Sunday, April 8, 2012

Terms of Art and Points of Agreement in Sustainability

Right, so first of all, I'd like to declare victory on the "local" aspect of this environmental argument (which was the whole point of these pots... the rest of the sustainability stuff just appeared as a side effect).  The ongoing comment-blog debate has basically shifted entirely away from issues of local and small-scale farming.  I've noticed some points of confusion arising from terms of art, and some points of broad agreement, so I want to highlight the latter and clarify the former in this post.

Where the sustainafreaks and I are in agreement:

1. Companies need to pay the real costs of the damage done by their pollution.  I come at this from a broadly economic (more on that later) rather than ecological perspective, but the conclusion is the same.  If you are going to pollute or otherwise harm people, the cost of that externality (economic term-of-art) should be included into your operating costs.  That would go a long way to leveling the playing field between "green" industry and traditional industry.

2. Again, from a purely economic perspective, we shouldn't be subsidizing farms (or, really, much of anything at all except basic research and some other things prone to market failures).  If this incidentally furthers ecological aims, that's a bonus.

Terms of art:

The big thing that I wanted to mention in this is that when I say "reduced quality of life" I'm borrowing a term of art from economics.  The fact that I think of this phrase primarily in the economic way probably says something about how far down the rabbit whole I've gone in my reading, but there it is.  As a side note, while some people would happily abandon many modern amenities, I'd say that they aren't the majority case. I can tell by how people keep voluntarily buying all this extra stuff they "don't need".  Everyone has a list like the one in the comments about what bits of modern life they like and want to keep, but the point is that these lists don't overlap, and the people who don't want certain modern amenities can (and do) decline to purchase them.  The fact that we keep making these things indicates that for many people they are standard of living enhancing even in the common sense.

As a side note, I also use the word "externality" a lot, which is basically a cost of production born by society rather than the producer.  Pollution is the canonical example of this sort of thing, and basically every branch of economics thinks that such things should be forced into the cost of production and passed on as added prices.

And because I can't help myself...

Places where we hilariously disagree, or are miscommunicating (limited in scope to sustainability):

Also importantly, you don’t address my position about the right kind of efficiency, e.g., using renewable, non toxic processes to produce our food and goods rather than nonrenweable, toxic ones
I did.  That was my whole thing about "we need to stop using X because we might catastrophically run out of X" thing.  If things are toxic, using lots of them is bad, but if things aren't toxic it doesn't matter one bit whether or not they are renewable or we have a lot of them--unless there's no possible substitute and they are destroyed when used. If it sounds like I'm repeating myself, it is because I am.  The toxic thing, I think, is pretty naturally addressed by pricing in externalities, since the appropriate price of an externality to the producer is the cost to repair the damage.
We have stuff that a) we don’t need, b) we don’t even use, c) that stresses us out, d) that causes environmental degradation, e) and/or that is outright toxic to the health of us and our children. Ergo, we can give up lots of our “stuff” without losing our quality of life, for sure. Ergo, we should both make less stuff and make stuff with appropriate processes and resources (processes we can sustain and that sustain us). To argue only or mostly efficiency or to focus on efficiency without also focusing on reducing our amount of stuff (especially stuff from categories A-E above) - I invite you to make an argument on this, because I don’t see it
Invitation accepted.  First of all, see my "if they didn't want it they wouldn't buy it" argument.  Secondly, "stuff" isn't the only, or even the main, thing we buy with added efficiency.  We also get more time, and more people free to give us services.  There's only so much stuff a person can use and enjoy; that's true. But, we stop buying "things" when we reach that point, and we start buying services--like massages, or delicious meals, or people to clean our houses, or even just leisure time.  If we do things inefficiently we a) allocate people to jobs where they will have less access to leisure and b) allocate more people to do the same thing we were previously doing.  In times of high unemployment, maybe that is okay, but at full employment that's not what we want.  Every hour of work done inefficiently is an hour of work that could have gone to something that people actually wanted, or could have been converted to leisure.

In the end, you cannot make the argument that “Industrial Agriculture is also cheaper because of its scale”, and I cannot counter the argument. 
It's true that I don't have any evidence about industrial agriculture in particular, but it's quite obvious that economies of scale matter a great deal in many industries, and I can't think of a good reason they wouldn't apply in agriculture.

Now for the argument that the market will figure it out, that as oil becomes more expensive to extract, we will stop using it... Current efforts to extract oil from tar sands and miles and miles deep in the ocean show otherwise. Actually what is happening is that we (as humans) are taking bigger environmental risks (see the Deepwater Horizon explosion, and fracking for natural gas, and tar sands oil) to get the remaining resources.
It is true that rising price of oil also makes previously cost-ineffective oil gathering strategies cost effective.  But at some point those strategies will be less cost effective than green alternatives, and we will naturally switch.  In other words, this is evidence for my argument, not against it.  Of course, as long as we aren't pricing in externalities there will also be increased environmental risk.  So we should definitely price that stuff in.
Fact: Less and less land becomes usable every year directly due to industrial agriculture. On the other hand, the best and most sustainable agriculture, ecological agriculture, can help reclaim and restore land.
If land can be reclaimed and restored, it hasn't been made unusable.  When it is economically efficient to reclaim and restore land we will, without any need for regulation or intervention.

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