5 Aug 2014

The nexus has no clothes!

In response to this post, IO emailed:
I am interested in reading a little more about the critique of the water-energy-food nexus framework that has been on the research agenda lately. I have read your August 1st post on it and would appreciate if you could direct me towards a literature in the area.
to which I replied:
There's a huge industry of consultants, bureaucrats, funders and academics devoted to "studying" the nexus.

I am in an extreme minority that says the topic is too complex to understand -- and therefore not worth studying or "managing."

The literature supporting my perspective would say "we do not understand," but those pieces are very rarely published. One example I'd recommend is a little book of philosophy called The Emperor's New Clothes*
Bottom Line: It's hard to tell people that the best action is no action at all.**

* Note the parallels with "swindlers."

** I don't say ignore water or energy. I say "price it right" so that people make choices that aggregate (as if guided by an invisible hand) into a total demand that does not deplete water... or energy or iPhones or cereals. We're talking about commodity (private) water here, btw, not communal (public) water.


  1. I have to say that I disagree with some aspects of your criticism of "nexus" thinking and particularly where it's an indictment of "systems" research more generally. I spend a lot of my time thinking about non-obvious but non-trivial connections between material resource systems (including energy & water), and while I agree that the interactions are massively complex, I don't think it's a free pass to ignore them. How do you effectively and efficiently limit total demand if there's little to no understanding of the feedbacks between resource domains or what the physical limitations actually are? How do you model the potential environmental impacts of economic decisions if there's no basis for seeing how they'll ripple through physical markets? How do you accurately price the risks associated with things like climate change?

    Poor (and selfish) boundary definitions are what lead to scarcity and other externalities in the first place. If anything, better data and better science will inform the economics and (I hope) will lead to more accurate pricing signals across the board.

    But ultimately I think we'll know the value of this research area by the fruit it bears. It's still too early to judge.

  2. @SS -- I agree with what your saying. What worries me are the attempts to MANAGE the nexus, not attempts to understand it.

    That said, I think it's important for experts in all industries to know their impacts on all OTHER industries, not just a "nexus" that represents part of the whole. From these studies, I'd prefer to make policy, etc.


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