31 May 2010

Unsustainable hypocrisy

EF sent this article, which points out the battle among greens over the American Power Act (APA). I had these comments:
  1. The APA is full of pork, distortions and subsidies (read more at enviro-econ)
  2. It's also "something," which some people prefer to nothing.
  3. "Greens" fall into several categories. NIMBYs and anti-capitalists are active here. They do not realize their hypocrisy. If everyone was a NIMBY, nothing would happen anywhere. If everyone was anti-capitalist, we'd be poor -- raising cows to make shoes and growing cotton for our shirts.
So really what we are getting is bunch of people complaining that they -- like anti-greens -- want something for nothing (reminds me of the triple bottom line!).

Although some people think that technology and innovation will save us, I do not agree. Because the environment is owned by none (and everyone) and unpriced, it's easy to overexploit it.

We need to cooperate to prevent that, and part of cooperation will require that we, all of us, do with less.

It's not going to be a big bang, but a series of steps, gradual steps, that take us to the goal.

Bottom Line: Better to recognize and work with constraints than ignorantly walk off a cliff.


  1. I agree with some of you here, and disagree with others.

    The environment is not owned by "none", but "everyone". These are not saying the same thing - just call it generally nonexcludable, nonrival, and tell gov't. to effectively price impacts or or cap them. Both work, to some degree; we may argue over relative efficiencies, but both initiate your "do with less" concept.

    Tech. can save us, but only if we incentivize it properly. Hence, prices or caps.

    Doing with less is the absolute, spot-on thing. Yet, rarely does a politician win the ability to make decisions by using that as a battle-cry. The closest you'll hear is, "Do more with less".

    Now, for my big beef:
    Your NIMBY comment isn't exactly true. NIMBY is a very, important, valuable idea. Like a hammer, it's not supposed to solve every problem, but saying it is bad by trying to extrapolate the notion of NIMBY rather than the actuality of NIMBY is to pander to a common thought without really trying to understand the idea. Try this thought experiment:
    Would you allow a murderer to live in your physical back yard? No. Would you allow one to live in somebody's back yard in Pakistan? Sure - you do it all the time. But, if everybody had the power to keep murderers out of their back yards, would the world be a better place? Now, extrapolate that out to real-world examples for, say, pollution. Would you want a person to dump their mercury-laden waste in your physical back yard? (Kant's Categorical Imperative can be a great tool here, by the way.)

    The economic problem means that we have to set priorities, but if one doesn't set his physical location as one of them, then one is stupid.

    Your line assumes that NIMBY's don't want anything in their back yards, which is untrue. NIMBY's don't want bad things in their back yards, and that is reasonable.

    Last, your line doesn't consider the reality of NIMBY'ism in the real world, in that NIMBY's aren't just the ones who yell that they don't want it, they are also the ones who pay for the privilege to move their bad stuff to others' back yards, which brings in a whole new set of issues. For example, L.A. dumps its feces in Kern County. This behavior is not more ethical than Kern County saying "not in my back yard", and making L.A. dispose of its own waste on its own premises.

  2. Josh, Kant's Categorical Imperative is exactly why NIMYism is not a good solution. Kant's CI states that a maxim (e.g. no mercury in my back yard) is morally acceptable if it can be willed as a universal rule (e.g. no mercury in anyone's back yard) without causing a contradiction. Well, find somewhere that nobody considers their back yard. I think they made a pretty good go of it with Yucca Mountain. So universalizing the NIMBY sentiment *does* lead to a statement basically saying "No bad stuff anywhere!" That's obviously unworkable, and therefore fails on Kantian grounds.

    David, allow me to make a modest case for technology and innovation to get your reaction. Doesn't it seem true that the countries which are able to put some emphasis on conservation are the rich ones? And don't technology and innovation tend to lead to wealth? My basic question is: do you think there is more or less overexploitation of resources in countries that are richer than in those that are poorer? Or is there no link? Or am I misunderstanding your point?

  3. David, Kant's CI is not a case against NIMBY'ism as much as it is a case in favor of making the hard choice to use less, in order to use more wisely. I see nothing wrong with the claim that we should not have bad stuff anywhere.

    David, are you inferring that you would be willing to put the stuff from Yucca Mountain in your physical back yard?

  4. No, I wouldn't be willing to have nuclear waste put in my back yard for two primary reasons: (1) I live in Seattle, and (2) I'm not a Kantian. I think a utilitarian approach is a little better on this. Putting nuclear waste in the middle of a densely populated urban area would adversely affect a very large number of people beyond just me whereas putting it in a mountain in NM would potentially affect relatively few people.

    But I'm going to have to stick to my guns on the CI/NIMBY issue. The CI is, emphatically, a case against NIMBYism. Like I said, the categorical imperative is that no maxim is moral unless it can be universalized into a moral law. So "not in MY back yard," only passes Kantian muster if you can simultaneously will it and the maxim "not in ANY back yard." Unless you want to say that we shouldn't make any industrial waste at all, ever, I don't see how you can use the CI to justify NIMBYism.

    Kantian morality is fundamentally about transcending personal, parochial preferences to look for universal rules that are, definitionally, contrary to NIMBYism.

  5. David, Kant's is a part-to-whole ethos: You start with a personal claim, and then, to pass ethical muster, you must be able to universalize that claim. It is about transcending parochial preferences, but it's uniqueness comes from the fact that it starts with that parochial claim. You have to be able to go forward AND backward in the concept. A person who lives by CI would have to say, "since I cannot abide nuclear waste in my back yard (NIMBY), I cannot, therefore, abide nuclear waste in anybody's back yard", or, "I want nuclear waste in somebody's back yard, but since I cannot have it in my own, I therefore cannot claim to ethically allow it in others'". CI doesn't disallow NIMBY, it just universalizes it. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I realize that the CI is just NIMBY, it just recognizes that the whole planet is the back yard.

    As for waste, yes, I believe that we all have to bear the burden of our wastes. If we had to internalize the true costs of our externalities, then we would make wiser decisions.

    You seem to be taking the simplified notion of NIMBY (that it is selfish, ergo bad), and claiming that NIMBY is an unethical or illogical process. I'm claiming that we do it all the time as humans, and that if we did not prioritize the health and well-being of our geographic locations, we would be stupid.

    Look at your own claim: You use utilitarianism to justify a blatantly NIMBY claim, not having something in your physical back yard. Then, you try to excoriate NIMBY in order to weaken others' reasoning for why THEY don't want it in their back yards. Yours is a perfect example of the importance of NIMBY.

  6. Josh said...

    “…..actuality of NIMBY is to pander to a common thought without really trying to understand the idea.”

    Oh boy! “Pandering to common thought“.

    You really need to spend some time with Thomas Sowell.

  7. "Look at your own claim: You use utilitarianism to justify a blatantly NIMBY claim, not having something in your physical back yard. Then, you try to excoriate NIMBY in order to weaken others' reasoning for why THEY don't want it in their back yards. Yours is a perfect example of the importance of NIMBY."

    um, no. You're mixing frameworks (or maybe I wasn't clear). My claim is not a blatant NIMBY claim. It's not just because it's my (physical, if you must) backyard that makes storing nuclear waste in the middle of Seattle problem. It's that my backyard is also the backyard of many hundreds of thousands of other people. I not only don't want nuclear waste in the middle of Seattle, I don't want it in the middle of LA (however much I may hate that city), Philly, Cleveland, or Singapore. The fact that it's my backyard is a negligible part of why I think it's a bad idea, whereas NIMBY opposition is fundamentally about the parochial concern (just look at the name!).

    The problem is when you find a place that does minimize the impact and people still refuse to accommodate it because of their narrow self interest. I don't blame people near Yucca Mountain for not wanting nuclear waste near them. But there are just fewer of them. There are problems out there whose only possible solutions all run afoul of NIMBY concerns. That's why NIMBYism is a counterproductive attitude that is toxic to solving problems.

    I'm not really sure why you see "living your life" as involving "abiding" everything that happens everywhere in the world. Going back to the example in your first post with the murders, I think that's another good example of why you've got yourself back asswards. You just assume immediately that people don't want murders living in their neighborhoods. But if everyone held that belief and actuated it, murderers wouldn't have anywhere to live. But, since they need somewhere to live, the CI would require people not to answer your rhetorical question "No" so glibly. Fortunately, we don't live in a system where we can just disappear the problem by exterminating all criminals.

    To some extent it actually looks like we agree. Both of us think that the CI would require a NIMBY adherent to not believe that anything they don't want in their back yard shouldn't be allowed anywhere at all. To my mind, that's exactly the reductio ad absurdum that makes it so obvious why NIMBYism is bad.

    Take an example with which I have some experience. In WA, we passed a law requiring, in effect, more of our energy to come from wind energy. But, lo and behold, people don't like big whooshing machines in their back yards. Some people (I'll call them 'reasonable people', but I'm sure you'll disagree) recognized that if WA was to have more renewable energy, the turbines were going to have to go somewhere, so they should just buck up and get used to them. Others (I'll call them NIMBY-tards, but I use it as a term of affection and mean disrespect to neither them nor the mentally handicapped) decided to hoot and holler because they didn't want their view diminished. Everywhere I went, people said "Of course I support wind energy, but here's just not the right place for it." I'm sorry, but that's just small minded. (oops, my disparaging attitude leaked out.)

  8. In the blog post “Principle Trumps Pragmatism: Grassroots Greens Campaign Against Clean Energy, American Power Act” by Keith Schneider he makes these two statements:

    “The American Power Act, as introduced, is the second major bill to recognize that point since President Obama took office. The first was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, enacted in February 2009, which invests over $100 billion in clean energy production and practices and is one of the big financial drivers behind the new projects facing grassroots opposition.”

    “Frankly, the other provisions in the American Power Act to produce more conventional fuel sources make sense, too, even if they curl an environmentalists' hair. They are meant to buy time until the clean energy economy takes hold, and stave off the continued demise or even the collapse of the quality of life most Americans understand is at grave risk.”

    Ah, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Spruce Goose of all stimulus plans ever concocted. The $100 billion referred to, that is the $100 billion that the US government did not have and barrowed, was not an investment but rather a subsidy. “Clean” energy can not compete with alternative, known, proven energy sources. Hence enter the subsidy so the market becomes distorted to the point “clean” energy can compete.

    “….until the clean energy economy takes hold”. Hmmmm. This statement makes the grand assumption that a clean energy economy is viable. The problem is that you create a subsidized clean energy economy that is only “viable” with market distortions and creates the end game of the Spanish economy (a royal mess).

    Energy economy A runs on known, reliable, market based energy. Energy economy A is the low cost efficient alternative to the subsidized market distorted non-viable clean energy economy C. The rational choice is energy economy A.

    If pot of money M is available, why would you spend money M as a subsidy on energy economy C. Or, alternatively, you would rationally spend the money M on economy A and reduce the externalities and/or create an even more efficient energy economy A.

    Economy C can not exist without subsidies that boils down to pot of money M and M has to come from somewhere (M does not appear magically). Economy C also has its own set of externalities (a new set of externalities). Why would you create an inefficient energy economy C with money M only to create a new set of externalities E?

    Hence the argument for energy economy C is a political-economy argument not an economics argument.

  9. David, I love it how it just so happens that your own physical location is a bad place for dealing with its own waste. Utilitarianism is another great way to justify NIMBY, if you happen to live in a place with a big population. That way, you can get around the messy individual-rights claims upon which we've built our legal system.

    We do agree that CI requires NIMBY be universalized. What we don't agree on, it would seem, is over whether those who caused the nuclear waste (large population centers) are ethically bound to deal with it themselves, in their own communities, or if they can ethically endanger the smaller communities who are not responsible for the creation of the vast majority of that waste.

    As for your wind farm example, you are mad because people don't want wind farms in Seattle, and I agree. In fact, that subset example of NIMBY'ism (that I don't want my OWN waste on my property) is a subset with which I don't agree. But, the nuclear waste is no different.

    What CI does is make the whole world the back yard, which is a more ecologically sound concept in this particular case. Then, we take a look at our production and consumption, and not just assume that all this waste is necessary. I'm glad you agree with me on the use of CI in this context, even though I acknowledge you disagree with me on the outcome. That's cool.

    As for the murderers, you still wouldn't want one living in your back yard, and you believe that this is ethically justifiable. So do I. If, instead, you were living all by yourself in the woods far from home, and you were unable to move, would you let them put murderers in your back yard? Would you let them dig a hole and put nuclear waste in your physical back yard? I still don't think you would.

    Amen about the wind farms. Communities should be responsible for their own waste. As much as possible, externalities should be internalized, borne by the individuals and communities who bear their benefits. The same for nuclear waste, too.

  10. Mr. Heasley, you paint an interesting picture. Internalize the externalities of that economy A, and if it is still true that economy C loses, then oh well.

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  12. You're exactly right, Josh. It, in fact, does just so happen that a place I believe is a bad one for storing nuclear waste is also where I happen to be. I'm glad that you love it, but I'm not sure you really get it. Allow me to illustrate.

    I used to live on the east side of the state, down the road from the Hanford Nuclear site and the chemical weapons depot near Umatilla, OR. Did I oppose those on NIMBY grounds? No! If I were to move to the middle of Nebraska, I would still think it would be the hight of stupidity to put nuclear waste in the middle of Manhattan. Thinking from a utilitarian perspective does not just justify NIMBYism. Sometimes they'll line up for some people in some places, but they are not the same thing.

    And note: utilitarianism not only justifies my not thinking that MY (the M from niMby) backyard, but also makes me think that it shouldn't be in any other population center. Utilitarianism does a really shitty job of justifying NIMBYism if you don't happen to live in an urban area, but that doesn't stop people in rural areas from embracing it. My location really has very little to do with my views on where the best places for these things are.

    And you're applying different standards for wind farms than for nuclear energy, or maybe I wasn't clear that the wind farms aren't going in around Seattle. They're going in mostly in the Eastern part of the State. In both cases, the population centers in the West are drawing more power, and therefore causing more windmills (or nuclear waste in our hypothetical--Seattle does not, to the best of my knowledge actually get any power for nuclear, it was mostly created for creating weapons which purportedly benefit everyone equally and incidently probably has more support in lower populated areas) to spring up in the Eastern part of the state.

    So I have a question for you, going back to the murderers. Where do you want to put them. Your logic seems to be: I don't want them in my backyard. What I don't want in my backyard I don't want in any backyard. I also believe that the Categorical Imperative is a good moral rule. Under the CI, the whole world is my backyard. Therefore, I don't want murderers to live anywhere. Right?

    If I'm misrepresenting your view, please tell me where. If I'm not, can you tell me why your framework doesn't just amount to wishing we didn't have problems (in this e.g. murders), rather than actually thinking constructively about how to best deal with them?

    I would suggest that we can't simply wish murders, nuclear waste, windmills, power lines, buildings that block our views yet that house people, construction noises, etc, etc, off the face of the planet. There is a difference for my preference not to have murders and other undesirable things and my judgment that we actually have to put them somewhere, which might end up being in my backyard. I believe people are perfectly entitled to prefer not having bad things near them, but I do not believe they always have the right to prevent them from being there.

  13. David, I was just pointing out that your position was NIMBY. And it is. You may have a reason for having a NIMBY view, but you have it. It may be de facto, but it is the case. You say, "nuclear waste? Not in my back yard!"

    As for externalities, be they nuclear or wind, you seem to say that people who don't want to deal with the externality of a wind farm are bad for thinking it, yet you believe that nuclear waste is an externality that should not be borne by those who benefited from it. Your attempt to get around this by claiming that "everyone benefited equally" shows your NIMBY roots surpass your utilitarianism. Utilitarianism does not grant the ability to say that "everyone benefited equally" from nuclear weapons. It automatically assumes that all human goods equally benefit all humans, and therefore that benefits to more humans are preferable. Larger population centers benefited more than smaller centers, because utilitarianism is a majority-population ethos. So, it seems that when you feel NIMBY cannot be justified by utilitarianism, you do reach out to the individual rights concept to justify your belief.

    You could have just stuck with utilitarianism, and said, "sure. Smaller population centers should bear the externalities created by large ones, because they have fewer people." Of course, that rips open the serious ethical problem of utilitarianism, but it would have at least been consistent. Instead, you infer that smaller population centers (as in, not yours) should bear the burden of externalities because all people benefited equally. Those don't really logically relate, but they do justify a NIMBY position while hiding the ethical dilemma of compelling a smaller group to bear the externalities of a larger group.

    Here's my point: If the large urban centers had to deal more directly with their own waste, then they would do better in trying to minimize it. I do not believe that the vast majority of waste is at all necessary. I do disagree with the people who say, effectively, "I'm responsible for this waste; I just don't want to deal with it." Those NIMBY'ers are wrong. If they knew at the front-end that they were going to have to deal with it, then they would have behaved differently.

    You ran down the murderer thing well, but you pretended the whole time that prisons do not exist. CI has no problem with creating prisons. It does have a problem with execution, however. My murderer example was a thought experiment to show that we all agree that some form of NIMBY'ism is good - that of course if somebody said, "this dude is going to live in your back yard in a tent next to your dog," you would logically respond NIMBY! After that, I explored the environmental ethics of that idea in the context of mercury pollution, where I said that CI was a good tool for considering how to deal with waste.

  14. Fine, Josh. Yes, when I live in a large population center, I suppose I don't want windmills/some other undesirables in my back yard. You can call that a NIMBY position if you need to. It's just not a helpful label when it does next to nothing (or at least I try to have it do next to nothing) in predicting the positions I take on certain issues. If it does play a part, I certainly don't think it's good to celebrate that fact.

    Sure, when I live in a rural area, which I have for a number of years, I take a YIMBY stance on those things, and I still thought it would have been stupid to put them in Seattle. Further, when I live in an urban area, I take a YIMBY stance on highrises that block wonderful views I might have and on noisy construction projects that bother the hell out of me, and more of a NIMBY position on those things when I'm in a rural area. But I know people who live here and sign petitions against new apartment buildings going in, even though they pay lip service to density. They just don't want the density in their back yards, so to speak.

    There is (or ought to be, in a society of grown-ups) a difference between the things we dislike, and the things we try to prevent from happening. It's not that I dislike high-rises and construction noises, but I see that it would be selfish (and NIMBYish) to oppose them. A grown up should be able to say, "I do not like this being in my back yard, but maybe my back yard is the best possible place for it. If I block its presence in my back yard, it will just end up in someone else's back yard, making the world no better off."

    I never said anybody is bad for thinking anything. People are entitled to their opinions. If you want to dislike the wind farm, I say god bless. I even understand it. But when you start trying to impose your will without thinking about the impact beyond your back yard, I think you're taking an immature attitude.

    I plain just don't see how the CI has anything at all to say about building prisons. But I can tell you for certain that prisons do come against NIMBY opposition. Not all the time, but often enough, depending on how politically powerful the correctional worker union is.

    And I'm not pretending like we don't have prisons for murderers. I'm just acknowledging that sometimes it's impracticable, not to mention immoral, to lock them all up forever. You're either pretending that all murders (and rapists, and robbers, and drunk drivers, and dog fighters, and prostitutes, and pimps, and racketeers, and makers of child pornography, etc, etc) get locked up forever and never have to find a place to live once they get released, or that people somehow find them no longer objectionable once they're released (take a look at what's happening to sex offenders in FL and tell me if you think that's plausible). It just doesn't do much to say "Not In My Back Yard! Back to prison with them!" When I run through your thought experiment, it still leads me to think that NIMBYism is a bad way to approach the problem, even though it's how people often do.

    And, I'm also wondering whether you think Kant flat out misunderstood the categorical imperative, his great gift to moral philosophy. He believed that if two people were left on the earth, and one of them was guilty of murder, the other had a duty to punish her with execution. http://brindedcow.umd.edu/140/kantcap.html

  15. David, re-read my statement. I said CI was a good tool in looking at mercury pollution. You barked up the CI tree re: murder, and I commended you on it. However, the example you show isn't the only CI in town, as I pointed out.

    Besides, if two people were on Earth, and one of them was guilty of murder, then wouldn't there only be one person left? : )

    Seriously, the assumption in that example is that the CI adherent believes that murder must be punished with execution. That is not a problem with CI, that is a problem with the first claim. Utilitarianism, too, can easily require execution in the same example: The one remaining murderer is threatening the safety of the entire community. Utilitarianism could even go a step further, and requiring that the murderer be held, his/her body forcibly taken from for offspring, and then the person executed.

    As for your position on NIMBY/YIMBY, you already backed out of using utilitarianism when you tried to defend the claim that smaller communities should have to bear the waste of larger communities. CI better addresses the ethical problem of waste than does utilitarianism, because utilitarianism doesn't treat the individual rights issue - it merely pretends the ex-post impact is the only ethical problem. CI, however, considers the ethical problem of waste, itself, prior to its creation.

    I do reject the ethical claim that smaller communities must bear the burden of larger communities' wastes. Externalities should be internalized. Utilitarianism doesn't care a hoot about externalities, per se, but only about their impacts upon a numerical majority. The utilitarian position dismisses a huge number of ex-ante discussions, and it absolves the majority community of responsibility for their wastes. NIMBY even does a better job of addressing that issue, and people only really hate NIMBY when it makes the claim that a community shouldn't be responsible for its wastes. People also tend to dislike utilitarianism for the exact same reason.


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