Sunday, August 10, 2008

An effective approach to environmental issues

Those regular readers (Dan I’m thinking of you here) might get the impression I think we should do nothing for the environment, since ‘the system’ will just take over and our actions will be rendered either useless, or at worse, counterproductive. But there are some things I believe are effective, and should be doing now.

For starters, my previous blogs have made clear that without physical constraints resource consumption will continue at the maximum pace allowable by current technology. My ‘solution’ is to apply artificial physical constraints in some way before the true limits of the national or global resources are reached. The effect of such limits will be identical to when true physical limits will be reached – resource prices will rise and labour productivity will wane unless technology proceeds at a pace that more than offsets these price rises. I would expect that a general drop in production, which would appear as an economic recession, but I would also expect changing preferences of society resulting in new consumption habits, and also technology change to ease this burden on the well-being of society. This approach is an example of total supply side constraint, which is the only truly effective way to reduce resource consumption. Demand side constraints we have already seen to be next to useless in decreasing resource consumption (and associated land disturbance, pollution and other environmental woes).

This artificial limit could simply be achieved through traditional conservation – which means ‘fencing off’ some land areas we agree are untouchable. These areas will continue to provide society with those ecosystem services we take for granted but generally overlook since they fall outside the scope of any formal institution. Filtration of air and purification of water through the water cycle does not fall within national borders, nor is ownership of these services likely to exist, but they do have tremendous value to humanity. We should ensure a minimum level of supply of these services to society by taking some land out of the formal economic system, to be designated to the informal supply of ecological services.

In my version of this ‘solution’ (The inverted comma’s are to show that the solution is not without it’s own problems. The social unrest when incomes are going down and resource rich land is lying untouched nearby is one of them) it is not simply a matter of taking some land already untouched an saying this now protected, which has traditionally been the approach with national parks. I would suggest a more integrated approach that at it’s core rests on planning controls. Such controls can govern the extend to which land in employed within existing developed areas, and can actually be used to force rejuvenation of ecologically important areas such as wetlands.

This approach I believe will build robustness into our society in the face of future environmental problems. It will ensure that even if our formal economy suffers as a result resource scarcity, that the quality of life of the people will remain high due to continued supply of a high quality environment. Further, it will ensure space is available for future agricultural opportunities in a world of a new climate.

Even if the economic optimists are right, and resource shortages never pose a serious problem, implementing this type of approach still benefits society greatly by improving environmental conditions at home. And of course in the remaining economic realm of the land, our formal economy can function as it pleases with very little controls.

What do you think of this approach?


  1. I love the land conservation/restoration concept because it is so simple!

    Would this solution include putting a value on a tree?

  2. Yep, there is definitely a value on a tree, insofar as it supplies humanity with ecological services. But I don't like to confuse traditional economic value and the value of the environment to humanity.

    One example of an attempt to value a mature tree in an urban street used the increased rents from the businesses as a way to determine the value of the tree. But a piece of art could do this too. It doesn't capture the real benefit of the tree - it's role in the water cycle, air quality and temperature regulation etc, that cannot be valued within the scope of our economy. WIllingness to pay type of measures should not be used.

    I would suggest that using physical measure of the services supplied by ecological systems against physical requirements of human society would be preferable over comparisons of two types of value.