebrates are a TINY fraction of the ecosystem – most global nutrient flow and ecosystem function comes from inverts, and best estimates are than >2/3rds of these remain undescribed. Many are known only from a few specimens, so while officially described, it’s very hard to figure out their status – they could be extinct, hiding, locally extirpated, or even migratory (I know of at least one species of oceanic snake which is almost totally unknown, but is thought to exist in large numbers in one or more migratory/drifting population). TLDR – we’re probably missing most extinctions

    Second, while some species have large ranges, other have very small ranges, especially small species which don’t fly, migrate, or broadcast-spawn. For your rainforest-loss example, while it works that way for some, others are restricted to a small patch of forest, unable to leave due to constraints often not obvious (soil chemistry, accessible breeding sites, lack of a symbiote) or just due to competition from others. Part of why the Amazon is so hyper-diverse is that it went through multiple cycles of drying and wetting, in which the rainforest receded to some isolated refugia where populations speciated, followed by recovery in which these species either spread or remained tied to their now-invisible ancestral borders.

    Third, extinction is hard to detect, as in the standard “There are no white ravens” example from intro philosophy. I know that there’s going to be a big uptick in numbers soon because of a lot of frogs which have (probably) gone extinct due to Chytrid fungus (our fault due to introducing a carrier species), but we can’t officially declare them extinct for another 10 years or so. They’re all almost certainly dead, but policy dictates we give time in case some turn up. So there’s always a 10+ year lag in extinctions.

    Fourth, “extinct” doesn’t tell the whole story. We’ve gotten very attuned to extinction risk, and very good at saving species. “Saving species” opens donor’s wallets. But that’s left a lot of species “extinct in the wild” or “critically endangered”. 33 species are currently “extinct in the wild” (no data on prior levels). From 1998 to 2014, the number of critically endangered animals and plants have tripled, as has the number which are endangered, and vulnerable species have doubled. (http://cmsdocs.s3.amazonaws.com/summarystats/2014_2_Summary_StatsPage_Documents/2014_2_RL_Stats_Table2.pdf) Some of this is due to species previously unassessed being assessed, but that doesn’t explain all of it, and much of this change is “downgrading”. TLDR – we might be better at putting species on life support to prevent death, but we’re still putting more and more in the hospital.

    Fifth, just because species look similar to the uneducated layperson doesn’t mean they really are similar in any meaningful way. Species which appear indistinguishable can have wildly different prey, predators, parasites, ecological roles, and benefits. There are 40,000 species of parasitoid wasps, most almost indistinguishable to the layperson, but each parasitizes a different and unique prey, and loss of any one of them will remove a major population control on whatever it was parasitizing. These can often be crop pests, to the point that some plants have evolved to excrete signal molecules to attract particular wasp species when attacked by a particular insect.

    Sixth, we actually know very little about most species, so we cannot meaningfully predict consequences. We know basically everything about a few species, a lot about several, and nothing about many. This includes common ones. I can take you to almost any park in the US, flip over some logs, and point to a type of snake we didn’t even know was venomous 5 years ago, and for which we’re now trying to see if there are biomedical uses for that venom. (FYI, its harmless to humans). Like most venomous species, every species and even every population likely has different venom composition, with different medical possibilities. But 10 years ago, they were just useless little snakes. I’m less familiar with plants, but the quantity of useful plant-derived medicines is because they evolve these chemicals as ways to communicate, fight pests, compete, and signal, so any plant extinction may be taking unexamined chemicals to the grave – the Pacific Yew was useless 50 years ago, then suddenly it turns out to fight cancer (fortunately, people quickly realized the need to a synthetic form, and figured it out before FDA approval was even done).

    I can’t speak as much to the rest, but this is close to my area of expertise, and I found this section severely lacking.

    • Hoopyfreud says:

      +1 to this.

      The models we’ve developed for most ecological issues are… not always great, but at least they’re usable in the real world. Climate models are a good example; they’re not that accurate, but at least the spread roughly brackets the changes we’re seeing.

      There is nothing a tenth as good as a climate model for ecology, and the magnitude of the ecological changes we’re making is, in many ways, greater than the environmental changes relative to their estimated impact on those systems.

      Just look at the mountain pine beetle infestation; over a million acres of forest dying over the course of twenty years. Millions of dollars of economic loss per year. It’ll take decades to recover, if the forest even does. We don’t even know why it happened (temperature rise is definitely a large part, but there might be confounding effects we have no idea about). We don’t even know if it’s “our fault.” But the forest is dying, despite the money we’re spending to try to save it.

      Ecology is hard. I sincerely believe that humanity does not have the capacity to develop the technology needed to actively stabilize ecological systems before they pass the point of no return. We can only – and I mean only hope that the inputs we are willing and able to bring under control have a connection to that stability. And then we have to wait years to find out if we’re right. And if we’re wrong, it gets harder.

      That scares the shit out of me. Because I love the ecosystems I share this planet with, and I don’t want them to be destroyed. This isn’t just about “saving the X” for me – it’s about saving the complex system that X is a part of. Partly because I think ecologies are beautiful, and partly because I’m scared of losing them.

      New species are not evolving and CANNOT evolve at the rate we’re displacing and threatening them. Ecology is not an economic process – if you change the environment so much and so rapidly that radical new strategies are needed for survival, you don’t get flourishing competition. Instead, almost everything dies. Then, centuries or millennia later, something new comes around.

      • Eponymous says:

        That scares the shit out of me. Because I love the ecosystems I share this planet with, and I don’t want them to be destroyed.

        Except mosquitoes.

      • Cerastes says:

        Precisely, and I also think that it can be hard to really emphasize to many folks just how terrifying these changes are without personal experiences.

        For me, they fall into three incidents, in two categories. The first is “endlings”; every time a species goes extinct, there must have been a time it wasn’t extinct, and also some time when there was just one individual left, the “endling”. I’ve seen two endlings in person in my life, both in the past 10 years – Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island tortoise, and Toughie, the last Rabb’s Fringe-limbed tree frog. Both are now dead, and consequently so are their entire species, lineages that traced back hundreds of thousands of years, and it’s our fault. Literally nothing I could ever say in a blog comment, nor any poem or art, could ever capture what it feels like to stand there and look straight at the very last of a species, the living embodiment of environmental hopelessness. It’s conceptually easy to grasp, but emotionally, it’s impossible to convey.

        The other was doing fieldwork in Guam. One day, we suddenly stopped work because we heard a chirping, and eventually identified it as a small gecko. Then it hit us: We’d spent 3 weeks in a nature preserve on a tropical Pacific island and hadn’t heard a single bird. Utter silence. The only birds we’d even seen were some seabirds and a handful of pigeons near the hotel in Hagatna. The invasive Brown Tree Snake, brought across accidentally during military shipping in WW2, had almost wiped out every bird in the island. I’d known the stats, I knew the snake population density, caught them, etc., but nothing drove it home like that gecko’s chirp in the utter silence of an ecosystem which should have been teeming with birds. That silence was stronger than any statistics.

        This may be part of it. As cities get bigger and populations get more urban, fewer and fewer people develop a solid mental model of what functional ecosystems look like, sound like, smell like. Without that anchor, just looking at words on a screen or numbers in a spreadsheet, it’s not really possible to truly understand.

        • Hoopyfreud says:

          We’d spent 3 weeks in a nature preserve on a tropical Pacific island and hadn’t heard a single bird. Utter silence

          Jesus. I’m doing my best not to start crying at work.

          Thanks for doing the work you do. I hope it helps.

          • Cerastes says:

            Well, I should say I’m not actually involved directly in conservation research, so I can’t really take any credit. I do my best to educate people about the damage invasives can do, but the field is just too depressing.

            I also suspect Guam’s bird life will never get back to the level it was on a human timescale, though it might on an evolutionary one, once the birds evolve to fear and avoid the snakes. Current snake populations exceed 14,000 snakes per square mile, and I’ve never encountered snake densities like that anywhere in the world. Normally a few hours hike might get me a snake or three, in Guam, one hour led to 14 captures, just as many that got away, and one I almost tripped over while catching a different one. And one where the branch I was using to pull down a sapling snapped unexpectedly, turning it into an impromptu snake-a-pult.

        • cryptoshill says:

          After some extensive efforts – birds are starting to come back on Guam! My first trip there, there were none and there were stories about the Brown Tree Snake eating them all. By the time I left the ship, my last trip out there – there were at least a few birds hanging around and not all seagulls.

          • Cerastes says:

            Good to hear! I know they’ve been doubling down on the parachute mice recently, and trapping more.

            For those who don’t know, because snakes hide so well, direct eradication is very difficult. Instead, they use dead mice loaded with Tylenol, which is lethal to snakes. But if they just leave them on the ground, the pigs (also invasive) will eat them and just be pain-free pigs. So they tie little ribbons and parachutes to the dead mice and throw them out of planes over the forest, so they get caught in the trees and only eaten by the snakes.

            One of those things with a solid chain of logic, but a really weird and funny result.

          • Deiseach says:

            But if they just leave them on the ground, the pigs (also invasive) will eat them and just be pain-free pigs.

            Any chance the pigs will eat the snakes? Also, I am laughing at the idea of a pig with a headache taking two mice and calling in the morning if it doesn’t improve 🙂

          • Cerastes says:

            Deiseach: they do, but evidently not enough – pigs predate the snakes, part of the 2nd invasive species wave (3rd wave overall).

            Guam actually has 4 sets of flora/fauna, separated by time and people involved (if any). First were the original colonists, the species which showed up and were present before any humans arrived in Guam (birds, insects, etc.). Second were the species which were deliberately or unintentionally brought by the original Polynesian settlers (chickens, monitor lizards, geckos, etc. Third were the species brought by the original Spanish colonists (pigs, rats, etc.). Finally, there are the species brough via WW2 and subsequent industrial shipping, such as the brown tree snakes.

    • Eponymous says:

      So what are the right numbers to look at? Estimates of total biomass plus some measure of the variability of this biomass? A measure of ecosystem function? Does anyone calculate things like this? Are there standard measures?

      • Hoopyfreud says:

        What’s the best way of calculating the average temperature of the Pacific Ocean when all you have is a bucket and an under-the-tongue thermometer?

        E: to clarify, there are standard measures. All of them are expensive to carry out and only useful in a local ecological regime.

        • Cerastes says:

          +1

          Even physiology is simpler, because at least we can make rules for one species based on broad concepts like “things that are inside should generally stay inside” and “the pump for the red liquid is really important and should function well”.

          Every ecosystem is different, and every ecosystem is constantly changing, and not all change is bad or our fault. But figuring out whether a change is happening, if it’s good or bad, why it’s happening, and how to fix it if it needs fixing are all complex problems which require a lot of time.

          Another key aspect I think is that ecology is very person-hour intensive. Some bits can be automated now (satellite surveys of forest cover, camera traps, etc.), but the bulk of good, solid ecological science means getting up 2 hours before dawn with a horde of grad students and assistants and volunteers and putting in 14 hours of work in the baking sun while hoping nothing eats, poisons, or parasitizes you. Getting more data would solve a lot of problems, but it requires huge amounts of physical work and time.

        • Eponymous says:

          What’s the best way of calculating the average temperature of the Pacific Ocean when all you have is a bucket and an under-the-tongue thermometer?

          Random sampling, plus adjustment for sampling error.

          (i.e. sail around filling your bucket, stick the thermometer in, then try to adjust for temperature gradient with depth)

          E: to clarify, there are standard measures. All of them are expensive to carry out and only useful in a local ecological regime

          Well, there’s the idealized measure (like what are the summary measures you would stick into an ecosystem model), and then there’s how you try to estimate it using limited resources. I’m asking about both.

          • Cerastes says:

            I guess it depends on your question’s specifics. “Am I healthy?” will (for me) give very different answers if you look at my exercise, diet, weight, cholesterol, blood lipids, or stress. And focusing on one will make you miss the others.

            “Ecosystem models” don’t usually try to capture an entire ecosystem, but rather one phenomenon under a limited set of conditions for a few species or one species. Even subtle interactions can have huge effects. To accurately capture an entire ecosystem in silico would require vast data on huge numbers of species. Even if the code was simple, getting the data to prevent “garbage-in, garbage-out” would be a massive undertaking even for a “simple” ecosystem.

          • albatross11 says:

            I don’t think you can do that in a generic way for even a single cell, let alone a whole ecosystem.

  40. PersonOfInterest says:

    But the mapping from real crisis to social panic is tenuous, contingent, and historical. Sometimes random things that shouldn’t matter get magnified into the issue du jour; other times giant world-threatening crises manage to slip everyone’s attention.

    I think the amount of attention/panic vs. importance is directly related to the economic impact. A moratorium on whaling was easy to pass in 1982, but I’m guessing it would have been vastly harder in 1882. In fact, I can imagine Victorian England having the same resistance to “whale population collapse” as we do to global warming. Similarly, Clean Air acts are passed after a country becomes wealthy, and the ban on CFCs was made easier by alternative propellants.

    The same goes for rainforest decline: Much of it happens because of slash-and-burn subsistence farming in developing countries. It’s easy to convince Americans to save old-growth forests, but probably much harder for people with starving children.

  41. Squirrel of Doom says:

    Let’s talk about whales.

    1. If a population is growing by 8%, it doubles every 9 years. Then it doesn’t matter much what level the population starts at, it will fill up the oceans quickly!

    2. That population graph explained things I had never realized. The oceans were crawling with whales before we killed them all. That explains why we could base entire industries on whale oil, even with ancient technology.

    3. I don’t think we can accept a world with whale populations back to the “ocean crawling” levels of the untouched earth. There will come an uncomfortable time when the interests of shipping and fishing will collide more and more with the interests of the exponentially growing whale population, and humanity will not just give up the seas.

    • Cerastes says:

      1. If a population is growing by 8%, it doubles every 9 years. Then it doesn’t matter much what level the population starts at, it will fill up the oceans quickly!

      I think that’s more the imprecision of how they’re reporting that – it’s probably averaged over a long time period, and these things take FOREVER to start reproducing. So if you have a population of 1000 breeding adults that produces 80 offspring, none of those offspring will contribute to the rate of increase for a further decade or so. Your math is right, but I think they just shouldn’t have used that way of phrasing it. Their weird life history might require different math.

      Also, a quarter million blue whales isn’t *really* that many, considering the size of the oceans, nor would they be that big of a problem. Now, ship collisions are a big deal because they’re endangered, but if they’re safe, it’s just sort of something that happens, like ocean roadkill. It won’t really stop shipping or anything.

    • Thomas Jorgensen says:

      (some) whale populations are growing very quickly because the ecological niche they are specialized for is almost entirely empty. Sperm whales likely do not have to look very hard for abyssal squid when there is a tenth as much competition as there used to be, and its not like human fish for abyssal squid, nor do the blue whales face huge competition for the kill harvest. I would expect the population expansion to slow down when closer to historical numbers.

    • peak.singularity says:

      It’s interesting to also look at the fishing of the right whales in the 19th century :
      https://cassandralegacy.blogspot.com/2014/12/the-collapse-of-oil-prices-lessons-from.html
      Even though oil replaced them as a resource for the main uses, they still went nearly extinct towards the end of the 19th century (due to modern, coal-powered, ships), and are still between extinct and endangered today, a century later…

  42. Kyle A Johansen says:

    It seems to me like it is entirely wrong to give the 90s Environmentalists credit where yo give them credit, since the latest ‘act that solved the problem’ was in 1990. So that by the time we really get into the 90s the problem has been, and thus the world did not need you to save it.

  43. Alex Zavoluk says:

    It seems remiss to bring up Ehrlich but not the thing that he’s most well known for, which also might be instructive. Or even better, his intellectual grandfather. I know it pre-dates the 90s, but it’s also in some sense the Ur-Environmental Issue, and the outcome is very very strongly “This was alarmism.”

    (Maybe even more famous than Ehrlich or Malthus is their descendent)

    • nkurz says:

      It’s linked from the Wikipedia article, and I’ve brought it up here once before, but I thought the Erlichs’ 2009 recap of The Population Bomb was worth reading: http://www.populationmedia.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/Population-Bomb-Revisited-Paul-Ehrlich-20096.pdf

      Their conclusion is that the book was mostly right, that the worst part was the badly chosen title, and that growing world population levels are still a major problem to be solved: “We think, with all its warts, The Bomb did exactly what we had hoped – alerted people to the importance of environmental issues and brought human numbers into the debate on the human future.”

      • Salem says:

        The fact that Ehrlich was spectacularly and obviously wrong, at the top of his voice, and has learned nothing from the experience, is indeed the most depressing part of the whole affair. I don’t even think he’s a charlatan, more like stubbornness and ego-preservation.

      • Alex Zavoluk says:

        There’s no reason to think that the Earth can’t support ~10 billion people, particularly if it only has to do so for a short time.

        The best way to avoid any overpopulation issues is to economically develop the third world ASAP.

        • Eponymous says:

          The best way to avoid any overpopulation issues is to economically develop the third world ASAP.

          Not clear this will help. Besides, nobody knows how to do it.

          Besides, Malthusian principles are difficult to evade in the long run. Not that anyone thinks about that.

          • albatross11 says:

            Most places that got anywhere close to first-world standards of living plus universal basic education had their fertility rates fall to replacement or below. So that’s actually a known technique for getting a population to stop growing unsustainably.

          • Eponymous says:

            Not clear this will work for all cultures. We actually see cultural variation in the existing sample (east asian countries have lower fertility than western at similar living standards). There are subpopulations within developed countries with high pop growth.

            And it’s a high-risk strategy, since development increases environmental burden directly.

            Of course, this is moot since we don’t know how to boost economic development.

          • Mark Atwood says:

            The most effective sterilization technique appears to be a college education for girls. And you don’t even have to force it at gunpoint, or with a SF-story “Population Control Board” restricting the supply of “License to Have Child” coupons, instead people will go into a lifetime of debt to do it to themselves.

            (I don’t think this is a conspiracy of any sort, instead it’s a naturally occurring trap in in the phase space of human nature that is going to have some scary weird and unpredictable discontinuities in another 3 generations…)

          • Alex Zavoluk says:

            Actually it is pretty clear that it can work in any country, regardless of factors like religion: https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_religions_and_babies?language=en

            In fact, it seems like you can just have improved female education and better birth control, and that will help a lot, even without being particularly rich. Getting rich is just the easiest way to accomplish all of the relevant factors, in addition to being a moral requirement on its own.

          • That is a very strange response; seems demonstrably wrong on all facets.

            Malthusian principles have been repeatedly avoided by humankind since Malthus’s lifetime. That despite population growth rates which, for a while, exceeded even his worst projections.

            And now reproductive rates have been slowing in literally every region of the globe:
            https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/total-fertility-rate-by-world-region-including-UN-projections-through-2100

            It turns out that given a practicable choice, few adult women actually want to have tons of children and a non-trivial fraction of women prefer to have none at all. This appears to be true in practice across all cultures notwithstanding existing dogma or assumptions to the contrary. Give women the combination of education and economics which unleashes the full range of actual female life preferences and fertility rates crash. Neither Malthus nor Ehrlich ever anticipated that.

          • Give women the combination of education and economics which unleashes the full range of actual female life preferences and fertility rates crash. Neither Malthus nor Ehrlich ever anticipated that.

            I don’t think that’s fair to Malthus.

            His argument was not that women would have lots of children whatever the circumstances. It was that if society was so rich that you could have more children without giving up anything else–he was responding to utopian views by Godwin and Condorcet, if I remember correctly–then population would expand at more or less the biological maximum, because people like sex and sex produces people. Eventually population would outrun production, hence you could not have a stable utopia.

            The equilibrium he was arguing for was not overpopulation, it was a society where most of the population was poor enough so that having more children involved substantial sacrifice–substantial enough to most would be willing to reduce the amount of sex they engaged in.

            I’m not sure if he was ignoring contraception because it wasn’t very good at the time or because he regarded it as sinful.

          • peak.singularity says:

            Yeah, it’s sad that even here, some commenters don’t really seem to know who Mathus was, what were his actual ideas, their context, and his overall contribution to the various sciences…
            (I guess that even reading the relevant Wikipedia pages is too much of an effort ?)

            It’s a bit like if Gallileo was mainly remembered, and ridiculed, as the guy that thought that planets had circular, rather than elliptic orbits, regardless of anything else that he might have done !

            Or worse, like if instead we still had many physicists believing in the geocentric system – like many economists still seem to believe that we can still have an Earth-bound exponential economic growth lasting for many more decades, or even centuries…

          • like many economists still seem to believe that we can still have an Earth-bound exponential economic growth lasting for many more decades, or even centuries…

            We can have exponential growth for any finite length of time without running to resource constraints if the rate is low enough. So far as current growth rates are concerned, world GDP has been growing at about 3%/year. If that continues for three decades, GDP will be about 2.4 times what it now is. Is there some resource constraint that prevents that?

            Run it for a century and GDP goes up about 19 fold. That doesn’t strike me as impossible either, but perhaps you disagree.

            It’s worth remembering that doubling GDP doesn’t require us to double, or even increase, the amount of resources consumed. If someone finds a way to make solar cells twice as efficient or to grow beef cheaply in vats instead of expensively on the hoof, GDP goes up while resource consumption goes down.

          • Michael Watts says:

            Besides, Malthusian principles are difficult to evade in the long run. Not that anyone thinks about that.

            That is a very strange response; seems demonstrably wrong on all facets.

            […]

            It turns out that given a practicable choice, few adult women actually want to have tons of children and a non-trivial fraction of women prefer to have none at all. This appears to be true in practice across all cultures notwithstanding existing dogma or assumptions to the contrary. Give women the combination of education and economics which unleashes the full range of actual female life preferences and fertility rates crash.

            Yours is a stranger response. This observation is worthless as to “the long run”, because the theory of evolution guarantees that women who are able to achieve their goal of not having children will be wiped from the gene pool, replaced by women who either don’t share that goal or who do share it, but aren’t able to achieve it. Very few behaviors will give you a more powerful selection effect than “completely failing to reproduce”.

            And at that point, fertility rates uncrash and Malthusian principles come right back into play.

            The equilibrium [Malthus] was arguing for was not overpopulation, it was a society where most of the population was poor enough so that having more children involved substantial sacrifice–substantial enough to most would be willing to reduce the amount of sex they engaged in.

            I don’t see how this prediction makes sense. Most of human history is well described by Malthusian dynamics, but this is never the equilibrium. It was my impression that the equilibrium involved a minor-to-negligible amount of refraining from sex (and therefore childbirth), and a very large amount of parents directly controlling family size by exposing infants they couldn’t afford to raise.

          • peak.singularity says:

            For Malthus, the (desirable) way to achieve equilibrium was education.
            Including teaching that “you should refrain from having sex until later in life when (/if) you are sure to be able to afford to raise your children”.

            Malthus, as a priest, couldn’t support contraception, but the neo-Maltusian feminists from the end of the 19th century didn’t have a problem with that.

          • peak.singularity says:

            if that continues for three decades, GDP will be about 2.4 times what it now is. Is there some resource constraint that prevents that?

            Yes, it’s doubtful that we can keep this kind of growth for more than a decade – see my comment towards the end of the comments about peak oil.
            For now, world energy use and GDP are heavily correlated.
            https://dothemath.ucsd.edu/2011/07/can-economic-growth-last/
            Efficiency does get better (around 0.8%/year IIRC for now?), but it has hard limits too :
            for instance, to take your example of solar panels, commercially sold solar panels have an efficiency between 5 and 19%, the lab record is 46%, and the theoretical limit (for Earth-based cells) seems to be around 70%.

          • Eponymous says:

            Michael got it. I was referring to the evolutionary equilibrium. It’s possible to evade Malthus in the long run, but it’s difficult.

        • idontknow131647093 says:

          Why would developing the 3rd world be a superior option to cutting them off entirely?

          • Dalben says:

            Because even if we cease trading with them they’ll still continue using their local resources to try and alleviate their poverty, because murder isn’t considered a best solution and is not so easy on that scale anyway, and because leaving people in poverty when they don’t have to be isn’t considered a great solution either.

          • Tenacious D says:

            Because we have the same ocean and same atmosphere.

          • Alex Zavoluk says:

            1. Because leaving billions to suffer unnecessarily is morally abhorrent.

            2. Because they will probably develop anyway, just more slowly, or in a way that leaves them dependent on or tied to places like China or Russia.

            3. Because they won’t care about the environment until they get rich.

  44. DocKaon says:

    I think the explanation is simple. The complete collapse of reasoned discourse in the Western world. Look at the number of people on this blog which is dedicated to “reason” who effectively believe an insane conspiracy theory where thousands of scientists across the world are participating in a complex disinformation campaign to promote an extremist ideology which none of them profess.

    The supporters of the status quo have become incredibly effective at blocking action by turning environmentalism into a politically polarized issue. When an issue has become politically polarized no amount of evidence can penetrate the epistemic closure. Once only one side cares about a problem the solutions inevitably tend to take on the flavor of that side which is then used as more evidence that the problem is just a stalking horse for that political side.

    • Kyle A Johansen says:

      I know it’s bonkers. So, we’re to believe that people are so corrupt or that Big Oil is so powerful that they are publishing stuff that they don’t believe in just to make a couple of bucks at the cost of the planet.

      And the Big Oil CEOs are such believers in their fiduciary duties that they are willing to damn their grand-children and great-grandchildren to a destroyed planet. It’s outright bonkers.

      • DocKaon says:

        Except that we literally have evidence that Big Oil is paying people to publish stuff. The Heartland Institute was paying $10k per published editorial to any scientist who’d sign up for. There have been plenty of exposes of how the fossil fuel industry manufactures doubt. What makes the flip side insane is that there is zero evidence of it or plausible motivation.

        Where are the exposes by honest climate grad students of how they’re being forced to support global warming orthodoxy? How do the climate scientists orchestrate such a complex scientifically plausible story that no outside scientists have a plausible argument against it? Even the tiny handful of scientists who disagree with the consensus are luke warmers who are basically cherry picking the low side of every distribution while agreeing with the primary scientific story.

        • cryptoshill says:

          I will point out – predictors of environmental catastrophe have a terrible track record. Does anyone have the graphic of all of the dire climate predictions that have been walked back so far?

          You’re also weakmanning the “crazy conspiracist” position. The “crazy conspiracist position” is “Prestiege and federal grant incentives stemming from failures in academic politics and the general left-wing nature of our professoriat have led to researchers being much less critical of pro-AGW data and led them to immediately declare anti-AGW data as “debunked” without any real thought”.

          Supporters of AGW/Climate Change get Nobel Peace Prizes for a (debunked at *release*!) powerpoint presentation, detractors have to fight to not be lumped in with Flat Earthers out-of-hand (like you just did).

          Also it’s hard *not* to think that there’s a left wing conspiracy when “We must end capitalism to fight climate change” is a common talking point on the left – see: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/climate-change-capitalism-economy_us_5b87bf0ce4b0cf7b00326edc

          Especially when Nuclear Power could solve these problems reliably and cheaply (as in Actually Cheaper than Our Current Energy Sources).

        • nkurz says:

          The Heartland Institute was paying $10k per published editorial to any scientist who’d sign up for.

          Do have more details about this program? I didn’t find anything specific when I tried searching just now.

        • Walter says:

          Did you *need* evidence that Big Oil pays authors? Like, before you saw that evidence, what did you think caused people to publish editorials? Bonus question, do you harbor any suspicion that anyone on the other side of this issue employs the nefarious tactic of compensating content creators?

          • nkurz says:

            @Walter:

            > Did you *need* evidence that Big Oil pays authors?

            Presuming you are asking me, then yes, I like to see evidence before reaching conclusions, even if (especially if?) I’m inclined to be prejudiced regarding those conclusions. If someone makes a specific claim with a specific dollar amount, I think verifying this can be informative as to how trustworthy the non-verifiable components of their argument are.

            I didn’t find evidence in the searches I did that the Heartland Institute has any standing offer of payment for editorials. Nor do I know of any other body offering such payment to unaffiliated individuals. I was somewhat surprised during my search to find that Anthony Watts has accepted $90,000 from Heartland for other projects, although it’s probably worth re-noting that the blog post referenced here was not actually written by Watts, but just reposted on his blog.

            > Like, before you saw that evidence, what did you think caused people to publish editorials?

            I think that most people who publish editorials believe what they are saying, and are trying to gain (or maintain) a reputation as being an expert in the field that they are writing about. I’m not aware (and do not believe) that most people writing editorials are paid directly for them by 3rd parties. Evidence to the contrary would be appreciated.

            > Bonus question, do you harbor any suspicion that anyone on the other side of this issue employs the nefarious tactic of compensating content creators?

            Yes, “content creators” are often compensated, but I don’t think most people writing editorials are professional “content creators”. If you have proof that Steve McIntyre, Judith Curry, or Roger Pielke (to name few people frequently accused of being in the pay of “Big Oil” who claim not be paid) are in fact receiving payment for publishing articles that they know to be false, I’d read it eagerly and negatively update my opinion of them. I don’t have a particularly confidence in Watts to begin with, and thus am less interested in the specifics of his case, and am more interested in payment to others.

            Separately, I don’t like the framing of “the other side”. Few issues have only a single dimension with two opposed sides. I’m interested in what motivates all participants, regardless of the “side” that they are assigned to. With that in mind, I’m suspicious of just about everyone about just about everything, although I presume they generally act in (what they perceive to be) their self-interest.

          • Walter says:

            @nkurz:

            I replied to DocKaon, why did you presume I was asking you? I wasn’t.

          • nkurz says:

            @Walter

            Because it was directly below my message, and seemed applicable to it. Nested replies beyond a certain level don’t have a direct “reply” link, thus some replies to replies end up at the same indentation (like this one). Although I think this case was one level above that transition point, I wasn’t sure from context. Sorry if I got it wrong.

    • Jacobethan says:

      The supporters of the status quo have become incredibly effective at blocking action by turning environmentalism into a politically polarized issue.

      Even setting aside the partisan special pleading, this strikes me as getting things exactly backwards. Ceteris paribus, a “politically polarized issue” is generally the one that’s going to get the most media oxygen. And here you have these issues with a demonstrated track record of being able to whip up activist passions from 25-30 years back, and yet nowadays they can’t get any traction at all. What the heck gives? Saying, “oh, that bundle of issues got totally politicized, that’s why nobody pays any attention” seems merely to restate the oddity of the situation, not in any way to explain it.

      • Walter says:

        “Saying, “oh, that bundle of issues got totally politicized, that’s why nobody pays any attention”

        I kind of get that, tho. Like, before ‘environmentalism’ was its own, non-political, thing. Like, Captain Planet didn’t end by shilling for politician X. All the climate stuff was its own distinct vein of noise.

        Now, though, it is simultaneously much much louder, and also lumped in with all the other ‘vote Blue!’ messaging. You hear about the earth temperature stuff a lot more now, but it is just one more reason to do your duty and elect democrats. It is easy to tune it out if you already agree or disagree on that object level action, regardless of what you think about the overall question of whether the world is as described.

        • Jacobethan says:

          Thanks, that makes sense. Sort of like part of what “politicization” means is that the one issue with the starkest political divide gets treated as a synecdoche for all the others, and starts to attract all substantive (or not) discussion to itself, leaving the details of everything else to be forgotten.

          Complementary to that, I suspect, is the way many of the issues have become effectively technocratized. A lot of the public discourse is corporations announcing a sustainability initiative, and the initiative is hiring a bunch of experts with degrees in sustainability who are going to tell us whether or not the company is being sustainable. So the rest of us get a vaguely positive sense that something is being done, but in a way that makes it hard for most people to evaluate for themselves whether the results justify the hype.

    • Star says:

      DocKaon,
      If you insist there is no intelligence on the other side of your pet issue then “The complete collapse of reasoned discourse” is likely.

      Some facts:
      The world is clearly getting warmer.
      The rate of warming is highly variable.
      The world sea-levels are rising.

      The above is not in dispute and never was for people who look at data and numbers (stop straw manning me please). What is and always has been in dispute is how humans as a group should react. the proposals on the table have been:
      Do nothing (or nothing that will be large enough to move the needle)
      or Ban fire

      The political problem is that a lot of people like fire. They like to look at it, they like to cook with it, and they like that with an ICE power plant, fire can move them around their world. I’m one of those people. Their are other problems like doubling food prices for a vanity project with dubious prospects like ethanol starves people to death.

      But ultimately the main disagreement is not is there an issue. It’s, is that issue worth the cost of the proposed solution? And it turns out for people who need to eat and who need to heat their houses or get to work the answer is NO.

      Essentially the environmentalist position on fire is politically untenable and always will be. Your side is telling a story of sacrifice and doom, this is not a good motivator for people who are starving NOW, or being presented with a Hollywood illusion of middle class life NOW (how do the lay-abouts on the sitcoms afford those 2500ft apartments in Manhattan).

      The other very offensive part of your side is the insistence that if a technical solution exists that the moral hazard of using it exceeds the potential benefits. Basically if it is as dire as you say then why hasn’t the NRC been attacked for not rubber stamping every proposed new nuke plant put to it. Why was the ocean fertilization experiment in 2012 not hailed as the second coming? Why dose everyone poo poo the idea of seeding the stratosphere with surfer-dioxide?

      And of-coarse why was 2 Deg C picked…

      Bla bla bla LET’S TALK COST BENEFIT!!!

      Finally who wants to get in a knife fight over how to calculate EROI? They call alternative medicine that works medicine this neat semantic trick works for energy too.

      Lot of red meat above let me know what you want to compare numbers on. If you want to use a non-numeric approach then never mind.

      • Dalben says:

        Cuomo just announced that he’s going to make New York carbon neutral and also shut down the Indian Point nuclear power plant. Those seem like incompatible goals.

        It’s hard to take people seriously on climate change when their solutions are always just to shut everything down. Fracking greatly reduced America’s carbon production, but apparently it’s evil and must e stopped. Nuclear produces carbon free energy. Also must be stopped.

        Of course, there may in fact be lots if scientists and even activists who think those kind of solutions are great and we should use any method to reduce carbon production. But the ones who are actually leading the discussion sound like they jsur wan to shut down human activity. People can see that the leaders don’t act like it’s a crisis and that makes it hard to sell that it actually is a crisis.

        How many countries actually meet their climate treaty goals? I mean aside from the US, which doesn’t count because we withdrew from the treaty.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Cuomo just announced that he’s going to make New York carbon neutral and also shut down the Indian Point nuclear power plant. Those seem like incompatible goals.

          The way to square this particular circle is with a new natural gas plant in the Meadowlands just to the west of Manhattan. That’s New Jersey so the carbon doesn’t count.

          There’s environmental opposition to this plant as well. Though if anyone comes to my door wanting me to sign a petition and telling me about how a new natural gas plant is ruining the pristine brownfields of the NJ Meadowlands, I’m going to laugh in their face.

        • Bugmaster says:

          To be fair, fracking is not pollution-free, seeing as it lets people who live in fracked towns light their tap water on fire. That seems counter-productive to healthy living. That said, one obvious solution is to simply evacuate any towns that happen to be sited too close to a fracking operation.

          • Glen Raphael says:

            @Bugmaster:

            To be fair, fracking is not pollution-free, seeing as it lets people who live in fracked towns light their tap water on fire.

            Is there any non-hoax example of this happening? I mean, there have always existed places where people could set tap water on fire due to natural gas collecting in the groundwater, but are there cases where fracking caused that status?

            My suspicion is the causality goes the other direction. That is to say: the kinds of places where methane has been noticed collecting in groundwater happen to be the kinds of places where fracking is likely to be productive. So the flammable water comes first, then the fracking.

          • Bugmaster says:

            @Glen Raphael:
            A cursory Google search reveals several articles describing the air and water contamination due to fracking; however, admittedly, they could be hoaxes.

          • Glen Raphael says:

            @Bugmaster:
            You specifically claimed that fracking

            lets people who live in fracked towns light their tap water on fire.

            So far as I know, there is no evidence that fracking has ever caused that particular symptom; the idea that that symptom ever happened at all as a result of fracking – much less that it is a routine outcome of fracking – is an urban legend.

            One reason people believe fracking causes flammable water is due to a pair of “documentaries” called Gasland and Gasland II. The first film showed flammable water that was due to naturally occurring methane (not fracking) and the sequel upped the ante by secretly hooking up a garden hose to a gas line to generate a proper (albeit completely fake) explosion.

            If you just want to claim that fracking sometimes causes pollution, I have no argument against that. I’m sure fracking is not pollution-free. Heck, almost nothing is pollution-free. It’s specifically the claim that fracking lets people set their tap water on fire that I’m objecting to – that claim is the same sort of hyperbole and misinformation that gives 90s environmentalism a bad name.

          • Bugmaster says:

            @Glen Raphael:
            Firstly, even if those two movies are hoaxes, there are plenty of independent reports along the same lines, e.g. this one or this one (although it might be referring to the same study). I’ve personally seen that trick done, too, though obviously my single data point doesn’t count.

            Secondly, even if everything you say is true, and every instance of lighting water on fire is fake (which I find unlikely), it would not negate the overall reports of air and groundwater contamination due to fracking. Note that the claim is not, “fracking sometimes causes pollution”; but rather, “fracking regularly causes dangerous levels of pollution in the immediate area”. But, admittedly, neither is the claim that “fracking is an existential threat to all life on Earth”, or something ridiculous like that.

          • CatCube says:

            @Bugmaster

            He’s not saying that lighting water on fire is fake, he’s saying the attribution of it to fracking is fake. There are places where there is naturally enough gas in the groundwater to do this.

            I believe his claim is that all places where somebody lit their water on fire after fracking, they could have done it before the fracking took place, but had never tried.

            I don’t believe that fracking never causes this (increasing gas flows conceptually seems like it could increase gas in groundwater, and your news stories point to research that can differentiate between these cases), but it’s important to at least ensure that you’re reading his claim correctly.

          • Glen Raphael says:

            @Bugmaster wrote:

            there are plenty of independent reports along the same lines, e.g. this one or this one (although it might be referring to the same study)

            Regarding your first link, that one definitely counts as a hoax. By which I mean, it was a publicity stunt. The guy who did the stunt led you and the media to believe he was setting fire to the water line from a well, when in fact he was setting fire to a vent line from the well – a vent line that had been designed to vent collected gasses such as methane so that the water itself wouldn’t be flammable (or at least would be less so than if there weren’t a vent).

            Here’s the correction text from the end of this article about that incident:

            *Correction: The headline and first sentence of this post have been changed to reflect that there is dispute over whether Lipsky can actually light his tap water on fire. An earlier version of this post wrote that “The Environmental Protection Agency maintains that the methane in the water was the result of Range’s wells.” The EPA withdrew that conclusion in 2010. We regret the error, and we have also uploaded a letter from Range to us that includes additional information.

            (the referred-to letter is here, and worth reading in full.)

            Regarding your second link, there is some evidence that gas drilling can in rare circumstances pollute well water…but there is nothing special about fracking in this regard. When fracking was scary and new, activists tried to claim it should be opposed on the grounds that it was unusually likely to cause pollution (eg, more so than normal gas drilling operations) – but this does not seem to have actually been the case.

            @CatCube is correct – I’m not denying that some people can light their tap water on fire – that has been the case at least since the 1930s. I am denying that fracking tends to cause this situation. Our collective impression that fracking causes flammable water is based on hoaxes and stunts and scaremongering, not science.

      • Bugmaster says:

        Essentially the environmentalist position on fire is politically untenable and always will be. Your side is telling a story of sacrifice and doom, this is not a good motivator for people who are starving NOW, or being presented with a Hollywood illusion of middle class life NOW

        I think this is a very good point in general. There’s no way to justify any environmentalist policy in terms of short-term economic gain. Opening up that new coal factory right now will add jobs, increase economic output, and thus improve quality of life right now. The environmental fallout (rising global temperatures, increased smog levels, etc.) are further in the future, and this one factory’s contributions to it are fairly diffuse (i.e., you can’t prove that this specific instance of acid rain is due to this specific factory). Thus, if your choices are either a). keep this national park the way it is, or b). raze it to build factories, (b) is the rational option and should win every time.

        This is the classic Tragedy of the Commons scenario, and since the economic benefits are so obvious, I don’t believe it can, in principle, be solved. You could delay the inevitable by a few years, but ultimately, the future of Earth is Coruscant.

        • albatross11 says:

          AGW is a hard case because the consequences take a long time, and are pretty uncertain in any event. But decreasing smog in a city or pollution in a river or park is a lot more workable as a political cause–I’ll notice the impact in my lifetime.

          • Bugmaster says:

            Right, but the trade-off is: increased employment and economic prosperity now, vs. a decrease in smog sometime in your lifetime. As you said, this is a much easier case to sell, which is why you can still often see the LA skyline from the ground. However, such policies require constant pushback against incredibly strong economic pressure. Sooner or later, either your town (or city, or nation) will either yield to the pressure, or will be outcompeted by those who did. Clean air and water are temporary abnormalities.

  45. gattsuru says:

    I’m trying to think what the best counterargument to this would be – the best case that we really do need to consider species extinction a dire concern.

    I think the steelman is that each individual extinction — maybe even especially the really small insectoid species that no one has discovered — is a major loss or risk of major loss, somehow. Maybe that one bird had a song so moving it could shift a dictator’s heart, or that spider had a uniquely beautiful web design, or that other species has an environmental role where once it disappears mosquitos start to surge, or maybe the world’s worst giant earwig also conveniently extruded an important biochemical that no other species does and is near-impossible to produce in a lab.

    This doesn’t seem correct under a lot of actual ideologies people use in the real world, rather than in a Final Fantasy game: we’re not going out of our way to actually counter any possibility for it. But it’s understandable.

    And most of the extinctions have minor differences from other animals in the same nature, or straddle the line between species and subspecies. The desert tortoises of the midwest are probably a best-case scenario in that they’re vertebrates with a lot of biochemical differences, but the environmental response decimated ranching industry across four states, and ultimately it wasn’t until the last decade that the two species of desert tortoise involved were even distinguished from each other. Most casual observers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between them and the imported pet tortoises (or even some turtles).

    • albatross11 says:

      I think there’s a fundamental values question here. Some people (Cerastes in this thread is a good example) see a huge value in existing ecosystems and species–not for their impact on humans, but for their own sake. Others simply don’t. You can have Alice saying that we should be willing to spend a lot of resources to save some species of tropical frog from extinction even though its extinction will never really have any impact on humans other than a few herpetologists, and Bob saying that we should spend that money on humans and ignore the tropical frog, and there’s really not an obvious way to resolve the issue, because it’s a matter of values.

      It’s like if during some kind of revolution, someone blows up a museum full of ancient artifacts and artworks. Some people will say “My God, blowing up a museum is a terrible crime against all of mankind.” Others will say “Who cares about a bunch of crap from a dead culture that was accumulated by the evil ruling class; we’ve got a revolution to run here.” Because we’re down to questions of fundamental values, it’s hard to see how those people would come to an agreement.
      This is quite different from pollution regulations where you’re trying to avoid smog that sends all the asthmatics in town to the hospital, or lead residue from gasoline that lowers all the kids’ IQ a couple points. In that case, you’re concerned with impact on humans, and most of us agree that human health is a value we should care about and try to improve via law and government action.

      • Cerastes says:

        This is dead on, and has actually been discussed in the conservation literature. There’s been a huge movement to promoting “ecosystem services” in the sense that a functional wetland which cleans X gallons of water per hour would need to be replaced with a $30 million dollar water treatment plant, as well as some other rationales I’ve used elsewhere in these comments (bioprospecting, unexpected consequences of losses, etc.). Correspondingly, there has been pushback from other folks who say that comodification of nature is problematic from various perspectives, including ethics, the risk of new tech supplanting the ecosystem service for cheaper, playing into a framework that promotes maximum extraction, etc., and that the values-based approach is better and more likely to resonate.

        Personally, I think it could be helpful for each side to give, knowing that everyone has things they value which don’t necessarily have economic justification. “You agree to let me conserve this weird tropical frog with your taxes, and I’ll agree to let you fund an international tuba festival with mine” sort of thing.

        • quanta413 says:

          “You agree to let me conserve this weird tropical frog with your taxes, and I’ll agree to let you fund an international tuba festival with mine” sort of thing.

          Ignore the economic value of various environments for the moment (which is how I think policy should work in theory although there is a lot of difficulty in estimating value in practice). Why wouldn’t we each spend our money directly on the things we care about? Otherwise tuba guy is down money compared to tropical frog guy. Conservationists can keep buying up land and putting it under conservancies. It’s easier to have some idea of what’s going on and some influence on an organization devoted solely to the issue I care about than it is to influence a government program considering the many levels of indirection that are typical.

          There is some small friction even between outdoorsy types as well. For example, I like climbing so would prefer to donate to groups that buy climbing areas (as well as paying to camp in areas with good climbing, paying usage fees, etc.), but climbing may not be maximally compatible with some other environmental aims. Although it’s pretty compatible.

          • po8crg says:

            I think it’s a collective-action issue.

            We don’t have a good model for things that 40% of the population want, but which don’t fund well under voluntary mechanisms (one of the classic problems being very-long-term financing of things; if you need to commit for 30 years, then neither charities nor crowdfunding are especially effective). Taxes work OK when 60% want it, because they can outvote the other 40%, and work well when 75% or so want it because that tends to be a majority in all demographics and so there’s no margin in being the politician for the other 25%.

            Might be an argument for having a bunch of such programs and then taxpayers choose where to direct a percentage of their taxes to. If, say, 10% of income tax was reserved for “things taxpayers want”, and there were various mechanisms to put minority preference onto the list of things that people could fund (and it’s hard to take things off the list), then that could work, perhaps?

          • albatross11 says:

            You can kind-of think of tax deductions for charitable donations this way–you can either pay taxes on $X, or pay taxes on $X-K and spend $K on some broadly socially beneficial thing you want to support.

          • quanta413 says:

            @po8crg

            I think it’s a collective-action issue.

            I agree, but in this case, I don’t see what adding government to the problem gets us besides being a source of funds. But this is also a negative for other reasons because of how that funding works. All the coordination problems still need to be handled (hiring people, gathering information, executing policy, etc.) But it adds a bunch of new problems that don’t come from dealing with charities or businesses.

            There are very long lived charities, so I don’t think that 30 years is at all an unreasonable timespan to build a charity for or donate to it. Trusts can be formed that last decades.

            The main benefit of government is that it lets you impose costs on the otherwise unwilling, but it’s like a sledgehammer that you can’t aim very well. With some environmental issues, there are enough severe externalities that I would like to reach for the sledgehammer. But if the economic value of a species is low or is being ignored (as in the example), the costs far outweigh the benefit in my mind.

        • Walter says:

          “You agree to let me conserve this weird tropical frog with your taxes, and I’ll agree to let you fund an international tuba festival with mine”

          It is mad hard, because we don’t trust each other. Like, the tuba festival comes and goes, and then the tuba activists start griping about the money being wasted on the frog conservation. If tuba politician X REALLY CARED about tuba festivals he wouldn’t put his past self’s promises above it. Or maybe we ought to elect tuba Politician Y, who would never have sold us out in such contemptible fashion.

          Lots of culture war issues suffer from this problem. Not the thread for providing such examples, but I’m sure you can think of a few. You can trade one time stuff for one time stuff, or ongoing for ongoing, but people have learned the folly of ongoing for one time.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            [Trading frog conservation for a tuba festival] is mad hard, because we don’t trust each other.

            That problem has been solved for a while now. You start with smaller-scale trades where the stakes are lower, and if all sides can accommodate those trades, you gradually increase the stakes. After a while, you get a sense of which trades can be made at which stakes. (People may agree on whether a billion-dollar bridge is worthwhile, but fight bitterly over the middle school lacrosse mascot.) This even works for ongoing trades, especially if there’s a ready mechanism for ramping the stakes up or down.

            Part of the trick is to avoid having everyone skip the earlier steps and rush to the Big-Ass High Stakes Trade of the Month and insist that their side get their way.

  46. Freddie deBoer says:

    There are still theoretical reasons to think we have to run out of stuff eventually. But in terms of how the past 25 years have treated 90s-era concerns about resource depletion, it’s hard to answer anything other than “savagely”.

    Tell that to the passenger pigeon!

    • albatross11 says:

      Yeah, hunting something to extinction seems like it just works differently from mineral resource exhaustion.

      If oil goes to $500/barrel, there will still be oil in the ground, but almost all current things we use oil for will be using some alternative (hydrogen, LNG, gassified coal, batteries plus nuclear plants, etc.) instead. And the higher price will encourage innovation in getting oil, which will increase the supply.

      If we have commercial whaling and some kind of whale oil gets increasingly expensive, we’ll see that shift away from whale oil and toward substitutes, but the higher prices will just encourage more aggressive hunting of the remaining whales, and eventually we’ll get to a low enough population or population density that the species of whales we’re hunting go extinct.

      I guess part of the difference is that it’s a self-sustaining process.

      There’s some maximum amount of oil available, call it X. The cost of getting the next barrel of oil goes up, as X goes down, probably in a relatively smooth way overall.

      There’s some number of passenger pigeons that can be sustainably harvested each year–call it Y. As long as no more than Y are harvested, we can have an infinite number of pigeons. But if we harvest more than Y this year, then the number we can sustainably harvest next year goes down. As the population falls, there’s a feedback loop making further harvesting increasingly destructive. And eventually, the population falls below some threshold and goes extinct.

      • Jaskologist says:

        The difference is where we draw the category boundary.

        The resource in question is not “oil” so much as “energy.” If we run entirely out of oil, but are able to harvest energy from moonbeams just as cheaply, nobody will care that the oil is gone.

        “Passenger pigeons” were not the resource, “meat” was. We still have plenty of meat, but we’re sad that the bird isn’t there anymore.

        • psmith says:

          And the obvious concern here is that the equilibrium post-petroleum price of energy will be significantly higher than it is today, resulting in a significantly lower overall standard of living. (Or, e.g., the price of densely stored energy.).

          The Peak Oil thesis is not that we’ll all wake up one day and all the gas stations will suddenly be out or gasoline, it’s that transoceanic travel will be an unaffordable luxury for our grandchildren’s generation or whatever.

          • The Nybbler says:

            And the solutions proposed are to make it an unaffordable luxury right now. Personally I prefer fracking.

          • po8crg says:

            Of all the various things we use oil for now, the only one for which there isn’t a good substitute at no more than twice the price is flying.

            For electrical generation, there is both nuclear and renewables. The big weakness there is bulk storage (short-term rapid pickup is something that fossil fuels are also bad at; hydro is the best option there); it will be interesting whether bulk battery storage ends up resolving this, or if someone just bites the bullet on a lot of pumped storage reservoirs somewhere suitably hilly – there are a huge number of suitable sites in the Rockies if you can ignore the complaints about how it looks. Prices on this seem to be dropping to the point where it’s directly competing with oil/gas anyway.

            The other big use of oil is for transport. Electric cars work. For ships, there are other fuels. You could have nuclear power for super tankers and big container ships; smaller ships could use coal or a wide variety of plant fuels; for long-distance shipping, sail is surprisingly efficient cost-wise. Trains can always be electric, and can substitute for quite a lot of short-haul air (every newly opened high-speed rail in China or Japan or Europe results in a bunch of flight cancellations) but are obviously no good for crossing an ocean.

            You can cross the Atlantic in a ship for about $3000 return – about three times what a flight costs – but it takes seven or eight days each way, so that’s not really a substitute. Also, that’s an oil-powered liner; building a ship with an alternative motive system is going to be a much more expensive alternative.

            The cost of fuel is such a minor factor in rocketry that expensive oil wouldn’t be a problem for that transport mode (0.3% of a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch, and most of that is the more expensive liquid oxygen, not the oil).

            I’d like to preserve cheap oil for flying, especially for long-haul and trans-oceanic flights. To me, that means reducing the use of oil for other things.

            Building long-distance high-speed rail (to replace short-haul flights) and high-capacity public transport in cities (to replace car commuting) seems like an insurance policy against future oil problems – you can’t take out a long-term (decades) options contract to hedge against oil prices increasing, but you can build infrastructure that reduces that dependency, which has the same effect, plus the bonus of having that infrastructure available even if the oil price does end up lower and it’s not cost-effective (ie even if it’s not cost effective, there are still some benefits; you haven’t completely pissed the money away).

      • Dalben says:

        Animals aren’t a finite resource where there’s only so many that will ever exist. There is no danger of using up our supply of chickens and never having any more.

        It’s more like a tragedy of the commons issue where the hunters don’t have ownership of the animals or their habitat and therefore don’t have financial incentives to keep them around. Where people do own or have some form of property rights to fisheries or hunting preserves they normally take care that the economically valuable animals survive.

    • naj says:

      The passenger pigeon was not only a source of income for hunters, but a major pest. A billion birds congregating in a small area would destroy all crops and most of anything else. If they could only survive in such flocks then maybe most people were hoping they would be killed off.

    • Worley says:

      That’s an interesting point, but its crux depends on what you consider the passenger pigeon to be. I read a writeup on its demise, and what killed it off was mass hunting. The spread of the railroads and telegraph enables a large number of professional passenger pigeon hunters to rush to wherever they were congregating, kill them by the millions, and pack them off to the cities to be sold as food. That is, the passenger pigeon was a source of inexpensive meat, and once they were gone, people ate meat from other sources, at prices which weren’t tremendously higher. So in the overall picture of meat resources, it wasn’t a major event.

      • nkurz says:

        Although the number killed by hunting was indeed in the millions, it’s important to note that this was only ever a small percentage of the total population (which was in the billions). Although it’s an appealing narrative that they were literally hunted to extinction, this isn’t actually a sufficient explanation. One would think that as soon as the population declined sufficiently that hunting was no longer efficient, the hunting would have slowed, and the population would have recovered. The real question is why this recovery didn’t occur.

        Instead, it’s believed that habitat destruction played a role at least equally as important. The pigeons depended largely on “mast”: acorns, chestnuts, and beechnuts. As development occurred across the Eastern US, the vast expanses of these trees became increasingly scattered into smaller areas. Then in the very early 1900’s, the Chestnut Blight took out most of the remaining chestnuts. Here’s a crux of a 1992 paper “The Causes of Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon” by Enrique Bucher:

        From the evidence available, I consider the following to be the most likely explanation for the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon: habitat destruction and fragmentation, coupled with intense human predation, resulted in a decrease in population size to a limit below which detection of areas with good mast crop was increasingly difficult. Social facilitation in food finding probably played an important role in this state. As a consequence, the remaining birds were unable to find enough food to allow the population to replace itself, even though mast resources were still abundant in some regions. Habitat alteration alone was probably enough to lead the Passenger Pigeon to extinction even without direct persecution form humans.

        https://www.researchgate.net/publication/236261366_The_Causes_of_Extinction_of_the_Passenger_Pigeon

  47. Lasagna says:

    For another perspective on peak oil, check out John Michael Greer:

    http://archdruidmirror.blogspot.com/2017/06/adaptive-responses-to-peak-oil.html
    http://7goldfish.com/archdruid/2013/02/the-end-of-shale-bubble.html

    I really like his writing, and take him seriously. I’m not qualified to defend or refute his arguments, but it might be interesting to hear from others. These also might not be his most complete discussion on the topic, but it’s the best I could find.

  48. albatross11 says:

    I suspect a huge part of what Scott is noticing here has to do with diminishing returns and the 80-20 rule.

    We had a lot of pollution problems, it became a big issue, and so we started doing pretty obvious stuff to get a handle on it. The first 20% of the effort got us 80% of the benefits. At some point, those efforts started facing diminishing returns–spending more resources/effort got less and less resulting benefits. Fortunately for us, by the time we started facing seriously diminishing returns, we no longer had rivers catching fire or cities routinely engulfed in smog.

    ETA: I often wonder how much of the cost disease is just a manifestation of the law of diminishing returns.

    a. Getting everyone their shots and access to basic medical care and existing standard medicines doesn’t cost so much–you’ve picked the low-hanging fruit. But if you want bypass surgery and experimental cancer treatments and organ transplants, you’re way into diminishing returns land–you have to spend more and more money to get a noticeable improvement.

    b. Universal primary and secondary education (grades 1-12, or maybe K-12) that works for average kids is pretty affordable. You can do that with two- or four-year teachers’ colleges to provide you with staff, modest school buildings, textbooks, etc. Add in special education programs, gifted programs, subsidized lunches, etc., and with each of those additions, you’re further into diminishing returns land.

  49. pansnarrans says:

    I realise that the extinction rate of 0.01% per year is made up, but wouldn’t that be well within a reasonable extinction rate even if humans weren’t around to change species’ environments? This isn’t my field, but most species that have existed are now extinct and that can’t all be because of global-level natural disasters.

    Also, kudos for spotting this – it sounds like we’re the same generational cohort, I remember all the save-the-world posters and Captain Planet and the rest, but the trend seems to have died out slowly enough for me to not have noticed. A bit like boiling a frog, which seems appropriate.

    • Cerastes says:

      Not really. 0.01% per year would mean total extinction in only 10,000 years. By way of comparison, the K-T extinction is thought to have lasted about that long and wiped out 70% of animal life (including all the non-avian dinosaurs). The duration of the End-Permian Extinction (aka “The Great Dying”) is less certain, probably between 100k and 1 million years, with 90% of animal life dying out.

      Of course, it’s very hard / impossible to get finer scale data from the fossil record, and the rate of extinction in those events was almost certainly non-linear, but generally speaking the claims that humans are “the Sixth mass extinction” aren’t actually that overblown if we look at extinction rates. And the “mass extinctions” are characterized by extinction rates 10x or more above background, so even with some “wiggle room” about actual values and what “counts”, we are responsible for an unusually high extinction rate in a geological context.

      • Eponymous says:

        10,000 years. By way of comparison, the K-T extinction is thought to have lasted about that long

        Source? My mental model (assuming impact hypothesis) says most of the extinctions were concentrated in the immediate aftermath of the impact — when dust in the atmosphere reduced sunlight (disrupting photosynthesis) and so on.

        The problem with slower changes is that animals adapt. To a get a mass extinction event you need something that changes the environment a lot *quickly*. Very difficult if spread over 10k years. And given the event we’re talking about, I think this almost has to happen.

        I’m no expert, so welcome correction!

      • 0.01% per year would mean total extinction in only 10,000 years.

        That assumes a zero rate of speciation. If the speciation rate is also .01%, that would mean total extinction in infinity years.

        • Cerastes says:

          True. But given that “mass extinctions” are typically roughly comparable extinction rates to current (given the limits of data) and characterized by an order-of-magnitude increase relative to prior times of stability, the best plausible speciation rate is a tenth of that. That would shift my numbers somewhat, but not enough to invalidate the contention that our current extinction rate matches our best estimates of past rates during prior mass extinctions.

      • bean says:

        Not really. 0.01% per year would mean total extinction in only 10,000 years.

        Why are you assuming that species extinct/year stays constant when the number of species drops? That seems completely indefensible as an analytic assumption. If the percentage stays constant, we’ll have 36.8% of our species left after 10,000 years.

        • Cerastes says:

          Because the smallest time interval we have access to in the geological record is 10,000 years, so all we can say is what decrease happened across that timescale. I already stated elsewhere that it’s likely not constant.

          If you want better resolution, go buy a rock hammer and plane tickets to Mexico, then publish in Geology.

  50. dodrian says:

    Re Developing world Trash

    I know a number of people doing developmental work related to garbage dumps in Latin America (the Guardian article is about Asia), and there at least, the problem is an economic one, not an environmental one.

    People throw out a lot of valuable stuff — clothes that are still wearable, toys that are most still good, and many many things that can be collected and sold in bulk to recycling centers. In the absence of a welfare state it’s possible to eke out a living sifting through rubbish, and slums develop in and around the large dumps. As I understand it, it’s not usually the other way around as sort of implied by the Guardian (neither those seeking a place to dump trash just end up covering a slum, nor that people have nowhere else to physically build a house and are thus forced to build on a dump).

    • Tenacious D says:

      The way I saw trash being handled in Yemen (in 2012) stands out quite vividly. It accumulates along the side of the road (I don’t know if there are also dumps anywhere) and one day I saw a bulldozer being used to push it into piles that were lit on fire.

  51. Scrith says:

    Chris Thomas’s “Inheritors of the Earth” is good kind-of counter-narrative to the whole “species are disappearing” thing. TLDR; many are, but they’re being replaced. Summary here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jul/13/chris-d-thomas-conservation-inheritors-of-the-earth-interview

    • onyomi says:

      Maybe loss of biodiversity is a better measure than focusing on the extinction of particular species, given that species were going extinct all the time even before humans came along.

  52. onyomi says:

    I don’t mean the Pollution Demons: they’re still around, I think one of them runs Trump’s EPA now.

    Now that’s a good one. As is this

    like all long government reports, the details are ten zillion different trends in different directions that don’t form a cohesive narrative, and the executive summary is “things are good in all the ways that suggest we deserve more money, but bad in all the ways that suggest we need more money”

    My initial thought is that we’re good at solving problems we can see or put a face on, like smog or snow leopards, but bad at solving problems for which the average person has little method of evaluating their seriousness or the effectiveness of any solution, like ocean acidification, but that doesn’t entirely explain the success of e.g. eliminating cfcs.

    To my mind a big part of the fuel for skepticism is the impression that today’s environmentalists aren’t interested in any solutions that don’t also involve dismantling global capitalism. Point to a specific problem like ozone hole and a specific solution like “change the way hairspray is manufactured” and I think most people can get on board. Insist that the French pay insane fuel taxes while China keeps consuming at a rate dwarfing any difference it can make and there’s understandable skepticism about what’s really going on. That is, paradoxically, environmentalism today feels like it lacks focus precisely because of the focus on one, giant, seemingly unsolvable issue rather than bite-size chunks.*

    Personally I really miss “save the whales”-type environmentalism. I like whales, and if you tell me I have to pay a little more in taxes to save the whales and the rainforests (brilliant rebranding of “jungle”; I wonder if interest in “jungles” went up at all when interest in “rainforests” waned?) and the snow leopards I can kind of accept that. Give me the impression I’m paying more taxes because [vague utopian/apocalyptic vision+incentives of academia and bureaucracy] then less so.

    *Issues for which insolubility seems to function as a feature rather than a bug seem in general to be a tip-off about something else going on.

    • Civilis says:

      To my mind a big part of the fuel for skepticism is the impression that today’s environmentalists aren’t interested in any solutions that don’t also involve dismantling global capitalism.

      I would put it more broadly as an impression that ‘environmentalism has become tied to the political left, so environmentalist proposals are naturally going to be drawn to proposed courses of action that meet other leftist goals or otherwise benefit groups disproportionately on the left and will ignore harm done to groups disproportionately on the right’. I tend to discount the conspiracy-mongering shown upthread; I believe most environmentalists, even those in power, are either dedicated to ‘solving’ the problem or at least to being ‘virtuous’. Still, it’s easy to interpret the evidence to support the political conspiracy theories; the biggest reason I discount them is Occam’s Razor, conspiracies are hard.

      For example, it’s not likely that the tech billionaires financing some of these projects want to dismantle global capitalism, even if they are to the left of the American center. I believe Bill Gates is sincere about the environmental causes he funds. I’m also pretty sure that they will all use Microsoft software even if an Open Source alternative would be better, and that he would be upset if Tim Cook and Apple got the credit for the charitable work instead of him.

      In other areas, it always seems that environmentalists find reasons to not build wind farms where they might spoil the view from rich leftists mansions, and ‘Cap and Trade’ schemes tend to end up with giving a major windfall to already rich environmentalists. It’s motivated reasoning. If you like wind power and like the view from your coastal Massachusetts home, you might be more motivated to go and look for a reason why specifically siting a wind farm off your back porch won’t provide the benefits you think come from wind farms in general. If you like environmentalism and want to get rich, pushing a ‘Cap and Trade’ scheme you’ll be able to profit from has the advantage of helping the environment while making you richer, which is obviously better than a plan which will just help the environment.

      It doesn’t help debunking the conspiracy that environmentalism is socialism in disguise that a number of socialists have adopted the ‘capitalism is destroying the environment’ line of argument. I’ve seen Lake Aral (from 40,000 feet, admittedly, but still the damage was obvious) so I know this is bunk. I can’t in good faith tell those of you that are environmentalists that you need to kick out the socialists, but the environmental groups need to make sure they keep purely economic arguments (especially bad ones) out of the debate if they want to avoid the perception that there is a connection between the two.

      • onyomi says:

        I agree that there is probably not a conspiracy, just the usual, Moloch-y incentives at play.

        Related to the, in some ways uneasy, marriage between leftism and environmentalism is the fact that there is now little overlap between environmentalists and immigration opponents, whereas my understanding is this wasn’t always the case, and, logically speaking, there is more reason to expect environmentalists to be anti-immigration (and anti-more people in general, as a common, and, I think, fair criticism goes) than the reverse (though I don’t think there is necessarily a strong logical connection between the two issues either way).

        This may also be related to climate change’s occupying so much of today’s environmentalists’ bandwidth, as well as the strengthening association between environmentalism and today’s left: as an issue, it is very “convenient” for the globalist (as opposed to the labor union-type) left in that solving it seems to require things they want anyway: greater international cooperation, more guilt and sacrifice on the part of the developed world, lower profits for boolights corporations, and no potentially unsavory discussion of e.g. the effect of illegal immigration on national parks, since keeping third worlders out of the first world, while it may keep some forests pretty for privileged first-worlders, does nothing to address a fundamentally global problem (though I bet their carbon footprint tends to go up once they join the developed world).

      • trees says:

        To those who are put off by the tendency of left-wing environmentalists to propose left-wing solutions to environmental problems: Rather than using that as an excuse to ignore the underlying problems, perhaps suggest and promote right-wing solutions instead?

        As a left-wing environmentalist myself, I would be thrilled to see people on the right promoting alternative ways of addressing environmental threats. I think there can be a lot of value in, e.g., market-based approaches & collaboration with conservative rural communities. In theory, sustainability is a very conservative ideal.

        However, I get the impression that the modern right has become so hostile to regulation of all kinds that it’s no longer able to support effective environmental action. For example, I can’t think of a more market-based approach to fighting climate change than a carbon tax, and yet virtually all support for a carbon tax seems to be on the left. Is effective environmental policy that appeals to the right even possible? I hope so, but honestly I can’t imagine what it would look like.

        • Kyle A Johansen says:

          Revenue-neutral carbon taxes.

          The right might not want that, but they’d live with it if it shut up the issue.

          • Jaskologist says:

            At current levels of trust, it would have to come out as a clear tax cut so that there’s not enough wiggle room for the “revenue-neutral” to vanish in a puff of fancy accounting tricks and questionable projections. But if the left did offer that, I think you could get it through pretty easily.

          • Salem says:

            No you couldn’t, because the Left would reject it. See for example Washington State, where a revenue-neutral carbon tax was bitterly opposed by the Left (and ultimately rejected) in 2016 because it didn’t give out any goodies to pet political causes.

            I have no doubt that most environmentalists are sincere. But as a movement, environmentalism faces incentives that causes it to behave as if it were made up of insincere people.

          • trees says:

            The leftist opposition to that Washington State referendum was really unfortunate.

            I can sort of see where they were coming from; the timing of the ballot initiative was very bad, conflicting with a simultaneous effort to get a more left-wing carbon tax measure passed through the legislature. However, with the benefit of hindsight (i.e., knowing that the legislation that the left-wing coalition was trying to pass ultimately failed) it seems like a depressingly clear case of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

          • RobJ says:

            Neither the revenue-neutral carbon tax, nor the more recent carbon fee were even remotely embraced by the right. Both initiatives passed in the Seattle area and almost nowhere else. I guess you could make the case that if the left had been more firmly behind the tax proposal it could have been more successful, but I don’t see much evidence for that.

          • albatross11 says:

            Cap-and-trade and carbon taxes are both market-oriented approaches to CO2 emissions. I’m not sure about their origin, but they’re probably a better fit for libertarian/pro-market types than other kinds of environmental regulation.

            Building more nuclear power plants is probably more popular on the right than on the left, and is pretty clearly a win for CO2 emissions. Assuming you don’t let utterly incompetent people build or operate them, that’s also a huge win in terms of all kinds of other environmental impact, since burning coal is environmentally really nasty.

            Lots of rural areas that are very red have a big culture of hunting and fishing, and that requires a fair bit of conservation regulation. That’s generally supported by people on the right, as well as by people on the left.

          • cassander says:

            @RobJ says:

            Neither the revenue-neutral carbon tax, nor the more recent carbon fee were even remotely embraced by the right.

            A revenue neutral carbon tax is designed to offend the right as little as possible, not to win it over. If you want to get the support of the right, you to make it look like something they actually want. Make it an actual tax cut, not revenue neutral. However much revenue you want to raise, cut other taxes by 1.1X, then run on a platform of “we want to cut your taxes and save the world but the republicans would rather help out the oil companies.” You won’t get them all, by any means, but you’d get enough. The trouble is the left could never bring itself to sign onto that. particularly at the state level, it’s just too wedded to groups that directly depend on the state’s largess to give up revenue.

            @albatross11

            Building more nuclear power plants is probably more popular on the right than on the left, and is pretty clearly a win for CO2 emissions. Assuming you don’t let utterly incompetent people build or operate them, that’s also a huge win in terms of all kinds of other environmental impact, since burning coal is environmentally really nasty.

            Actually the biggest divide is men vs. women.

          • Mark Atwood says:

            Revenue-neutral carbon taxes. The right might not want that, but they’d live with it if it shut up the issue.

            Tried. Failed. link

            A decently well designed system was proposed that would lower carbon emissions, AND fix most of regressiveness of taxes in WA state, AND would increase direct funding to the very poorest, AND would be revenue neutral. All the local leftie, green, and professional “organizer” organizations hated it, and killed it, thus demonstrating that they didn’t actually care about carbon, or actually care about tax regressiveness, or even about cash for the poorest, they only cared about increased revenue to fund more employees in more local quango orgs.

            I remember all the posters and fliers in all the cafes and on the light poles in the most chic deepest deepest blue neighborhoods of my city ranting against it.

            It was probably the first time I ever voted *for* something instead of against something in my entire life since I first filled in an election ballot.

            It’s failure told me everything I needed to know, and already suspected, about the local green and progressive orgs in my state.

          • trees says:

            I was also a fan of the ballot initiative and was sad to see it fail.

            However, the people putting forward I-732 seriously bungled the politics of the situation, not just ignoring but actively undermining the efforts of the existing Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy coalition. It’s always going to be difficult to get people who have been working hard on Solution A to a problem to abandon all their current plans and switch to an outsider’s proposed Solution B, especially when Solution A still looks viable and solves other important problems (e.g., revenue shortfall) that Solution B arguably makes worse.

            As far as I can tell, the I-732 folks didn’t recognize the sacrifice they were asking for and didn’t make much effort to get the Solution A people on board. I wish they had. With more political finesse I think they could have made it work.

            But, yeesh, disappointing as the results of the ballot initiative might be, it’s disingenuous to claim that CarbonWA’s bumbling political failure is evidence that the left doesn’t really care about climate change.

          • Jaskologist says:

            But, yeesh, disappointing as the results of the ballot initiative might be, it’s disingenuous to claim that CarbonWA’s bumbling political failure is evidence that the left doesn’t really care about climate change.

            If you want people to believe you when you say something is an emergency, you need to act like it is an emergency. The sales pitch right now is “this is an emergency, so you need to give up every issue you care about and I get to keep every issue I care about.” (This was also the anti-Trump pitch, with similar success.)

            Right now, we can say that the left, taken as a whole, regards carbon control at roughly the same level of importance of a $15 minimum wage, which is to say that it is a very minor pet issue. Until your actions (feel-good but minor cause) ramp up to match your rhetoric (the fate of the planet), why should we take it any more seriously than that?

          • trees says:

            Left-wing activists are sometimes bad advocates for climate change mitigation, I agree.

            However, whether you take the problem seriously should depend on your assessment of the evidence, not your feelings about the activists.

          • Jaskologist says:

            In practice the assessment of evidence is inextricably bound up with assessing the trustworthiness of the evidence presenter.

          • trees says:

            Left-wing activists aren’t the only ones saying that climate change is a major threat. Do you feel the same way about climate scientists? The U.S. military?

          • JG28 says:

            It’s always going to be difficult to get people who have been working hard on Solution A to a problem to abandon all their current plans and switch to an outsider’s proposed Solution B, especially when Solution A still looks viable and solves other important problems

            If climate activist groups believe that budget concerns and other ‘important problems’ preempt climate legislation, I think most republicans would tend to agree.

            When those important problems are policy control and the “lack of inclusion of minority voices during the planning process”, it’s not too much of a stretch to accuse the groups of insincerity

          • albatross11 says:

            JG28:

            Amorphous coalitions of people don’t work the same way as individuals. In the same way you can get polling data that shows that most Americans want all three of {balanced budgets, more spending, lower taxes}, you can find all kinds of places where a coalition makes a decision that’s irrational w.r.t. the beliefs of most of their members. This is a pretty standard bit of politics, in fact–it’s often the case that my side can’t make a compromise that would get us half a loaf, because making that compromise will cause the leadership of my side to get deposed in a primary battle or something.

            I always think of this as a kind of broader version of Arrow’s theorem–groups of people making decisions together aren’t rational in the same way that individual people are usually rational about their decisions.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            Left-wing activists aren’t the only ones saying that climate change is a major threat. Do you feel the same way about climate scientists? The U.S. military?

            Both climate scientists and the US military seem to be either reserved, or highly variable, in how they characterize climate change. Whenever there is evidence that they are strongly agreed that climate change is an urgent, near-term threat, that evidence is… presented by left-wing activists.

            In other words, the issue has been second-order-wedged by now.

            To un-wedge it, we would probably need to begin with a baseline agreement on how to evaluate scientific evidence, including a mechanism that permits non-scientists to maximize the accuracy of their evaluation. Such a mechanism would therefore also need to factor in the possibility of motivated scientists and evidence presenters.

            Part of the problem of doing this, in the US at least, is that our K-12 science curriculum seems less focused toward teaching the scientific method, and instead toward rote memorization of things discovered through that method. Consequently, resolving the climate issue satisfactorily might require overhauling K-12 science, then waiting for children to complete it and then reach adulthood, and then revisiting the issue then. So, around thirty years.

        • JG28 says:

          Nuclear energy is a non-starter for a lot of greens

          Restricting immigration is a non-starter for most leftists

          I think most people on the right think that the present cost of proposed climate change initiatives wouldn’t justify the return. Revkin is a lefty who notes that solutions are hard and have many negative, and inconvenient, externalities

          link: issues.org/my-climate-change/

        • onyomi says:

          To those who are put off by the tendency of left-wing environmentalists to propose left-wing solutions to environmental problems: Rather than using that as an excuse to ignore the underlying problems, perhaps suggest and promote right-wing solutions instead?

          But first left and right must agree on which environmental issues should be a priority, as well as the very idea that, since political capital (to a degree) and money are fungible, environmental issues of any sort should be a priority ahead of the many other scary things grabbing our attention.

        • DocKaon says:

          A carbon tax used to have support on the right as a superior policy to CAFE fuel efficiency standards, but then it got political support on the left and therefore might have actually been implemented. Suddenly, it was a socialist scheme which had to be opposed and if you wanted support on the right for action about climate change you needed cap and trade. After a while the left came around and started to support cap and trade at which point it became a horrible socialist scheme which had to be opposed. Now even pretending to care about global warming is a sign you’re a Marxist revolutionary.

          • albatross11 says:

            DocKaon:

            The great thing about this kind of comment is all the thinking it lets you save.

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            @albatross.

            I think DocLoan is mostly right, despite your insults. I don’t think the right is supportive of cap and trade, and it seems to me that 10 years ago they would have supported it. The main change is that many on the left now support it. It is simply a great example of the current toxic partisan environment.

        • Tenacious D says:

          The best source of environmental ideas from the broadly-defined political right that I’ve come across is PERC.

      • Nornagest says:

        Yeah, I think this is a big part of it. Someone else in these comments mentioned Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac: Neal Stephenson is not the leftiest guy in the world, but in 1988 he wrote a book about a long-haired hippie chemist tooling around Boston Harbor in an inflatable speedboat, doing drugs, and plugging outflow pipes with quick-setting cement. I can’t see him doing that now. Partly because Boston Harbor is a lot cleaner but partly also because it would bring in all sorts of baggage now that it wouldn’t have then.

    • Guy in TN says:

      @onyomi

      To my mind a big part of the fuel for skepticism is the impression that today’s environmentalists aren’t interested in any solutions that don’t also involve dismantling global capitalism.

      Would you also say it is fair for environmentalists to be skeptical of libertarian’s proposed solutions, since they all tend to involve strengthening property rights+markets?

      I’m thinking, one reason why environmental issues have fallen out of favor in the discourse, is that they quickly turn into a debate about economics. Its like trying to have a debate about abortion without trying to talk about religion.

      • Nornagest says:

        In a vacuum, environmentalists as such shouldn’t care about property rights and markets. As long as the whales get saved, it doesn’t make much difference if the mechanism for saving them involves a UN Directorate of Whale Saviors or a network of direct-action whale guerrilla cells or a market system denominated in whales or some kind of Whalecoin (all examples made up offhand and not very well thought out).

        We don’t live in a vacuum, though, and environmentalists aren’t really single-minded optimizers. The environmental movement pretty much grew out of Sixties-era anti-nuclear activism, which in the West was a New Left cause, and while I think it’s true that it’s more partisan now than it was thirty years ago, its approaches and shibboleths were always informed by its origins.

      • onyomi says:

        Maybe this will sound like splitting hairs, but I see a difference between tending to favor a particular class of solution due to existing political bias and tending to focus on a particular type of problem due to existing political bias.

        That is, climate change is not a case of an issue where everyone agrees on the urgency of the problem but merely disagrees on how best to solve it; rather, some people think it’s a big problem justifying drastic steps to solve, while others think it’s not an urgent problem, or even not a problem at all. A big part of the right-wing complaint, then, is not so much that lefties tend to propose lefty solutions to commonly recognized problems, but rather that there are certain problems only lefties seem to think are really urgent, and those often seem to the problems drastic solutions to which are more congenial to lefties.

        To take another, probably equally contentious example, consider school shootings. Almost everyone agrees they’re a problem, but, with the exception of a few, Alex Jones-ish, “Sandy Hook was a false flag” types who probably overlap to a significant degree with the “global warming is a complete hoax” crowd (though I think the latter is bigger), there is disagreement over how urgent a problem it is, in addition to the best solutions (not that anyone thinks kids getting shot is okay, but some point out that it’s still rare, that trying to solve it with gun control or involuntary commitment might have even worse effects than those rare tragedies, etc. where others claim any sacrifice is worth it if saves the life of one child, etc.).

        Less urgent problems admit of “bandaid” treatment, while more serious problems need more fundamental change (though this often results in the perfect becoming the enemy of the good for those who think the problem is serious, as pointed out elsewhere). I think conservatives get frustrated because the admittedly more “bandaid”-like solutions (like arming teachers or creating clouds to counteract warming) to the problems liberals think require deep change tend to get mocked as stupid, dangerous, or unserious.

        So it’s sort of like:
        A: This is HUGE problem requiring drastic action!
        B: I don’t think it’s a huge problem.
        A: All the scientists agree this is a huge problem requiring drastic action.
        B: Okay, how about we try this other, less drastic thing?
        A: No, no serious person thinks that would work. Plus it sounds dangerous and, in any case, could never solve the deep, underlying problem. I’m telling you we need drastic action!
        B: You sound a little too excited about the “drastic action” per se.

        • Guy in TN says:

          I still see symmetry here. All people rank their political priorities based on their preexisting ideologies. So while its true that leftists rank environmental issues higher than you do because of their ideology, you likewise rank environmental issues lower than they do, because of your preexisting ideology.

          So, while it is in your self-interest not to take the left’s warnings too seriously, due to them over-ranking the urgency of this issue compared to your preference, it is likewise in the left’s interest not to take your solutions too seriously. Because from their perspective, you are under-ranking the urgency of the issue.

          I promise you, I’m not trying to mock your position here. I think its the correct, albeit dark, rational conclusion: Be wary of advice from people with different values from you.

          • onyomi says:

            Yeah, I totally agree that libertarians have an incentive to overrate the urgency of problems that seem congenial to libertarian solutions and underrate the urgency of problems that seem less so. I was only pointing out an asymmetry as relates to this particular case, not claiming libertarians are immune from such bias.

        • trees says:

          It’s a strange world where instituting a tax is considered more drastic than geoengineering the planet.

          • The Nybbler says:

            The power to tax is the power to destroy. The power to destroy the energy industry is rather drastic.

          • trees says:

            Isn’t the point of market capitalism supposed to be that industries adapt and innovate as incentives change?

            It seems strange to trust that industry will be innovative enough to overcome all future resource shortages and effects of a changing climate, but at the same time so fragile that any change in tax incentives is sufficient to destroy it. Have a little faith in the market! The energy industry might change, but it’s not going to be destroyed.

          • The Nybbler says:

            The market isn’t magic. It might well be able to handle future resource shortages better than any other mechanism, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a cost to that shortage. And if you throw an enormous wrench in the mechanism in the form of a tax, it can break. A tax sufficient to stop CO2 emission is a tax sufficient to destroy the fossil industry, by definition. Since other political concerns severely limit other sources of energy, I don’t see sufficient available replacements. Of course, at this point, no government is going to be foolish enough to destroy itself that way.

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            Some other thoughts on taxes.

            They can be unpredictable and immediate, whereas most resource shortages can be planned around and often known for decades.

            Taxes can be arbitrarily high, again with no necessary intermediate period.

            Taxes can be used punitively as a primary function (and is likely involved in this scenario) for political reasons, meaning that the negatives may be out-sized compared to the benefits without killing the political will behind the tax.

          • arlie says:

            @The Nybbler

            My gut reaction to geoengineering – after a career in the tech industry – is that if anything in this line gets implemented, it will be done in a manner that causes about as many problems as it solves, or worse.

            This reaction is at least as strong, for me, as the common right wing US reaction of “if anything is done by a government, it will be overall harmful, or worse”

            My fear level reaction involves every end of the world fiction I’ve ever encountered that starts with a well meaning plan to make something better, which then fails catastrophically.

            I compare this to right wing individuals who fear that the government will first take their guns, and having done that, essentially enslave them, complete with random murder along with direct persecution of anyone who objects.

            Both lots can cite real examples tending in these directions, but there’s rather more fiction tending the same way, which folks inclined towards to the belief in question often eagerly consume. And some of the fiction is more extreme than any well known historical events.

            At any rate, which would you rather see potentially destroyed – various energy industry companies, or the planet’s capacity to support life, or at least humanity? Because the latter seems like the stakes we’re playing with to a lot of people.

            And meanwhile right wing people usually heartily acclaim “creative destrucion” – or whatever you call it when “innovation” and/or “globalism” causes businesses to fail and/or trades to become obsolete. It only seems to be a problem when the government does it. And only if they do it in some manner not involving reduced regulation, reduced import duties, etc.

          • The Nybbler says:

            At any rate, which would you rather see potentially destroyed – various energy industry companies, or the planet’s capacity to support life, or at least humanity? Because the latter seems like the stakes we’re playing with to a lot of people.

            They’re the same stakes, more or less. Shut down CO2-releasing processes and you may not render humanity extinct, but you’re going to kill billions.

          • John Schilling says:

            At any rate, which would you rather see potentially destroyed – various energy industry companies, or the planet’s capacity to support life, or at least humanity?

            Both sides of this framing make me reject you as a candidate for serious debate on this matter. On the chance that you are a well-meaning and knowledgeable person who has merely fallen into sloppy habits due to bad company, here’s why:

            1. “Energy industry companies” is absolutely irrelevant. Mother Gaia doesn’t care whether the truck that delivers wheat from Kansas to New York is run by a big corporation, a lone-wolf independent, or a government ministry; it doesn’t matter whether the fuel comes from ExxonMobil, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, or Steve’s Small-Town Shale Shop. It only matters whether the trucks roll, and using what propulsive technology. So tell me whether you’re going to stop the trucks from rolling, not about the “energy industry companies”.

            And understand what it means to stop the trucks from rolling

            2. Global warming, climate change, whatever, is not an extinction risk and should not ever be presented as an extinction risk to anyone who hasn’t already been mindkilled into submission.

            3. Millions or possibly billions of lives, but not the whole of human existence, are at stake if we get this wrong. On both sides of the equation. Framing that as human extinction vs. corporate profits, is either ignorant or dishonest.

          • onyomi says:

            @trees

            Your framing makes me suspect there may be yet another potential layer of bias (on both sides) at work here: divergent intuitions about costs and benefits of various conceivable solutions, including which seem “drastic” and which “modest.”

            For example, you can frame the issue as “which is more drastic? Levying a few extra taxes or geoengineering the planet?” But I can frame the same issue as “which is more drastic? Slowing down the global economy, including the rate at which it lifts the third world out of poverty, or attempting to build some cloud-making machines?”

            I think the pattern is one tends to see the deep, long-range benefits of the solutions one is inclined to prefer, while only considering the superficial, short-term costs, and vice-versa for the solutions one is not inclined to prefer.

          • albatross11 says:

            The Nybbler:

            Nobody here is proposing shutting down the energy industry. You are beating up on a strawman.

            We’re talking about raising the price of fuel–something that happens all the time thanks to stuff going on in the oil market. Specifically, we’re talking about raising the price based on how much CO2 something emits, so that coal gets a lot more expensive, but natural gas’ price goes up by a lot less, because it emits less CO2. Nuclear power stays the same price.

            AGW isn’t a threat to humanity, and carbon taxes aren’t a threat to civilization. Trying to frame it that way is not going to help anyone think clearly–it’s good for getting people mad or scared, but not for getting them to think.

          • onyomi says:

            @albatross

            AGW isn’t a threat to humanity, and carbon taxes aren’t a threat to civilization. Trying to frame it that way is not going to help anyone think clearly

            I believe The Nybbler was specifically responding to trees’s framing, which made one possible solution (“geoengineering the planet”) sound much more drastic than a different possible solution (taxation) (which was in turn a response to my post that described one form of, to me, seemingly relatively innocuous (but tell that to Kurt Vonnegut) attempt at geoengineering as a “bandaid”). At the risk of putting words in Nybbler’s mouth, I think his point was that taxation is nothing to sniff at in terms of its potential for harm, though obviously it matters how and how much.

            And my related point is that it’s surprisingly easy to flip things in favor of one’s preferred solutions as the “reasonable” ones just by subtle differences in word choice and framing.

          • The Nybbler says:

            We’re talking about raising the price of fuel–something that happens all the time thanks to stuff going on in the oil market.

            By how much? If you set it so one kWh of natural-gas derived electricity has a tax of One Million Dollars, you’ve effectively destroyed the industry. If you set it so one kWh of natural-gas derived electricity has a tax of $0.01, you aren’t going to reduce CO2 production much.

            Given that I see articles claiming “it may already be too late” and that we have to reduce CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, I expect any tax which would actually be useful given the assumptions of those advocating for the tax would be closer to the One Million Dollar mark.

          • albatross11 says:

            The Nybbler:

            Yes, if you just assume the craziest possible interpretation for what I say, you can always dismiss it as nonsensical. What you can’t do is have a good-faith discussion with someone who looks for way to take the craziest or most evil possible reading of everything you say. If I want that kind of conversation, I’ll go chat with people who tell me I must be Hitler for knowing what the distribution of IQ scores look like.

            *plonk*

          • trees says:

            Doesn’t geoengineering present the same problems of global coordination and cost as any other climate change solution? Governments would have to coordinate and levy taxes to pay for the sulfur aerosols (or whatever) to be deployed.

            At least a carbon tax doesn’t actually cost money, it only redistributes it. I’d expect the cost of geoengineering would have a considerably more negative effect on the economy than a tax or cap-and-trade and would require much more government bureaucracy to implement.

          • AGW isn’t a threat to humanity, and carbon taxes aren’t a threat to civilization.

            Correct. Thank you.

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            At least a carbon tax doesn’t actually cost money, it only redistributes it.

            This is a good point. Of course dramatic re-distribution can be a destructive force too, but I think you need a higher level of re-distribution to reach the same destructive force to match the level from requiring increased spending. The discussion here is quite unfocused because we aren’t talking any specifics, but at least we can maybe build some postulates.

          • idontknow131647093 says:

            At least a carbon tax doesn’t actually cost money, it only redistributes it.

            Emphatically no. It imposes a significant dead-weight loss. This is 101 level stuff.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Governments would have to coordinate and levy taxes to pay for the sulfur aerosols (or whatever) to be deployed.

            But any one government could fund it alone. China could refuse to pay as the US does it. Or the US could loudly complain as China does it. It’s not like China or the US needs the other to agree.

          • Salem says:

            Indeed an individual country could do it.

            But the strangest assumption is that it would have to be done by a government at all. Those of you concerned about the matter could simply pump sulphur particles into the upper atmosphere without charging the indifferent a penny – or consulting them. It could be your top Givewell charity! I’ve seen cost estimates of a few billion for such geoengineering, which is well within the remit of private charities. United Way alone has annual donations of $3.7bn. Stop wasting your time campaigning for a political solution, and just do it!

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            Those of you concerned about the matter could simply pump sulphur particles into the upper atmosphere without charging the indifferent a penny – or consulting them. It could be your top Givewell charity!

            How much would it cost to pump sulfur particles into the upper atmosphere?

            How much would it cost to convince other people to pay the cost to pump sulfur particles into the upper atmosphere?

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            Emphatically no. It imposes a significant dead-weight loss. This is 101 level stuff.

            That carbon taxes will cause some deadweight loss from free market pricing is econ 101. Significant is most emphatically just you. I find it unlikely that the resulting loss is anywhere near the loss of government requiring firms to make changes (not necessarily effective changes, but whatever is politically useful).

          • idontknow131647093 says:

            Mark, I don’t really understand your comparison.

            Are you saying a carbon tax will be less costly than the equivalent mandate or ban? Then I’d agree.

            The thing is that, my thought on this point is that any carbon tax is likely to be set to a pretty high level (based on what I’ve seen the environmentalist movement support as well as what would be needed to make big reductions in use).

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            Are you saying a carbon tax will be less costly than the equivalent mandate or ban?

            Yep. Obviously we are very vague here, but a tax is generally better than a ban.

          • Aapje says:

            It very much depends on the consequences of taxation and those of banning. Taxation can cause way more bureaucratic costs, fraud, etc in some cases.

    • Prussian says:

      To my mind a big part of the fuel for skepticism is the impression that today’s environmentalists aren’t interested in any solutions that don’t also involve dismantling global capitalism.

      I definitely agree with that. It’s the main reason for resistance, most especially from the developing world that wants to actually enjoy a reasonable standard of living for a change

      • T82 says:

        Doesn’t the developing world make it a bit of a moot point for western countries to pass CO2 taxes? I’m imagining the process going something like this:
        1. Western (er… developed) world passes CO2 taxes.
        2. Developed world uses less in the way of fossil fuels.
        3. Supply and demand means the developing world now pays less to burn fossil fuels, and can afford to burn them more often to achieve a higher standard of living e.g. riding a motorcycle to visit the market instead of walking.
        4. Result: Wealth transfer from developed world to developing world, no change in CO2 emissions.

        I think these ideas of the developed world having CO2 taxes and making a meaningful difference might date back to a time a few decades ago when countries like China were negligible CO2 emitters, rather than emitting more CO2 than all of humanity did in the late 1800s (when I am told anthropogenic CO2 emissions became a problem) as they are now.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          As long as we include China and India, then a carbon tax by all the major world economies would indeed lower emissions. Yes, the developing nations would use marginally more, but not in a 1:1 ratio.

          • T82 says:

            Sure, but I’m wondering how countries like China and India could be convinced to not just pass CO2 restricting measures but also meaningfully enforce them, given that the economic development seen in those countries is about the only good thing in the last few hundred years I can think of for either of them (China dealing with their “Century of Humiliation” and then Maoist communism, India dealing with British occupation and then poor relations with Pakistan).

            Those countries are so massively polluted already (particularly waterways), it looks to me like they prioritize short-term economic gain over even immediate-term environmental problems (e.g. “Cancer Cities” in China). That doesn’t give me much confidence they would put a brake on their economies for some far-off potential benefit of reducing CO2 emissions.

  53. Jaskologist says:

    If you really want a feel for environmentalism back then, you must (re?)watch the 1990 Earth Day Special. It captures the era perfectly, and contains every celebrity of the time.

    Wikipedia summary
    Video (runtime 1.5 hours)

  54. Joseftstadter says:

    No one cares about the rainforest, global warming, endangered animals or overpopulation (more of a ’70s concern?) because those are long-term problems broadly affecting the global community, but whose immediate and even medium term impact on any one individual sitting in the US is likely to be marginal and hard to quantify. It is hard for 21st century individuals to identify with collective action, our whole culture and economy seems focused on atomizing us into discrete “individual” consumer units at the mercy of much larger forces. We have become increasingly suspicious of collective identities (see the left’s hostility to nationalism) unless that collective identity is in the service of fragmenting a still larger collective identity (the way transgender identity is directed at breaking down the old binary male/female paradigm). Instead of trade unions and collective bargaining, we are told to “build our own personal brands”, “manage our own careers”, and “build networks”, rather than friendships. We have moved so far in the direction of market values that anyone who looks at a relationship or gets involved in a cause out of idealism rather than on a transactional basis is considered an idiot or a liar. While the left has taken the adulation of the individual to its illogical extreme, conservatives, who traditionally rallied around some collective values such as national greatness or moral purpose, have become increasingly nihilistic over the past 20 years, either sinking into paranoia or seeking simply to maximize their own power at the expense of the weak. Conservatives used to care about posterity and the welfare of their grand-children but in the US have generally adopted baby boomer materialist narcissism (some times supported by eschatological Christian imagery of the Rapture, implying that the distant future is meaningless) as their guiding principle.

    We can’t even do fascism right anymore. For all Trump’s rhetoric about infrastructure and making America Great Again, the GOP seems allergic to any sort of sacrifice or collective action. Instead of a Reichsarbeitsdienst or a WPA, the GOP proposes more privatization. Trump asks for money for a Wall while handing out tax cuts. Even those of us who accept the evidence for global warming are not sure whom we would trust to organize the planet to do anything about it.

    TL;DR why care about the environment when we all have customized Netflix accounts and Amazon wish lists?

    • Prussian says:

      We can’t even do fascism right anymore

      Scott? Comment of the week here.

    • cassander says:

      We can’t even do fascism right anymore. For all Trump’s rhetoric about infrastructure and making America Great Again, the GOP seems allergic to any sort of sacrifice or collective action. Instead of a Reichsarbeitsdienst or a WPA, the GOP proposes more privatization.

      What privatization has trump proposed?

      > Even those of us who accept the evidence for global warming are not sure whom we would trust to organize the planet to do anything about it.

      Because there is no one who can be trusted.

  55. The explanation that immediately came to mind for me as I started reading the article was that people will naturally care less about pollution if they’re not exposed to smog and don’t have rivers catching fire near them. 90s environmental issues are still quite pertinent in the 3rd world and once you’re an environmentalist you tend to notice global issues. But after the US fixed most of the big obvious environmental issues it had within its borders people stopped getting as excited.

    • Jacobethan says:

      Yep, this was about the same reaction I had reading the piece.

      The things that an ordinary American has some kind of concrete sense of based on their daily habits and routine perceptions of the environment in their own local area, like air quality or being more or less okay with your kids going swimming in the nearby reservoir? Those are the things that either got fixed or (like the trash crisis) got exposed as bogus to begin with. The stuff people just started ignoring, like tropical deforestation, are things where there’s no way for an ordinary person to have any intuitions at all about whether they’re getting worse or better except by relying on the media and expert opinion.

      I think Andrew Clough’s way of modeling this is probably right. You can most easily get people to hitch an affective load to a distant and (for them) abstract issue if it’s tethered at the other end to something they feel threatened/disgusted/etc by in their own more immediate experience.

      My sense is that for people who grew up in the 60s and 70s especially, there’s a certain ingrained experience of seeing quaint little towns and rural areas swallowed up to make strip malls and industrial parks, of the old wilderness being turned into something unsafe and inaccessible in a seemingly inexorable process with no logical endpoint. The environmentalism that’s being recalled in the post was closely tied to the emotional resonance of that particular experience, but it’s a way of seeing that’s receding further into the generational past with the factories closing and development returning to the urban cores.

    • aimward says:

      Education plays an important part here, but in a subtle way I haven’t seen discussed: just about any engineer who’s graduated since circa 1985? or so has an environmental assessment (in terms of waste streams) auto-built into their process.

      The biggest impact here is for *new* systems. In that case, the enviro controls are cheap as chips, and go in to the engineer’s designs *almost* automatically. With some notable exceptions by industry, but those are isolated compared to previous practice, so far as I can tell. Even the industries that pay the fine rather than clean up their act at least genuflect to the idea of environmental impact.

      The impacts here are likely conceptual, and subtle, so much so that they go completely unremarked. But they (these sorts of education for true systems engineering beyond the immediate) are fundamental to evolving industrial systems, and can be disrupted by accident of forgetfulness.

      Corollary: many of China’s (and India’s) current and future engineers have at least some training in this same mindset. How will this evolve? How much internal change is taking place that will only pay off subtle ways a generation from now in the India/China new buildouts industrially? Can this be missed because people (inside and outside of the systems/populations involved) forget/don’t acknowledge or know?

  56. Deiseach says:

    Two things amused me in this; one – Pope Francis’ tweet and two – that peak oil was a 90s environmental concern.

    It very well may have been but it didn’t start then; as a schoolchild in the 70s we were regularly lectured about how oil was going to run out in the next decade and then everybody would freeze in the dark. The only optimism was that maybe it wouldn’t happen in the 80s, we might be able to push it out to 2000. But we were assured that by the time we grew up, that was it for Western industrial civilisation (unless the recommended changes were made). This was hammered home in the context of petrol shortages and OPEC, and we could see for ourselves that oil was in short supply.

    90s environmentalism was much more optimistic in tone; yes, all these terrible things were about to happen but we could still stop them if we did this, that and the other.

    Well, for the 70s kids we grew up and the sky hadn’t fallen, and for the 90s kids presumably the same happened with regard to trash mountains, so it’s harder and harder to whip up the crisis spirit. Global warming/climate change is doing its best, but when you hit my age or older, you’ve seen so many of these “we’re all going to die!” warnings that it is water off a duck’s back.

    • bean says:

      I once found an article in National Geographic claiming that the current state of the national/world oil reserves wasn’t enough to keep going in the long term, and that we were going to have to start extracting oil from shale soon. The year? 1918. My conclusion? National Geographic never changes.

  57. JohnLBurke says:

    You are completely wrong on species extinction.

    First of all, about two thirds of all known species are insects. This random pie chart pulled off the internet seems plausible to me as an ecologist (vertebrates are a subgroup of “chordates”).

    Second, most species are unknown. There are about 1.5 million known species. It is not uncommon to hear estimates of about 30 million. These estimates are based on rarefaction curves, i.e. on extrapolations based on the rate new species show up as a function of sampling effort. Those are not “made up” numbers.

    Most species going extinct aren’t known nor vertebrates. Comparing estimates of how many species are lost to reports of known vertebrates going extinct is obviously not going to add up.

    You argue that rare species don’t matter, but rarity hardly has an effect on the usefulness of compounds or genes for pharma, biotec and agriculture (sometimes this is called pseudo option value). Species diversity also affects ecosystem stability, but I’m unsure how much of an effect rare species (taken as a whole) have here.

    • Jaskologist says:

      “Species” is not actually a well-defined term. We’re taught that it divides what can interbreed with what can’t, but in practice a river may have 20 different “species” of fish which are only distinguishable to the trained eye by their slightly different caudal fins and are perfectly capable of interbreeding.

      • JohnLBurke says:

        You’re absolutely right. It is hard to define “species” in a way that is accurate and useful across a range of disciplines and taxa (think about asexually reproducing species). There are dozens of proposed definitions. And, yes, richness and diversity estimates are affected by the definition of species that we use.

        But nothing of that changes that there is an order of magnitude difference between number of known and number of estimated species and an order of magnitude difference between number of insects and of vertebrates.

        • Jaskologist says:

          You said Scott was completely wrong; I disagree. To get the inflated numbers he’s looking at, you almost certainly need the definition of “species” that includes 385 shrews, most of which can interbreed. Saying that, really, it’s 2 million kinds of beetles supports his point.

          I care if frogs as a category go extinct. I won’t be happy if we lose tigers (even though they’re inter-fertile with lions).

          But if we’re saving some bugs, very small fish, or the kinds of owls with spots (by killing the ones with bars to do that, and let’s not even get into owl miscegenation), then it gets a lot harder to care.

          • Cerastes says:

            What is your basis for the 385 species of shrews being an “over-estimate”? Where did you get your PhD in biology?

            The whole “interbreeding” thing is wildly oversold anyway, and mostly crops up in amateur discussions rather than scientific papers. Hybridization and gene flow is immensely complex. There are lineages which diverged almost 20 million years ago and now include no less than 5 different genera (which are *obviously* different even to uninformed laypeople), yet they can all produce fertile hybrids. Hell, the current best estimate for the divergence between the two genera of garfish species is 180,000,000 years, yet they hybridize in the wild.

            On the flip side, consider “ring species” whose range is interrupted by some impassable barrier (often a lake or mountain). Each individual can interbreed with the nearby neighbors, but by the time you get all the way around on both sides, they can’t hybridize anymore. Where is the cutoff?

            That it’s complicated doesn’t make it invalid, anymore than the complexity of quantum physics means it’s all wrong and one of the various crackpot “unified theories” like the Time Cube is right.

            As for “what is worth saving”, there *are* scientists who have suggested that distinctiveness matters, but so do many other things, including usefulness to humans. Two venomous snakes that look the same, and can hybridize, have very different venoms, and what if you wipe out the one whose venom had some useful property against cancer, diabetes, pain, or blood disorders (all of which are known in just the few species we’ve worked on, with who knows what else waiting)? Two wasps look the same, so why save both? Oh, crap, now there’s 100 billion weevils eating your crops because the extinct one was the parasitoid which controlled their populations.

            Even if we don’t consider species to have “intrinsic worth” and adopt a straight utilitarian viewpoint, for 99%+ of species we genuinely don’t know enough about them to have any clue whether they could be of use or what the consequence of their loss will be.

            And not just rare things. Once you get out of model species and charismatic megafauna, the quantity and quality of knowledge drops fast. And not just rare species or obscure questions. Simple things like “what does it eat?” and “when does it breed?” or even “does it have live birth or lay eggs?” can be unknown for species with huge ranges and numbers, just because nobody’s done the work.

            Letting a species go extinct is like playing “Deal or No Deal”, but with only one round, 10,000 suitcases, and almost zero information about the probability distribution of reward sizes.

          • JohnLBurke says:

            You’re making the assumption that we care about species. I know of no pragmatic argument for conservation that doesn’t extend below and above the species level. See the concept of biodiversity by Noss 1990.

            If natural populations of shrews are distinct enough that we can even argue about species boundaries, then something would be lost if we lose them, even if we agreed on a definition of species that made them the same species.

          • If natural populations of shrews are distinct enough that we can even argue about species boundaries, then something would be lost if we lose them, even if we agreed on a definition of species that made them the same species.

            This raises the question of what would be lost. As best I can tell, there are three answers people offer, implicitly or explicitly:

            1. Species diversity is a good in itself.
            2. Species diversity is good because it produces good results–more stable ecologies, which benefit humans.
            3. Species diversity is good because each species embodies biological information–a plant might turn out to be the cure for cancer, or at least at a bit of information that helps us understand how to cure cancer.

            If 3 is the answer, then keeping the species alive in a zoo should be adequate and keeping frozen tissue while the species goes extinct might be.

            I find that particular argument implausible, given how many species (and subspecies and …) there are and how few of them we have seriously tried to mine for information.

            Could you put your concerns in terms of one of those three, or offer other reasons why the preservation of species and subspecies is important?

    • JohnLBurke says:

      I think I may have meant species accumulation curves, rather than rarefaction curves. The two get confused a lot.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’m not saying “rare”, I’m saying “undiscovered”.

      If a species is undiscovered, by definition it’s not being explored for pharmaceutical compounds / biochemistry discoveries, etc.

      I understand some as-of-now-undiscovered species could be discovered later, but the rate of species discovery doesn’t seem that high, and the set of explored-for-pharma-compounds species seems like a tiny tiny subset of even the discovered species.

      If we assume that we only have another hundred years of needing to source our pharma compounds from rare species, I think it’s pretty unlikely that any appreciable fraction of currently undiscovered species get exploited.

      Also, AFAICT the exploitation of species for drugs is really really rare. It does happen, but not to the point where it’s really worth worrying about.

      For this to be a big deal, the rate of species discovery, the rate of exploring the chemistry of discovered species, and the rate of successful exploitation of molecules discovered in rare species, would all have to increase by orders of magnitude pretty soon.

      • JohnLBurke says:

        the rate of species discovery doesn’t seem that high

        Over ten thousand per year. Even 0.1% of pharmacologically useful species is ten a year. Are you saying the percentage must be even lower than that?

        If we assume that we only have another hundred years of needing to source our pharma compounds from rare species

        Could you be more explicit? Do you mean technology could make hunting for novel compounds in organisms obsolete? Sure, with increasing computational power, modelling the structure of possible organic molecules and how those structures interact with protein pockets will become much better. But you shouldn’t underestimate the massive parallelism with which evolution has been looking for toxins that affect the physiology of animals. To my knowledge known natural pharmacological compounds are way more distinct from our drugs than the drugs are from each other. The chemical space to be explored is immense.

        Also, you are focusing only on pharma. What about agriculture? What about the stability of ecosystems and the services they provide? What about the potential for species and ecosystems to adapt to a changing climate?

  58. harzerkatze says:

    FWIW, posting from Germany, here, I have the impression that you describe a specifically US phenomenon when you say that environmentalism isn’t a thing anymore, compared to the 90s.

    In Germany, it seems to be very much on the agenda, with daily news and massive political consequences of environmental issues like NOx levels in cities (courts have mandated some diesel-free parts of cities in 2018, with more to come in 2019), biodiversity loss (the great insect die-off is a story of 2018), plastic trash in the ocean (being both on the news a lot and leading to an EU law being discussed banning certain throw-away plastics just by the end of last year), topics like rainforest loss from palm oil or soy plantation getting articles in leading magazines like Der Spiegel multiple times a year (like at least here, here, here, here, here and here in 2018). Not to mention Climate Change, which seems to be very much present in the news year-round.

    According to polls, if Germany were to elect a government now, the Green Party would be second-strongest with 20% (three times their 90s numbers), more that half of what the strongest party, the CDU, gets with 32% (see here). A Greens-CDU coalition as next ruling government seems not impropable right now. Given, the Greens are not only popular because of environmental issues, but it is still very much part of their core brand.

    So any apparent loss of relevance to envionmentalism does not seem to happen in Germany right now.
    Are there readers from other countries that can weigh in on their experiences at home?

    • Prussian says:

      Very good point. That is something always worth stressing, that America isn’t necessarily the model of the world’s cultural trends.

    • Tarpitz says:

      I would say that the UK experience is somewhere between your account of Germany and Scott’s of the US.

      • Prussian says:

        We meet again. 🙂

        Yeah, Germans are ultra-clean and green. It could be said that Germans feel about their ancestral forests the way Americans feel about their flag – or their guns.

        • cryptoshill says:

          Maybe not, Germany’s been doing the lignite coal thing ever since they enacted Energiewende.

    • medvssa says:

      Yes. Posting from Belgium. Exactly the same around here. I’m originally Spanish and it’s slightly less so but also very prominent over there. And of course forest fires and saving water are super important topics (funnily enough water availability per capita is lower in Belgium than in Spain, but it is hard to get the point across Belgians since it’s raining all the time. But that doesn’t mean you have enough water… I’m horrified how people waste water here, this was our 90s thing!).

      BTW, we burn our refuse garbage over here. And recycle the rest. Why isn’t that more of a thing in other countries? Granted we’re really tight on space. But you also get some energy out of it. And no disgusting landfills.

    • Rusty says:

      All of which makes German carbon emissions somewhat mysterious. Plastic trash in the ocean from Germany probably not a major problem (well, probably not even a small problem) but it seems to attract more attention than coal fired power stations. Have I understood this right or is there more controversy on the subject than I’m aware of?

      • Prussian says:

        Germany won’t use nuclear power, so it needs to use a lot of coal. As with everything idiotic in German policy it’s rooted in guilt. You see, building nuclear plants is like building nuclear bombs and you know who else wanted Germany to have nuclear bombs?

        You may think that’s a joke, but I’ve heard clips like that from the Bundestag. Can’t find ’em at the moment though…

      • harzerkatze says:

        Yes, that is probably hard to understand. But der Kohleausstieg (exit from coal energy) does get a lot of coverage and is a major political fight, with e.g. the Hambacher Forst battle a major development of last year. Generally, Germany quit nuclear energy (in my observation primarily because of a) fear of a Fukushima-like catastrophe and b) because in 40 years of searching not a single suitable final disposal zone could be found and politically accepted), that was a major topic of the Greens since their inception. But that collides with the Coal Exit now, because it is hard to exit two of your major energy sources at once, and of course the conservative party does not want to rock the well-running enonomy by changing things fast. So while Germany has really fallen behind from its leader position in renewable energy matters from a few years ago, the rising power of the Greens may soon change that again.
        I’d say Germany has shown a significant drop in political action for the environment in the last years, but not in news coverage, grass roots movements or political conflict.

        German environmental politics ARE quite contradictory, with both a quite pro-environment populace vs. e.g. giant car manufacturers being a major power group.
        For me as an ecologist, it is sometimes painful to watch.

    • cactus head says:

      I can anecdotally report from Australia that I’ve seen a similar diminishing of 90s environmentalism as Scott has.

    • BPC says:

      I’m also in Germany, can confirm. Climate change denialism belongs to a subset of anti-environmentalism that is prevalent in the USA, but is hardly universal. In fact, one of the most telling things about it is that it is almost exclusively the prevalence of the American right wing – even right-wing parties in other countries don’t buy this crap.

      • Climate change denialism

        The position I am familiar with, and support, is not denial of climate change but denial of the claim that climate change can be expected to have terrible effects unless something big is done about it.

        You might consider the possibility that what makes you so certain you are on the side of the angels is that you attribute to everyone who disagrees with you the views you can most easily refute

  59. Tenacious D says:

    I enjoyed the graphic of the Congo rainforest.

    Apparently it came out in 1988, but Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac fits with 90s Environmentalism. Now, however, Boston’s harbour is a place where people actually want to spend time.

    Lebanon is currently facing the same kind of crisis with landfill space that New York did back then.

    I think the Kuznets curve is a concept with some explanatory power for at least some of these topics.

  60. Prussian says:

    It’s interesting that knowing that Scott and I are about the same age, we have both the same cultural background references, so I can intuitively get what he’s on about (Captain Planet, Dinky-Die etc.). That’s pretty neat and explains why I had so many disconnects with my parents – and, more worryingly, why my kids are going to have similar disconnects from me. Oh well…

    I think what’s happened is that you’ve seen a collapse of environmentalism but a continuation of conservationism. To define those terms:

    Conservationism is saying that a healthy nature is a good thing for human beings, and we should take care of it because we like to breathe good air, and also, whales are way cool.
    Environmentalism is saying that nature is a good thing in an of itself, without reference to human being’s use or value, and any human action to change nature is a defilement.

    You used to hear a great deal more about how humanity was a plague on the earth, how the pure environment unsullied by human touch was an end in itself, etc. etc. That’s why Captain Planet makes Salon look like a paragon of nuance and generosity. You don’t hear that kind of thing anymore. What you get, instead, is many arguments about how this or that measure helps maintain nature in a way that is beneficial to humans. And, yes, this includes things like saving the whales and the rain-forest – if you are willing to donate to an art gallery to save priceless paintings, you can equally be willing to save snow leopards and so on. We’ve seen the back of mushy drivel about mother gaia and I think that’s a positive change all round.

    One reason that environmentalism (the belief that untouched nature is good in an of itself) got it in the shorts is globalisation. Since the early eighties, the remaining 7/8ths of the world have had a voice. The rest of the world started saying that they would, in fact, like to live like western europeans and Americans, thanks all the same. That was a disaster for the greens. When conservatives say “Leftists are the real racists because affirmative action”, that has gone nowhere, because it is a transparently weak argument based on definitions (if affirmative action is racist, it certainly nothing like the horrors of segregation or slavery). However, the argument “leftists are the real racists because George Monbiot says Africans are happy in their poverty (source and we should make everyone poorer and less well off (source and source) then that’s a much stronger argument. Ditto pointing out campaigns against energy development in the developing world etc. So the focus is either on something so big it could get us all (global warming) or on specific problems with specific responses.

    Overall, I think this is optimistic. Scott Adams said something like, “If a disaster is sufficiently far away, chances are human beings will figure out a way to stop it before it arrives.” If it worked out that way for the ozone layer, I hope it’ll work out that way for global warming.

    • kaneliomena says:

      You used to hear a great deal more about how humanity was a plague on the earth, how the pure environment unsullied by human touch was an end in itself, etc. etc. That’s why Captain Planet makes Salon look like a paragon of nuance and generosity. You don’t hear that kind of thing anymore.

      I don’t think it ever went away. These are just from one recent reddit thread about garbage piling up in Yosemite National Park as a result of the government shutdown:

      27 tons in just 11 days?!?! Am I missing something here, or are humans really just this shitty once no one is around to clean up after them and enforce the rules?

      We’re the worst. Humans are a blight in the current time. And before some /r/all browser breaks out the “but we’re the only species that has made all these cool discoveries and gone to space” argument that makes my bile swell, consider that we’re the only species who deliberately pulls stunts like this and is raping the planet

      We are a galactic cancer and Earth is about to whip up a furious fever to try and get rid of us.

      Mars better hope we’re not contagious.

      The “fever to get rid of humans” metaphor seems to show up often in discussions about climate change.

  61. I’m trying to think what the best counterargument to this would be – the best case that we really do need to consider species extinction a dire concern.

    For me its partly about consistency in ethics. We know that scope insensitivity and familiarity bias may mean we don’t have a strong intuitive reaction to hearing that thouands of people died in a disaster in another country, but when we’re trying to be rational we extrapolate moral value to them anyway. To me it seems the relationship I have to those people might be similar to the relationship humanity as a whole has with other species. Yes we have close relationship with a handful of species, but if we are consistent in our values we assign inherent value to them. We might apply a discount rate based upon genetic relatedness, but it makes little sense to do so because of familiarity. We might also apply an instrumental value to species, as we do to people, but that’s not reason to exclude direct/terminal value.

    Saving the Whales : “Verdict: Environmental movement successfully solved this problem.”

    On an unrelated note, I would love to think the whale issue is solved, but I’m that graph seems a little premature to declare victory? Also, I’ll just note that Japan has withdrawn from the IWC and announced resumption of commercial whaling. Don’t know enough about it to comment, just seemed relevant:
    https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-12-26/japan-government-to-restart-commercial-whaling-in-july/10668756

    • Correction:
      * Yes we have close relationship with a handful of species, but if we are consistent in our values we assign inherent value to other species in a way that isn’t dependent on familiarity

      • I gotta take more time to proof my comments. Now I’m a little less in a rush, here’s a third attempt at wording the first point of the above post sensibly:

        For me its partly about consistency in ethics.

        In rationalism many of us try to account for scope insensitivity and familiarity bias. So though the death of people in another country doesn’t emotionally effect us in the same way as say the death of our neighbours, we can still assign moral value to unfamiliar people and act accordingly (eg. Effective Altruism tends to do this).

        Our relationship to distant people is in some ways similar to humanity’s (as a species) relationship to other species. Yes we may not have a strong emotional attachment to an obscure shrew or species of fern, but just because we don’t derive personal benefit doesn’t mean we shouldn’t assign moral value, especially if we’re asking what ethics should human organizations or humanity collectively have. I personally think a discount rate applied based on genetic relatedness to humanity (ie. prioritise primates, then mammals, and so on…) makes sense, but I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to only value species based on aesthetic uniqueness, any more than we should do that for people.

    • nkurz says:

      I would love to think the whale issue is solved, but I’m that graph seems a little premature to declare victory?

      It also struck me as really strange to call the problem “solved”. While it’s great that the population seems to be increasing, it’s still down 90% from historic levels. There are only 10-20,000 Blue Whales in the entire world, that is to say, there is about 1-2 per 1,000,000 humans. Ecologically, I have trouble believing that this is a desirable ratio.

      Perhaps more simply, Blue Whales are still classified as an “endangered species” that is “seriously at risk of extinction”. While the “Save the Whales” movement probably helped to stabilize the situation for the moment, it sure doesn’t feel solved. Instead, it seems like a solid example of a problem that has disappeared from public consciousness without actually being solved.

      • I actually wondered if Scott meant that ironically, as he seems to give some indication of dark humour in his commentary of the graph. But I’m not sure.

        • Dalben says:

          I interpreted it more that the necessary steps to save them had been done and there wasnt really much more to do than wait and yell at the few places still whaling.

          So the problem has been “solved” in that we came up with a solution, implemented it, and it’s working and we don’t need any more save the whales laws or anything. But obviously the whales have not been completely saved, and in fact have just begun recovering.

        • nkurz says:

          I briefly wondered that too, until in the next section he went on to add up the results and counted it as a full win without further comment. So at this point I’m pretty sure that irony was not intended, and that Scott simply has a very different standard for ecological-wellness than I do.

  62. xjkey says:

    Technical note re: species extinction.

    0. Terminologically, this agenda was relabeled biodiversity loss.

    1. This is usually counted via inverting some scaling law between area and biodiversity. What is actually counted is area.

    2. In some range of area sizes in some systems, the scaling law can be approximated by a power law.

    3. Based on a conversation with one expert of the field, my impression is.
    – The usually used alarmist estimates are often based on using these approximations badly, with bad functional forms of the law, with artifacts from sampling, and similar problems.
    – If you dig into literature, you will find people pointing out that the actual scaling laws are different, species–area relationships always overestimate extinction rates from habitat loss, it actually depnds on when you loose the area, etc.

    5. My overall conclusion… the use of the scaling laws is a actually a good way how to count it, so you can estimate how many species go extinct even if you dont know their names. Unfortunately what percolates to popular media is often alarmist nonsense.

  63. kaneliomena says:

    There was a brief blip as cities figured out how to pay for more waste disposal, and then nobody ever worried about the problem again. Recycling remained inefficient and of dubious benefit, and never really caught on.

    The EPA appears to disagree:

    The total quantity of MSW generated in the U.S. grew steadily from 88 million tons (MT) in 1960 to a peak of 259 MT in 2014 (Exhibit 1). Of the MSW generated in 1960, 6 percent was recovered through recycling, and 94 percent was landfilled or disposed of using other methods (including burning) (Exhibit 1). In 2014, 26 percent of MSW was recycled, 9 percent was composted, 13 percent was combusted with energy recovery, and 53 percent was landfilled or disposed of using other methods (Exhibit 1). The last several decades have seen steady growth in recycling and composting, while the total amounts landfilled peaked in 1990 (145 MT) and have generally declined since then (136 MT in 2014).

    The actual environmental benefits of recycling, composting and incineration compared to landfilling may be disputed, but the trend doesn’t seem consistent with people simply figuring out how to make more and better landfills and not worrying about the problem ever again.

  64. Candide III says:

    Every so often some webzine or VR-holozine or whatever will publish a “Whatever Happened To Global Warming” story

    Whatever Happened to Global Cooling (BMJ)
    Whatever Happened to Global Cooling? (Discover)
    How the Global Cooling Story Came to Be (Scientific American)
    Fake “global cooling” news persists and propagates (Physics Today)
    The last two lament the fact that there are still people around who remember the 1970s cooling scare and excoriate the unrepentant sinners who attempt to draw malicious and entirely unjustified parallels with the current warming scare. The Physics Today article is particularly bad: I am shocked to see such an overtly political text in a (formerly) respected publication.

    Regarding the broader change of the environmental movement, a person I know very well used to work for Greenpeace when it first came to Ukraine at the very end of the 80s. At that time Greenpeace in Ukraine had i.a. equipped a chemical testing laboratory and was conducting research in the use of pesticides, food quality etc. A few years later, the then president of Greenpeace David McTaggart was ousted by the younger generation who preferred self-chaining and banner-stretching to more constructive activities with less media visibility. The laboratory was closed down and its remains can still be seen on the premises of the former Institute of Public Hygiene in Kyiv.

    • BPC says:

      Wait, are you actually going to complain that it’s unfair to criticize those people? The parallels are entirely unjustified, because even a cursory look at the 1970s cooling scare shows how fundamentally different it was. For starters, the vast majority of scientific papers at the time predicted warming on the basis of CO2. The actual science was quite clear in this regards. The scare was primarily the result of the popular media at the time – as opposed to the current global warming concerns, which are driven largely by the overwhelming scientific consensus in the field of climatology.

      Then there’s the question of why they predicted cooling. Seems weird, right? Well, reading the actual papers, they predicted cooling because of pollution, particularly sulfur compounds in the atmosphere reflecting sunlight away from the earth. And their predictions failed because this is what happened to sulfur compounds in the atmosphere: https://ourworldindata.org/air-pollution Notice how the trend slows drastically in the 70s, stops and reverses in the 80s, and now we have significantly less air pollution? You might as well give the people worried about the ozone layer shit because the ozone layer is recovering – they were wrong in their doomsaying because we rolled up our arms and fixed the problem.

      That the popular news media dropped the ball somewhat, or that you can find a Time article about global cooling somewhere, does not help your case. It’s pretty easy to find some piece of popular media fucking up just about any scientific subject. Even that politicians were on board – look at how many politicians are anti-GMO, or how certain influential politicians think bringing a snowball into congress refutes global warming (it would be funny if this issue wasn’t incredibly serious – how stupid do you have to be to pull a stunt like that?).

      It is entirely fair to say that the people still drawing parallels between the global cooling scare of the 70s and the current concern about global warming are at best badly misinformed and at worst actively spreading propaganda. There is no reasonable parallel to be made.

      • Deiseach says:

        It is entirely fair to say that the people still drawing parallels between the global cooling scare of the 70s and the current concern about global warming are at best badly misinformed and at worst actively spreading propaganda. There is no reasonable parallel to be made.

        I had a bit of argy-bargy with someone on here about this very thing a while back. I don’t know if you were around for the 70s “New Ice Age” thing but I was. And I’m going to predict that in twenty to thirty years, people like you will be huffing and puffing about how comparing the global warming scare with [current concern of the day] are “at best badly misinformed and at worst actively spreading propaganda”. I’ll be glad if that is so because it means that the current scaremongering is just that, like all the other environmental scaremongering I lived through.

        But please don’t try to tell us who were around for it in actuality that we don’t know what we’re talking about when we compare the scare then with the scare now. We remember it quite well, thank you, and can compare our memories with what is happening today.

        • wysinwygymmv says:

          But please don’t try to tell us who were around for it in actuality that we don’t know what we’re talking about when we compare the scare then with the scare now. We remember it quite well, thank you, and can compare our memories with what is happening today.

          Did you miss the part where the majority of climate science papers during the global cooling media furor predicted long-term warming, and that this is the primary reason why that media furor should be distinguished from the global warming media furor?

          For similar reasons, one might not want to compare the Satanic Panic media furor to the ISIS media furor. Not because they are not similar in tone and imagery, but because the Satanic cults mostly did not exist and ISIS does.

          Note I’m not endorsing the claim here — others below argue it is false and I haven’t had a chance to evaluate those arguments yet. But you seem to ignore it entirely.

        • BPC says:

          Can you compare the existing scientific literature too?

          You were there. Were you actively studying the science, or were you paying attention to newspaper headlines in popular publications that may or may not have had a single dedicated science journalist on their staff? Your memories do not match the actual evidence available, and I’m going with the one I can personally verify.

          • Your argument is correct from the standpoint of someone who is actively studying the scientific literature, but almost nobody is. We all get most of our information at second (or third, fourth, fifth) hand. The reason most people who believe global warming is a terrible problem believe it isn’t that they have read the IPCC reports, still less the academic papers that feed into them. It’s that they have been told it is a terrible problem by newspapers, magazines, their (non-climatologist) college professor, or other sources. The fact that they were told similar things by similar sources in the past and they turned out to be false is a good reason to discount that sort of information, to shift from “it’s a terrible problem” to “it might be a terrible problem but I really don’t know.”

            If one cares enough, one can take the further step of trying to look at more reliable sources of information. I’ve been doing that for quite a long time now, and reached a different conclusion than you have–I think warming is clearly real, probably anthropogenic, but that there is little reason to believe the net effects will be large and negative. In defense of that conclusion I sometimes quote the same authorities you would, such as the IPCC or Nordhaus.

            But most people don’t take that further step. I pretty much gave up arguing climate issues on FB after I concluded, from responses to a post of mine, that almost nobody on either side of the issue understood the greenhouse effect.

          • nkurz says:

            @DavidFriedman:

            > almost nobody on either side of the issue understood the greenhouse effect

            Do you mean by this:

            that A) few people understand that higher levels of CO2 trap slightly more outgoing thermal radiation causing a small long term increase in average temperature.

            or B) few people understand that the direct greenhouse effect is small and probably manageable, and that the real uncertainty is how the earth as a complex system will react to this small increase in absorbed energy.

            A seems unlikely (but maybe I misunderstand or overestimate), but B (which I personally think is true) doesn’t seem well described by your wording.

          • What I mean is that most people do not realize that the greenhouse effect depends on a greenhouse gas being more transparent to short wave length light than to long. Most simply view CO2 as an insulator, without realizing that an insulator would reduce both incoming and outgoing radiation. The context in which I raised the question was a video that supposedly demonstrated that CO2 was a greenhouse gas, but only worked if you didn’t understand what a greenhouse gas was.

            The sponsors of the video were Cleveland Museum of Natural History and the Clean Air Conservancy.

            Here is a blog post of mine on the issue.

          • nkurz says:

            @DavidFriedman

            I looked at your blog post and comments, and then watched the video. While it does suggest that one probably shouldn’t use the Cleveland Museum of Natural History as one’s authority on global warming, I think it’s a stretch to use this as evidence that “few almost nobody on either side of the issue understood the greenhouse effect”.

            More specifically, I think your first commenter Jon got things mostly right. The basic issue with the video is that the child claims that the infrared lamps are standing in for the “IR emitted by the earth”. In actuality, as Jon pointed out in his first post, relative to thermal radiation of the earth, the near-IR heatlamps (probably centered around 1µm with the visible red filtered out) actually are closer the incoming sunlight (around .5µm) than the thermal IR (closer to 10µm).

            So yes, it’s not a great demo, and doesn’t actually show what it claims. I’m not sure why the child didn’t use visible light to irradiate the containers. My guess would be that’s what he tried first (based on the coaching he received) but the effect wasn’t large enough to measure. So then (based again on coaching) he changed to heat lamps and it appeared to work, although not for the reasons he was likely given. But I don’t think it shows that few people understand the greenhouse effect. Although maybe it does show that not enough people publicizing cute stories presented by children care all that much about truth…

          • the near-IR heatlamps (probably centered around 1µm with the visible red filtered out) actually are closer the incoming sunlight (around .5µm) than the thermal IR (closer to 10µm).

            If so, it would be a demonstration of a reverse greenhouse effect–CO2 blocking incoming radiation, which would make the Earth cooler, not hotter.

            To demonstrate the greenhouse effect you have to show selective absorption–more of long wave length than short. The video provides zero evidence of that and gives no suggestion that it is needed.

            My conclusion that almost nobody on either side understood the greenhouse effect was based not on the video but on the response on FB to my posting something about it.

          • nkurz says:

            > CO2 blocking incoming radiation, which would make the Earth cooler

            Until recently I’d also thought this, but I don’t think this is necessarily true. To the extent that the Earth can be modeled as a “gray body”, the equilibrium temperature should be independent of absorption. Consider the steady state: incoming solar radiation stays constant, and the only way we can lose heat to space is via radiation. If there is no frequency-selective greenhouse effect, the “insulating blanket” stops heat from leaving the earth just as well as it stops it from entering. It’s possible that the second order effects of atmospheric physics end up causing a cooler earth, but I don’t think it’s obvious that more CO2 in the atmosphere results in a lower surface temperature.

            > The video provides zero evidence of that and gives no suggestion that it is needed.

            I’m quibbling about details at this point, but as an absolute statement this isn’t true. If you pause the video at 55s, the diagram does illustrate the actual greenhouse effect: https://youtu.be/q0kIaCKPlH4?t=55. The neccessary details may not be present in the narration, but the evidence is there in the video.

            I wasn’t actually responding to quibble, though. Instead, I was wondering if you’d seen Judith Curry’s assessment of the recent revision of the National Climate Assessment. I think you might like it. Like you, she thinks that there is a great deal of “overconfidence” regarding some of the likely effects of climate change. This post is largely about the causes of that overconfidence, and how it can be addressed:

            The most disturbing point here is that overconfidence seems to ‘pay’ in terms of influence of an individual in political debates about science. There doesn’t seem to be much downside for the individuals/groups to eventually being proven wrong. So scientific overconfidence seems to be a victimless crime, with the only ‘victim’ being science itself and then the public who has to live with inappropriate decisions based on this overconfident information

            https://judithcurry.com/2019/01/02/national-climate-assessment-a-crisis-of-epistemic-overconfidence

          • peak.singularity says:

            That “epistemic overconfidence” post was interesting…
            then I stumbled on this :

            Apart from the epistemic vices of individual climate scientists (activism seems to the best predictor of such vices)

            Weird, I thought that for scientists, “leaving their ivory tower” to try to have a more direct effect on the world (if the situation seemed dire enough to warrant it) was generally considered to be a virtue, rather than a vice?

            See for instance the Einstein–Szilárd letter to Roosevelt, then the Russell–Einstein Manifesto…

          • quanta413 says:

            Weird, I thought that for scientists, “leaving their ivory tower” to try to have a more direct effect on the world (if the situation seemed dire enough to warrant it) was generally considered to be a virtue, rather than a vice?

            Personally I don’t think it’s a virtue or a vice. It depends entirely on what you’re doing in the ivory tower vs outside of it. Lots of scientists would probably benefit everyone more if they documented their work better and wrote less ridiculous claims in their abstracts and stopped trying to tune their papers to get into Nature or Science. But some more modest scientists might benefit everyone more if they engaged better (whether with other scientists or the public). Saw a criticism recently of Maxwell for how he barely even got his colleagues to notice how important his work was.

            If I’m reading the quote right, the vice isn’t engagement, it’s epistemic overconfidence. That there is a correlation in engagement through media or politics and epistemic overconfidence isn’t super surprising though, because it’s harder to get people’s attention about science if you promise less. I think the correlation would drop if the measure of engagement was something like “spends weekends teaching children about their subject as part of outreach”.

      • herbert herberson says:

        Thank you

      • albatross11 says:

        This whole topic is like 95% about what major media outlets decide are interesting, newsworthy stories this year, and 5% or less about what either scientists or activists think are important issues. And one thing media outlets are really good at is finding some kind of moral panic story or scary danger to your children story, and running with it without bothering to understand any of the relevant facts or science or statistics. Many of the journalists involved are innumerate, but even the ones who can read the papers or understand the analysis don’t have any incentive to do so, because the moral panic or threat-to-your-children story sells papers/gets clicks.

      • Glen Raphael says:

        @BPC writes regarding the 1970s “global cooling” scare:

        For starters, the vast majority of scientific papers at the time predicted warming on the basis of CO2

        False.

        I’m sorry, but if you believe this then YOU are the one who is, as you say, “at best badly misinformed”. Even if we use your own side’s (questionable) estimates of what constitutes “a warming-predicting paper” or “a cooling-predicting paper”, in the early 1970s there were individual years and ranges of years in which “cooling-predicting” published scientific papers were either more common or more cited (or both, but especially the latter) than “warming-predicting” ones. I litigated this question previously on this blog (arguing against Murphy and Picone) in a 2016 thread that starts here. Specifically I dissect key bits of the relevant survey paper (Peterson & Connolley 2008) and some claims made about it by the propaganda site SkS which people on your side of the argument seem to have believed without checking.

        Please read that whole thread so we don’t have to rehash it again here.

        (Or at a minimum, at least read my concluding post from that thread.)

        • xq says:

          in the early 1970s there were individual years and ranges of years in which “cooling-predicting” published scientific papers were either more common or more cited

          Looking at the graphs in Peterson & Connolley:

          More common: in 1971 there were two cooling-predicting papers to one warming-predicting paper. Every other year there were equal or more warming-predicting papers.

          More cited: The two 1971 cooling-predicting papers were more cited than the warming-predicting 1971 paper. In every other year, the warming-predicting papers published that year were equally or more cited than the cooling-predicting papers.

          None of this contradicts “the vast majority of scientific papers at the time predicted warming on the basis of CO2” unless you interpret “at the time” very narrowly.

          • Glen Raphael says:

            @xq:

            None of this contradicts “the vast majority of scientific papers at the time predicted warming on the basis of CO2” unless you interpret “at the time” very narrowly.

            As I go into in the thread discussion, to reach that conclusion you need an extremely loose interpretation of “vast majority” and also a very loose interpretation of “predicted warming”. From 1970 through 1974 the single most-cited paper (with 144 citations) in P&C’s collection was a clear “predicted catastrophic cooling” paper. P&C inflated their by-year article count on the “predicted warming” side by including (a) BOOKS (that is: not papers), (b) papers with zero citations, and worst of all (c) papers that didn’t “predict warming” but merely discussed effects of CO2 on climate WITHOUT assessing the net overall impact.

            I define “at the time” as “in the early 1970s”. The reason global cooling was popular in the press is that scientists at the time had ACTUALLY WORRIED about it; this concern is indeed reflected in the scientific literature of the day, including (most notably) articles such as Rasool, S.I., and S.H. Schneider, 1971: Atmospheric carbon dioxide and aerosols: Effects of large increases on global climate, a paper which assesses both the effects of aerosols AND that of CO2 and concludes with regard to a plausible NET effect of BOTH factors (in the last sentence of the abstract): “such a temperature decrease over the whole globe is believed to be sufficient to trigger an ice age.”

            It’s not sufficient to cite Peterson & Connoley, you have to actually look at what they did.

            One can make a science-based argument that “this time it’s different”, but to claim there wasn’t substantial support for the global cooling hypothesis by scientists as reflected in the scientific literature, is engaging in – dare I say it – denialism.

          • xq says:

            You said, and I criticized:

            in the early 1970s there were individual years and ranges of years in which “cooling-predicting” published scientific papers were either more common or more cited

            But you don’t defend this in your most recent post, choosing instead to move on to other issues. Are you conceding that this argument, focused on the single year 1971, is not good? You would retract that line from your above post if you could?

            P&C inflated their by-year article count on the “predicted warming” side by including…papers that didn’t “predict warming” but merely discussed effects of CO2 on climate WITHOUT assessing the net overall impact.

            They included “cooling” papers that did that also. I haven’t read every paper, but e.g. Twomey 1977 is included as a cooling paper but doesn’t make any prediction of cooling; it’s just looking at the effects of aerosols. Do you have evidence they applied different standards to the different categories? Are there “cooling” papers they should have included but missed?

            As for Rasool 1971: P&C give a bunch of cites that responded to this paper; did you take a look? You can start with the letter by Charleson, who writes:

            For all these reasons, we conclude that a prediction of an aerosol-induced ice age is not justified. Just the opposite is possible, but convincing evidence or argument in support of either conclusion is lacking.

            So you have one paper in support of the idea that two scientists thought an ice age was imminent (conditional on a large increase in aerosols that didn’t happen, and subject to a lot of acknowledged uncertainty). The conclusion of that paper was immediately opposed by others in the field and was not widely adopted. It got a lot of cites, but if you actually look at those cites, they don’t support the ice age claim. What are we supposed to take from this, exactly?

        • wysinwygymmv says:

          You come off rather badly in that exchange:
          1. You keep harping the media reports in the midst of several people acknowledging the media furor while pointing out that scientific papers at the time tended to favor warming predictions.
          2. You seem to miss that the caption on the graph is referring to cumulative papers throughout the period rather than the total on any particular year.
          3. You fixate on 1971 despite it being a clear outlier.

          You come across as very biased towards the “scientific global cooling conspiracy” hypothesis despite your own citation providing convincing evidence to the contrary.

          • Glen Raphael says:

            @wysinwygymmv:

            You keep harping the media reports in the midst of several people acknowledging the media furor

            (1) One specific person – the one I was explicitly responding to – repeatedly claimed the media reports had only been in excitable low-quality periodicals, not in “serious” newspapers/magazines. This claim was false; to respond to it I had to reference a large list of articles from a diverse array of sources including the Washington Post, Scientific American, etc. If you already knew that there were hundreds of articles about global cooling across a wide variety of publications, I wasn’t arguing with you, so feel free to ignore that bit.

            (2) the caption was at best ambiguous/misleading and at worst false. If we resolve the caption such as to make it not-false, we also reveal it to be weirdly arbitrary.

            (3) an accurate assessment of what people are worried about over a period of time has to include the outliers as well. Like the 4-year period in which using P&S’s filter the single most-cited article relating to climate spoke of triggering an ice age.

            Alas, when arguing with people who are powerfully attached to unreasonable beliefs, it can sometimes be hard not to seem “fixated” or “harping”. 🙂

        • BPC says:

          So let’s start with the basics here. You cite Rasool et al., but Rasool et al. is saying exactly what I was saying with regards to aerosol pollution:

          An increase by only a factor of 4 in global aerosol background concentration may be sufficient to reduce the surface temperature by as much as 3.5°K. If sustained over a period of several years, such a temperature decrease over the whole globe is believed to be sufficient to trigger an ice age.

          Were they wrong? Maybe, maybe not, but either way it’s kind of irrelevant, because we collectively decided that aerosol pollution was a problem. And while “solved” is too strong a word, aerosols peaked in the 80s and have been on the decline since. “If you get eaten by a lion, you will die.” “I’m not dying, clearly this is all humbug.” “You weren’t eaten.” “So?!” So even if I take it entirely at face value that this paper was the most influential climate paper of the entire decade, and that nothing else matters, the whole argument still makes absolutely zero sense. In the 70s, a very influential paper predicted that aerosol pollution would cause a new ice age. In the 80s and 90s, we curbed aerosol pollution and therefore that paper’s predictions were wrong. Therefore the current scientific consensus about climate change is questionable?

          Even if that paper was simply bad science from front to back (I see no reason to believe that), even if the scientific consensus in the 70s was completely backwards nonsense based on bad science front to back (the most convenient possible world for your claims, one that you’re miles away from establishing in any meaningful way)… the 70s was nearly 50 years ago. We’re heading towards half a century since any of those papers were published, and nearly as long since they were relevant or driving the conversation. At this point it’s a bit like giving Arrhenius shit and expecting it to have an effect on the modern bulwark of climate science – we’ve come quite a long way since then. This whole argument is just so mind-numbingly ridiculous. You literally sound like a creationist – “Oh yeah? Well science was wrong before, therefore it’s wrong again now!” It’s such a fundamentally awful argument to begin with that I’m not sure how we even got to the point of debating minutiae like citation counts.

          • Glen Raphael says:

            @BPC:
            The way we got here is that propagandists on both sides insisted on exaggerating the strength of their case. In the case of Peterson & Connolley 2008 I would have had NO COMPLAINT had they merely said:

            (a) the 1970s were a long time ago
            (b) most of the scientific case for global cooling was established in the FIRST HALF of the 1970s and by the time the media had fully seized on it scientific opinion was already starting to shift away from that view.

            Instead, they insisted on using “how to lie with statistics”-style charts and overplaying their hand. Consider that “cumulative citation count” line. If the claim being evaluated is that there was a scare “in the 1970s”, why does the chart start at 1965? And why do they include an early NON-PEER-REVIEWED source (with 130 citations) on the “warming” side? Obviously they did this to give the cumulative “warming” side an early lead. Without those two decisions, “cooling” would have been ahead-or-tied until 1975. So P&S in 2008 made arbitrary decisions regarding what to include and what periods to look at which were designed to make their case look stronger than it was so their allies could use phrases like “the vast majority” that weren’t really justified.

            Which to me seems relevant today since skeptics think alarmist scientists are still doing that. Not what they were doing in 1970, but rather what they were doing in 2008. Overstating the case. As a mathy-nerdy type, I find that kind of thing offensive. Anyone who is about 60% sure of a conclusion but dials their claimed certainty level up to “97%” for rhetorical purposes shouldn’t be surprised to experience pushback, or surprised to see some of the pushback swing too far in the other direction, under a “if they’re lying in the parts I noticed, maybe they’re lying in the other parts too” sort of premise.

  65. A combination of my own worldview and these 90s campaigns led me to become heavily involved in the environmental movement in the 2000s. I held a number of unpaid roles in a well-known environmental organization and got to meet a lot of people in the movement. My views have changed a lot and some stuff makes me cringe now, but I still 100% support the basic principle of the preservation of non-human species. I think that the dynamics of the movement itself have contributed to the decline in interest. For me environmentalism is a group of rational and worthy causes that’s unfortunately sullied by politics and emotionalism, and I’d encourage other rationalists to try to conceptually separate the substance from the marketing.

    The environmental movement faces the same communication problems as any organization or business, getting a complex message out in a world saturated with ideas and starved of time. The fact is that the media has little interest in running a story on a nuanced scientific assessment, and will instead bend over backwards to get themselves a “look at those crazy greenies at it again” story instead. I saw this first hand again and again – no matter how responsible or scientific your message, the media would constantly look to paint greenies as irresponsible or crazy, because that was often the most sellable story. Put one foot wrong you’re painted as a reckless clown or zealous extremist, but be too conservative and you’ll be ignored into obscurity. On top of that you’re demanding changes from companies or governments with literally thousands of times your resources (believe me, they use them too). The movement’s objective is mostly to gain popular support to pressure government or corporate action to actually solve a problem, and so their target audience is not a bunch of highly educated rationalists, but your average Joe/Jane. The only the message that both gets into the media and will motivate Joe and Jane to act? Big tearjerking crisis, act now to prevent certain disaster!

    If you’re smart and/or educated you’re much more likely to spot flaws in environmental messaging, just the same as you might look at most advertising and spot the same kinds of overly emotive appeals in that. Generally, behind the message is something complex, hard to communicate, but ultimately worthy of far greater action than we’re ever likely to take.

    Its probably also worth knowing the movement is largely split between the working professionals who are philosophical greenies and don’t like the world their children will inherit, and the ‘hippie’ crowd who are the stereotypical greenies you see on the street. The latter group is a lot smaller than often perceived, but they’re often the main ones that have the time and inclination for the visible (and possibly annoying) stuff – hanging banners, approaching people in the street, that sort of thing. They’re also sadly not particularly fond of science and research as they should be. Thus the perception of environmentalists is quite skewed – a fairly good chunk of people I worked with had families, an education, and respectable careers in all sorts of fields.

    I also say am quite embarrassed and regretful of the toleration of far-left ideas within the circles I mixed with at the time, mostly in the hippie side of the movement. I think part of the fall of environmentalism has been by a degree of guilt-by-association. There is definitely a problem with the green movement here, though its sometimes exaggerated for political purposes. The movement would do well to make much more effort to be politically agnostic unless absolutely necessary. Often politcal bias would cause environmentalists to overlook perfectly effective solutions in favour of needless antagonism or unrealistic expectations of social change. And I think mixed causes creates mistrust of motives in the eyes of others. But in my opinion there’s overwhelmingly good intentions behind these mistakes, and they should be viewed as acute naivety rather than maliciousness.

    In a democracy you need public support for a policy to be politically viable, and to get public support without big stacks of money you need people willing to do high visibility actions and effectively appeal to people’s emotions. There’s just too much of a coordination problem for companies or politicians risking going it alone without the public support that greenies generate. That’s in your interest even if you’re a leader in government or business, because your labour force and operating environment always depends on the kinds of public goods that environmentalists see as important to defend. So where possible I try to steel-man environmental arguments rather than dismissing them.

    Happy to answer constructive questions about my experiences (no culture war stuff please).

    • reasoned argumentation says:

      The movement’s objective is mostly to gain popular support to pressure government or corporate action

      In a democracy you need public support for a policy to be politically viable, and to get public support without big stacks of money you need people willing to do high visibility actions and effectively appeal to people’s emotions. There’s just too much of a coordination problem for companies or politicians risking going it alone without the public support that greenies generate.

      Both of these quotes say the same thing – environmentalism’s goal is to gain power. This something I don’t think anyone can seriously argue against – after all, power is a necessary condition for accomplishing the goals of your organization if your goals are coercive (non-value judging term here – environmentalists are seeking to use the power of the state to compel people to follow their directives).

      The movement’s objective is mostly to gain popular support to pressure government or corporate action to actually solve a problem

      The second part there has no incentives attached except for people in the organizations that really want to solve problems – others who are in the organization just for the power aspect don’t care so much about the latter part, just about the power implied in the former part. Applicable quote:

      …in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representatives who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.

      • You seem to be impying that some people in the organization I was part of cared about gaining power. You also seem to say that this happens in every organization. I don’t understand your point here, it’s an organization, like literally all organizations, it sucks but humans need them and can’t operate without them. If you’re trying to imply the environmental movement is more power-seeking than other organizations, I can only say my first hand experience is that the opposite is true – it has an unusually high concentration of true believers compared with most I’ve seen (many of whom are highly suspicious of ‘careerists’). I still have pointed critcisms as you can see. A great way to solve this is to solve the environmental problems, then you don’t need the movement, and the ‘second type’ you mention will be forced to move on 🙂

        I also find the use of the word “coercive” to be unusual. Are laws inherently coercive? Would you feel differently if we’re talking about laws protecting property rights?

        • reasoned argumentation says:

          Scott presented a mystery – why has environmentalism dropped off so much as a cultural touchstone since the 90s.

          You described an organization with the aim of gaining power that you and people like you intended to use to solve environmental problems. You describe your experience with the movement in the 2000s – after the peak in the 90s. My interpretation seems to fit very well with your experiences and as a solution to Scott’s mystery.

          In the 90s environmentalism was seen as a very good tool for gaining power so it got academic support as well as favorable journalistic coverage and it attracted a lot of people who were interested in it for the power aspect. By the 2000s it was looking like a bad bet for power so your experiences fit quite well – the power seekers mostly moved on to other areas and the people left were more those concerned with the environment.

          Of course there’s going to be sincere environmental concern that people have. A desire to protect the natural environment is one that almost every thoughtful person has but of course this is why it was seen as a very good way to seek power in the first place.

          • With my previous caveats, I partially agree, while still thinking its important that environmentalism succeeds wherever its goals are scientifically supported (which is most of the time if you separate out the ‘marketing’ aspect I described before).

          • albatross11 says:

            There’s a really important organizational dynamic to think about here. When an organization or movement is small and weird, the people drawn to it tend to have a pretty strong commitment to its goals/ideas/community/whatever. When the world changes so that this same organization, instead of being small and weird, becomes large and mainstream and influential, the kind of people drawn to it changes–more people come whose goal is gaining power over a large organization and its resources, or gaining political power, or making a name for themselves they can use to get other important positions.

            Think about someone becoming a bishop in the early Christian church in 200 AD. They’re not signing up for a position of great power or influence–in fact, they’re probably more likely to be signing up for lots of headaches and hassling by the powerful people in their society. You will have your normal level of human dysfunction and vices, but mostly the people involved will be pretty serious about their beliefs and community.

            Fast forward to 1200 AD. Being a bishop is a *way* nicer job–a path to great influence and wealth and power, a position sought after by important people. The kind of people trying to become a bishop in 1200AD were probably very different from the ones trying to become a bishop in 200AD, and not in a good way.

          • I don’t disagree exactly, but as this applies to all organizations, if we are consistent and not selective, I don’t know how that should change our outlook on environmentalism at all?

          • It shouldn’t change our outlook on environmental issues, but it might help understand features of the environmental movement.

            I’m used to thinking of the same issue in terms of the rice Christian cycle in politics. When socialism is way out of power only real enthusiasts become socialists, which builds a movement with high intellectual quality (Shaw, the Webbs, etc.) which eventually grows. But when it becomes powerful it gets infected by the political equivalent of rice Christians, Chinese who converted because the missionaries had rice, while the now out of power classical liberals/conservatives/whatever shed their opportunist members and only retain those who really believe in the principles. So their intellectual quality goes up, that of their opponents down.

            It’s much more complicated, of course, but I think that’s one element.

          • Well phrased, and I certainly agree that it is factor. I am only suspicious of selective usage, and think the principle broadly is insightful/accurate.

        • Dalben says:

          Yes, laws are inherently coercive, that’s the whole point of them. Society may deem laws worthwhile despite their coercive nature, like coercing people not to murders steal, or emit sulfur compounds into the air, but they are still coercive.

      • Aapje says:

        @reasoned argumentation

        Both of these quotes say the same thing – environmentalism’s goal is to gain power.

        Anyone with ideals who actually tries to effect change is trying to wield/gain power.

        You seem to be disqualifying them based on this, presumably because you dislike their other beliefs and/or their approach that you believe will get implemented if they get (more) power.

        However, your complaint is fully generalizable to all activism. The only reason why you are particularly upset about environmentalists is because their beliefs are furthest from yours, which is not an objective objection.

        Applicable quote:

        Your quote doesn’t actually demonstrate that the second group of people are in it for power. Just because people wield power for other goals than the ostensive goal, doesn’t mean that they wield the power just to wield power.

        Believing that power is the end goal seems to in general be a failure of understanding of the other.

        • reasoned argumentation says:

          Anyone with ideals who actually tries to effect change is trying to wield/gain power.

          You seem to be disqualifying them based on this, presumably because you dislike their other beliefs and/or their approach that you believe will get implemented if they get (more) power.

          Yes to the former – trying to “effect change” is seeking to exercise power, no to the latter – I’m not disqualifying them on that basis (although it really does raise massive suspicions). The goals the organizations have are disconnected from their stated aims. This disconnect is because of a whole set of organizational factors but mainly because the policies are aimed at maximizing power even if the energy of the movement is based on some other factor – which seems to pretty clearly be the case here.

          However, your complaint is fully generalizable to all activism

          Yes it is. This is not something I failed to notice.

          The only reason why you are particularly upset about environmentalists is because their beliefs are furthest from yours

          This actually happens to be exactly backwards. I agree with their stated goals (in contrast to almost every other leftist group where I think both that there’s a lack of alignment between their goals and policies and that I oppose the stated goals).

          Your quote doesn’t actually demonstrate that the second group of people are in it for power. Just because people wield power for other goals than the ostensive goal, doesn’t mean that they wield the power just to wield power.

          The point of the quote isn’t that the average environmentalist is in it for power. The point of the quote is that the environmentalist movement is going to be controlled by those riding the movement for power. This is inevitable in something like a massive distributed organization that takes no real measures to filter out this type of behavior. Presently the effective measure to filter out power seekers is that environmentalism in general is a poor engine for generating and distributing power. (Climate change and climate science is a different story.)

          Believing that power is the end goal seems to in general be a failure of understanding of the other.

          Earlier you posted a link to an “ocean is full of plastic” organization’s web site. Let’s use them as an example of an environmental group. I think the people who contributed money to the organization that runs that site (which is the main action requested on the “what can I do to help” section) are sincere but are simply not knowledgeable about the facts – namely that 90% of the plastic in the ocean comes from 10 rivers in Asia and Africa. Plastic in the ocean is a very important problem for the food chain which needs to be addressed. The organization you linked to though doesn’t want to actually address the problem because it would mean saying and doing a bunch of things that would make them unacceptable to the left – which is bad for the organziation’s bid for a slice of power.

          Different people involved have different end goals.

          • Aapje says:

            The point of the quote is that the environmentalist movement is going to be controlled by those riding the movement for power.

            Yet that part of the quote seems utterly wrong. There are very many activist organizations where the rules and power seem to be in the hands of the genuinely concerned, not mere power-seekers or those primarily interested in certain privileges.

            Of course, those in power tend to be willing to use power and not rarely seek to establish a power base so they can achieve their goals, but that is not the same as merely being after power. It’s merely preference-chaining (to get A, I need to get B).

            The organization you linked to though doesn’t want to actually address the problem because it would mean saying and doing a bunch of things that would make them unacceptable to the left – which is bad for the organziation’s bid for a slice of power.

            They primarily seem to be very oriented on the West or actually mostly on The Netherlands.

            I think that you are completely misinterpreting this. I think that this derives from a puritan alief: we are sinners, should repent and suffer for our sins; combined with a general very common myopic/selfish view of the world.

            Progressive selfishness and shortsightedness tends to look rather silly to those who don’t share the same aliefs, just like conservative selfishness and shortsightedness tends to, to outsiders. Still, that’s not the same as disingenuousness.

            Just like most people, they honestly believe the ‘facts’ that make them feel good.

          • I don’t think it’s valid to point out a fact that you yourself state is true about all organizations, and then single out environmental organizations for criticism on this point. Like I said, in my experience members of this particular movement (that values ‘grass-roots’ pretty heavily) are more opposed to this sort of power-seeking than most. And if you are consistent in this positions, then your opposition should also be to any organization such as governments, businesses, the media etc etc? That would be a principled position, but I’m not sure if living divorced from human civilization is going to be all that practical.

      • dionisos says:

        Both of these quotes say the same thing – environmentalism’s goal is to gain power. This something I don’t think anyone can seriously argue against – after all, power is a necessary condition for accomplishing the goals of your organization if your goals are coercive (non-value judging term here – environmentalists are seeking to use the power of the state to compel people to follow their directives).

        Ok, it seems like normal instrumental convergence.
        But also, on another comment :

        If the model of “environmentalists are just leftists looking for power” is correct then ideally they’d find a real environmental problem and plausibly suggest a solution that requires a massive power and money transfer to them and their allies. The part where the solution actually solves the problem is unnecessary as is the part where the problem is man-made – ideally the problem will get worse the more you apply the solution because that will lead to a positive feedback loop in power. This model correctly explains the total failure to understand that pricing solves most of the problems they can plausibly describe – increasing prices for resources that are scarce don’t require power so they’re not useful for this model’s environmentalists.

        Environmentalists seem to mostly act in accord with this model.

        And I start to fear it is some kind of motte and bailey
        (Just feeling it is going toward this category of things, not saying it is in the category. And to be clearer, I am not accusing you of it)

    • nkurz says:

      Often political bias would cause environmentalists to overlook perfectly effective solutions in favour of needless antagonism or unrealistic expectations of social change.

      Could you give some examples of this? And guesses as to why this approach was taken?

      • For example, taxing environmental harms as a negative externality, proportionally disincentivizing it while allowing highly valuable industry to continue where it is worthwhile to do so. Some activists seem to be outraged by this and are only interested in ‘banning’ activities. I think this comes in part from a rejection of the idea of market forces. To be fair, may in industry naturally would prefer not to pay such a tax. So we often get a laughable situation where we’re forced to choose between two economically foolish solutions/non-solutions. The same applies where you could simply make risky industry activities incur actually proportional liable for harms, so they take economically efficient risk mitigation, rather than banning all activity or putting the costs onto innocent victims / the taxpayer. For example in the case in GE contamination of organic crops, or where there is risk of oil spills, both sides (greenies and industry) seem to oppose what I’d consider to be the fair and efficient market based solutions (you might need an insurance scheme to cover cases where payment of harm is dodged by folding the business).

        Each situation is complex and structuring efficient protections is difficult. IDK what the solution to the politics of it all is.

        • dionisos says:

          Some activists seem to be outraged by this and are only interested in ‘banning’ activities. I think this comes in part from a rejection of the idea of market forces.

          For me at least it is backward, one of the reason I don’t like market forces is that it doesn’t take externalities into account .

          So I am completely in favor of taking that into account, and if we manage to do it correctly, avoiding perverse incentive, I would also like market force more.

    • Mark V Anderson says:

      Another good leftist post! I do have some questions.

      What do you consider to be the most important environmental issues these days? I assume you are highly involved in these issues? Could you give us an overview of the science behind these, and why you think they are the most important? Could you also tell us how most organizations are marketing these issues to make changes?

      I am seriously interested in these questions, not setting up an ambush here. I have been very disappointed with environmentalists in my lifetime. Their issues are important to everyone, but for the most part environmentalists have destroyed their credibility with ridiculous exaggerations. It is true that water pollution and air pollution in the developed world is much better than it was 50 years ago, and environmental laws get the credit for that. But it seems to me these laws were created because everyone was in favor of cleaner water and air, and despite the crazy claims of environmentalists, not because of them. I’d like to know how you think it should be done. Thanks.

      • I don’t think I can give you the answers you’re looking for, partly because I consider myself centrist or centre-left these days (certainly not ‘leftist’), and partly because while I write philosophy that could be considered pro-environment, I haven’t been involved in the environmental movement for years. What I consider the biggest environmental issues and what the environmental movement considers are probably quite different and I can’t speak for them, other than to make the observations of what it was like for me at the time. I do make an effort to research issues a bit before I have an opinion, and I can tell you my own positions on some particular issue, but it probably wouldn’t be that helpful. I’ve done a lit review of the current science on things that effect my philosophy, like the genetics/evolution of cooperation, but say on CC apart from reading some of the IPCC reports I don’t have deep expertise (though I notice some people that are for or against those reports actually haven’t read them).

        Perhaps re the 90s/00s, consider that what you consider the misleading messages were part of an effort to draw the average Jo/Jane’s attention away from TV dramas to these actual problems and, so ended up helping to create the more moderate laws you favour, even if the message itself was something you felt was wrong and needed to oppose or correct. Without the emotive element you oppose, the laws you favour just would never get enough public attention to be enacted. I’ve seen first hand, politicians are very hesitant to legislate a sound scientific agenda unless there is specific public appetite for it.

        In terms how I think it ideally should be done, I’d like to see the scientific community in this area strictly controlled for political bias and maintain an internal culture of political neturality, and then they be given a privleged place of communication to the public and to decision makers that reflects their expertise. I’d like people to hold them in high esteem and to act when they say action is needed. In reality, scientists don’t have the power to communicate without being filtered, sabotaged, blocked or hijacked by the media, politicians on both sides, vested interests, or just people’s apathy and scientific illiteracy. So I guess we’re stuck with the horrible mess we have. For my part I try to encourage a combination of rationalism/scientific thinking and enlightened environmentalism – I guess it seems like that’s what steers us most in the direction towards the ideal I just described. I appreciate for various reasons we’ll never get to that sort of ideal.

        One philosophical idea I think is vital for political neutrality is a sound philosophical notion of objectivity, which is a concept I feel is currently ‘broken’. I’ve tried to do a little thought in that area, and I think others should too.

        • In reality, scientists don’t have the power to communicate without being filtered, sabotaged, blocked or hijacked by the media, politicians on both sides, vested interests, or just people’s apathy and scientific illiteracy.

          All of that is probably true. But the other half of the problem is how you make it in the interest of scientists to provide objective truth. How do you avoid a situation where telling people what they want to hear—where “people” might be fellow members of the academic culture, university administrators, funding agencies, …—serves the scientist’s interest better than telling them the truth? I’m thinking of situations where there isn’t a bright line truth/lie division but a matter of biasing the analysis of a complicated problem to give the desired answer.

          • albatross11 says:

            It’s currently quite practical for scientists to produce podcasts and blogs of high quality that allow smart listeners/readers to bypass the middlemen in the media. See TWIV (this week in virology) for a really first-rate example.

            But a high-quality science podcast done by experts is inherently targeted at a narrow audience–most people are not going to benefit, because you need to have a fair bit of background and a lot of interest in the subject to follow it. It would be nice if the general-audience science coverage didn’t suck, too.

          • I think personal integrity leading to a desire for objectivity as a scientist is present in many cases, especially when magnified by a strong internal culture. I don’t think that can be easily externally incentivized because no regime of rules is currently agile enough to measure objectivity. The internal incentive of integrity is also not strong enough when it has to compete with ‘louder’ incentives, like possibilities of large amounts of money or fame, or constant threats of dismissal. Therefore I’d focus on trying to neutralise the other incentives, rather than trying to monetize objectivity. So I’d probably remove the absurd attempt to quantify publications, make the pay very modest, make jobs more secure, forbid personal publicity, institute peer-review of personal productivity, and harshly punish scientific dishonesty. I’m not sure how many other people would support making academia a bit like an order of monks, but that’s what I’d do.

            I think you also have the problem that objectivity as a concept is basically broken. I think fixing that should provide a better guiding light for academia, which IMHO is currently a little too inclined to believe things are simply a matter of perspective.

          • @citizensearth:

            I wonder if part of the solution you are looking for is a shift towards amateur science. If you look at the origin of sciences, a lot of it was by amateurs–Darwin was educated as a clergyman, the foundation of geology (according to my geologist wife) was work by a gentleman farmer and a mining engineer. Ricardo was a wealthy speculator.

            For the past century+, academic work has been dominated by professionals. If academics are professionals, someone has to decide who to hire and what to pay, which gets you into issues such as publish or perish, academic politics, and the like.

            We are now in a society wealthy enough so that there are a lot of smart people who can make their living doing something boring and devote their real energies to a hobby. The internet means that the random amateur has, in effect, an office next door to the leading expert in his field of interest–and experts, in my experience, are quite often willing to talk to outsiders who are smart and seriously interested in what they are doing.

            That raises the possibility that scientific work could shift back to being something largely done by amateurs for the joy of it, rather than by professionals as a job.

          • John Schilling says:

            Amateur science will however come with its own sources of bias. In particular, the only science that counts is science that is published, and for most scientists the mechanics of preparing work for publication are not the fun part. So we will be depending on whatever it is that motivates an unpaid amateur to write, proof, and format a roughly scientific-grade publication on top of all the work and expense they put into getting publishable results.

            Ego, fame, glory, whatever we call that factor, it is unlikely to be perfectly correlated with the truth, confidence, and importance of a scientific result.

        • Mark V Anderson says:

          One philosophical idea I think is vital for political neutrality is a sound philosophical notion of objectivity, which is a concept I feel is currently ‘broken’. I’ve tried to do a little thought in that area, and I think others should too.

          Yep, this is the issue. I’ve kind of lost my faith that scientists mostly try to be objective. Sure the media often mis-represent them, but I get the impression that most scientists themselves have agendas too, in talking to the public, and unfortunately objectivity is not on top of the list. I’m not sure why I have this impression of scientists, when it is all but impossible to tell what most think through the filter of the media, but that is what I think.

          Our current society norms place objectivity pretty low on the list of important ethics.

          • I’m not sure why I have this impression of scientists, when it is all but impossible to tell what most think through the filter of the media, but that is what I think.

            You can read their published articles, carefully. I haven’t done enough of that to offer an opinion on the average, but I have come across work that is pretty clearly trying to persuade the reader of a claim not supported by the evidence. Here is one of my favorite examples.

          • xq says:

            Seems weak to me.

            It’s true that CO2 increases yields, but changes to temperature, water supply, etc. can reduce yields. Studies tend to find net yield reductions (e.g. here). Even if you disagree with the methodology of these studies, it’s false to imply as you do that an argument climate change will reduce food security requires a claim of nutrition reduction.

            “Threatens” is a weak term in science (could be a problem, could not) and I don’t think expressing how your results could plausibly be important, while acknowledging all the uncertainty around food and nutrient supply, is “propaganda.”

          • It’s true that CO2 increases yields, but changes to temperature, water supply, etc. can reduce yields.

            Could be. But the story wasn’t a claim about the overall effects of climate change, which we don’t know. It was a claim about the effect on crops of increased CO2.

            If increased CO2 results in increasing calorie yield by 30% and iron yield by 20%, is the unbiased, honestly informative, summary of that fact “CO2 makes crops less nutritious”?

          • xq says:

            How not? The nutritional value of a food is expressed for a given quantity.

            They aren’t trying to hide the fact that CO2 can increase yields. They’ve written other papers on it. It’s not the novel finding of this paper.

          • quanta413 says:

            How not? The nutritional value of a food is expressed for a given quantity.

            I don’t think this is a great description of how nutritious a food is. It’s ok if a food is the major dietary source a particular nutrient, but may not quite make sense even then. Just giving an example with made up numbers. If an orange provided 200% of the needed vitamin C for a human, and post some change it provided 180% of the needed vitamin C it wouldn’t really make much sense to say the orange was less nutritious. You only need to eat so much vitamin C and most people are going to eat a whole orange.

            Some micronutrients have negative effects if you eat too much, so in weird cases a drop in concentration could make a food more nutritious in the right dietary context.

            I don’t think it really makes much sense to quantify the nutritiousness of a food isolated from the context of things like “how much of this nutrient do you need?” “how much of this food do people eat?” and “is this food a major dietary source of this nutrient?”.

          • The problem with the view of nutritiousness as ratio of (say) iron to calories is that it assumed that people would eat the same number of calories of the same food after the particular cause being investigated (CO2 fertilization) had sharply increased the amount of food available. To figure out that that was the assumption I had to read pretty carefully through one of the papers—the authors did not make it obvious that that was what they meant. But the conclusion they were arguing for was that people would suffer from getting less iron even if the amount of iron in the wheat produced by an acre increased due to CO2, which depended on that assumption.

          • xq says:

            quanta:
            Sure, but the paper is in the context of populations with zinc deficiency. I don’t think the issues you raise are real problems in this context.

            DavidFriedman:
            AFAICT, the Nature paper does not make the assumption you say it does (you can read it here without a subscription). Its main finding is simply the reduced concentration of zinc and iron in C3 crops.

            Other articles sharing many of the same authors do make that assumption. For example, this Lancet study.

            Here’s how they describe their goal in that study:

            By modelling dietary intake of bioavailable zinc for the populations of 188 countries under both an ambient CO2 and elevated CO2 scenario, we sought to estimate the effect of anthropogenic CO2 emissions on the global risk of zinc deficiency.

            You point out that they are ignoring the increased yields from CO2 and the changes in consumption they might cause. But they are also ignoring the effect of temperature and precipitation from CO2-induced climate change even though that clearly falls under the goal they set out.

            The regions of the world most at risk for zinc deficiency are also the regions of the world most vulnerable to crop yield reductions (even as some temperate regions may see increased yields). In the tropics the CO2 effect tends to be weaker than the temperature/water effect. Because of this, the assumption they make of unchanging diet–which they admit is unrealistic–is conservative.

          • You point out that they are ignoring the increased yields from CO2 and the changes in consumption they might cause. But they are also ignoring the effect of temperature and precipitation from CO2-induced climate change even though that clearly falls under the goal they set out.

            They are not measuring, cannot measure, the effects of CO2 increase on temperature and precipitation, because they don’t know what those affects are. They are directly measuring the effect of CO2 increase on crop plants, and reporting on it. When that report emphasizes the decreased ratio of iron and zinc to calories due to the single change they are measuring while downplaying the increased amount of iron, zinc, and calories due to that same change, it seems to me to be deliberately misleading its audience.

            They could have summarized their result as “CO2 fertilization increases the amount of all nutrients produced by an acre of wheat, while increasing carbohydrates more than minerals. This effect may well be outweighed by decreased yield due to other effects of climate change due to increased CO2.”

            That isn’t what I got from what I read of theirs, or what I think other readers would get.

          • xq says:

            When that report emphasizes the decreased ratio of iron and zinc to calories due to the single change they are measuring while downplaying the increased amount of iron, zinc, and calories due to that same change, it seems to me to be deliberately misleading its audience.

            If this were a review paper you might have a point, but it’s completely normal and appropriate that a report describing a new research finding emphasizes the discovery.

          • quanta413 says:

            Sure, but the paper is in the context of populations with zinc deficiency. I don’t think the issues you raise are real problems in this context.

            It is relevant to their point because they are estimating effects of the estimated CO2 levels ~30-40 years from now. This means that if the diets of people with zinc deficiency change, then the results wouldn’t be relevant.

            If you look at extended table 5, you can see that all the countries with primary dietary intake or iron and zinc from grains are poor. Oddly, the table only gives what % of their intake of their total iron or zinc. It doesn’t show if they are already iron and zinc deficient. I suspect many people in these countries are already iron and zinc deficient from glancing at the literature. If you follow their own citation (citation to “Micronutrient Deficiency Conditions: Global Health Issues”), you’ll find a table of micronutrients and prevalence of their deficiencies. It’s labeled table 1. For zinc deficiency the prevalence is “Estimated high in developing countries”. A quick check of another paper or two seem to agree. If grains are your primary source of zinc, you’re probably poor. Not U.S. poor but third-world poor. The assumption that 50 years from now, people will be equally poor is basically assuming the trends of the past 50 years will reverse. The idea that if trends reversed a solution would be to grow slightly higher in zinc cultivars when these places are already zinc and iron deficient is silly. The solution is fortifying foods like how salt has been iodized in the U.S.

            Iron is more relevant. My quick glance of the literature implies iron deficiency also occurs in developed countries despite access to plenty of iron containing foods.

            Like many studies the data looks good, but the supposed motivation is nonsensical. My personal guess is that the scientists were likely interested in the topic for less sexy reasons, but this choice of motivation landed them a paper in Nature.

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  67. BPC says:

    Just a quick note. Citing WUWT on environmental issues is a lot like citing Answers in Genesis on paleontology. They are well-established bad faith actors and cannot be trusted to honestly report on environmental issues. You seemed to come to the conclusion that they were mostly wrong, but they’re not a sour e worth taking into serious consideration in the first place due to their quite frankly abysmal track record. You can only get basic science so wrong for so long before it starts feeling pretty shifty. As a general rule, sources still touting “climategate” have about the same information value as sources still touting Andrew Wakefield’s 2001 Lancet paper.

    Also, there seem to be quite a few people here who buy into some really stupid denialist ideas with regards to global warming. Maybe a primer on that would be a good idea? You clearly have an audience that is interested in what you have to say; maybe you can convince some of them that global warming is actually a thing.

    (Also consider the above paragraph the way you might consider a paragraph encouraging you to write a primer on the shape of the earth, because maybe you can convince your audience, which seems to contain a disproportionate number of flat earthers.)

    • Candide III says:

      Care to substantiate? (If you’re just going to quote the likes of PZ Myers, George Monbiot and Michael E. Mann, don’t bother.)

      • BPC says:

        Well, for starters, there’s the whole “climategate” thing. Y’know, that big fat nothingburger consisting of out-of-context quotes manufactured to discredit climate science? Watts pushed that hard. He’s still pushing that hard, 8 years later!

        There was his embarrassing defense of Christopher Monckton against Peter Hadfield, which he apparently eventually walked back (also, he gave a platform to Christopher Monckton, which is another strike against him).

        There was his promise to accept the results of BEST, and his subsequent walkback when it didn’t give him the results he wanted.

        There’s his laughable defense of Willie Soon, after it was shown that Soon’s papers weren’t just bad because he’s a lousy scientist, but bad because he was being paid to publish bad science (and did not disclose this payment). https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/feb/21/climate-change-denier-willie-soon-funded-energy-industry

        There’s the fact that he’s funded by the Heritage Foundation.

        Shall I continue? Even barring all of that, what we’re dealing with isn’t some harvard astrophysicist or even a dude with a community college degree in environmental sciences. It’s a weatherman with no background in environmental scientists with a popular blog. If you’re looking for authoritative sources, it’s not just that you can do better, it’s that you can hardly do worse. There’s no reason to cite him; if you insist on finding the denialist point of view you can still find climatologists like Steve McIntyre who insist on being permanently wrong.

        • Alsadius says:

          I can’t speak to the technical issues, but the question of funding is always grossly overplayed in these contexts. Biased organizations fund research and advocacy all the time, and if that’s the worst one can say about an advocate, one’s not saying very much at all. Government funding of orthodox climate researchers doesn’t mean they’re all engaged in a big conspiracy to promote big government, and coal company funding of heterodox climate researchers doesn’t mean that they’re all engaged in a conspiracy to promote big coal.

          A sensible biased funding source will find people who already agree with them, and fund their work. It’s far cheaper than trying to bribe people into hiding their beliefs, the work will usually be better as a result because they believe what they’re saying, and you don’t need to risk ugly “Exxon tried to bribe me!” articles in the New York Times. All you need is a handful of true believers to fund, and they’ll exist even if the mainstream goes in the other direction. You can tell, even from the very small amounts I’ve read, that WUWT is a labour of love for Watt, so I doubt Heritage’s funding makes an iota of difference.

          Also, if fossil fuel companies were trying to find someone to bribe, they’d probably find someone a lot more respectable in the field than Watt, no?

          • wysinwygymmv says:

            A sensible biased funding source will find people who already agree with them, and fund their work. It’s far cheaper than trying to bribe people into hiding their beliefs, the work will usually be better as a result because they believe what they’re saying, and you don’t need to risk ugly “Exxon tried to bribe me!” articles in the New York Times.

            I think it’s more the “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it” factor at work here. E.g, with respect to:

            There was his promise to accept the results of BEST, and his subsequent walkback when it didn’t give him the results he wanted.

            one might argue that the Heritage funding was a factor in Watts ultimately rejecting the results of BEST.

            Assuming that funding from biased sources can influence people not to change their minds in light of new evidence, it is indeed a factor that should be taken into account when assessing the credibility of the source.

          • Alsadius says:

            I agree it should be taken into account, but not nearly as much as is usually implied by “X is funded by Y!” arguments. Confirmation bias affects people with no funding at all, remember. Funding may make it a bit stronger, but I don’t think it’s the dominant factor.

          • fion says:

            if that’s the worst one can say about…

            Except BPC said lots of other stuff about him that sounds pretty bad too.

        • Paul Zrimsek says:

          Y’know, that big fat nothingburger consisting of out-of-context quotes manufactured to discredit climate science

          Is “manufactured” intended to modify “nothingburger”, or “quotes”? If the latter: citation very, very, very badly needed.

    • Radford Neal says:

      Here’s an interesting climategate email, from Tom Wigley to Phil Jones (a member of the unit of which Wigley was the Director), about an accusation of scientific fraud regarding a paper co-authored by Jones. Consider the attitude about such matters it shows. Of particular interest is how Wigley advises Jones that the right way to handle such issues is to cleverly parse sentences so as to argue that they aren’t false, even though any reader would certainly interpret them in a way that is false. It’s an interesting comment on the general state of ethics in the field that he would think such a ploy would work!

      From: Tom Wigley
      To: Phil Jones
      Subject: [Fwd: CCNet Xtra: Climate Science Fraud at Albany University?]-FROM TOM W
      Date: Mon, 04 May 2009 01:37:07 -0600
      Cc: Ben Santer

      Content-Type: text/plain; charset=UTF-8; format=flowed
      X-MIME-Autoconverted: from 8bit to quoted-printable by ueacanitdb01.uea.ac.uk id n457EfQ5005459

      Phil,

      Do you know where this stands? The key things from the Peiser items are …

      “Wang had been claiming the existence of such exonerating documents for
      nearly a year, but he has not been able to produce them. Additionally,
      there was a report published in 1991 (with a second version in 1997)
      explicitly stating that no such documents exist. Moreover, the report
      was published as part of the Department of Energy Carbon Dioxide
      Research Program, and Wang was the Chief Scientist of that program.”

      and

      “Wang had a co-worker in Britain. In Britain, the Freedom of Information
      Act requires that data from publicly-funded research be made available.
      I was able to get the data by requiring Wang’s co-worker to release it,
      under British law. It was only then that I was able to confirm that Wang
      had committed fraud.”

      You are the co-worker, so you must have done something like provide
      Keenan with the DOE report that shows that there are no station records
      for 49 of the 84 stations. I presume Keenan therefore thinks that it was
      not possible to select stations on the basis of …

      “… station histories: selected stations have relatively few, if any,
      changes in instrumentation, location, or observation times”
      [THIS IS ITEM “X”]

      Of course, if the only stations used were ones from the 35 stations
      that *did* have station histories, then all could be OK. However, if
      some of the stations used were from the remaining 49, then the above
      selection method could not have been applied (but see below) — unless
      there are other “hard copy” station history data not in the DOE report
      (but in China) that were used. From what Wang has said, if what he says
      is true, the second possibility appears to be the case.

      What is the answer here?

      The next puzzle is why Wei-Chyung didn’t make the hard copy information
      available. Either it does not exist, or he thought it was too much
      trouble to access and copy. My guess is that it does not exist — if it
      did then why was it not in the DOE report? In support of this, it seems
      that there are other papers from 1991 and 1997 that show that the data
      do not exist. What are these papers? Do they really show this?

      Now my views. (1) I have always thought W-C W was a rather sloppy
      scientist. I therefore would not be surprised if he screwed up here. But
      ITEM X is in both the W-C W and Jones et al. papers — so where does it
      come from first? Were you taking W-C W on trust?

      (2) It also seems to me that the University at Albany has screwed up. To
      accept a complaint from Keenan and not refer directly to the complaint
      and the complainant in its report really is asking for trouble.

      (3) At the very start it seems this could have been easily dispatched.
      ITEM X really should have been …

      “Where possible, stations were chosen on the basis of station histories
      and/or local knowledge: selected stations have relatively few, if any,
      changes in instrumentation, location, or observation times”

      Of course the real get out is the final “or”. A station could be
      selected if either it had relatively few “changes in instrumentation”
      OR “changes in location” OR “changes in observation times”. Not all
      three, simply any one of the three. One could argue about the science
      here — it would be better to have all three — but this is not what
      the statement says.

      Why, why, why did you and W-C W not simply say this right at the start?
      Perhaps it’s not too late?

      —–

      I realise that Keenan is just a trouble maker and out to waste time, so
      I apologize for continuing to waste your time on this, Phil. However, I
      *am* concerned because all this happened under my watch as Director of
      CRU and, although this is unlikely, the buck eventually should stop with me.

      Best wishes,
      Tom

      P.S. I am copying this to Ben. Seeing other peoples’ troubles might make
      him happier about his own parallel experiences.

    • Just a quick note. Citing WUWT on environmental issues is a lot like citing Answers in Genesis on paleontology. They are well-established bad faith actors and cannot be trusted to honestly report on environmental issues.

      In my experience, their stories vary a good deal in quality. It’s a useful site for seeing what arguments can be made on that side of the issue–but you can’t assume that a conclusion is true just because they say it is.

      But that’s equally true of other sites. In particular, skepticalscience.com, which you recently cited, is run by John Cook, who has provably lied in print about his own work.

      I don’t expect you to believe that on my say so—and you shouldn’t, I’m biased too—but the link goes to an old blog post of mine where I link to the evidence, all conveniently webbed by Cook et. al.

      One further point. You offer, as one reason not to trust WUWT, that the man who runs it is a weatherman, not a climatologist. But sks, which you do trust, is run by someone whose educational qualification is an undergraduate degree in physics. Both Cook and Watts have, in effect, made a career out of their (opposite) roles in the climate controversy.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think it’s very useful to find the people who disagree with me and figure out why. If they’re wrong, I’d rather waste time figuring that out than never check anyone who disagrees at all.

      In this case, I am super happy I found the Watts article – they were the only reason I heard at all about NAPAP, and pointed me to the NYT article supporting their interpretation of NAPAP as basically right. Every other source I checked said acid rain was 100% not exaggerated in any way and covered up the entire NAPAP incident, which I think was a very limited perspective on the problem.

      In general, I think it’s really important to read crackpots – not because they are always right about the thing they are being crackpots about, but because they’re the best way to find the weak points in the mainstream narrative. You can always adjust away the crackpottish parts later.

      • On the specific issue of WUWT, it’s worth noting that Watts doesn’t write the articles, he selects them, and he doesn’t limit his selection to articles that agree with each other. At the moment, the site has an article rebutting a previous article that attacked Nordhaus for using too low a discount rate.

  68. Alsadius says:

    I think the oceanic plastic issue is a strong candidate for an issue that has a 90s-style approach to it in pop culture. I see a lot of the same Captain Planet ethos around straw bans that I did back when…well, when I was watching Captain Planet at age 7.

  69. yonah says:

    a few thoughts:
    1) sometimes propaganda campaigns or widely-broadcast public interest messages produce their own backlash, since the implanted ideas were not quite organically accepted by the human vectors (or, second hand, by their children, or parents). This is even more true when an information campaign is conducted via cartoonish images rather than actual data (which is often the case), since the intellectual basis for the induced conviction will be more shoddy, and people hoping to free themselves of mental slavery in one way or another might throw the mutant baby out with the acid rain. (Another interesting case study in this is the relentless milk ads from the 90s, from “Milk: It does a body good” to “Got Milk?”– followed by revelations of antibiotic and growth hormone additives and the astounding growth of milk-alternatives such as soy and almond milk in the 2000s).

    2) The 90s was the Clinton / Gore era, and Gore in particular put his mouth to these issues, specifically calling upon children. I would not be surprised if that Administration or their regulatory allies actually worked with or somehow induced children’s programming to include more environmental messages, or to begin news campaigns on such items as rainforest deforestation and ocean pollution. Not that all these dynamics can be traced to this period; but it is a more visible version of the truth that political power can guide cultural conversations far more broadly than we tend to think in an open society (the Russian disinformation campaigns are also an example of this!).

    3) The changing media landscape is always a factor in questions of public consciousness. Even in the 90s, there were way more employed journalists, local newspapers and news networks, and interest group newsletters. I myself got newsletters from Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network and sponsored a whale that somehow managed to correspond with me by snail mail. Before Google searches and news aggregators / customizers became all of these things. Indeed the gutting of the journalistic profession in this country by the “information economy” is probably behind a lot of troubling trends today, including the rise of tribalism and disinformation. You only miss the gatekeepers when they’re gone. (or to adapt a quote from myself earlier this year in reference to J. Edgar Hoover and his impact on the public sphere: “Walter Cronkite never looked so good.”)

    4) Finally, I would argue that the global warming discourse has a chilling effect (yuk yuk) on other aspects of the environmentalist discourse for a number of reasons. It is so big and diffused a problem as to freeze out the efficacy of individual / local action or even unilateral national action. Predictions are so dire that they seem to induce rejectionism or intentional oblivion. The endangerment of species that we have known so far and successfully fought against is revealed now to have been a mere chuckle, a skirmish that goes down as a footnote hurrah on the path of inexorable devastation.

    The prophets were always pissed with the people for not accepting their message. Scientists and statisticians, middling regulators and non-profit execs — as much as paternalistic or populistic politicians and do-good feel-good educators– make lousy prophets, just when we need the best.

  70. Brett says:

    HowStuffWorks had a fun to read “What if the US put its trash in one big landfill for 100 years?” article. We’d basically create a four-hundred foot thick area roughly around one-sixth the size of Rhode Island (250 square miles, or about 647 square kilometers). Or essentially a square about 26 X 26 kilometers in size. You could build a decent sized island off that, if you sealed it up properly.

    That definitely seems like support for the whole “not running out of landfill space” theory. Not sure whether that’s on the high side or the low side, since it doesn’t count industrial and commercial waste, but also assumes the US population will double over 100 years.

    The “extinction rate estimates” are definitely one of those things where I’ve always wondered how they’re possibly measuring that. So many of them are probably ultra-limited, specialized tropical creatures (like a species of snails that only lives on ten acres in the Amazon).

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  72. atreic says:

    Sometimes random things that shouldn’t matter get magnified into the issue du jour; other times giant world-threatening crises manage to slip everyone’s attention.

    I think this is true, and insightful. But I think some of it is uncertainty and error bars and how excitingly _fresh_ the story is. Straight after WW2, the world lived in Total Terror that we had bombs to blow up the whole world. CND marches, teaching children about the bomb, etc etc. Because we did have bombs to blow up the whole world. We still do, but we now also have 70 years of data of people Not Blowing Up The World, which is pathetically little, in the grand scheme of things (still only have one world, folks!) but just makes people Much More Bored of it. Any story like ‘we will run out of oil!’ or ‘the rain forests will vanish!’ or ‘the whole of England will sink under water because of climate change’ has a certain time frame in which people will be Actually Scared and Interested, and if nothing happens in that time frame they’ll wander off. Or maybe to be a bit less cynical, people will be Loud and Worried until they feel that the Easy, Obvious Things have been done, and once they have been done, they’ll turn their energies elsewhere. This is probably not a bad heuristic, if there is a big scary thing, throwing all your resource at it to see if you can get everyone to, eg, ban hunting whales for a bit, and then building up some defensive amnesia so you’re not just permanently sad about whales once you’ve done ‘all you can’ seems like a moderately sensible approach. It is a bit unhelpful when there is much more than could be done than the initial ‘all you can’ faff, but I guess the argument is that by that point there are committee and scientists and the problem is somewhere on a big list of curated problems?

  73. Russell Hawkins says:

    Just a minor factual point: that 6000 insect species figure was just the number of species whose conservation status has been evaluated, there are WAY more species described.

    Here’s a Smithsonian article that claims that there are about 90,000 described in the U.S. alone:
    https://www.si.edu/spotlight/buginfo/bugnos

    Current best estimates for the number of insect species on earth is 5.5 million, 1.5 million of which are beetles.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/28938083/#fft

    • gedymin says:

      I came here to make a similar comment. For comparison, even Wikipedia’s own insect page says that “the total number of extant species is estimated at between six and ten million”.

      If a few species out of the six-to-seven thousand mammal species go extinct every year, then it’s probable that the same happens with a few thousand insect species every year.

  74. atreic says:

    In England, there’s been a lot of debate around this Christmas advert (to save you watching, it is a sad poem where a Very Cute Orangutan tells a Very Cute Child that we are destroying all the rain-forests to make Palm Oil, and this is Bad, but if you buy your food from one particular chain of supermarkets, they have banned Palm Oil, and so the Orangutan will be Happy. If you go to watch it, take hankies.)

    [The debate has been the very interesting, but mostly irrelevant to this conversation, argument about whether it is Political Advertising and hence Banned. It was made by Greenpeace and then bought by the supermarket, and the Rules said Greenpeace were a political organisation.]

    Anyway, while I can see the ‘number of times rainforest is googled’ graph is quite striking, at least on this side of the pond it doesn’t feel exactly like ‘The problem still exists, and we are just ignoring it now’, everyone has been talking about it lots, mostly because of this one advert. I wondered what would happen if you replaced ‘rain forest’ with ‘palm oil’ in the google-graph. But actually, all you get is one giant spike the week the advert got banned, so I guess that isn’t actually interesting, and the take home is ‘the problem still exists, and we are mostly ignoring it now.’

  75. Another Throw says:

    Is there a natural news mega-cycle of a decade or so, after which the public gets tired of hearing about a certain story, the intellectuals get tired of talking about it, every possible angle has been explored, and people move on, whether or not it was solved?

    Cohorts.

    In the 90’s, you were a child being lectured by people 20-30 years older than you about what they thought the real problems of the world are. Whether the problem has been solved, or not, or was never really a problem anyway, they still care about them just as much as they did in the 90’s but they are retired now.

    The issues you hear about now are the ones that people your own age, who occupy all those positions now, decided were the real problems of the world while in college. They will remain entirely unpersuaded by whether the problem is solved, or not, or was never a problem in the first place until they also retire.

    The rest of the country doesn’t really give a shit about any of it. Because if it is a real problem with a real solution, the solution will pass in the senate with a 100-0 margin. If it is a real problem with no solution, bitching about it isn’t going to do anything and I’ve got bills to pay. And if it was never a problem in the first place, it is usually pretty obviously. (A topical example might be the Great Plastic Straw Panic.)

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “Because if it is a real problem with a real solution, the solution will pass in the senate with a 100-0 margin.”

      Can you explain more about the thought process that led you to say this?

      • reasoned argumentation says:

        Seems reasonable to me – there are a whole host of problems that get solved by the equivalent of a 100-0 Senate vote.

        Traffic lights and stop signs are a really good solution to the “don’t want to get into fatal car wrecks on the way to pick up a quart of milk”, for example.

        The stuff that’s left is mostly stuff where the problem and solutions are so badly understood (whether through complexity or obfuscation) that they’re used as an excuse to argue for power.

      • Another Throw says:

        Specifically, the clean air act. The ozone hole is another good example.

        Generally, politicians are not stupid. If there is a problem out there that academia and the media care about, voters halfheartedly answering phone polls are going to say they think it is a problem, too. Politicians reading those polls (and relevant lobbyists and government agencies) are going to look for a solution. If there is one, they would be stupid not to implement it. Politicians are not stupid.

        It occurs to me that I was smuggling in “politically possible” as a criteria for being a real solution, because (in the political context) that is really the only criteria that matters. One hopes that “politically possible” maps better than random with “the costs of the solution do not exceed the costs of the problem.” One hopes that it is the case because it is one of the central conceits of democracy.

        Nonpolitical or other-than-Federal solutions are also free to apply. I was being a little figurative.

        • Guy in TN says:

          The internet tells me that the Clean Air Act of 1963 passed 273-102 in the House, and the 1990 revision passed the Senate 89-11.

          Which is evidence, IMO, that the best solutions are not always obvious to everyone. People have different levels of information, and even with equal information they are operating under different values.

          Sometimes you do have to fight and struggle (which includes “bitching about it”, i.e. spreading awareness) to achieve your objective.

          • albatross11 says:

            There are always people whose ox will be gored by anything you plan, and they will oppose it. There are also always disputes about what the outcome of your proposed policy will be, partly because we don’t all share a model of the world, but mainly because society is really complicated and sometimes, sensible-sounding policies go really badly in practice. (Consider the drug war.)

      • Mark Atwood says:

        80% of bills contain 80% of text that would pass the senate 100-0, and the remaining 20% of the text would fail the senate 98-2, but that 20% consists of hundreds of much smaller slices that are pushed by a different 2 senators. “Politics” at that level consists of trying to get that 20% of shit that almost everybody doesnt want, passed 51-49.

    • JohnNV says:

      The looming debt crisis is a counterexample to this theory. The problem is obvious, the solution is clear (stop spending more money than revenue) and yet the only bills that could possibly pass the congress make the problem worse.

      • Salem says:

        While I mostly agree with you, “stop spending more money than revenue” is not really a solution from a political perspective. It’s a success criterion.

        (Similarly, for most programmers, “don’t write so many bugs” is not a solution to the problem of buggy code, it’s a description of what a solution would have to achieve to count as successful).

        A solution would be something like “eliminate Medicare, SNAP, NASA, and all farm subsidies.” And a lot of people would vehemently disagree that that’s the solution.

  76. Ack, what happened?

    I just wrote and posted a lengthy comment here; saw a typo, clicked “edit”, fixed the typo and hit “save”…and it said my comment was being reported as spam. It seems to have been deleted. What did I do wrong?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      The spam filter thought it looked like spam for some reason and filtered it. I’ve fished it out and it should be visible now.

  77. This will I guess be the lengthiest comment I’ve yet made at SSC; I’ll try to make that more good than bad. Got a decent excuse in any case which is that I am a card-carrying environmentalist.

    Came to it honestly at least: my mother (now 91 and fading) is fairly famous in the field. My siblings and I literally grew up learning this stuff from the inside…none of us started out down a similar path in adult life but I at least eventually found one within the conservation wing of the broader “green” professionalized nonprofit sector. During my 30s I was a mid-level staffer with The Nature Conservancy, for a while I ran a regional program at a foundation which funds such work, and for the last 8 years I’ve been CEO of a regional conservation organization based in a large US city. Also I served for some years on the board of the advocacy/policy organization that had been founded decades earlier by my mother.

    Anyway some scattered comments with no specific theme or advance thinking….

    In very broad strokes I agree with more of Scott’s conclusions than disagree. One important caveat on some, such as regarding air and water pollution, is that there are radical differences between the degree of success in the developed and undeveloped worlds.

    Paul Ehrlich was and is a jackass and it irritates me greatly that some people still treat him as some sort of oracle. I have vastly greater respect for people like Stewart Brand, Ehrlich’s friend and contemporary who eventually made (in public) the obvious point that Ehrlich is a stopped clock that’s still waiting to get the time right. Just once.

    I offer no defense for 1990s peak-resourcism; I will state from firsthand knowledge/experience that it had at least as much to do with media stupidity as with “greenie” fear-mongering. For my money environmental issues are second only to medical topics for exposing the shallowness and innumeracy of modern professional journalism.

    My reaction to the acid rain effort is that it represents an important real-world demonstration that addressing large-scale environmental problems is something that modern dynamic economies can readily afford. The 1990 Clean Air Act, like every version of every U.S. environmental law, was loudly opposed on the grounds that it would bankrupt swaths of our economy. That sky-is-falling knee-jerkism is no more intelligent or reality-based than Ehrlich’s, and has about the same dismal predictive record.

    On endangered species, I agree that the counting and therefore the figuring out of net results (loss rates) is a mess. Moreover the science and practice of restoration (successfully restoring systems like wetlands or prairie to real ecological productivity) has made enormous strides in the last 20 to 30 years. On balance I am more optimistic than pessimistic on that front.

    The whole landfill crisis, yea that was pretty dumb as far as the direct actual issue. Many of my colleagues though would argue that it represented the tip of a much larger spear. The idea is that once you get past the socially-beneficial aspects of modern packaging there is still a whole lot of it that we make and then throw away for no particularly-good reason. Which I agree with. But no real-life taxpayers will ever be persuaded to change that based on just that argument; you’re more likely to get their attention by talking about things like today’s ocean garbage patches.

    There was some discouraging news recently about whales.

    “Have we just passed the point where anybody can care about crisp mountain streams or frolicking snow leopards any more?” Nope, not at all. In fact the conservation part of the broader environmental movement is thriving. There are now more than 1,500 local/regional nongovernmental land trusts in the U.S. having at least one salaried staffer and which purchase and/or restore natural lands for permanent protection. There have been several individual years in the last decade during which more U.S. acres were placed into permanent protection than were developed. Similar statistics can be found across the rest of the OECD nations including the ones with the strongest economies.

    Why is the previous paragraph news to you? Maybe because success isn’t nearly as sexy nowadays as crisis and threat are; maybe because the culture wars tend to get a lot of the oxygen; maybe because that sort of work in reality is science-based and incremental and hence kind of dull a lot of the time. (The Greenpeace stunts are basically just theater, and in actual impact aren’t even rounding errors.)

    And also maybe because the environmental movement itself first gained broad societal traction by being the nation’s scolds and hasn’t yet learned how to operate very well in any other mode, and eventually people start to tune out scolds. That’s basically what my mother thought before her memory started fading on her and most days I think she was right.

    • Guy in TN says:

      Why is the previous paragraph news to you? Maybe because success isn’t nearly as sexy nowadays as crisis and threat are; maybe because the culture wars tend to get a lot of the oxygen; maybe because that sort of work in reality is science-based and incremental and hence kind of dull a lot of the time.

      I agree with this. When reading the comments, one re-occurring problem is the conflation between “what researchers want to talk about” and “what the media is talking about”. I don’t blame the public for this confusion, since unless you are in scientific social circles yourself, its hard to know what is really going on. There have been lots of amazing successes over the years that havn’t got a peep in the media, and some looming ecological catastrophes that no one in the media seems to want to talk about.

      • nweining says:

        Can you give examples of what you regard as “looming ecological catastrophes that no one in the media seems to want to talk about”?

        • Guy in TN says:

          @nweining

          Three that come to mind:

          1. Invasive plants. These are wrecking havoc on biodiversity. And many new plants are still arriving. This will cause a vast “simplification” of ecosystems, where for example, a temperate forest on one continent has much of the same species composition as a temperate forest on any other continent, and endemic species disappear. Very little money or effort is being put to stop these, and media attention is fleeting. Some of the worst new ones in the US are Callery Pear and Japanese Bush Honeysuckle.

          2. Herbiciding roadsides and powerline corridors. The transition from mowing to herbicide is killing off the last remnants of grassland communities in eastern North America. It switches communities from a conservative, long-lived perennial based-ecosystem to a weedy annual-based ecosystem. This eliminate the last refuges for many species that have already declined due to development or fire suppression, and I suspect “herbicide” is going to be on the obituary of many grassland species in the next coming decades. This is the biggest “low hanging fruit” as far as cost-benefit ratio for species extinction prevention in the eastern U.S., but I’ve seen basically nothing about it in the media, and on the ground the tide continues to turn in the wrong direction.

          3. The continued degradation of medium to large rivers by mid 20th century dam construction. Many of the rivers in the southeastern U.S. were converted into reservoirs in the early to mid 1900s. This, more than any other event (pollution, global warming, ect) is responsible for species extinction in this region, mostly in freshwater mussels. And here’s the crazy part: For many species of mussel that didn’t go extinct, live individuals are still hanging on from the mid-20th century, waiting for the right conditions to reproduce. But those conditions never come, because the river is a reservoir now, and conditions are slowly degrading further. Its frustrating: these species are still alive, we know exactly what we are doing that is killing them off, and we will do nothing to stop it. For example, a recent lock was just constructed on the Ohio River a few years ago, spelling near-certain doom for a species of mussel that used that shoal as its last reproductive habitat. Classic case of an un-sexy species silently going extinct before out eyes.

          • “Invasive plants. These are wrecking havoc on biodiversity. And many new plants are still arriving. This will cause a vast “simplification” of ecosystems….Very little money or effort is being put to stop these”

            Gosh I have to disagree with that picture pretty strongly. Not the first part of course, invasives absolutely are a big problem and certainly are still arriving. But both the science and the practice of fighting them has taken vast leaps in the past 25 years, and there is tons of success underway at scale. Honestly I can’t think offhand of a specific conservation topic on which the picture has improved more during my professional lifetime than this one.

            “Herbiciding roadsides and powerline corridors. The transition from mowing to herbicide is killing off the last remnants of grassland communities in eastern North America.” See above. This is an accurate summary statement across the tallgrass prairie region as of a couple decades ago. It’s quite outdated now though, thankfully. Lots and lots of good work has been underway on this particular point for years and there is lots of positive change.

            “The continued degradation of medium to large rivers by mid 20th century dam construction.” Actually mid-19th through mid-20th, and not just the larger rivers. But (a) the U.S. basically stopped building new river dams a couple of generations ago, and (b) dam removal is actually one of the great ongoing success stories in the history of American conservation.

            In 1996 a federal law put the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (!) firmly into the business of removing dams purely for the purpose of ecological restoration and with a recurring annual pot of money to do so. [There is a whole great insider story of how a group called American Rivers spent a decade lobbying for that and, to everyone’s astonishment, actually pulled it off.] The result has been amazing and I’ve personally been involved with several cases in my region. National stats: “between 1915 and 1975 46 dams in the US came down. Between 1976 and 2014, that number jumped to 1,040, with 548 of those removals happening since 2006.” Not just little ones either and not just on little rivers.

            Meanwhile public pressure on this point is also leading toward some non-Army-Corps outcomes that were simply unimaginable a generation or two ago, e.g.:
            https://www.redding.com/story/news/2018/07/01/klamath-river-dam-removal-project-nations-largest-moves-forward/749654002/

          • albatross11 says:

            Paul:

            The knocking-down dams thing seems like it might make some environmental issues better, but if they’re generating hydropower, that’s an extremely cheap source of CO2-free power….

          • Guy in TN says:

            @Paul the Fossil

            I take it we are both professionals in our field, so I trust your local assessment of where ever you are stationed out of. But I’m going to have to disagree with you on many points.

            I’m in the Tennessee/Kentucky area, and this is what I have seen:

            Re: invasives

            But both the science and the practice of fighting them has taken vast leaps in the past 25 years, and there is tons of success underway at scale.

            Where is this “tons of success” happening? What species do you have in mind, that are successfully controlled? Our nature preserves are overrun with invasives- and that’s the land people could theoretically do something about. Non-nature preserves (which as you know are the vast majority of habitat) are a total loss. Everywhere I look, I see walls of privet, bush honeysuckle, and carpets of Microstegium. Our waterways are chocked with Hydrilla. Only on a single occasion, with great time and effort, have I seen the invasive species component decline on a piece of land (a city park with an apparently ample budget). In all other occasions I have witnessed it steadily gets worse.

            Re: herbicide

            This is an accurate summary statement across the tallgrass prairie region as of a couple decades ago. It’s quite outdated now though, thankfully.

            I’m glad that whatever state you live in has solved the herbicide issue. I can assure you that the states of Kentucky and Tennessee have not. And once again, the problem seems to be getting worse, not better. I don’t have hard data to prove it, but anecdotal experience tells me that as recently a ~10 years ago, county governments were preserving prairies through mowing (even inadvertently), but have since switched to herbicide. A population of the Federally Endangered Helianthus verticillatus was wiped out just two years ago due to switching to roadside herbicide- and that’s just one we knew about. Nothing has changed: they continued herbiciding roadside prairies this year, and they will almost certainly herbicide them the next. A steady drumbeat of decline.

            National stats: “between 1915 and 1975 46 dams in the US came down. Between 1976 and 2014, that number jumped to 1,040, with 548 of those removals happening since 2006.” Not just little ones either and not just on little rivers.

            Here’s a map of where dam removal has taken place over the last ~100 years. https://www.americanrivers.org/threats-solutions/restoring-damaged-rivers/dam-removal-map/

            You can see it looks like a lot of dams. This is good! But these dams aren’t where the critical biodiversity diversity is.

            The most four most biodiverse rivers in my region, the ones with critically endangered freshwater mussels, are the Tennessee River, Cumberland River, Ohio River, and Duck River. All of these have numerous locks and dams along their length. The number of locks or dams removed on these rivers over the past 100 years?…zero. The dams being removed are trivial, mostly, with a few rare exceptions.

            (a) the U.S. basically stopped building new river dams a couple of generations ago

            This is simply not true. The ongoing creation of the Oldsted Dam on the Ohio River will be directly responsible for the extinction of at least one freshwater mussel species, which will have one of its last refuge habitats covered in sediment. Construction will be complete in 2020.

      • albatross11 says:

        +1 on the comment about media ignoring boring unsexy progress that actually matters.

        In general, the media are an incredibly distorting filter on reality. You may be right that the environmental field is especially poorly covered, but almost every time I read a mainstream news source’s coverage of an area I know well, they do a lousy job. Depending on the source and reporter and day and topic, it may be a more-or-less accurate statement of some facts with little additional detail (usually copying from a press release) or a comically wrong article where the reporter just completely misunderstood everything or found a source who was a nutcase and followed them off a cliff.

        • “almost every time I read a mainstream news source’s coverage of an area I know well, they do a lousy job.” EXACTLY.

          That is how this here lifelong news junkie, born and raised into a newspaper reading family that included at different times three different professional journalists, was driven away from the MSM. One day some years ago I realized that every time the NYT or WSJ or AP or NPR or whoever bannered a story about something that I had professional knowledge of, my gut reaction was advance cringing. And that the cringing was invariably justified by the reporting…which led to the obvious question, “Well if they suck at reporting on the stuff I happen to know something about, how much trust should I place in their reporting on the much-longer list of topics on which I’m just another spectator?”

          • albatross11 says:

            Right. First I read a story about computer security where they get everything wrong but the names of the people involved. Then, I read a story about an Ebola outbreak where it’s clear the reporters have no idea what they’re talking about. Next, I turn to an article on education where the reporters omit a bunch of clearly-relevant data to ensure they can stick to their desired narrative. (Or maybe because they’re just not very bright.) Finally, I turn to an article on the Syrian civil war, which I can 100% count on being a carefully reported, unbiased, accurate discussion of reality.

          • “Well if they suck at reporting on the stuff I happen to know something about, how much trust should I place in their reporting on the much-longer list of topics on which I’m just another spectator?”

            This is one of my rules of thumb for evaluating sources of information. Find someplace where what they talk about overlaps with something you know about and judge them on that.

    • dick says:

      Really interesting perspective, thanks. How do you square your relative optimism on endangered species and the protecting/restoring of their habitats with the dire statistics Scott quoted about huge recent declines in insect and animal numbers overall? Meaning, do you have reason to feel those dire numbers are not as scary as they sound, or are those two separate topics?

      • “relative” is a keyword there. We absolutely are losing more species than would be the case prior to the industrial age. However I am much less sure that we are irreversibly in the midst of an ahistorical extinction crisis…to be crystal clear, I am not on this particular point in the mainstream of my professional peer group. My thinking has basically two pieces:
        (a) I feel that a lot of uncertainty is warranted about the statistics, for the reasons Scott mentioned.
        (b) We are in the developed world getting a lot better at a lot of this stuff and that improvement is happening relatively speedily. See for example the items I just reponded to Guy in TN about.

    • Tenacious D says:

      Thanks for sharing your perspective.

      In fact the conservation part of the broader environmental movement is thriving. There are now more than 1,500 local/regional nongovernmental land trusts in the U.S. having at least one salaried staffer and which purchase and/or restore natural lands for permanent protection. There have been several individual years in the last decade during which more U.S. acres were placed into permanent protection than were developed. Similar statistics can be found across the rest of the OECD nations including the ones with the strongest economies.

      A really good book from the perspective of the pragmatic conservation part of the environmental movement is Quantified by Joe Whitworth.

    • Mark V Anderson says:

      Wow, this is the kind of leftist posts we really need. I sure hope we get more of this kind.

      I do wonder how you stay solvent as a non-profit without fear-mongering. It is true that my wife and I do give small annual donations to the Nature Conservancy, but I feel we are outliers in our distaste from the extreme rhetoric (and this is indicated by the constant “sky if falling” letters we constantly receive from folks asking for donations, left and right). Or do you use a more emotional approach when fund raising than what you have here?

      • Hoopyfreud says:

        Looking at the Nature Conservancy’s site, it doesn’t look like they’re particularly doom and gloom – most of their content is about how much their supporters help.

        I guess that’s one way to succeed – tell people that what they’re doing makes a difference and send them inspiring images of happy polar bears and slum kids using chainsaws. Honestly I feel temped to write them a check. I know that’s an emotional thing, but still – that’s one data point that it works as a strategy.

        • This is a major ongoing challenge and debate within our sector. The two of you (Mark and Hoopy) have summed it up nicely. Was a recurring debate behind the scenes when I worked for Nature Conservancy, and still is.

          We all worry and talk about this constantly…some people respond best to alarm, crisis, loss. Others respond best to “we know how to do this, and can and are doing it, with your help.”

          The best current polling, and fundraising results, leans towards the view that people will open their hearts and wallets for the “we can do this” perspective. But it’s only a “lean”. Emphasizing only one of those themes always generates praise from some quarters and criticism from others. Always. And not always politely.

          You can see how the organization I currently lead tries to strike that balance, and I always welcome feedback:
          http://www.wetlands-initiative.org

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            Well the web site is admirably free of “sky is falling” rhetoric. But it is fundraising letters where I usually see this. Although it is also true that I can’t recall letters of this type from Nature Conservancy, so maybe you have “grown up” in a area of milder rhetoric. It may that fundraisers aren’t all so hysteric — that I only remember those that are.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            I think I would respond fairly well to sorrow rather than agitation, but please don’t be maudlin. I get enough of that from PETA. Some Walden quotes read by an old man overlaid on slow pans across the barren shore of a tailings pond, or things like that. Wouldn’t like it on a website, but maybe for a youtube ad or something.

            Thanks for the work you’re doing, by the way.

    • TimG says:

      There are now more than 1,500 local/regional nongovernmental land trusts in the U.S. having at least one salaried staffer and which purchase and/or restore natural lands for permanent protection. There have been several individual years in the last decade during which more U.S. acres were placed into permanent protection than were developed.

      I’m a little bit late to the game, but if you are still around (since it sounds like you are an expert), I have a couple of questions. (Context: I make more money than I need and would like to be able to do some “good” with it. But I am also very skeptical of non-profits — particularly after my wife spent a couple of years working at one 😉

      When land is put into “permanent conservancy”, how is it guaranteed to be permanent? Like doesn’t someone need to pay property tax on it in perpetuity? What about in other counties (I’m thinking like Africa and South America — places I’d love to help protect land), how solid are “property rights” in those countries wrt conservation?

      You said there are “1500 local/regional nongovernmental land trusts in the U.S….” that implies to me that there is a registry somewhere. Is that data available online? I would love to be able to browse (and possibly analyze) the data if it is somehow generally available.

      Thanks for your time!

      • herbert herberson says:

        When land is put into “permanent conservancy”, how is it guaranteed to be permanent? Like doesn’t someone need to pay property tax on it in perpetuity? What about in other counties (I’m thinking like Africa and South America — places I’d love to help protect land), how solid are “property rights” in those countries wrt conservation?

        There are two mechanisms:
        – one, you have a nonprofit buy the land outright. The only guarantee here is that they hopefully have an endowment large enough to cover the expenses for the land they own.
        – more often, though, they will use a conservation easement. The classic example of an easement is when someone has a piece of land that has historically been accessed via a road through another person’s land. The first landowner doesn’t own the road that it’s on, but they do own the right to use that road–if the second landowner puts up a fence, they can be sued and forced to take it down. An easement is a property right that is usually written into/attached to the deed and recorded at the county register of deeds/equivalent. A conservation easement just a variant of this. There is still a primary landowner who retains a right to hold and transfer the land, but the easement, typically owned by a trust/conservatory, will “run with,” or stay attached, to the land if it is transferred. It imposes limitations on how the land can be used and developed, and can be enforced through legal action if a violation occurs or is threatened.

        You’re right to intuit that this system is only as strong as the local rule of law / property rights / willingness of the courts to enforce it.

        • TimG says:

          Oh, wow, I had no idea that’s how it works. Thanks for the comment.

          Not sure why, but that makes me a little more skeptical about long-term conservation.

          • Just found this followup question and responses…a couple of thoughts:

            (a) Staffed land trusts are among the best-run organizations of any kind that I or anyone in my immediate family has ever worked for. [And we cover a pretty wide range: for-profits both privately-held and publicly traded, non-profits large and small, academia, government…pretty much every major type other than military.]

            (b) I don’t think that there is a _public_ national registry of them. But they are now served by a very effective national trade association called the Land Trust Alliance. The LTA puts a high priority on collecting and reporting detailed and rigorous data about the sector that it serves. It also puts on the best annual national conference I’ve ever attended, which is called “Rally”. If you’re interested in U.S. land trusts a great first step would be whatever is the minimum annual LTA membership that gets you their quarterly magazine. If that piques your interest further I can recommend without reservation attending a Rally.

            (c) A relatively new feature within the land trusts sector is formal accreditation. This was started about a decade ago by the LTA (I had some tangential involvement with that effort). It’s modeled on how colleges have to achieve and maintain accreditation. It’s not a slam dunk for land trusts, and not intended to be. You can learn more about that here:
            http://www.landtrustaccreditation.org
            One option for you as a donor would be to only support organizations which have achieved that accreditation. As you can probably tell I am a fan of this for exactly the reasons stated on that website.

            (d) Herbert’s description of how a conservation easement works is accurate. A huge emphasis in the last decade has been improving the ability of land trusts to “defend” (the legal term) conservation easements that they hold. One form of that is the accreditation thing which is about making sure land trusts understand their obligations and have the basic tools to take action. The other key aspect (which I also had some tangential involvement with when it was being proposed) is a national self-insurance pool/program.
            https://terrafirma.org
            It is a response to the problem of deep-pocketed landowners buying a piece of ground that has a conservation easement on it and basically telling the land trust, “I will pay the best lawyers you could never afford to tie you up in court forever unless you let me bulldoze/log/whatever this land.” There were a few such real-life cases which scared the crap out of the whole conservation sector. Now, through Terra Firma, 510 land trusts (so far) can truthfully tell that landowner that they will meet him/her in court with high-priced lawyers of their own. Early returns are that this is having the desired deterrent effect.

            (e) It is not the case that most of the land protected by land trusts is via easement. Here are the latest published running national totals: non-profit U.S. land trusts as of 12/31/2015 had directly acquired a total of 38 million acres. Of that total about 21 million acres was acquired outright [either purchases or by accepting a donation of land], and about 17 million was the acquisition of permanent easements [which again can be either by purchase or accepting a donation].

            One more point worth mentioning just because it is a widespread public misconception: land trusts do not accept the donation of just any old piece of “nice” land. This applies both to fee title and to easements. Land trusts have specific ecological priorities and goals which they seek to meet through the acquisition and/or restoration of land that has specific qualities. They turn down land-donation offers all the time. Everyone who’s worked for a land trust for any length of time has experienced that phone call from the landowner or family attorney or estate executor who thinks the land trust will accept any donated parcel that isn’t a Superfund site. Sometimes they literally don’t believe the “no thank you” and it turns into a “I want to speak to your manager!” type thing. But that’s the facts…not that there aren’t Potemkin land trusts out there, just like in any other sector. Weeding those out is one of the strategic benefits (for everybody) of that accreditation system.

    • Ketil says:

      There was some discouraging news recently about whales.

      IMNSHO, the discouraging news about whales was in 1982, when an organization set up for sustainable managment of wild stocks¹ got taken over by environmentalists looking out on a witch hunt. This particular witch was perfect, whales have near-perfect cuteness factor (ooh, it’s biiiig), and it had absolutely no consequence or impact for the countries where Greenpeace et al. collect most of their tithes.

      Minke whales are quite abundant (quotas are a few hundred animals out of stocks ranging from tens of thousands to probably a million (in Antarctica), and there’s no reason to believe they are particularly intelligent. Even if you are a die-hard vegan, surely it is better to kill a single free-ranging animal to feed hundreds, than kill hundreds of farm-raised animals?

      ¹ Actually threatened species were of course already protected by IWC, e.g. the blue whale since 1966.

  78. anon9999 says:

    In an encyclopedia article about whales from the 1960s I read as a kid, nothing was mentioned about saving the whales. As far as I can tell there was very little environmentalism in the U.S. before the book Silent Spring.
    Have you ever seen the video that says “The Dream of the 90s is alive in Portland”?The 90s were kind of a high tide of liberalism in the U.S., at least in the popular stereotype of it.

    • Alsadius says:

      I always saw the 90s as an extremely right-wing time – Clinton was pushing welfare reform and anti-crime policies, and I don’t think he was regarded as the far right of the Democrats. In Canada, Chretien was considered a lefty even by Liberal standards and he slashed government spending like nobody before or since.

      Perhaps this is the difference between fiscal and environmental policy?

  79. mtraven says:

    As for the trash covering the earth worries, I blame Shel Silverstein.

  80. reasoned argumentation says:

    And the story with peak resources seems entirely different. You will still occasionally see people saying “The Earth can’t support our greed, soon we will run out of everything”, and reasonable people will nod along with this and admit it is very wise. But you hear it like once a year now, as opposed to it being a constant refrain. This idea was never intellectually defeated at all, at least not on the popular level. It just faded away.

    Was there some rarified level of intellectual debate where these ideas lost out? And then, denied their support from the commanding heights of the ivory tower, did journalists stop writing about them, schoolteachers stop teaching them, and then eventually the public – who have no will of their own and have to be told what matters – wander off and do something else?

    That’s backwards – the idea was intellectually defeated before it was even conceived. The whole point of a price mechanism is to funnel resources to people so they can create scarce resources that are in demand. The idea that was never defended was the one that stuff would run out and people would just watch it happen stupidly instead of getting rich solving the problem.

    Of course you hint at the reason this was a question in the first place in the next paragraph – someone tried these ideas out in academia, academics with no understanding of markets though “wow, that’s really persuasive” and put the idea for the Vox’es of the day to write think pieces. Actual concern over actual problems were unrelated – the selective pressure on ideas was just “capture the mindspace of academics and journalists” and academics and journalists are selectively filtered to fail to understand markets because markets don’t grant power to academics and journalists and, in fact, take status away from academics and journalists by making their participants both rich and smart looking.

    Or maybe climate change took over everything, became so important that everything else faded into the background.

    So through the same process but having learned something from the failure last time they hit on global warming climate change – which is extremely difficult to falsifiy in the sense that “we’ll run out of oil” was falsified – in a way that the laymen can understand and so easily mock the journalist / academic / activist.

    It’s evolution (of ideas to justify power) in action.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “The whole point of a price mechanism is to funnel resources to people so they can create scarce resources that are in demand. The idea that was never defended was the one that stuff would run out and people would just watch it happen stupidly instead of getting rich solving the problem.”

      This seems wrong. For example, it seems to predict that the price of oil can never genuinely go up at all, but oil used to cost less than half of what it does now.

      Resources can genuinely be depleted. Technological advance has a chance to counteract that, but there’s no law saying that technology has to improve at exactly the rate resources are exhausted. Sometimes technology improves faster and prices go down. Sometimes it improves slower and prices go up. Sometimes it improves very slowly and then the resource becomes much more expensive and for all practical purposes has been depleted. Try getting some silphium or cordyceps sinensis if you don’t believe me.

      • Squirrel of Doom says:

        A mind blowing (and only half related) idea to keep in mind:

        In a very real sense, oil as a resource was created not when deposits of plant materials decomposed into hydrocarbons millions of years ago, but when the internal combustion engine was invented in 1872.

        Before that, oil was worthless sludge that lowered the value of your property. Human ingenuity was what made it a resource. It turned toxic waste into the most valuable commodity in the world for a few centuries.

        It’s a perspective worth keeping in mind.

        • Alsadius says:

          I really like this viewpoint.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          Mind = blown.

        • Lillian says:

          This would in fact be mind blowing if it was remotely true, but it’s really not. Petroleum was emphatically not worthless sludge prior to the invention of the internal combustion engine. Herodotus, the father of history himself, mentions oil extraction in Persia in the 5th Century BC, and we know the Chinese have been drilling for oil since the 4th Century BC. We also have evidence of humans using bitumen going back at least seven thousand years. Fact is, crude oil has been inherently valuable for a very, very long time.

          Hell, not even the modern oil industry as we know it owes its existence to the internal combustion engine, but rather to the independent invention of industrial kerosene production by multiple people in 1846-1850. Initially from coal, but shortly thereafter and much more successfully applied to petroleum. The first industrial oil refinery was built in Romania in 1856, twenty years before the invention of the internal combustion engine, and the first successful oil well in the United States started producting in 1858. Even Standard Oil Company predates the internal combustion engine, being founded in 1870 to refine kerosene, and kerosene was still its primary product when it was broken up in 1911.

          So John D. Rockefeller didn’t become the richest man on the planet by selling engine fuel, he became the richest man on the planet by selling lamp oil. We’ve been using rock oil to light lamps since for thousands of years, and we’ve been using kerosene distilled from rock oil to light lamps for some fifteen hundred. Sure we got way better at making kerosene in the 19th century, but we got way better at making everything in the 19th century. That’s why we call it the Industrial Revolution and not the Industrial Mild Improvement.

          • peak.singularity says:

            Yeah, it would seem that back then gasoline was considered as a waste product, and thrown away in the rivers !

          • Squirrel of Doom says:

            Thanks for correcting my badly researched details!

            I still think my main point stands: Oil became a resource through human inventions utilizing stuff that was lying around since millions of years, it’s not an inherent property of that stuff.

            The same goes for Uranium and most current and future “natural” resources.

          • peak.singularity says:

            For oil, it’s easy : the “inherent property of that stuff” is (mostly) the embedded solar energy.
            Humans are not the only ones able to use it : if I’m not mistaken, hydrocarbons, when spilled, get quickly “eaten” by microorganisms.

            But yeah, the same logic applies : for a while, the oxygen released in the atmosphere was just a toxic waste product responsible for the first mass extinction.
            Then after a while was invented a way to metabolically use it, which allowed for multicellular life to appear !

      • reasoned argumentation says:

        Resources can genuinely be depleted. Technological advance has a chance to counteract that, but there’s no law saying that technology has to improve at exactly the rate resources are exhausted. Sometimes technology improves faster and prices go down.

        1) The product being demanded isn’t oil though – it’s machinery-go juice. The cap on the price of oil is the cost of the next most feasible machinery-go juice. This gets insanely complex when infrastructure costs of switching get accounted for and beyond my full understanding.

        2) Increases in price attract brainpower that maybe comes up with an innovative solution to some technical problem that has the effect of making all sorts of oil that used to be so inaccessible as to be non-existent effectively appear out of thin air and be extract-able. Maybe this new solution results in cheap to extract oil and so the price goes down – maybe it only is cost effective at a price above currently known methods and so creates a price ceiling and the price goes up but plateaus. Maybe it has a high startup cost but a lower long term price and so existing producers try to flood the market to bankrupt the investors in the tech. The point is that the price is what’s attracting the brain power to work on the problem.

        3) Higher prices induce conservation more effectively than any environmental policies. Something I read in Reason magazine back when they weren’t firmly on the left and Virginia Postrel was the editor went something like “you don’t need to have an environmental program to induce people to recycle used Ferraris nor do you need laws to force people to conserve emeralds by banning them from being crushed to make green paint”.

        Sometimes it improves very slowly and then the resource becomes much more expensive and for all practical purposes has been depleted. Try getting some silphium or cordyceps sinensis if you don’t believe me.

        Silphium has substitutes so there’s no market to bring it back. Cordyceps sinensis apparently costs $20k per kg – so I’m sure there are many people at work right now trying to figure out how to reliably farm the stuff. Of course if it doesn’t actually do what it’s claimed that it does then substitutes will do nothing equally well.

        All of these effects were well known and aren’t unique to oil or landfill space or tree products like paper – they equally apply to products of corn.

        The larger point though is that the environmental ideas were under selective pressure to appeal to people who don’t understand or appreciate market solutions and are trained to denigrate market solutions – specifically because market solutions undermine their power and status and that those people have a large amount of power to set an agenda and can only lose that power to another allied group that has a less easily disproven story of a problem that can be solved by granting power to academics, journalists and bureaucrats. That you can easily point to lots of oil 50 years after the first environmental scares around oil mean that the ideas lost power so those ideas got outcompeted.

        • Guy in TN says:

          Silphium has substitutes so there’s no market to bring it back.

          Did the Roman silphium have equally effective substitutes at the time it was depleted? And if not, how many centuries did it take until such a substitute was created/discovered?

          I think many people today would like an effective plant-based birth control without serious side effects. The important thing is, even if we wanted to bring it back, we couldn’t. Because it was over-harvested to extinction.

          It is an undeniable example of resource that was in demand, its price skyrocketed, and it was depleted, resulting in detriment to humankind.

          • Dalben says:

            Yes, there’s plenty of other ways to flavor foods or produce perfume and there’s definitely no shortage of things that folk lore says is medicine, but actually isn’t. To be fair silphium or cordyceps sinensis could be some of the rare exceptions like poppies or willow bark which had some medicinal effect but chances are pretty good that they aren’t.

          • Nornagest says:

            Did the Roman silphium have equally effective substitutes at the time it was depleted? And if not, how many centuries did it take until such a substitute was created/discovered?

            Depends who you ask. The more… enthusiastic… treatments of the subject I’ve seen claim that silphium was an effective contraceptive and nothing similar arrived until the Pill. The more measured (and IMO more likely) ones put it on par with other herbal abortifacients like rue or pennyroyal, which are quite common and have been discovered independently by cultures on every inhabited continent.

          • Because it was over-harvested to extinction.

            How good is the evidence? I distrust historical factoids that make a good enough story to survive on their literary merit.

            The relevant questions:

            1. Is it clear that it was an effective contraceptive?

            2. Was it driven to extinction by overharvesting?

            3. If so, why wasn’t anyone cultivating it?

          • Guy in TN says:

            Its a story from literally ancient history, so yes, lots of unknowns involved. However, overharvesting to extinction is a widely known phenomenon, so the specifics of silphium are not terribly important. The dodo, the Carolina Parakeet, Stellar’s Sea Cow, are all more recent examples.

            I guess what I’m missing, is the logical, step-by-step reason for why you think this cannot happen, and therefore the commonly-known history of all of the above examples must be wrong (if this is indeed what you are arguing).

          • Ketil says:

            effective plant-based birth control without serious side effects

            Does the word “rubber” mean anything to you?

            Seriously, if there were a market (and investment capital) for it, I’m pretty sure we can soon GMO plants (more probably bacteria, but you ask for plants) to synthesize esterogen and progesteron, and whatever’s needed for conctraceptive pills. Or reconstruct the DNA of this particular plant from preserved samples. But I doubt any effective hormonal conctraceptive can be without side effects, though.

      • there’s no law saying that technology has to improve at exactly the rate resources are exhausted.

        Of course not. But the claim isn’t “nothing will ever get more expensive.” It’s that prices over time, like prices over space, do a good job of allocating goods.

        In the simplest case (Hotelling’s analysis applied to a depletable good with zero extraction cost, secure property rights, and perfect information) price rises at the market interest rate, because the owner is choosing between selling a gallon at the current price and investing the money for a year and selling the gallon at what the price will be a year from now.

        • eccdogg says:

          good with zero extraction cost, secure property rights, and perfect information

          And most of the examples given so far on this thread of resources depleted to zero fail assumption #2. But energy commodities and minerals generally do have secure property rights.

          • Guy in TN says:

            Many animals have gone extinct, despite their ownership being well-defined in property law. At least pre-Endangered Species Act, if an animal is on your property it would be legally included as your “property”, just as much as a tree or a rock.

          • In order for property rights to be secure, they have to be enforceable. Hard to do for birds that fly.

          • Guy in TN says:

            The ownership rules were enforceable and simple: if it was on your land, its your property.

            Does your framework require a more specific set of rules than that?

            All property, either of living and inanimate objects, has the potential to change or degrade over time. A bird flying to another place is no different than a tree falling over, or a rock eroding away.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            @David

            Glad to know that rational economic activity will protect the environment once all the animals are dead or in zoos.

            Sorry for the sarcasm, but really – it sounds to me like you’re making an argument for the imposition of conservationist policy, which is rather unlike you.

          • eccdogg says:

            @Guy in TN

            Could you give a few examples?

            I think the key here is that we are talking about “resources” not “animals”.

            Some animals are resources but not all of them are. To be a resource something needs to have positive value to its owner.

            I could certainly see private property owners killing mosquitoes to extinction or clearing the habitat of some animal of low to no value in order to farm the land and thus leading to extinction.

            But when there are private property rights and something is valuable to humans (valuable in that they are willing to pay for it) I can’t think of an instance where it was exploited to zero.

          • Guy in TN says:

            This may come across as pedantic, but I need to clarify a definition that I don’t agree with, and I can see it coming back around to bite me if I don’t mention it off the bat:

            To be a resource something needs to have positive value to its owner.

            Wikipedia tells me that a natural resource is “anything obtained from the environment to satisfy human needs and wants.” The individual perspective of the legal owner plays no necessary role on whether we would consider something a “natural resource” or not.

            Anyway. The best modern U.S. example of an animal hunted to extinction for economic reasons would be the Passenger Pigeon, which was hunted for its meat.

          • Ghillie Dhu says:

            @Guy in TN,

            In order for property rights to be secure, they have to be enforceable. Hard to do for birds that fly.

            The ownership rules were enforceable and simple: if it was on your land, its your property.

            Does your framework require a more specific set of rules than that?

            If I’m understanding @DavidFriedman correctly, then yes; since the birds can fly away and land on someone else’s land (thus becoming their property), your property rights are not secure.

            To be a resource something needs to have positive value to its owner.

            Wikipedia tells me that a natural resource is “anything obtained from the environment to satisfy human needs and wants.” The individual perspective of the legal owner plays no necessary role on whether we would consider something a “natural resource” or not.

            Setting aside the “natural” modifier, I see no conflict between the two definitions, since “satisfy[ing] human needs and wants” == “positive value to its owner” (either through personal use or sale to others for theirs).

            But when there are private property rights and something is valuable to humans (valuable in that they are willing to pay for it) I can’t think of an instance where it was exploited to zero.

            The best modern U.S. example of an animal hunted to extinction for economic reasons would be the Passenger Pigeon, which was hunted for its meat.

            Again assuming I’m interpreting @DavidFriedman correctly, the Passenger Pigeon case lacked the bolded criterion that @eccdogg conditioned on.

          • Guy in TN says:

            since the birds can fly away and land on someone else’s land (thus becoming their property), your property rights are not secure.

            The birds could also fly into the ocean, or die of natural causes on the original land. Would you also say this disqualifies the property from being “secure”? It seems to me that all property (living or inanimate) has the possibility to degrade over time, and this problem would essentially disqualify everything, not just birds.

            I see no conflict between the two definitions, since “satisfy[ing] human needs and wants” == “positive value to its owner”

            The conflict is that “humans” ≠ “owners”. Humans can be non-owners.

          • eccdogg says:

            Wikipedia tells me that a natural resource is “anything obtained from the environment to satisfy human needs and wants.” The individual perspective of the legal owner plays no necessary role on whether we would consider something a “natural resource” or not.

            Sure, but assuming we are living in a world of free markets and the owner can sell his property if it has value to others it has value to the property owner because he can sell it or trade if for something else that he wants.

            No one really had a property right in passenger pigeons. If they flew away you could not retrieve them and someone else could shoot them. Compare that to the case of a cow who wanders on to someone else’s property. The cow is still yours and you can go retrieve it.

            If passenger pigeons were valuable (I think they were) and could be bred in captivity like chickens they would likely still exist today (maybe the they could be but it was not cost effective).

            ETA: I see that Ghillie Dhu covered most of the same ground.

          • Guy in TN says:

            @eccdogg

            No one really had a property right in passenger pigeons. If they flew away you could not retrieve them and someone else could shoot them.

            Would you also say that a forester doesn’t actually have the property right to the trees on his property, because at any time they could die in a wildfire?

            If passenger pigeons were valuable (I think they were) and could be bred in captivity like chickens they would likely still exist today (maybe the they could be but it was not cost effective).

            And since it wasn’t cost effective to breed them in captivity…can you elaborate on what happens to the resource next?

          • eccdogg says:

            The key distinction between the pigeon and the tree is that if the forester chooses not to chop down the tree today it very likely will be there in the future and not only that if he preserves some trees on his land they will likely breed more trees on his land.

            If wildfires were very frequent such that the whole forest frequently burned down without recovering I would say that his property was not very secure and that it might make sense to harvest all the trees as soon as you get the chance. He definitely had a property right while it existed but his property is not very secure.

            And in some sense a hunter has a property right to the pigeon for the perhaps fleeting moments it is on his land. If a hunter lets a pigeon fly away that may be his last shot at it because as soon as it is on someone else’s land it is their property.

            But most resources are not like that. If you have a gold mine on your property or a stand of trees their existence as your property across time is not so fleeting.

            And since it wasn’t cost effective to breed them in captivity…can you elaborate on what happens to the resource next?

            It is the standard tragedy of the commons problem. The resource may be over exploited possibly to the point of extinction as was the case of the passenger pigeon. Note I have not said a resource can never be exploited to zero, I have just said the key to having a situation where it will happen is no or very insecure property in said resource.

            And I would add that sometimes the answer to making something not go extinct or be exploited to zero is creating a secure property right in that thing.

            This would have been impossible a the time, but imagine someone (or a corporation) had been sold the sole right to hunt passenger pigeons in the entire US. And that this was reasonably enforced. That person could then sell the rights to take a certain number of pigeons a year to hunters. It is very unlikely that if this person was maximizing the value of his hunting right that he would allow the pigeons to be hunted to extinction.

            And of course something like that is what governments do today but perhaps not in an optimal way.

          • Guy in TN says:

            This would have been impossible a the time, but imagine someone (or a corporation) had been sold the sole right to hunt passenger pigeons in the entire US

            Who do the hunters buy this right from, the government?

            It seems weird to me that the landowners would lose their right to hunt pigeons on their own property, because someone else gave money to the government, but I’m not opposed in principle.

            I would say though, that whomever it is that the hunters are asking consent to hunt the pigeons from, must already have the legal right to authorize hunting of pigeons themselves (i.e. is already the de facto owner). So I don’t see how a transfer of this right from the government to a non-government entity “secures” the property in any way.

          • It seems weird to me that the landowners would lose their right to hunt pigeons on their own property,

            At a considerable tangent, do you realize that for a long time English landowners did not automatically have the right to hunt deer (or some other species) on their own land, because they were the king’s deer?

          • idontknow131647093 says:

            @Guy

            Buying it from the government is an option (e.g. tagging for deer currently), but the best solution is for the government to just pick a random person and give them the massive windfall of owning all the passenger pigeons, then they can alienate that like any other property.

          • Guy in TN says:

            @idontknow131647093
            If you are proposing buying the right to hunt from the government, then that would imply that the government is the current owner of that right. So I’m confused how simply transferring this right from one entity to another accomplishes the goal of “securing the property”.

  81. Squirrel of Doom says:

    The MOBRO-4000 garbage barge with mob connections and its fruitless trip to offload its cargo across half the world produced the best headline in history. I want to say The Economist, but am not sure:

    "A REFUSE YOU CAN'T OFFER"

  82. nkurz says:

    > Watts seems to be mostly wrong when they say lakes are not recovering

    With the caveats that I don’t know much about this, and I’ve only read your excerpted quotes from Watts, I think the numbers in the report agree with the claims here, even if the text doesn’t seem to. If you look at Table 2-3 on Page 35 of the report, it shows the percentage of sites in 4 different regions with “Improving ANC Trend”:

    Adirondack Mountains: 58% of 50 improving
    Northern Appalachian Plateau: 56% of 9 improving
    New England: 12% of 26 improving
    Central Appalachians: 12% of 60 improving

    If you multiply these out, you get that 44 of 145 monitored lakes (only 33%) have an improving ANC trend. If we equate a nonimproving ANC trend with “could not report that lake acidity was significantly reduced” (which I think is a fair reading), and 2/3 of the sites do not have an improving trend, Watts doesn’t look to be “mostly wrong” here. If you disagree, perhaps you could clarify how you are judging?

    Edit: looking at the linked article on Watts’ blog now, I see that despite the top byline, the entire text is actually a reprint of an article by Steve Gorham (who I’m not familiar with).

  83. Le Maistre Chat says:

    3. Did you draw that rain forest map yourself in MSPaint? Because it looks like the Bantu + ~50 years of colonialism had cut down 0% of the African rain forest by 1930, which would surprise me.

    5. I’m pretty sure Matt Groening got the same propaganda you did, because MOBRO-4000 was the basis of an entire Futurama episode.

  84. glorkvorn says:

    How about the idea that we’re running out of clean, drinkable water? I still hear about that one a lot, and google trends seems to show that it’s increasing over time. Especially in California and the mountain western US, that seems like a big environmental problem that hasn’t gone away, isn’t climate change, and is still talked about.

    • Alsadius says:

      It’s an intensely local issue. California’s recent multi-year drought probably caused a lot of attention there, but here in Toronto, nobody gives a damn, because we live on the largest freshwater system on the planet. There’s a couple somewhat relevant issues that are related(e.g., bottled water companies getting low prices on water extraction), but even those are fairly small.

      Also, this one is extremely amenable to technological fixes. Aqueducts and desalination are both proven, operational technologies which can solve this problem, and water is important enough that money will be available whenever it’s needed to implement them.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      This seems more like a political problem than an environmental problem to me.

    • quanta413 says:

      Almost all the water in California goes to farmers, so it’s a problem for farmers primarily. Secondarily maybe for fish. There is a large political problem in that farmers for a long time (still are?) have been incentivized to overuse water in the central valley due to the way the property rights for it work.

      IIRC, Israel managed to build enough desalination capacity when foreseeing water shortages so solutions exist if necessary.

      • Nornagest says:

        Almost all the water in California goes to farmers…

        Between half and a a little over a quarter of it does: at the high end of the range in dry years, the low end of the range in wet years. The rest goes to environmental purposes (basically, keeping wetlands wet; around 60% of the total in wet years, a little over a third in dry ones) and to cities (around ten percent). It varies a lot by region, too, with a lot more water going to agriculture and urban areas in the southern half of the state.

        It’s true, however, that the amount going to cities is very low compared to the amount going to farmers.

        • quanta413 says:

          The rest goes to environmental purposes (basically, keeping wetlands wet; around 60% of the total in wet years, a little over a third in dry ones)

          Thanks I didn’t realize that. I guess that means it’s the share of the water that goes to humans that mostly goes to farmers.

        • And the fraction of what goes to cities that actually gets drunk

          How about the idea that we’re running out of clean, drinkable water?

          is tiny. Running out of drinking water is a scary idea, so people pretend that’s the issue when, in a context like California, it isn’t.

          As best I recall from a long ago calculation, per capita water consumption (all uses) in the U.S. is about a thousand gallons a day. Not much of that is drunk.

    • Tenacious D says:

      Cape Town actually was running out of water last year–if the water level in their reservoirs had dropped much further the intakes would have been sucking air. However strict rationing helped them last until the end of the dry season and seasonal rains have filled the reservoirs enough that they aren’t worried about running dry in 2019. Hopefully they’ll use the time to get moving on the type of technological fixes that Alsadius mentions.

    • Jon S says:

      Yea, in my early-90’s elementary school classroom we were definitely taught that we (I think in the global sense) were on track to run out of drinkable water (as well as places to put our trash).

  85. hnau says:

    Environmentalism’s successes do tend to be kind of forgettable. Anyone remember incandescent lightbulbs? Or cars that got under 20 miles per gallon? The regulations that killed them seemed really annoying at the time, and I remember hearing a lot about those issues. But now everyone’s used to the new standards and technology has caught up, so no one thinks about them much. Total US electricity consumption– not per capita, total!– leveled off by the early 2000’s, and oil consumption looks to be doing much the same.

    • Alsadius says:

      I still buy incandescents occasionally – there’s a few old lampshades in my house that only work on that bulb shape, and those lights don’t get turned on enough to make switching cost-effective. And sub-20 mpg cars still exist, they’re just more likely to be specialized. That said, I’m not sure how much of that is regulatory and how much is simply the cost of oil going up and general technological improvements.

    • eric23 says:

      Every moment I used a CFL, I begrudged it. Much more expensive, slower to start up, lifetime no longer than incandescents in practice, mercury spill if they break. They were absolutely not better than incandescents.

      Environmentalists should have waited for mass market LEDs before outlawing incandescents.

      • wysinwygymmv says:

        Err…they did. Incandescent ban didn’t come into effect until 2015. LED light bulbs were widely available (if a little pricey) well before then.

    • Cerastes says:

      I actually still use incandescent bulbs by the boatload – for me, the “waste heat” is actually the point, as I use them for reptile cages. Heat without light doesn’t stimulate good basking behaviors, light alone is useless (except for the plants in the cage), and mercury vapor bulbs are cash toilets which explode the moment they get splattered with rat intestines thanks to an overzealous carnivorous lizard.

      Now what I *really* want to see is an LED that produces UVB (not UVA or UVC) affordably, so I can stop pissing away money on $30/ea UVB fluorescent tubes.

    • Dalben says:

      CFLs existed and were growing in popularity and decreasing in price before the ban. The environmentalists just get credit for messing with people had good reason to use incandescents. Likewise getting more miles per gallon was a selling point for cars without regulations.

    • albatross11 says:

      It’s a really bad idea to just ban a technology, because you don’t know everyone’s situation. If there are people whose specific applications (which you can’t know for everyone) require incandescent bulbs, then you’re screwing them over for no benefit. If you want to make people be more careful about electricity usage, raise the price of electricity.

      • Mark V Anderson says:

        It’s a really bad idea to just ban a technology, because you don’t know everyone’s situation.

        This is a bit over-stated. I think it was probably a good idea to ban lead in paint and gasoline. The externalities were horrible.

    • Worley says:

      I remember back when the first gas-mileage ratings came out. We were kinda proud of our car, a Dodge Dart, because it got significantly better than average mileage — 15 miles per gallon!

  86. idontknow131647093 says:

    As someone who also went to part of school in that era it seems pretty obvious to me what happened:

    1. Environmentalists were wrong or liars.

    and

    2. Environmentalists were just socialists, and upon realizing the “small” issues of the 80s/90s (which were effective to the era because they might affect people) were very cheap to fix, and thus could not dismantle capitalism. Thus they switched to global warming, which is a less nascent threat, but also much more destructive to fix.

    • Guy in TN says:

      I think Scott has pretty convincingly shown that calling them wrong is incorrect. They were wrong about some issues, right about others, and unclear on some.

      • reasoned argumentation says:

        If the model of “environmentalists are just leftists looking for power” is correct then ideally they’d find a real environmental problem and plausibly suggest a solution that requires a massive power and money transfer to them and their allies. The part where the solution actually solves the problem is unnecessary as is the part where the problem is man-made – ideally the problem will get worse the more you apply the solution because that will lead to a positive feedback loop in power. This model correctly explains the total failure to understand that pricing solves most of the problems they can plausibly describe – increasing prices for resources that are scarce don’t require power so they’re not useful for this model’s environmentalists.

        Environmentalists seem to mostly act in accord with this model.

        • BPC says:

          I mean, sure, if you discount the countless grassroots efforts, the way in which environmentalists embraced market-based plans like cap and trade, and uncharitably use this insane distortion to discount the ideas of the movement, this makes perfect sense.

          Scott, does it concern you to see posts like this in the comments section? It’s a bit like how maybe “classical liberal” Sam Harris should pause and wonder why his fanbase consists so heavily of the MAGA crowd, or that “not a conservative” Jordan Peterson has so many fans who want him to answer the Jewish Question. Something weird and concerning is going on if this many posters on a rationalist blog are willing to buy crap like this.

          • Alsadius says:

            The green movement has gotten somewhat less anti-market over the years, but the fact that their cause celebre right now is banning plastic straws still tells me that most of them are fundamentally not serious.

            To be fair, most adherents of most movements are fundamentally not serious, because seriousness is really hard in any issue where you’re not an expert. But it drives me nuts with greens, because they often ignore good solutions in favour of bad ones. The fact that they came around to a proper market-based approach to CO2 after a quarter century of fumbling about in the dark banning light bulbs does not inspire a ton of confidence in their approach overall, even if it’s better than the alternative.

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            Something weird and concerning is going on if this many posters on a rationalist blog are willing to buy crap like this.

            “SHUT THEM UP!”, cried the rationalist.

            Laughably, this is the type of commenter that Scott wanted more of on his blog.

            Congratulations Scott.

          • BPC says:

            I don’t want to shut you up. I just want to point to a concerning trend. It’s like if the National Geographic blog got a lot of people in the comments section who kept talking about how wonderful it was that god created all the wonders of the world in 6 days – at a certain point, you have to wonder – “What’s going on here? Why is my writing attracting this particular crowd of people? Am I failing in my mission as a rationalist? Why are there so many deeply irrational people with deeply irrational beliefs who feel very comfortable sharing those deeply irrational beliefs in my comments section and acting like that’s totally within the overton window, instead of some bizarre conspiracy crap?” Your actual post isn’t the problem – it’s the general mindset that would lead someone to treat “Watermelons” like a serious argument, and what someone is doing to accidentally cultivate a fanbase like that. So you’re less the disease and more the itchy symptom. So by all means, keep posting – that way, when you stop posting nonsense, we’ll have some concept that we’re going in the right direction.

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            “It’s deeply concerning that comments like yours exist on a rationalist blog”

            Try summoning an actual argument if you have one rather than tsk-tsking Scott for getting comments from people that fundamentally disagree with him. Or don’t. I don’t care one way or the other.

            Let’s look at the substanative part of your comment (the part before you went with the “I can’t believe I even have to be subjected to this”)

            mean, sure, if you discount the countless grassroots efforts, the way in which environmentalists embraced market-based plans like cap and trade, and uncharitably use this insane distortion to discount the ideas of the movement, this makes perfect sense.

            1) Countless grassroots efforts – vague and doesn’t contradict my argument anyway. If the goal of your movement is to gain power through mass influence, you’re going to use “grassroots” efforts.

            2) “market-based plans like cap and trade” To my knowledge the only “market-based” plans “like cap and trade” are actually limited to cap and trade. If there are others please let me know and I’ll examine them. That being said the key element here is first a cap (power to eliminate all non-approved economic activity) then the apportionment to politically favored groups of the right to sell permits for economic activity. That’s a parody of “market based” based purely on the idea that since something is being sold it’s a market. In practice it’s pretty obvious exactly what’s going to happen.

            Not doing too well as a counterargument.

          • Alsadius says:

            You need an education, not a debate.

            Would I be correct in interpreting this as “I know so much more than you do that I have nothing to gain from listening to you speak, and therefore I’m going to refuse to engage with you on terms where I might need to listen to what you’re saying”? Because if so, an online comment thread might not be the best place for you.

          • anonymousskimmer says:

            I have no idea what any of you are arguing. But,

            2) “market-based plans like cap and trade” To my knowledge the only “market-based” plans “like cap and trade” are actually limited to cap and trade.

            Targeted taxes, increased quotas (e.g. fuel ethanol) which function in an inverse cap-and-trade manner, fees to use plastic bags and payments for bringing your own bags at groceries.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            In what way are taxes imposed by the government anything like a market?

          • Guy in TN says:

            @reasoned argumentation
            Your argument seems to boil down to: We know environmentalists are lying because they aren’t advocating for free-market libertarianism, the obviously correct ideology.

          • wysinwygymmv says:

            @Alsadius:

            The fact that they came around to a proper market-based approach to CO2 after a quarter century of fumbling about in the dark banning light bulbs does not inspire a ton of confidence in their approach overall, even if it’s better than the alternative.

            Incandescent bulbs were not banned anywhere that I know of (apparently there is a federal phase-out program that bans manufacture and importation), but lightbulb technology nonetheless improved considerably in terms of efficiency, lifetime, and even spectral emission — partially as a result of the political and social pressure you’re hissing at.

            The improvements in CFLs and LEDs we’ve seen in the last few decades were funded by people who were willing to spend more on lightbulbs. The unserious, fumbling greens say “you’re welcome”.

          • The Nybbler says:

            I believe the lightbulb ban is currently unfunded, as I happily bought new incandescent bulbs on Amazon recently (I need to see while I’m warming up my Suburban, and my whale oil lantern ran out years ago).

            The latest cause here in NJ is not only plastic straws but plastic bags, which has one of your higher hair-shirting to helping ratios. If you read about “Snarling North Jersey Man Arrested For Abandoning Groceries At Checkout”, that’s me.

          • Alsadius says:

            Conrad Honcho: Taxes are “market-based” because they’re about internalizing externalities. If you had to pay the people affected by your pollution(e.g., after a class-action lawsuit in a minarchist state), you’d wind up paying about as much as a carbon tax, so the net result would be similar. But having it structured as a tax dramatically lowers both transaction costs and compliance issues. Banning this technology or subsidizing that one are about the government interfering in the market to get a specific outcome. A carbon tax is “This is what the costs imposed by carbon are, do what you will with that information”. It avoids centralized command and control systems, and leaves the market free to implement whatever solution is best. It also avoids the common error governments make of promoting a worse tech and banning a better one (e.g., wind over nuclear).

            wysinwygymmv: Was it worth the time and effort invested, or could that have been spent better elsewhere? And while bans seem to have mostly not happened, the idea was extremely popular among the green crowd perhaps a decade ago.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Conrad Honcho: Taxes are “market-based” because they’re about internalizing externalities.

            This is basically just marketing, as no one knows what the externalities are.

          • Paul Zrimsek says:

            Carbon taxes can be about internalizing externalities, but that doesn’t mean they will be. Most of the proposals I’ve seen call for setting the tax at a level that will reduce emissions to the level they’ve decided in advance is the right one, not basing it on an estimate of external cost. In other words, an alternative way of implementing cap-and-trade.

          • albatross11 says:

            Paul:

            If the best understanding we have of AGW says that we need to limit total CO2 emissions to X tons per year to avoid some bad consequences, then this seems like the right way to set to CO2 taxes. In a similar way, if you determine that you can only afford to take X liters of water out of the lake per year before you start messing up the lake, you should probably try to set the price of water so that no more than X liters of water per year come out.

          • Why are there so many deeply irrational people with deeply irrational beliefs who feel very comfortable sharing those deeply irrational beliefs in my comments section and acting like that’s totally within the overton window, instead of some bizarre conspiracy crap?”

            That is by the same poster who earlier wrote

            It is important to remember that when it comes to global warming, there is a huge denialist contingent intent on arguing in the public square very loudly in poor faith, fueled by fuel industry money. The entire right-wing sphere in the USA is either part of this or influenced by this. This is extremely well-established. This debate is very reminiscent of the “debate” surrounding teaching creationism in the classroom – one side is simply utterly uninterested in the truth. The sooner people realize that, the better. And, uh… pro tip – it ain’t the side that has literally all the scientific evidence backing them up.

            At the risk of being rude, I would describe what I have just quoted from you in the terms you have just used for material you think shouldn’t be on this blog. It is a wildly overconfident account of the controversy from one side–the short form would be “the people who agree with me are wise and good, the people who disagree are a conspiracy of the evil, ignorant, and corrupt.”

            You don’t see it that way because you, like everyone else, are badly biased in favor of your own views. So is Reasoned Argumentation. But he at least gives an argument, true or false–you offered bare assertion.

          • the way in which environmentalists embraced market-based plans like cap and trade

            I agree that a Pigouvian tax is more nearly market based than direct regulation. But if you look at how people propose to implement both carbon taxes and cap and trade, neither comes very close to being a real Pigouvian tax.

            Consider the actual cap and trade bill that passed the house quite a while back but didn’t make it through the senate. It included cap and trade, but also lots of direct regulatory rules and lots of subsidies to those getting the allocations.

            To do a Pigouvian tax right, you need a reasonable estimate of the externalities–which nobody has. You could do cap and trade right if you knew what the optimal level was, which requires an estimate of both externalities and value. As one small bit of evidence that we don’t have that, the IPCC has been insisting that we limit warming to 1.5°C. William Nordhaus, who has been crusading against AGW for a long time and recently got a Nobel prize for his attempts to estimate costs, writes that if we follow the optimal policy, temperature will be up 2.5°C (I think that’s by 2100 but don’t swear it is).

            Some years back Nordhaus, in a popular piece attacking a WSJ OpEd that argued that warming was not a crisis requiring immediate drastic action, gave his estimate of how much worse we would be doing nothing for fifty years than taking the optimal actions immediately:

            the loss from waiting is $4.1 trillion. Wars have been started over smaller sums.

            That sum, spread out over the globe and the rest of the century, is a reduction in world GNP of about one twentieth of one percent.

            A carbon tax based on a serious attempt to estimate the marginal cost of additional CO2 could reasonably be described as a market based approach to dealing with an externality. But that isn’t what environmentalists, in my experience, are actually proposing.

          • Paul Zrimsek says:

            @albatross11: The lake example seems to suppose that the cost is a step function: the lake is either “messed up” or it isn’t. In this case a Pigouvian tax is indeed a hard sell since it’s not possible to do what that sort of tax requires, to put a number on any one person’s marginal contribution to the problem. But it isn’t a good fit for the global warming case, where a little more of it is a little worse than a little less of it, and you can put at least an approximate price on how much a particular action makes it worse. (Note in passing: one of the many pathologies of the global-warming debate is the extent to which arguments about existence theorems have been allowed to crowd out the arguments we should be having, which are about magnitudes.)

          • At a slight tangent, inspired by the “step function” comment.

            If you know that cost is huge above some level of pollution, tiny below it, cap and trade works better than a carbon tax because the market ends up generating the correct tax rate. You cap at just below the step function, and the price of emission permits then rises to the price at which that amount of emissions is produced.

            A good deal of AGW rhetoric implies that situation—we have to keep warming below 2° (more recently 1.5°) or horrors occur—but there isn’t any basis I have seen for it.

          • albatross11 says:

            David:

            I don’t object in principle to cap-and-trade, but I worry that it’s likely to be harder to implement well than a CO2 tax.

          • DocKaon says:

            There is no incandescent lightbulb ban. There is a ban on low efficiency lightbulbs, which earlier incandescents would have failed. Once the government intervened companies decided to get off their asses and actually improve their product.

            Of course, the long history of government intervention driving improvements in efficiency such as CAFE fuel efficiency standards and the dramatic improvements in wind and solar power costs are ignored by libertarians.

          • Ghillie Dhu says:

            Of course, the long history of government intervention driving improvements in efficiency such as CAFE fuel efficiency standards and the dramatic improvements in wind and solar power costs are ignored by libertarians.

            At least some of the criticisms of these initiatives are more focused on the inefficiency of how the government intervened; IOW, the same results could have been achieved with fewer adverse economic side effects. E.g., gas and/or carbon taxes rather than CAFE, analogous to how either tariffs or quotas can be used to limit imports but tariffs (g/c taxes) are more efficient than quotas (CAFE).

            ETA: Marginal Revolution University video on Tariffs vs. Quotas

          • The Nybbler says:

            @DocKaon

            The light bulb efficiency numbers were set to exclude any existing or likely to exist incandescent light bulb. Current incandescents do not pass those standards.

          • Scott Alexander says:

            This is a public blog and people who follow the rules are welcome to comment.

            I interpret your tone as vaguely threatening – “It sure would be a shame if people compared you to groups that you could get in trouble for associating with”. This seems to be a pattern of yours – trying to make people feel embarrassed for presenting a point instead of responding to it. I understand this is a common technique that works in a lot of places, but it’s not what this blog is about. Many people have reported your posts as making them feel uncomfortable, at a level that I would usually ban you for. Since you seem well-intentioned and your points have generally been good, I am instead giving you an official warning.

            If someone makes a bad post that you think should be deleted or get them banned, you’re welcome to press “report” and I will take a look at it.

          • sty_silver says:

            In case you have comment reply notifications: it seems unlikely that Sam’s fan base consists heavily of the maga crowd. According to the survey I conducted on his subreddit, Trump has a disapproval rating of 90%. It could be that the subreddit is significantly more anti-Trump than his general audience, but you’d need some strong evidence to make that claim.

      • idontknow131647093 says:

        I disagree with that evaluation of it. But I can see that you can see that from the data.

        I also am kinda sad that my offhand glib comment has blown up so much. I didn’t even use “watermelons” in it, so I toned down the glibness but not as much as I would have liked in hindsight.

    • Alsadius says:

      1. Environmentalists were wrong or liars.

      Predictions are hard, especially about the future. They got some right, but have a strongly alarmist bent, and overstated some as a result. The latter doesn’t reflect well on them, of course, but this is overstating your case.

      2. Environmentalists were just socialists, and upon realizing the “small” issues of the 80s/90s (which were effective to the era because they might affect people) were very cheap to fix, and thus could not dismantle capitalism. Thus they switched to global warming, which is a less nascent threat, but also much more destructive to fix.

      There’s a strong overlap, but they’re not identical groups. Greens seem to really believe what they say, and while they might (wrongly) think of socialism as a solution, most of them are primarily motivated by finding a solution, not by sneaking socialism in through the back door.

      Amusingly, your comment itself is also quite alarmist and politically biased.

    • eric23 says:

      Global warming is also pretty cheap to fix. 1) Build a bunch of nuclear power plants (not worrying too much about the safety features, they will still be safer than any other power source) 2) Tax gasoline more 3) Use that tax to subsidize electric cars

      • albatross11 says:

        eric23:

        Instead of trying to central-plan your way out of the problem by deciding top-down how many nuclear plants to build, etc., just impose a carbon emissions tax and gradually raise it until you reach approximately the desired CO2 emissions levels. If you can streamline regulations for nuclear plants at the same time, that’s also a win. But that allows the people actually trying to make cars/generate power to respond to the incentives from the people buying cars/power. The result may be electric cars and nuclear plants, but it may also be some other thing (renewables plus a much better power grid plus energy storage, some kind of carbon-capture technology plus big nasty coal-fired power plants, whatever). Nobody is smart enough to decide the right tradeoffs from the top.

        [ETA: You can also use cap-and-trade to get market mechanisms to work on this problem. There are reasons to like that better, but it seems to me like there are a lot of opportunities in such a scheme to stick in goodies for politically important/connected industries and such and a lot of details to tweak; I think we’re likely to get a better outcome by a simpler scheme like a carbon tax–there will still be plenty of details to screw up in measurement, but maybe that’s something we can hope to eventually get right.

        • cryptoshill says:

          I don’t see the difference in “deliberately distorting the market with carbons emissions taxes” and “centrally planning your way out”.

          “Removing some of the low-value high-cost nuclear regulations” would make anyone who didn’t build more nuclear capacity or switch over from natgas/goal an economic dunderhead, and has the same effect with a net reduction in overall government.

          Renewables are an environmental travesty in a lot of ways not related to CO2, and the nuclear waste problem is largely known, understood, and easily dealt with.

          • quanta413 says:

            I don’t see the difference in “deliberately distorting the market with carbons emissions taxes” and “centrally planning your way out”.

            Taxes are not equivalent to central planning. If you centrally plan, you have to gather all the information of relevance about what to do to generate energy instead of what you were previously doing. Then you have to pray that whoever is collecting this information and making all the decisions afterwards solves one of the most difficult calculation and collective action problems that has ever occurred.

            If you crank up taxes, each producer of emissions raises their prices depending on their emissions and then consumers adjust their behavior to the new prices. This information then feeds back to producers some of whom may shrink or fail and some of whom may expand. Which in turn affects producers etc. etc.

            “Removing some of the low-value high-cost nuclear regulations” would make anyone who didn’t build more nuclear capacity or switch over from natgas/goal an economic dunderhead, and has the same effect with a net reduction in overall government.

            Sure, why not. But it may turn out that even if you remove some of these regulations, a lot of new nuclear doesn’t get built. Nuclear safety may be high cost high value. My understanding is that nuclear plants are already cheap to run per Joule produced, they just have enormous upfront costs.

          • I don’t see the difference in “deliberately distorting the market with carbons emissions taxes” and “centrally planning your way out”.

            The difference is that a Pigouvian tax only requires the government to estimate one relevant function, the marginal cost of additional CO2 in the atmosphere, and then let the market solve the rest of the problem. The centrally planned solution requires the government to figure out what everyone involved should do and make them do it.

            That said, I don’t believe governments have either the ability or the incentive to do even what the carbon tax requires.

            As casual evidence on the second point, consider that AGW is on net worse for a country the closer the equator it is, since warming is generally bad when you are hot and good when you are cold. So if government policy was driven by a rational estimate of the welfare of the people governed, we would expect Canada, the Scandinavian countries, and Russia to be least supportive of action against AGW. With the exception of Russia, that isn’t what we observe. Countries near the equator are in favor of other people doing things about global warming, but I can’t think of any that are pursuing policies costly to themselves.

            Which leads me to conclude that current climate policy is driven by ideology, not rational calculation of costs and benefits.

          • Guy in TN says:

            So if government policy was driven by a rational estimate of the welfare of the people governed, we would expect Canada, the Scandinavian countries, and Russia to be least supportive of action against AGW.

            This is too narrow of an concept of “welfare”- it can mean material conditions, but it can also mean fulfillment of goals. Perhaps it is in the goal of the people of northern countries, not to have countries near the equator become unstable? Because their citizens care about the well-being of the people in other countries?

            We see this when we see a mother care for a child: It is the mothers goal to care for the child, so fulfillment of that goal is her “self-interest”, even though she is increasing the welfare of someone else in the process.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            It strikes me as likely that the countries with glaciers and polar bears are most likely to object to the things that put them at risk. Gross environmental effects of warming are most noticable where seasons and cold are important.

            You’ve said before that warming makes it easier to grow food and engage in other economic activity. This doesn’t really capture the magnitude of the negative environmental consequences, and I don’t really like that you make it out to be an unambiguous positive when it’s absolutely not; see, for example, British Columbia’s pine beetle blight. We don’t know exactly what all the causes are, but we’re pretty certain it wouldn’t have happened if not for rising temperatures. Do you think the people living there wouldn’t trade milder winters for getting back millions of acres of pine forest? Hint: logging is big in BC.

          • and I don’t really like that you make it out to be an unambiguous positive when it’s absolutely not

            So it is a good thing that I have never claimed that warming was an unambiguous positive. What I have been claiming for a long time is that it will have both positive and negative effects, that the size of both is uncertain, and that whether the net effect is positive or negative is also uncertain.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            Sorry, I didn’t mean to misrepresent your position; my interpretation of your view is that you believe that the major effects of global warming will be non-chaotic and that these effects are likely to be beneficial in non-costal cold regions due to extrapolations from existing research on the impact of CO2 and temperature levels on food production and other economic activity.

            At least, I’ve seen you bring the above up often and the chaotic effects like pine beetle blight up never, which makes me think that you model the effects of climate change as unambiguously beneficial in some places and unambiguously detrimental in others – you often pick similar places as “beneficiaries” or “losers” in your examples, in which I recall you often saying things of the sort, “the effects are bad here, but good there” rather than “this effect is bad here, but this other effect in the same place is good.” I could be mistaken, or that might be because the first is just easier in conversation than the second. If you respect the fact that the sign of the burden of warming doesn’t correlate cleanly to latitude or you have a well-reasoned basis for the belief that it does that respects the (demonstrably disastrous) impact of warming on cold ecologies, I retract my statement and apologize.

            To be clear, I still think warming is bad everywhere, but that’s down to an estimation of unknowables, not a fundamental objection to your approach.

          • If you respect the fact that the sign of the burden of warming doesn’t correlate cleanly to latitude

            Of course it doesn’t correlate cleanly. The simplest example where it doesn’t would a very low lying coast in a northerly region, where problems due to sea level rise outweighed benefits due to longer growing seasons and milder winters.

            But there is an obvious reason why problems would correlate with distance from the equator and I can’t see any reason why they would anti-correlate–just correlation plus random variation. And that’s sufficient for the point I was making.

            To be clear, I still think warming is bad everywhere, but that’s down to an estimation of unknowables, not a fundamental objection to your approach.

            Why do you think that? Is there some a priori reason to expect warming to be bad rather than good, even in places where cold is much more of a problem than heat?

            If you are simply estimating unknowables, isn’t it odd that you come up with such a tidy answer?

          • cryptoshill says:

            The difference is that a Pigouvian tax only requires the government to estimate one relevant function, the marginal cost of additional CO2 in the atmosphere, and then let the market solve the rest of the problem. The centrally planned solution requires the government to figure out what everyone involved should do and make them do it.

            Climate-policy based carbon taxes don’t seem to be pigouvian taxes as they don’t seem to marry the costs of additional CO2 emissions to the taxes. I may have made an assumption here about the nature of carbon-taxes, and there is a planned policy that does so.

            Without that relationship, it is still deliberate central planning even though it may be more “hands off” than say, the Soviet model.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            Why do you think that? Is there some a priori reason to expect warming to be bad rather than good, even in places where cold is much more of a problem than heat?

            The magnitude of benefit would have to be substantially greater than my (or your) estimates to outweigh the damage that the fundamental disruption of local ecosystems does, in my opinion. Read the IPCC report, chapter 4. It says, in short, “we have absolutely no idea what impact climate change can have on ecologies, but evidence suggests it’s negative.” No real estimate of economic loss. Acknowledgement of the insufficiency of both models and data to understand the effects. But there is wide agreement that ecologies as a whole cannot adapt fast enough. The discussion of North American boreal ecologies in this chapter is instructive. So, yes, there’s a reason; that reason is, “we’re changing the environment faster than the species that live there can keep up, and the species that can adapt fast enough are not a cross-section of the ecosystem.” The strongest evidence of this claim is the paleontological record, but even the IPCC admits that because human activity is such a major ecological driver, you can’t rely just on that.

            The major driver of ecological collapse is disruption, and we’re doing a whole lot of that.

          • The magnitude of benefit would have to be substantially greater than my (or your) estimates to outweigh the damage that the fundamental disruption of local ecosystems does, in my opinion.

            Thanks for answering my question.

            Your claim feels implausible to me, given that we are talking about warming at a rate, so far, of about a degree C/century—considerably less than the year to year variation at any one location. But I’m certainly not an expert on ecological effects.

            What is the empirical evidence that most ecologies are as fragile as you suggest–that warming of a degree or two in a century will break them?

            At a considerable tangent, the Greenland and Antarctic ice cores appear to show episodes of temperature change faster than the past century of warming. Is there paleontological evidence that those were associated with ecological disruption, or is the resolution of available measures too weak to tell?

            You say to look at Chapter 4. The IPCC web page seems to have gotten considerably more complicated since I last used it, pushing a “synthesis report” that looks considerably shorter than what I have looked at before and isn’t divided into chapters. When I do a web search for WG1AR5_Chapter04 I end up with something about ice.

            What is the URL for the Chapter 4 you are referring to, or the document it is chapter 4 of?

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            The report is linked here: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg2/

            The actual section I’m referencing is in this monster PDF, around page 320-ish, if I remember correctly. Direct link: https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/WGIIAR5-PartA_FINAL.pdf

            I believe most of the temperature fluctuations you’re talking about accompany periods of radical ecological simplification; life goes on, but it often takes a couple million years for a complex ecology to reestablish itself. The Quarternary, the most recent extinction, was 50,000 years ago, and the ecological niches of some of those disappeared species haven’t been filled.

          • @Hoopyfreud:

            Thanks.

            On a quick read, my main conclusion is that the system is sufficiently complicated so that nobody knows what the net effects will be, beyond the observation that things will change.

            At one point in the chapter it explicitly refers to RCP8.5 as what that bit is based on. Is that true of your views more generally? As best I can tell, RCP8.5 is either very pessimistic or impossible, depending on one’s view of total extractable coal reserves–it’s at least arguable that by 2100 it assumes we have burned more than a hundred percent of them. Here is a discussion of the issue.

            More generally, it assumes a continued constant growth rate for fossil fuel consumption, despite the obvious problem of rising cost due to depletion. That isn’t impossible, since they could be balanced by technological improvement.

            But alternative energy sources don’t have a depletion problem (except for hydro) and should also be subject to technological improvement–perhaps more, since it’s a newer set of technologies. So assuming that fossil fuel use continues to scale with economic growth looks implausible.

            But a lot of the AGW discussion takes 8.5 for granted.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            The report says that the most optimistic estimate of climate velocity is roughly half what they assumed for the graphics (and the most pessimistic is 4x what they assumed) so I assume it’s not strongly wedded to 8.5. Thanks for the interesting link on that, by the way.

            What’s notable for me is that the magnitude of the effect is unknown, but as fas as I can tell there’s near-universal agreement on the sign – just like temperature. So really it’s more that “the system is sufficiently complicated so that nobody knows what the magnitude of the effects will be, beyond the observation that things will change for the worse.”

            I highly, highly doubt that the Earth will be made unsurvivable for us, but I find the idea of a (relatively) barren wilderness… extremely distasteful. I think a few months ago you asked why I had an aesthetic preference for (gradual and non-catastrophic, in terms of welfare) human population decline; this is why.

          • I asked earlier about a priori arguments. What I have said for many years is that there is only one a priori argument for warming (or cooling) being bad, and that’s the fact that we are optimized against our current environment. If we assume, as a simple first approximation, that all relevant environments are equally good–as I usually put it, the current climate was not constructed for our benefit–then any change is initially bad, because we currently have arranged matters (crops we plant, how our houses are designed) to be optimal against the current environment, hence they will not, save by chance, be optimal against a different environment.

            That would be a strong argument in the case of rapid change, but a weak argument, for humans, when the change is at the rate of about a tenth of a degree per decade. Over enough time for our optimal house design or optimal crop choice or farming technology to change significantly, farmers will have switched crop varieties several times for other reasons, most housing will have been replaced or remodeled.

            That isn’t necessarily the case for other species, which I think is the basis of your argument. For them too change in either direction is presumptively bad, for the same reason. Some of them can adapt, by changing location, or behavior, or genetic evolution, fast enough to make it a minor problem, but some can’t. Trees, most obviously, move slowly and evolve slowly (where are the Ents when we really need them).

            So I agree with you that that particular element is presumptively negative, and that we can’t know it is small.

            Part of the difference in our intuitions may be that you see systems as more fragile than I do. I’m an economist, and economists routinely observe other people assuming that if something changes the economy will collapse–because they don’t realize that the whole system is continuously optimizing via the price mechanism to adapt to changes. They take it for granted that the way we are doing things is the way we have to do things, instead of seeing it as the current solution to the current environment.Ecology looks at least vaguely like economics–a decentralized interacting system–so I tend to imagine something similar for it.

            Which gets me back to my earlier question about empirical evidence. Do we have places which were at some point exposed to climate change on the scale we are discussing, presumably for reasons other than AGW, so we can see how well their ecologies did or did not adjust?

            Another thing that affects my intuitions on these is my more general observation of climate arguments. What is happening, as I see it, is that you have a complicated system where reaching any conclusion requires a lot of judgement calls. Most of the people in the field know what conclusion they want to reach, so they tend to slant all the judgement calls in the same direction. That’s reinforced because if I slant towards AGW being terrible and report the result to you, while you, looking at a different part of the problem, do the same thing, each of us has his starting view reinforced.

            I could go into more detail on my reasons to see it that way if you like, but I don’t know if it would be useful or interesting to you.

          • Controls Freak says:

            What’s notable for me is that the magnitude of the effect is unknown, but as fas as I can tell there’s near-universal agreement on the sign

            There are a couple ways to go about understanding this. The first is to use a big picture view, like standard tools measuring publication bias (see Figure 3 for funnel plot). The problem is that this method only indicates that there might be something fishy going on with the “near-universal agreement”, but doesn’t even try to give a satisfactory answer for why.

            The second method is to laboriously go through each study (or the reasoning of each person-you’re-trusting, since it almost sounds like this is the method by which you’re operating) and understand why it/they came up with a positive estimate. This is extremely time-consuming and depends on the particular list of studies/people you’re paying attention to. I’ll remark on a couple examples that I’m familiar with, as well as present a couple opposing views to perhaps put some cracks in the “near-universal agreement”. The first, and most popular, example that I’m the most familiar with is DICE (dat Nobel!). Unfortunately, what that model does is just take a static damage function (which is assumed to be positive) and basically amortizes it over time. Honestly, the result is super baked in to the assumptions, in a horribly obvious way.

            Other authors, like Pindyck or Rosen/Guenther have criticized these types of attempts on a variety of grounds. Money quote from the latter:

            For the reasons cited [in the paper], not only do we not know the approximate magnitude of the net benefits or costs of mitigating climate change to any specific level of future global temperature increase over the next 50–100 years, but we also cannot even claim to know the sign of the mitigation impacts on GWP, or national GDPs, or any other economic metric commonly computed.

            I happen to agree with them. I regularly read damage function papers, IAM papers, and IPCC reports (especially when people link them to argue that it’s estimable with sufficiently tight error bars), and I haven’t seen one yet that I think properly handles the criticisms in the literature (or the basic nature of the timescale separation involved). Pindyck disliked them so much that he thought, ‘Ok, so we have no theoretically-justifiable way of calculating SCC. Instead, let’s see if there’s at least some consensus among experts, so that we can at least get an order of magnitude estimate that gets us close.’ He asked economists and climate scientists to estimate quantities which could be used to compute a SCC, and the result was published in this paper (the important figure is here). First thing to note is that they span three orders of magnitude and are clustered near zero. Are you aware of any other economic metric where credible estimates span three orders of magnitude, are clustered near zero, and somehow are necessarily positive (without being positive by definition)? It would be very strange to have a measure like this where you respond to a bunch of people saying, “It might be <$10/ton," with shaking your head, "Yeah, sure," and respond to someone saying, "It might be $1000/ton," with shaking your head, "Yeah, sure," but respond to someone saying, "Maybe… it, uh, might be $-1/ton," with, "THAT'S IMPOSSIBLE!"

            The dirty secret for why this is the case in Pindyck's paper is that he explicitly constrained the answers to result in a positive SCC. After all, it would look bad if someone estimated that it's negative! You really have to be careful to make sure the desired answer isn't baked into the assumptions in such an obvious way that it renders the result meaningless, but unfortunately, I can't make that specific argument for each of the folks who you think are in "near-universal agreement", just because I don't know which particular folks you're referring to.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            Do we have places which were at some point exposed to climate change on the scale we are discussing, presumably for reasons other than AGW, so we can see how well their ecologies did or did not adjust?

            The best and most recent correspondences are probably the aforementioned Quarternary extinctions and the inter-ice age extinctions which preceded it. We have extremely limited paleontological evidence for the depth of the effect of those extinctions – we know that lots of megafauna went extinct, but not much about how much ecological simplification happened in the wake of those extinctions – as far as I can tell, that’s mostly because the fossil record just isn’t complete enough. That said, as far as I can tell, it’s unambiguous that such simplification occurred. Previous mass extinctions, including the one that ended the Permian era, are also connected to climate change, but obviously our ability to make causal inferences about things we weren’t around to collect data for is limited.

            What we do see, right now, is a number of extinctions significantly higher than the estimated background level – but obviously that estimate is just as vulnerable to incompleteness in the fossil record, and is also affected by the continuing increases in depth of higher animal speciation that have been happening for tens of millions of years. Mammals haven’t filled all the ecological niches made available by the collapse of the dinosaurs yet, in part because the higher-order niches weren’t there to be filled at the outset. Still, like in the Quarternary, habitat destruction is wreaking havoc on the megafauna we have left, and temperature changes are killing off some forests.

            Finally, to be clear, I’m not contending that ecologies do not exhibit the characteristics of economic systems that make them robust. Life on Earth has survived a hell of a lot, and I think humans are capable of making sure that we survive given almost any sort of slow-moving ecological disaster.

            My concern is that ecology moves much, much slower than money. I don’t see ecologies as fragile; I see them as extremely slow to respond. I believe that in interstitial periods of economic struggle, complex economic institutions founder due to a lack of efficient flow of money. This breakdown of economic machinery can result in a depression. Well, ecologies can do the same thing – except that recovery from an ecological depression is fundamentally limited by the rate of adaptation, which is why they last on the order of a few million years.

            Like economic recessions, extinctions are probably inevitable. But I don’t want to consign humanity to a relatively barren Earth for the next five million years due to something we could have prevented.

            we also cannot even claim to know the sign of the mitigation impacts on GWP, or national GDPs, or any other economic metric commonly computed.

            I believe this to be completely true. My concern is absolutely not for any economic metrics, but for ecological health as a terminal value.

          • @Controlsfreak:

            I think you are misreading Hoopyfreud. What he claims is unambiguously negative is not the net effect of AGW but the ecological effect.

            I agree with him, for the reason I already mentioned—organisms are adapted to their current environment, so any change is presumptively bad until there is enough time for them to optimize against the new environment. In the long term the ecological effect could be positive, if the new environment is in some sense superior to the old, but many organisms adapt slowly and it is a complicated interdependent system, so it is reasonable to expect the effect to be negative for a while.

            I agree with your point about overall costs. Unlike Hoopyfreud I don’t take ecological stability as a terminal value, don’t regard simplification of the ecology for a (possibly long) while as a catastrophe. I also don’t think ecological changes of the sort produced by the slow warming we are experiencing are like to have drastically negative effects on humans. I see no reason to expect the net effect of AGW on humans to be negative, although it could be.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            To be clear, when I say a “terminal value” I mean a terminal human value – that ecological complexity is a non-substitutable good. Therefore, there is no economic alternative to it. Also, ecological stability is not that value – ecological complexity is.

          • Controls Freak says:

            Fair enough. I totally skimmed a lot of this thread. Concerning ecology, I really think there’s room for interesting timescale analysis to happen. My favorite plot from the IPCC reports is trying to do something like this. I don’t think it’s done well yet, and it’s extremely difficult to map the sketchy results here to outcomes that we ‘care’ about. But maybe we’ll get there.

          • To be clear, when I say a “terminal value” I mean a terminal human value – that ecological complexity is a non-substitutable good.

            What is a “non substitutable good”? In what sense are human values not substitutable for each other?

            Suppose something is going to lower value A. Are you saying that if A is non-substitutable, then no improvement in value B could make up for it–you would never prefer A somewhat lower and B higher to neither changing?

            Suppose you are choosing between a future with somewhat less ecological complexity and other things unchanged and a future where complexity remains as it was and all humans die. Are you saying you prefer the latter? If not, I don’t understand what “non-substitutable” means.

          • Hoopyfreud says: