20 Apr 2018

The myopia of techno-optimists

10 year ago, I blogged on Julian Simon's "end of the world" bet with Paul Ehrlich. Ehrlich (author of The Population Bomb) though that humans were destroying the environment and thus their future. Simons (author of The Ultimate Resource) thought that humans would innovate their way out of any problems (the "resource" is humans).

In this bet, Ehrlich made the fatal mistake of betting that a market commodity (metals) would rise in price because resources were being depleted too rapidly. Simons thought the price would fall as market incentivized innovation. Simons won the bet, but I argued that Ehrlich was right because he was thinking of damage to the environment, a "good" that cannot be priced, traded or managed well in markets.

Recently, some stories have brought these topics up again, so it's time to put them in their proper (right or wrong) context.

First, read this optimistic post from Will Boisvert, who argues that economic growth and technological innovation mean that climate change will only be "a middling-scale" problem. He's over-optimistic (and wrong) because he entirely fails to discuss the massive cost of replacing the flow of "ecosystem benefits" that we now get for free. These estimated benefits total $125 trillion per year, significantly higher than global gdp of $75 trillion per year. Boisvert works for the Breakthrough Institute, a think tank devoted to "ecomodernism," i.e., that we will innovate our way out of trouble. The BI opposes ecologists who want to reduce our footprint, argues with bias and sophistry, and supports subsidies for technology even when it would be cheaper to reduce destructive incentives.

Second, read this overview of the ongoing destruction of ecosystems (and the biodiversity they contain) and how that is bad for humans. If you want to hear it from the horse's mouth directly, then read this update on Ehrlich's thinking.

Third, consider why Ehrlich (and people like me) are so pessimistic about our future while Boisvert and other Simons-types are so optimistic. I think the optimists are too isolated in their theory, thinktanks and urban lifestyles to see the changes underway, let alone understand them. I also think that they are professionally "blind" (economists who only study markets) or deaf (journalists like Boisvert) to see the whole picture, which is helpfully illustrated by this photo I took of a recent TEDx:
Nature isn't going to hire you again if you trashed the place last time 'round.
Bottom line: Technology will not save the environment if there's no governance model to protect it from over-exploitation. Don't sit back and wait for Uber-solar to save nature. Uber, like all profit-seeking companies, doesn't give a shit.