27 October 2009

Some high octane rant from Atomic Nerds

LabRat lays it on thick, and I like it. Really fine stuff.

I especially like what she had to say about global warming being principally a political problem. I have explained to people in the past that I see the problem as a chain from bench-top science experiments, to broader scientific studies, to computational models, to macroeconomic impacts, to identification and engineering of solutions, to political intentions, to actual legislative language, to the actions of regulatory agencies, to the intended and unintended consequences of those regulations. I have decreasing confidence in our ability to get things right at every link on that chain. Even if "the science is settled" that only gets us two or three steps to where we need to be. (And as someone who has studied a decent bit of computational modeling, let me say that it's more of a black art than a science, so we'd be wise to remain humble about our capabilities on that front for now.)

I think the current Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming thing will end up being bad for environmentalism as a whole. It alienates a lot of the conservationist types, like LabRat appears to be, who think that the catastrophism of the global warming crowd is way off the deep end, but still care about the environment. Catastrophic AGW leaves the Izaak Walton League-types in a sort of no-mans land. Because the focus on carbon dioxide sucks the wind out of the sails of other environmental goals a lot of conservation problems which are better understood, more pressing, and more solvable are going unaddressed.*

(* For instance, I'm not one for Big International Accords, but if we're going to have all these grandiose meet-ups I'd much rather have them hammer out an agreement about overfishing in international waters than do more navel-gazing about global warming.)

I believe LabRat happens to be wrong about richer societies destroying wilderness through suburbanization. (Assuming I am reading her correctly, and also not taking that part of the rant too seriously.) Deforestation follows a Kuznets Curve. As societies get rich enough to build suburbs they also get rich enough to invest more capital in agriculture. The increased productivity of farms takes marginal lands out of production. This more than makes up for the land lost to 'sprawl.'

By the way, many other environmental factors also obey a Kuznets Curve, including things like air and water quality, and perhaps environmental bogeyman du jour CO2, though the jury is still out on that. Biodiversity, another topic LabRat is probably right to be concerned about, does not obey this property though.

PS Paul Ehrlich, professional lepidopterist and Chicken Little Extraordinaire, and John Holdren, currently 'Science Czar' to Obama, spent the 1970's urging the West to 'de-develop,' which is a nice way of saying that wanted us all to be crippling poor again. I would prefer we improve the environment by making it up and over the peak of the curve, rather than backsliding into privation and poverty, but that's just me.


  1. Deforestation isn't that high on my list of concerns- if I were being completely sober about it I'd rank it fairly far down- but it resonates emotionally with me well, since I grew up in a city with massive sprawl problems. (Phoenix) That made it easy to go for in terms of ranting.

    It's an issue to give serious concern to, since it's a big part of why many areas of Europe's habitat is so fragmentary and poor, but Americans have it really good on this score.

  2. I have a tendency to take people's rants at face value when it gives me an opportunity to say something I want to get out there, so sorry if I blew that out of proportion.

    I agree it's a bigger problem in Europe. I bet that if you asked 100 people who self-described as being concerned about sprawl & deforestation they would almost all say the US is doing a worse job though. I think what they're really doing is trying to express an anti-suburban mindset, and everyone 'knows' that America is the land of Levittown and SUVs and drive-thrus and Europe is nothing but dense, walkable, livable conurbations.

    I feel like a lot of these people need to take a flight from Chicago to LA and appreciate that the US has wilderness in spades.

  3. Nah, no problem, it's not like you were wrong.

    American wilderness conservation and recovery is actually the great success story of the environmentalist movement, but given the hair-shirt nature of said movement in its current form, hell if that's commonly appreciated.

  4. Well said about the hair-shirt. I like that.