September 12, 2010

Conservation - science, politics and frustration

Guillaume Chapron and colleagues complain that scientific results on "ecosystem degradation" and species extinction have little impact on political action.
If an endangered plant or animal population has become extremely small in size, then individuals should be reintroduced to achieve minimum viable population size. If a chemical threatens a species, then this chemical should be banned.
They "observe that political, social and above all, economic considerations prevail instead." They also suggest that politicians like to talk about being committed to saving biodiversity, but are not willing to act decisively.

But Chapron and coauthors don't give up. They intend to keep proposing specific actions for politicians to implement and "expect a clear signal from politicians that they are committed to resolving biodiversity issues and do something concrete to counter the problem." Instead I expect more frustration for Chapron and company.

Their attitude towards political action is misguided on two counts. First, economic considerations must prevail if we want socially optimal policies. Every decision has moral consequences and economics tries to make those consequences explicit in advance. Banning a chemical has other consequences besides helping a species. We should consider those other consequences. Economics helps us identify and weigh them.

Second, political systems do not choose socially optimal policies. Understanding why they don't do so is a scientific challenge. Scientists don't get frustrated by the fact that objects often fall to the ground. Scientists try hard to understand gravity.

1 comment:

  1. I agree strongly that economic decisions are important in general terms, and the premises of economic decisions in specific terms. However, “socially optimal policies” is another dimension, and I take issue with the conventional assumption of neoliberal/neoclassical economics that mechanistic assumptions are not primarily socially destructive. One recent UNDP report suggests that certain social advances have occurred, but within enormous inequalities.
    http://hdr.undp.org/en/mediacentre/news/announcements/title,21577,en.html

    The UN office of the Special Respresentative on Business and Human Rights was created in recent years because of the large number of violations caused by business activity, often addressed by non-profit, NGO campaigns by groups like Oxfam, Amnesty International, and more recently, Global Witness. Articles in formal legal journals include those by Sara Joseph in “Taming the Leviathans: Multinational Enterprises and Human Rights” Netherlands International Law Review and Josh Eaton in “The Nigerian Tragedy, Environmental Regulation of Transnational Corporations, and the Human Right to a Healthy Environment” Boston University International Law Journal .

    Comments in other posts in this blog suggest that the rights of victims are not to be respected in your view of economic philosophy. Fortunately, Fair Trade practices were innovated formally in the late 1980s, and as discussed by the International Labor Organizations co-operative branch, the international co-operative organization ICA's programs, and analysis by scholars like Anna Milford in terms of co-operative economics, strongly demonstrates how socially responsible assumptions have been ignored irresponsibly by conventional economists. Other related certification practices promoting social responsibility are being demonstrated in diverse areas in which narrow corporate executive purposes have been socially and environmentally damaging. Economist Michael Conroy has become active in writing about these issues, such as his book Branded. Biologist Jared Diamond has done some important writing of the details of similar activities in his book Collapse.

    According to such efforts and thought, addressing economic behavior and thought is fundamental and underlies any political decisions. As for the “scientific challenge of choosing socially optimal policies,” the scholars and social scientists such as those mentioned above are responding to the empirical realities they have either investigated personally or researched comprehensively. They are not taking the philosophical assumptions of conventional neoliberals/neoclassicists as their own premises, and act under those related to those of whole cost accounting. While Pigou may have made certain important advances in applying the modern concept which the likes of Mankiw, Jeff Sachs, and Joe Stiglitz have all acknowledged to some degree, Daly and Cobb et al have gone even further. Cobb et al in “...GDP Up, … America Down?” in The Atlantic magazine gives an extensive portrayal of the concept as social science. His colleagues have created a non-profit and NGO Redefining Progress which actively develops the concepts, along with other efforts by non-profits and academicians.
    Thus does the living organism and small fry “victim” use the realities of biological and psychological science to survive and thrive beyond the weight of neoliberal/neoclassical and corporate executive “gravity.”
    Guillame Chapron and his ecological associates have much to learn, I also agree. Fortunately, whole cost accounting economics and diverse economic efforts represented by organizations and enterprises like International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements and the Cradle to Cradle green technology certification provide excellent avenues for ecologists and their advocates to apply themselves.
    Thanks again for raising another stimulating subject.

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