November 21, 2014

Conserving nature and embracing each other

In Working together: A call for inclusive conservation, published in Nature, Heather Tallis, Jane Lubchenco and 238 co-signatories talk about the recent debate between the likes of Michael Soule, who believe that nature should be preserved for its own sake, and the likes of Peter Kareiva, who give more weight to the benefits humans derive. I left the following comment on the article's webpage:
The authors begin by asking why we make conservation efforts (an empirical question) and why we should make these efforts (a normative question). Then they lose all interest in the two questions. Instead, the remaining of the article is all about welcoming, engaging, embracing and listening to diverse genders, ethnicities, religions and philosophies; using compelling speeches and changing our governing language; matching values to contexts and audiences, and inspiring people to uphold intrinsic values no matter whether they exist or not; and getting funding for projects that do not advance obvious human goals. Near the end of the article they mention the need for "testing hypotheses based on observations, experiments and models." Except for that sentence, the article is not about science but about contemporary standards of courtesy (which I happen to dislike as much as the old ones).

May 28, 2014

Conservation, biocentrism and talk

At one end of the continuum, people who are strongly anthropocentric care only about the welfare of humanity; all other species are resources to be exploited. They would be content in a world dominated by domestic species as long as there was sufficient food, water, and oxygen and whatever other elements of nature are necessary to provide people with healthy, happy lives. Conversely, people who are strongly biocentric consider Homo sapiens no more intrinsically important than any other species. Because of the overwhelming threats people pose to other species, biocentrists would prefer a world with a far lower human population living lifestyles that greatly reduced humanity's impact on wild species, even if it compromised their material well-being. 
By describing these furthermost ends of the continuum, it becomes apparent that Soule leans toward the biocentric pole whereas Kareiva and Marvier are closer to the anthropocentric pole, but that they are much closer to one another than to either of the poles. 
There is no such continuum. Nobody is even slightly biocentric. Some people are particularly fond of wildlife, just as others are of food, music, sports or cars. Some people may be so fond of cars or wildlife and so disrespectful of fellow humans that they may be willing to rob other people in order to get more joy from cars or wildlife. But that is all. There is no such thing as the intrinsic value of species. There are only the values each of us attaches to the things that surround us. We can estimate those values by observing human acts. And when people's words are incompatible with their other acts we can safely disregard the words.

January 19, 2014

Costanza and index fetishism

In Development: Time to leave GDP behind, published in Nature, Robert Costanza and coauthors (thereafter Costanza) write:
[S]ince the end of the Second World War, promoting GDP growth has remained the primary national policy goal in almost every country 1.
The only support for this assertion is that number 1, a reference to the paper The GDP paradox by Jeroen C.J.M. van den Bergh. But van der Bergh does not argue or give any evidence that promoting GDP growth has ever been "the primary national policy goal in almost every country." Van der Bergh only says that politicians, journalists and commentators talk a lot about GDP, and that central bank managers, business managers and consumers use GDP data to inform their decisions. Neither talking about GDP nor reacting to GDP data make promoting GDP growth "the primary national policy goal in almost every country." Van der Bergh decries the fact that "rigorous empirical studies of the influence of GDP information on the economy are lacking" and adds:
Anyway, readers who are not convinced by the arguments in this section and feel that GDP information does not have much impact on the economy at large should really be sympathetic to reducing the role played by GDP information in the public sphere, as it serves no purpose while its provision is costly.
I am one of those. Provision is costly and I shouldn't be forced to pay for it. And I also think that political talk about GDP is as useless as political talk generally is.

And I also think that political talk about some other quantitative measure of what Costanza calls "national success", and intended to replace GDP, would be as useless as political talk about GDP. Not so Costanza. He doesn't dislike political talk, or the ideas of "national success" or "the primary national policy goal" or their quantitative metrics. He just dislikes GDP.

He wants to make well-being the "primary national policy goal." What is well-being? I don't know whether Costanza tries to be comprehensive or not, but he is clear that his concept of well-being is not related to income but is inversely related to crime, divorce, drug use, pollution, natural resource use and envy about income ("income inequality"). People who are not happy with their spouse or who enjoy drugs will probably disagree. People who are envious of the beauty, dancing skills or wisdom of others will probably feel excluded.

How is well-being to be measured? Costanza discusses two ways. First, one can quantify things like envy of the wealthy, drug use and natural capital and combine them to produce a single metric like the Genuine Progress Indicator. Everybody, including drug users and fed-up spouses, will agree that "genuine progress" sounds better than "gross product." Second, one can ask people how happy or satisfied they are. He admits that one problem with this is that people often don't know what policies make them happy. In fact, people often support policies that ultimately make them unhappy. Politicians who win elections and thus end up managing "the primary policy goal" happen to navigate these problems and paradoxes more skillfully than failed politicians. An important skill in this regard is the ability to interpret opinion surveys. In the end, Costanza is either trying to do the same thing, but as an amateur, or just airing his political views on drug use and the wealthy.

January 16, 2014

Fair and secular ayatollahs

The title for this post could have been Fair oversight authorities.

Mike Hubank naively asks in a Nature comment:
If a woman wants a genetically related child, and I suggest most would, given the choice, why shouldn't she choose that option? As there is no indication at this point that the procedure is dangerous, then it's up to her to balance the risks and benefits.
Christoph Rehmann-Sutter, past president of the Swiss National Advisory Commission on Biomedical Ethics, replies:
I don't think that a woman should bear the burden of responsibility to evaluate the health risks of reproductive technologies to her child. This would be unfair to her. This is rather a task for oversight authorities in that field of medical practice.
Both comments are on an article by Marcy Darnovsky (A slippery slope to human germline modification) against mitochondrial replacement as a means for women with mitochondrial diseases to have healthy children. She claims that her opinions are shared by others whom she calls "secular bioethicists". Secular bioethicism - that's a nice name for a religion.

January 08, 2014

Biodiversity value and the beauty of honest thinking

In The value of biodiversity: a humbling analysis, Mark Vellend reviews Donald S. Maier's book What's So Good about Biodiversity? A Call for Better Reasoning about Nature's Value, and writes:
In particular, the fact that we started with a conclusion (biodiversity is valuable), and subsequently sought scientific support for it, should prompt serious introspection concerning the degree to which our biases have colored our conclusions. Maier's diagnosis of our arguments concerning biodiversity is one of ‘culturally conditioned, uncritical acceptance and unhealthy disciplinary inbreeding’ resulting in a serious case of ‘confirmation bias’. Not only have our biases colored our conclusions, argues Maier, but they have also led to ‘tacit agreement among colleagues not to rock the boat of bad reasoning – perhaps out of fear that there is no other way to defend nature and its value’.

January 06, 2014

Silly investors and climate change

In A horizon scan of global conservation issues for 2014, published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, William J. Sutherland and coauthors write: 
There is an incompatibility between current stock market valuation of the fossil fuel industry, which is based on known and projected fuel reserves, and governmental commitments to prevent a rise in global average temperature of more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
They share Carbon Tracker and Nicholas Stern's concern about the fortunes of investors: 
[F]ossil fuel reserves already far exceed the carbon budget to avoid global warming of 2°C, but in spite of this, [energy firms] spent $674 billion last year to find and develop new potentially stranded assets. 
“Smart investors can see that investing in companies that rely solely or heavily on constantly replenishing reserves of fossil fuels is becoming a very risky decision. The report [Unburnable carbon 2013: Wasted capital and stranded assets] raises serious questions as to the ability of the financial system to act on industry-wide long term risk, since currently the only measure of risk is performance against industry benchmarks.” Professor Lord Stern.
So Stern, Carbon Tracker and Sutherland and coauthors are worried that non-smart investors dominate the valuation of stock and bonds of energy companies, and that future political regulation of emissions will bankrupt them.

But there is another way to view the incompatibility between current stock valuation and future emission cuts. The fact that investors - the people who put their money where their mouth is - are betting on the value of fossil fuel reserves "raises serious questions as to" the willingness of voters to substantially reduce their emissions.

December 19, 2013

Will mainstream economics look like ecological economics and literary criticism?

After attending Robert Shiller's Nobel lecture, as mainstream an event as you can get, John Cochrane reaches this conclusion:
I realized just how deep and audacious Bob's project is. He is telling us to abandon the "scientific" pretense. He wants us to adopt a literary style, where we look at the world, are inspired by psychology, and write interpretive prose as he has done. When he says that the definition of a bubble is a fad, he isn't being sneaky and avoiding the argument. He means exactly what he says and wants us to think and write this way too. A bubble, to Bob, is defined as any time that he, writing about it, informed by psychology, and reading newspapers, thinks a "fad" is going on. And he invites us to think and write like that too. A model is, to Bob, wrapped up in one person's judgement and not an objective machine. If I complain that this is ex-post story telling, he might say sure, stop pretending to be physics, write ex-post stories. If I complain that there are no rules and that this is no better than "the gods are angry," he might say, no, read psychology not ancient theology, and the rules are you have to couch your story telling in their terms. He does not want us to try to construct models, either psychological or rational, that make quantitative predictions.