Archives

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

Mischievous imps blowing invisible darts that stoke human passions and spin them out of control, moving twigs a few inches across the forest floor providing links in conflagrations that would not otherwise occur, plucking the strings of nature to produce crescendos of catastrophe. Zen-mathematician wizards dancing in their ice spheres high in the Vaznal Mountains, solving ever-deepening riddles of sound and sight and sensation, weaving order from the chaos the Loci imps foment. Winged muses carving sensuous stories from the clouds and celebrating the lives of those from whose dreams and tribulations they were born.

A fiery giantess is held captive in a hollow mountain. A sea serpent’s breath inspires the priestess of an island oracle poised above a chasm beneath which it sleeps. City-states are at war; slaves, led by a charismatic general, are in uprising; dictators and warlords are vying for power; neighboring kingdoms and empires are strategically courting local clients in pursuit of regional hegemony or outright conquest. Human avarice has strained the natural context on which it thrives. And ordinary people in extraordinary times, caught within the vortex of the powers that both surround and comprise them, navigate those turbulent currents.

Follow the adventures of Algonion Goodbow, the magical archer; Sarena of Ashra, the young girl at the center of this epic tale; their friends and mentors, guides and adversaries, as they thread the needle of great events, and discover truths even more profound than the myths of legend and lore. Discover the truth of fiction and the fiction of truth; celebrate the fantastic and sublime, in this magical tale laden with rich echoes of world history and world mythology, informed by blossoms of human consciousness from Chaos Theory to Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts, from Richard Dawkin’s Meme Theory to Eastern Mysticism, enriched by the author’s own travels and adventures.

A prophesied Disruption is upon the land of Calambria, causing the Earth to quake and societies to crumble. The Loci imps are its agents, but, according to Sadache mythology, it is Chaos, one of the two Parents of the Universe, who is its ultimate author. As Chaos eternally strives to make the One Many, Cosmos, the other Parent of the Universe, strives to make the Many One. The Sadache people view themselves as the children of Cosmos, whom they worship, and the lowest rung of a hierarchy of conscious beings opposing Chaos and the Loci imps. Above them, both of them and apart from them, are the drahmidi priests of the Cult of Cosmos, founded by the hero and conqueror Ogaro centuries before. Above the drahmidi are the Vaznallam wizards, Cosmos’s agents, just as the Loci are Chaos’s.

As the Great Disruption begins to manifest itself, Sarena of Ashra, a peasant girl from a village on the outskirts of the city-state of Boalus, flees an unwanted marriage to an arrogant lord and in search of freedom and destiny. She meets a young vagabond on the road, coming from the seat of the ceremonial High Kingdom, Ogaropol, fleeing his own pursuers. Together they form an alliance that leads through adventures together and apart, and binds them into two halves of a single whole.

Swirling around them are the wars of would be dictators and cult-leaders, of neighboring empires and kingdoms; the adventures of young Champions engaged in the prophesied Contest by which the Redeemer would be chosen and the Realignment realized. But, in both different and similar ways, the culmination of centuries of history flows through these two people, Algonion and Sarena, on haphazard quests of their own. And both the past and the future are forever changed by their discoveries and deeds.

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

On a Facebook thread condemning President Obama for signing the Continuing Resolution with a rider protecting Monsanto from law suits, my defense of the President (pointing out that he really had to sign the CR and that all bills that come to his desk have unsavory riders in them) received some vitriolic responses from a couple of rabbidly anti-GMO activists. When I then mentioned that I am more agnostic on the issue of GMOs themselves, because I don’t think the evidence weighs so unambiguously against them as these particular activists maintained, their vitriol was ratcheted up even more.

As a result, I made the following post on my own Facebook page:

Here’s an interesting lesson in political advocacy: Don’t go out of your way to alienate people who share your general concerns but honestly differ on the particular analysis. On a thread about “Monsanto-gate,” when I mentioned that I’m agnostic about GMOs due to the many benefits on the plus side of the leger (reduced erosion, reduced pesticide and herbicide and fertilizer demands, thus reduced run-off and groundwater contamination, increased food production per acre, increased resilience, etc.) and the relatively few on the negative side, two anti-GMO zealots attacked with such venom that, despite myself, I’m a bit less agnostic now: I’m more pro-GMO than I was before!

It reminds me of a line from Robert Whitaker’s “Anatomy of an Epidemic,” about the harm done by overprescription of psychiatric drugs. He mentioned that the pharmaceutical industry could have paid the Scientologists (and Tom Cruise) to take the position against psychiatric drugs that they did, because it made a basically rational position look like one that only fanatical zealots support.

A long and productive discussion ensued, at the end of which, in response to various comments on both threads, I wrote the following:

Human beliefs and emotions are much like viruses, spreading through the population more or less robustly for a variety of reasons. The British biologist Richard Dawkins dubbed these cognitive-emotional viruses “memes,” because they mirror genes in how they reproduce and spread and evolve.As a general rule, memes that are motivated by hope and love and compassion are good ones to spread, and memes that are motivated by fear and hatred and anger are bad ones to spread. This isn’t always true, because some fears are legitimate, but whenever a meme is or a set of memes are spreading due to fear or anger, it’s a good time for folks to step back and be very, very introspective and self-critical about what memes they are latching onto and spreading. The human tendency toward panics should always give us pause and make us question our own certainties and our own “hysterias” (despite the sexist etymology of that word, there’s no other that quite captures the same flavor of meaning).As some of you know (and as I hope not to rehash here in relation to the specific issue I referred to), I think that we are overly certain even about some things for which there is considerable evidence, because though the world is extraordinarily complex and subtle, we tend to gravitate too quickly to certainty and dwell too briefly in uncertainty. We have to be careful not to let wise uncertainty become an unwise position against action based on the best available knowledge, but we should not feel the need to be certain in order to act, a psychological need which is exacerbated by the political demand to take strong positions. (A person who advocates for a political position while admitting to uncertainty undermines him-or-herself in public discourse.)In a more rational world (or with more rational participants in a conversation or debate), the opposite is true: Too much certainty undermines one’s credibility. On the original thread, one commenter (not one of the two belligerent ones) suggested that we are breeding super-pests with GMOs, because of their genetically built-in pesticides. (As an aside, I’m not sure how GMOs do this more so than the traditional use of pesticides does it, and would think that GMOs might do it less so.) Then he made what I consider a rhetorical mistake: He insisted that it was a certainty, and clearly and indisputably a catastrophe in the making.It’s a good point and a legitimate concern, but I am not convinced that it is quite as dispositive as he assumes. For instance, as he noted, the same argument can be made for the use of antibiotics, and, indeed, controlling the worldwide overuse of antibiotics has become particularly urgent for this very reason. But I would not consider it to have been a good thing to have nipped in the bud the use of antibiotics by a movement informed with such foresight a century or so ago.I tend to look at the world a little differently, through a more inclusive and organic paradigm which sees even human foibles as catalysts in a much larger evolutionary process. Yes, it’s true, the more dramatic our manipulations of nature, the greater the risk of catastrophic cascades, but it’s also good to remember that people have been predicting the human-induced destruction of the world for millennia. The world has always been on the verge of catastrophic collapse, with every new innovation throughout human history. Every single time.The reality of complex dynamical systems is that they’re very adaptive. They reorder themselves around even dramatic changes. That’s not to say we should be blithely indifferent to the potential consequences of our actions, but it does provide an often overlooked counterpoint to the ubiquitous predictions of inevitable catastrophe.My point here is that we would benefit from more uncertainty, and more interest in exploring the complexities and subtleties of the world we live in. The two women who were extremely vitriolic and offensive with me were that way because I had challenged an article of faith, and when you challenge people’s articles of faith, they become very angry. We could use less anger in the world, and we could use fewer articles of faith. Then, from that foundation of wise uncertainty, we could have the most informed and informative of national debates on all topics of importance to our shared existence, and do a far better job of aligning our policies to those which are best recommended by reason in service to humanity.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

On a Facebook post extolling the virtues of vegetarianism, a fellow named Bryan made the following comment:

Viewing human dentition, arrived at after about 7 million years of evolution (based on the new fossil finds last year), it would appear that meats were always part of the Almighty’s diet plan for our species. The veggie-only folk are certainly entitled to their opinion about how to feed THEMSELVES, but their argument that it is the preferred method for the species is both inaccurate and self-serving.

My response:

Bryan, we evolved as animals adapted to the African savanna, following the logic of evolution, which is that those genetic variations which continually reproduce successfully are perpetuated into the future. One of the products of that process was the human brain, mostly evolved to manipulate the complex small muscles of our fingers, but incidentally facilitating the development of language, which set into motion a similar evolutionary process: Those cognitive variations which continually reproduce successfully are perpetuated into the future.

In other words, we are not just anatomical beings, but also conscious beings. Citing our anatomy as though we are under some obligation to choose behaviors and customs suggested by it sounds reasonable to people who aren’t, because we defy our anatomy all the time, and to marvelous effect. We train some among us to perform complex surgical procedures, or apply other medical treatments, to combat perfectly natural deadly or debilitating diseases or conditions. We invent instruments to enable us to do things that our anatomy does not enable us to do.

Our craving for fat and sugar is probably due to the combination of our need for some small amount of both and their relative scarcity or difficulty of obtaining in the African savanna, such that our primal predecessors could never get too much of either. Should we abide by that anatomical dictate, and eat as much fat and sugar as we are anatomically predisposed to desire?

No, of course not. Anatomy is what formed us; consciousness is what guides us. The latter does not have to acquiesce to the former in ways that the latter discovers to be dysfunctional or otherwise undesirable.

Having said all that, I don’t tend toward high-minded moralism, and don’t seek some morally perfect universe. If I did, I would probably be adamantly opposed to the consumption of meat. There are many reasons why, as conscious beings, that is a sensible position. The healthiest of all diets, if one is careful about satisfying all nutritional requirements, is one without meat. Food production maximization per acre of land excludes raising animals for meat (which is a nutritionally inefficient use of land). The slaughter of animals that feel fear and pain to satisfy a mere desire of our own should give us pause. It’s really a very reasonable position. And we are capable of reason, regardless of how our teeth are shaped.

By the way, I eat meat.

This isn’t the kind of thing that I would usually reproduce here as a post, except that there’s something about it that strikes me as getting to the crux of the matter (“the matter” being the continuing development and implementation of human consciousness, in all matters): We need to be careful to distinguish reason from rationalization. And the way to do that is, like the delightfully relentless child, to keep on asking “why?”

Bryan cited human dentation as proof that we are “meant” to eat meat. Why? What does it mean that “we are meant to” do or be something in particular? Who meant it? (Bryan, apparently, would answer “the almighty.”) Why do we have to acquiesce to what that real or imagined “meaner” meant for us? How does it stack up against what we, individually or collectively, “mean” for us to do here and now? Are our concerns for optimal use of available land, compassion for creatures that feel fear and pain, and human health all irrelevant if someone can argue that we are anatomically constrained to disregard all of those concerns?

This is one more incarnation of the tension between reason and rationalization, between analyses based on minimal assumption and assumption supported by minimal analysis. And that, I believe, is the tension that defines the distinction between much of progressive and conservative thought. (I’ll add one caveat: There are some aspects of progressive and conservative thought in which the roles are reversed; the optimal “ideology” is one which captures the reason that appears in each while weeding out the rationalization that appears in both.)

What serves us better than rationalizing preferred conclusions, entrenched habits of thought, on the basis of irrelevant or cherry-picked or fabricated supporting evidence, is to recognize that our current understandings and knowledge is less dispositive than we would like to believe, and to strive to apply reason to evidence, leavened with and inspired by disciplined imagination, in service to humanity. When we do that, we aren’t likely to argue, for example, that human dentation prevents us from changing paradigms in a way which better utilizes available land, better serves our health, and better exercises our compassion.

Social institutional innovation, like technological innovation, has an evolutionary quality to it: New instruments fumblingly addressing new challenges or opportunities sometimes grow up into highly elaborate systems that take on a life of their own. Market economies in general are an archetypical example of this phenomenon: From places where people came together to exchange their wares, markets have evolved into highly complex and robust networks of global transactions, implicated in a velocity of wealth production and transmission that would have boggled the minds of ancient merchants. Therefore, as we stand on the threshold of inventing new kinds of market instruments which trade in artifacts of administrative regulation, even those of us anchored to the dusty tomes of law and economics might benefit from stretching our imaginations a bit, and contemplating what may lie beyond the horizon.

For the purposes of this fanciful conversation, let’s refer to all present and future market instruments that trade in artifacts of political regulation or aspiration as Political Market Instruments (PMIs). The question posed in this essay, therefore, is: If the challenges involved in current tradable regulatory instruments are increasingly surmounted, and the range of PMIs is extended into other realms, such that the trading of such instruments becomes commonplace, what might such markets evolve into?

In order to explore this question, we need to consider what kinds of goods or services PMIs would commodify. Current and recent uses, including global warming abatement, renewable energy credits, and pollution reduction, are examples of a broader category of challenges called “collective action problems,” which have been discussed extensively, in various forms, in the economic, social scientific, and even mathematical literature (see . Global warming, for instance, invokes the need to create viable international accords through which a preferable global energy and GHG emissions regime can be developed, implemented, and enforced. The challenge emanates from the fact that nations individually bear the costs of contributing to such a regime, but collectively reap the benefits. Simplifying the matter somewhat for this initial discussion, all have an incentive to arrive at an optimal agreement and see it enforced, though all also have an incentive for not complying with the agreement to the extent that they can get away with non-compliance.

Here’s a simple thought experiment which illustrates the nature of collective action problems well enough for the average high school social studies student to understand. Imagine that I make the following offer to a group of thirty people, of which you are a member: For each of you that chooses to pay me $10, I will give each and every person in the group (including you) $1, regardless of whether those other members of the group chose to pay the $10 or not. To avoid discussing any complexities at this point, let’s say that the decision is made in secret, no member of the group ever knows what any other individual member chose to do, and all members agree that their only goal in this exercise is to maximize their own individual wealth. If each individual acts in his or her own rational self-interest, since accepting the offer costs him or her $9, no one would choose to do so. However, if everyone does accept it, each person is made $20 richer. No matter how many people accept or reject the offer, those who chose not to take it will always be better off than those who chose to take it. In other words, rationally doing what best maximizes one’s own individual wealth (in this scenario) leads to an outcome in which everyone does worse than they would have done had they been able to enforce a cooperative agreement.

Real world collective action problems are generally much more complex, in which, just as in market exchanges, there are a variety of comparative advantages (differing concessions or contributions which each is best positioned to make, such as Brazilians being better positioned to offer deforestation reduction, and Americans better positioned to offer industrial CO2 emissions reductions). And they occur on multiple overlapping and nested levels and regarding multiple issues, with myriad collective action problems coexisting intranationally, internationally (among nations as the actors), and transnationally (across national boundaries by non-state actors).

Social institutions arise primarily in response to such collective action problems (and, relatedly, in response to time horizon problems resulting from the devaluation of future consequences leading to insufficient foresight in decision-making processes), and utilize four distinct modalities in order to align individual to collective (and immediate to long-term) interests: Hierarchies, markets, norms, and ideologies. Hierarchies are systems of legitimate authority relying on formally codified and enforced rules. Markets are decentralized systems of multilateral exchange, usually facilitated by some form of currency. Norms are informal rules mutually enforced through decentralized social approval and disapproval. And ideologies are internalized beliefs and values enforced through self-policing and auto-sanctioned by cognitive dissonance (in the form of self-inflicted feelings of guilt or shame). Individual social institutions generally are comprised of some or all of these modalities, usually in combination, developing interdependently both within and across individual social institutions.

PMIs are essentially a hybrid institutional mechanism, comprised primarily of the hierarchical element necessary to regulatory regimes, and the market element which facilitates an efficient allocation of resources and burdens. Governments or international commissions imbue PMIs with their value by creating scarcity (in the case of compliance allowances) or subsidized demand (in the case of off-sets or RECs). The benefit of creating an accounting and exchange mechanism for political concessions and accommodations is the same as creating one for the exchange of goods and services: Like money, it frees actors involved in an exchange from what Edgeworth called “a double coincidence of wants,” that is, the necessity of two actors each having something the other wants more than they want what they themselves have. And, like money, it permits multilateral, geographically and temporally decentralized exchanges among a potentially unlimited number of actors, facilitating the achievement of collectively beneficial arrangements with greatly reduced transaction costs. PMIs are a mechanism for duplicating this innovation in the context of political rather than economic exchange.

Differences among nations, among their individual conditions and priorities, provide opportunities to make political exchanges which help both to facilitate such agreements, and to distribute responsibilities and benefits in accord with each nation’s particular circumstances. The expanded PMI model I am contemplating explores both the potential and the limitations of exchanging political concessions among multiple parties to arrive at mutually beneficial outcomes.

The simplest illustration of the PMI model involves three parties negotiating over three issues. Country A wants a concession from Country C, but has nothing to offer Country C in return. Country B wants a concession from Country A, but has nothing to offer Country A in return. And Country C wants a concession from Country B, but has nothing to offer Country B in return. No bilateral agreement can be arrived at among any combination of these three nations. But if it is worth it to A to make the concession to B in return for the concession from C, to B to make the concession to C in return for the concession from A, and to C to make the concession to A in return for the concession from B, then the three of them can negotiate a tri-lateral exchange that satisfies all of their needs. (In this case, the transaction costs are manageable, and PMIs are not required.)

Similarly, it may be possible at times for numerous nations to arrive at an agreement through such “circular exchange,” under circumstances in which no subset of that group could have arrived at any mutually beneficial agreement. At its most complex (and traditionally most difficult to accomplish, as discussed below), a PMI model aspires to facilitate a tangled web of multilateral exchanges of concessions of varying magnitude implicating numerous unrelated issues, such that the removal of any party to the negotiation or any concession being made would unravel the entire agreement. This frees the parties from the necessity of having bilaterally reciprocal interests, and permits the kind of decentralized, multilateral pattern of exchange typified by markets.

The basic premise of the PMI model is that the more parties and issues that can be conflated in a single negotiation, the more optimal the agreements that can be arrived at through a multilateral exchange of concessions on those issues among those parties. The logical conclusion would be that, therefore, conflating all issues and all parties into a single negotiation leads to the most optimal agreement possible. The limiting factor has been that the larger the number of negotiating parties and issues on the table, the higher the transaction costs of coming to a multilateral, multi-issue agreement. The PMI model, therefore, is currently useful to the extent that it can reduce transaction costs enough that the benefits accrued from the arrangement arrived at exceed the transaction costs spent to arrive at it, and to the extent that there is no other non-PMI-facilitated deal that any subset of the parties could have arrived at which would have given them a better benefit-to-transaction-cost ratio.

This is still an onerous obstacle. However, just as various innovations developed historically to reduce the transaction costs involved in economic exchange (money being the most critical one), the PMI model is not immune to future innovations which might reduce the transaction costs involved, and thus increase the range of its applicability. Such innovation begins with a precise analysis of the anatomy of the transaction costs imposed by political (or contractual) negotiations. The least intractable transaction costs involved in multilateral negotiations are coordination costs: Getting the parties to the table, so to speak. Coordination costs are most salient early in such negotiations, and have been greatly reduced, in international relations, by the proliferation of international institutions and treaties.

Bargaining costs, which involve determining the exact nature of the agreement and the precise division of costs and benefits, are somewhat more significant. Bargaining costs are incurred during the actual negotiation process, when the parties involved try to exchange their way to a multilateral agreement that is satisfactory to each and every one of them. At this stage, the negotiations most closely resemble a traditional bartering market, with all parties both sellers and buyers bartering around a single stall.

Finally, and sometimes most intractably, multi-party agreements are beset by defection (or enforcement) costs. Defection costs are those costs incurred by monitoring and enforcing the agreements arrived at during the negotiations. Improving the salience of the multi-party negotiations, and extending its range of applicability, necessarily involves finding ways to reduce all of the aforementioned transaction costs implicated by it.

The potential benefits of pursuing a PMI approach are myriad. As more activities or concessions are brought into a single market, coordination and bargaining costs are almost eliminated, and even enforcement costs are greatly reduced by creating a much larger shared investment in the integrity of the system. To the extent that successful multilateral political exchange agreements are implemented through it, it increases international interdependence, produces oversight commissions with enough authority to ensure the value of the PMIs, and thus provides an incremental back door into some limited though significant degree of global federalism. To the extent that political market solutions can be implemented, they have strong reverberating effects throughout our integrated social institutional and technological subsystems, creating new markets and new entrepreneurial opportunities, and increasing the ideological and normative association of the development and distribution of sustainable energy technologies with political and economic opportunity in general.

In fact, the development of commissions with the authority to ensure the value of PMIs is both a major benefit and a major challenge. Contractual arrangements within jurisdictions are made possible by a legal structure under which they can be enforced. International agreements are made difficult by the paucity of such enforcement mechanisms on the global level. But international commerce, more than perhaps any other historical force, has integrated sovereign nations into a single interdependent global system. Commodifying political exchange requires more oversight than commercial exchange, but also provides more incentives to create it than traditional international negotiations do, by creating more, and more distributed, opportunities to profit from international political exchange.

Despite the potential for PMIs to improve international and transnational cooperation, they would face all of the challenges already encountered by existing regulatory instruments, and to a far greater extent. The determination of the relative value of seemingly unrelated political concessions would be difficult, but fully established markets are particularly good at accomplishing that (their respective market values would determine their exchange rates). Ensuring the integrity of the instruments (preventing leakage, ensuring additionality, etc.) would grow in magnitude of difficulty as the markets become more multifaceted and extensive (though that could also reduce the problem in the long run by bringing more measurements of more changes in more places into the system). The transaction costs involved in every incremental step in establishing such a market will be enormous.

One benefit of such a comprehensive system is that the universal scope and coverage essentially eliminates the problem of leakage, since there is nowhere for any abated public bad to leak to. Just as the concern about leakage has pushed focus on off-set markets from individual projects to sectoral and nation- or province-wide abatements, it would be one force pushing the expansion of PMI markets in general.

Another obstacle for PMIs, already contemplated in regards to existing instruments, is the perverse incentives they can create. If, for instance, we incorporate deforestation avoidance into international carbon markets, then their value is a creature of past deforestation. When a market values the cessation or reduction of the rate of a destructive activity, it implicitly retroactively values having initially increased the rate of that activity in order to necessitate its reduction. In the context of enduring markets for the abatement of past destructive activity, such perverse incentives pose a serious challenge that must be decisively addressed. Many things we might want to incorporate into future and more comprehensive PMI markets -such as improvement in human rights, military de-escalation, and reduced trade barriers, to name a few- would all have current positive value as the result of the negative value of past or continuing actions and policies. Designing mechanisms to prevent the incentive to create problems in order to trade in their correction would be a fundamental challenge for establishing authentic value-generating PMI markets.

It’s worth noting that in our current international political bartering system, this problem already exists. In the lead-up to international treaty negotiations, countries frequently amp up certain misbehaviors in order to have more to trade with. The increased robustness of PMI markets would only increase the robustness of the problem. And, presumably, at the time of establishment of any new abatement PMI, the baseline set for reduction targets would precede any amping up that may have occurred in anticipation of the creation of such markets.

Stretching our imaginations to the utmost, PMIs could trade in a vast array of political goods. As stated above, there are many public bads that we all have a shared interest in abating: human rights violations, military build-ups, trade barriers, and domestic criminal activities with international consequences (e.g., drug cartels), to name a few. And there are many public goods or broadly shared aspirations that there is either already a shared interest in encouraging, or a potential for some degree of international consensus: improved worker conditions and salaries; more political, economic, and cultural freedom; more open borders; and stronger guarantees of protection for foreign nationals abroad, to name a few. In each case, measures would have to be created (such as a “human rights abuse index”); a target would have to be set for abatement markets (either by reference to a baseline, or by some other aspirational standard) and a system for ensuring the integrity of instruments measuring incremental gains in public goods would have to be established; and monitoring, reporting, and verification systems would have to be in place. As such markets proliferate, the ability to identify and implement new areas amenable to new PMIs would continue to emerge.

Though the notion of trading in human rights abuse abatement, or organized criminal activity abatement, may seem odd, and could certainly raise some moral hackles, it is essentially the same idea as trading in GHG emissions abatement: creating markets for the diminution of some undesirable activity. Given the fact that the obstacles are daunting enough for GHG emissions abatement markets, and that the problems facing them grow exponentially as the scope and coverage is expanded to more issues and parties, the path from the present to this possible future would be a long and tortuous one, with many seemingly insurmountable challenges and as-yet-unforeseen technical innovations defining the way. Whether such a future will ever come to pass is far from certain, but that some future which currently appears equally improbable will come to pass seems almost inevitable (assuming continued human survival).

Such speculation may seem to be an unwarranted flight of fancy from our current vantage point, just as to the ancient Greeks, not unfamiliar with the wonders of the agora, contemplation of the exotic financial instruments being traded today would have appeared equally untethered from reality. The preceding discussion is not intended as a blueprint of how to implement an imminently practicable policy instrument, but rather as an added perspective regarding how to contextualize current innovations in terms of potential long-term historical significance. The question isn’t whether current institutions will evolve to surmount obstacles seemingly insurmountable today, but rather which institutions and in what ways. The lathe of trial and error which will produce those innovations is more productive when we experiment with an eye to future as well as present possibilities. I believe that in a comparison between taxes-and-subsidies and tradable instruments as means for internalizing externalities (specifically carbon taxes and carbon cap-and-trade regulation), while both should be used, each in circumstances most appropriate for it, a less obvious (and perhaps still very slight) added weight needs to be accorded to tradable instruments, due to their dramatic long-term potential for facilitating mutually beneficial cooperation, particularly in the Hobbesian paradise of international relations.

1See, e.g., John Von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (Princeton University Press 1944); John Nash, The Bargaining Problem, 18 Econometrica 155 (1950); Garrett Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons, 162 Science 1243 (1968); and Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action (Harvard University Press 1965)

2See, e.g., Kenneth Boulding, The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth, in Environmental Quality in a Growing Economy (Henry Jarrett ed., 1966).

3See, e.g., Garrett Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons, 162 Science 1243 (1968); and Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action (Harvard University Press 1965)

4I utilized this illustration as a high school social studies teacher, using classroom currency points.

5The actual results in my classroom experiment varied considerably, though there were always some students who accepted the deal and some who rejected it.

6See, e.g., Robert Axelrod, An Evolutionary Approach to Norms, 80 American Political Science Review 1095 (1986); and Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge University Press 1990).

7Steve Harvey, Institutionalizing the Production of Supranational Public Goods: The Shifting Locus of Interest Group Lobbying in Europe (August 1994) (unpublished paper presented at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association in Los Angeles, CA).

8F.Y. Edgeworth, Mathematical Physics, (Kegan Paul 1881).

9This is precisely what the famous Coase Theorem postulates. See Ronald H. Coase, The Problem of Social Costs, 3 J.L. & Econ. 1 (1960).

10See Douglas D. Heckathorn and Stephen M. Maser, Bargaining and the Source of Transaction Costs: The Case of Government Regulation, 3 J.L. Econ. & Org. 69 (1987).

11See id.

12See id.

13Admittedly, such discussions quickly run into the issue of cultural relativism v. universal human (and non-human) rights, and the related issue of “imperialism” or hegemony v. cultural and political self-determination, but this issue is implicit in all discussions of international law and international standards of conduct.

Preparing for an interview for an executive director position with a national environmental advocacy organization, I asked myself why I was passionate about environmental issues. The funny thing about such passions is that sometimes you have to reach down into yourself to find them, to find their source, to remember why you want to live a life that is something more than mere existence, a life dedicated to more than one’s own comforts and immediate (e.g., familial) concerns and responsibilities.

I grappled with the question, searching for the answer that was real and true. As with all things in my life, the core answer involves my sense of wonder (see The Value of Wonder). In my late teens, I used to write a lot of poetry expressing metaphysical or personal yearnings and contemplations, generally couched in the imagery of nature. Throughout my twenties and to a lesser extent through my thirties, I spent enormous amounts of time, usually alone, in wild places, hiking, camping, cross country skiing, canoeing. The sights, scents, sounds and sensations experienced in those times and places are the essence of life for me, the source of a profound spiritual euphoria.

Of course, my interest in environmental issues is motivated by more mundane considerations as well. It matters, to those who are concerned with human welfare, that even a systemically non-catastrophic environmental contamination can be personally catastrophic to those and the families of those whose health may be devastatingly impacted by it. It matters to those who look beyond the present and consider the future that we are, at an ever-accelerating rate, outpacing with our industrial activities in service to our growing populations and appetites the Earth’s ability to rebound and recuperate, destroying the planet on which we depend for our continued survival. It matters that accelerating global warming will cause increasing and increasingly catastrophic and costly challenges that would be far wiser to mitigate proactively far more assertively than we are currently doing.

But, almost more important than all of these tangible reasons to be passionate about our enviromental concerns, is the fact that we are a part of something unique and beautiful in the universe, this living planet of ours, an entity from which we, and our consciousness, emanate, and of which we, and our consciousness, are a part. That euphoria I described above isn’t just another recreational pleasure, but is rather something deep in our souls, some major part of our souls, given physical expression in the beauty and wonder of Nature.

It’s not that I subscribe to the notion that there is some actual, essential distinction between the products of human artifice and the natural context from which they emanate. The same hubris that considers Nature something to be conquered considers humans to have somehow removed themselves from it. We haven’t, we can’t, it makes no sense. Humans and all that humans produce and do is as much a part of Nature as is an ant colony or a bee hive. (See, e.g., The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). The issue is not our “naturalness” or “unnaturalness,” but rather how we articulate our social institutional and technological systems with the other complex dynamical systems of which we are a part.

Our social institutional and technological landscape is a beautiful blossom of Nature, and merits the same appreciation as the larger whole of which it is a part. Human consciousness certainly ranks high among Nature’s wonders, and, despite the temptation to attribute a status of exceptionality and superiority to that to which we belong or identify with (e.g., “American Exceptionalism,” religious fundamentalism, racism, ethnocentrism, species centrism, intolerance or devaluation of the “other”), human consciousness is a quintessential example of the beauty of the living planet of which it is a part, from which it emanates, rather than some external thing existing upon it.

But the naturalness of our existence, and even of our industry, does not mean that it is benign. The diseases which kill us are natural too, and yet we seek to save our children from their ravages. Few if any would argue that it is not right and just to do so. Some of those diseases involve parasites and some involve viruses (among other causes of illness), both of which have parallels at the global level, considering the Earth as the organism, and the things which threaten its continued survival as the illnesses.

Humans have become parasites on the body of Gaia, consuming that body more quickly than it can recover from the ravages imposed. We are killing our host, which, for a parasite, is suicide, unless it can migrate to another host (i.e., colonize other planets). But even if it accomplishes this expansion, it will kill host after host, perhaps surviving, but doing so by means of wreaking a devastating path of destruction in its wake.

Given the fact that we have not yet identified anywhere in the universe another living planet, that we are nowhere near possessing the technological ability to turn a dead planet into a living one (especially given the fact that we seem only able to turn a living one into a dead one, even though it is the only one we have), and that we require a living planet to sustain us, it is far from clear at this point if we will even have the choice of becoming a galactic scourge rather than merely dying with the host that we are killing.

As conscious beings, we can contemplate these facts, and can choose, through our processes of collective action (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems), to strive to be symbiotes on this planet rather than parasites, to discipline our industry to operate in harmony with the larger organic systems into which it is interwoven, preserving the health of the living planet rather than mercilessly exploiting it to the fullest of our potential, and killing it in the process.

Those processes of collective action are where the viral parallel comes in, because the “viruses” that affect how we articulate with the larger context of which we are a part are cognitive ones, spreading through our body politic and determining who and what we are (see The Fractal Geometry of Social Change). These “viruses,” these contagious memes that define our consciousness and, through it, our social institutional and technological landscape, can be beneficial or malignant, or some combination of the two.  And they can operate on deeper or more shallow levels, catalyzing more profound and far-reaching changes, or merely forming ripples on the surface of our constantly fluctuating social reality (see The Variable Malleability of Reality). The challenge we face is to spread the viruses that catalyze beneficial changes in consciousness, moving us in the direction of identifying with this living planet of ours, of identifying with all humanity, and of living lives in service to the compassionate, imaginative, rational, pragmatic, disciplined, and expansive celebration of life. 

We are forever at a war with ourselves, and among ourselves, over whether we are just grasping, covetous animals, or conscious beings, and, if the latter, just exactly how conscious. Everything else we do, everything else we believe, everything else we are, should be disciplined and liberated by a growing, loving, joyful commitment to being and becoming fully conscious beings, living in service to one another, and to this beautiful planet on which we thrive.

David Harsanyi wrote in the Denver Post that the Obama Administration is running out of people to demonize(http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_16321444). This right-wing columnist insists that Democratic “demonization” of the Chamber of Commerce is reinforcing moderate perceptions that the Democratic Party has gone bonkers. Ironically (too painfully so), it is what has become the Republican mainstream that literally (rather than figuratively) demonizes Obama himself, accusing him of being foreign born, Muslim, and, yes, the the anti-Christ. As a mouthpiece for right-wing extremism, Harsanyi has turned reality completely on its head, accusing the opposition of the defects that so dramatically characterize his own ideological camp.

The Denver Post criticizes Rep. Ed Perlmutter (CO CD 7) for, among other things, supporting cap-and-trade (http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_16281757). I think that Ed is doing a great job in general, is supporting what reason and goodwill dictate that a responsible elected representative support, and has revolutionized constituent services and outreach (his “government at the grocery store” town halls have become famous). But what strikes me as incredible is the Post’s irresponsible position on cap-and-trade on the basis that it raises energy costs.

The rest of the developed world, responding to abundant and compelling evidence, recognizes the need for an affirmative global warming abatement policy (the prime contenders being cap-and-trade or a carbon tax), but has been stymied in its attempt to create a globally concerted policy to address the problem by the short-sightedness of a country that would rather keep energy prices low today than start to reduce the infinitely higher future costs that we can no longer completely avoid. We scuttled the Kyoto Protocol, and now the Denver Post wants to make sure that we make continue to stick our heads in the sand rather than even begin to address this most consequential of challenges. It’s one thing to have to fight popular misconceptions, it’s another to have them amplified by Denver’s last remaining major metropolitan newspaper. I’ve never in my life felt less respect for any newspaper anywhere in America than I feel for this one now.

Susan Greene reports on the strong-arm tactics of the Denver Archdiocese of the Catholic Church, suing a lesbian Sunday School teacher the Archdiocese had fired for brining her case to the Colorado Civil Rights Division (http://www.denverpost.com/greene/ci_16314690). Such strong-arm tactics by institutions that should be in the vanguard of nobler attitudes are all too common. I’ve experienced them at the hands of the current Jefferson County Schools administration, first for trying to bring to the district’s attention the serious problems with a principle who was the superintendent’s “dear old friend,” and more recently for trying to establish a robust school-community partnership in Jefferson County. In all such cases, it is the community’s responsibility to stand up and reject this privileging of power over purpose. I strongly encourage people to be more aware, and get more involved.

The Economist reports on the use of steganography, and a program called “Collage,” which distributes and hides messages among files posted to public websites, and allows intended recipients to reassemble them (http://www.economist.com/node/17243251). It is another example of the decentralized, and unstoppable, flow of information in the modern world, with all of the vast implications that that has. Totalitarian governments will find it increasingly difficult to control what information people have access to, and their ability to organize in opposition to the government. And more responsible governments will find it increasingly difficult to control the organization and implementation of violent extremism.

Colorado has several comparative advantages that position us to combine a commitment to the preservation of our natural endowment; a commitment to the preservation, refinement, and expansion of the pleasant lifestyle that many enjoy in our beautiful state; a commitment to contributing to the development of the New Energy Economy (an inevitable component of future global economic development); and a commitment to fostering the most robust, sustainable, and equitable state economy, and most proactive, efficient, and effective state government possible.

Our natural endowment, particularly our spectacular mountains, are an economic asset both directly, in the tourism industry, and indirectly, as an attractor for investment capital by those who want to locate small start-ups, particularly in high-value-added information-intensive economic sectors, in the most attractive locations possible (since such sectors have no geographic constraints). And, of course, many Coloradans treasure our natural beauty for its inherent, aesthetic and recreational value, considering it to be one of our greatest assets, even independently of economic considerations.

For these reasons, we need to place a very high emphasis on the preservation of this endowment, carefully regulating other industries and practices (such as mineral extraction) that pose a threat both to the environment, and to public health and safety. Fortunately, despite erroneous ideological assertions to the contrary, mineral extraction, as an economic enterprise, is not highly sensitive to regulations or severance taxes, since there is very little flexibility in where minerals can be extracted (they must be extracted where they are found). Furthermore, since extracted minerals are sold in national and international markets, the increased costs of state regulations and taxes have only a marginal effect on market prices. In other words, the benefits occur within the state while the costs are distributed all over the world. For these reasons, sound policy requires that mineral extraction be a well-regulated and taxed enterprise.

Not only is Colorado rich in minerals, but it is also rich in sun and wind and the researchers and institutions doing the most to tap the energy contained in them. The future can rarely be predicted with confidense, but one thing that is virtually certain is that clean, renewable energy technologies are a growth industry, and will be enormous economic engines in the not too distant future. Foresight pays off in the long run. Investing in the New Energy Economy today, despite the modest size of that economc sector at present, and regardless of short term ups and downs in the market for “green energy”, is sound economic policy, and a smart move for the state of Colorado.

Our natural endowment is part of our pleasant lifestyle, with hiking trails, ski runs, rocks to climb and mountain rivers to float down, and spectacular vistas to appeal to all who enjoy nature’s wonders. But the Colorado lifestyle extends into our cities and suburbs as well, with excellent cycling opportunities, beautiful pedestrian malls, open spaces, and an increasing investment in the combination of excellent public transportation and sustainable, localized, aesthetically pleasing urban development. Continuing in this direction not only provides Coloradans with the benefits of all of these public goods, but also attracts the entrepreneurial capital of precisely those kinds of small start-ups that can create the most robust state economy possible. We live in a world in which the most information-intensive industries (e.g., computer software, and cutting edge technologies) create the greatest number of high-paying jobs, and contribute the most to the local and global economy. And such start-ups in such industries locate in places that provide the combination of natural beauty, pleasant life-style, and infrastructural investment that Colorado can provide, if we pursue wise policies.

But to attract such investment capital, and the young professionals and their families that bring it, we need to provide, competitively, what they are looking for: A well-developed human and material infrastructure on which they can depend, and the assurance of the availability of excellent and affordable public and higher education institutions for their children. We are currently, disgracefully, near the bottom of the country in investment in both public and higher education, and that is a very powerful disincentive to small information-intensive start-ups to locate here. More importantly, it is a moral failure on the part of the people of Colorado. As much of a cliche as it may be, our children are indeed our future, and failing to invest in them, to provide them with the best education possible, simply because an alliance of popular economic platitudes and well-funded corporate interests have displaced economic analyses, is a choice that can end up crippling and impoverishing this state, when nature has endowed us with such soaring opportunity.

There is a clear path forward for Colorado, a coherent strategy that preserves our natural endowment, fuels our economy, and secures a high quality of life for our residents. We need now to make sure that we elect the people, and cultivate the public commitment, to realize this vision, and create a more prosperous, sustainable, and opportunity-rich future for all Coloradans.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

The Economist this week published a cover story called “The World’s Lungs,” about the transition to a forest-preserving rather than forest converting world (http://www.economist.com/node/17093495). The article mentions REDD, but reduces it to “pay(ing) people in developing countries to leave trees standing.” That’s not inaccurate, but it misses the critical point about how the payment occurs: As part of regional and global markets for GreenHouse Gas (GHG) emission reductions. The Kyoto Protocol had begun to institute global cap-and-trade markets, with various instruments representing various kinds and locations of emissions reductions. Kyoto hadn’t yet embraced deforestation abatement, but other regional systems (such as Europe’s) began to allow such off-sets into their own markets. In the wake of the disappointing Copenhagen convention, which had been hoped to advance what Kyoto had started, it is beginning to look like the world will be progressing in the form of regional and national GHG emissions abatement markets, linking together through such things as developing country REDD off-sets.

I am one of those rare birds who is a big fan of carbon markets, not because they are in all or most cases currently the best approach, but because they offer the best long-term promise to give us one more powerful tool with which to tackle a variety of public goods and public bads, across national boundaries. As strange as it may sound now, and as technically challenging as it would be, we could conceivably, in the somewhat distant future, create violence abatement markets, and human rights violations abatement markets, and goodwill credit markets…, whatever we can imagine as public goods and bads that we want to promote or discourage (see Political Market Instruments).

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

A marine bacteria that very robustly pumps carbon out of the atmosphere and into a permanent oceanic carbon sink. From The Economist: http://www.economist.com/node/16990766.

To sumarize, when marine life dies, some of the carbon in the remains dissolves into the ocean, 95% of which can’t be metabolized (called “refractory”). Since it can’t be metabolized, it can’t be turned back into carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, making it an actually and potentially enormous carbon sink that has been largely overlooked by marine biologists until recently. The quantity of carbon stored in these refractory molecules is about equal to the amount of carbon stored in the atmosphere.

It had previously been discovered that a certain kind of bacteria (abbreviated AAPB) produces these refractory molecules when it metabolizes certain common nutrients, but on a far more robust scale than previously realized. (The main source of food for these bacteria is phytoplankton, which plays a crucial role in the marine food chain and itself is affected in complex ways by global warming).

Until now, the only known way to stimulate carbon absorption into the sea was to seed the sea with iron in order to stimulate the growth of planktonic algae. However, the introduction of iron has some serious negative side effects. With the new discovery of this very robust carbon pump (the AAPB bacteria, which pumps carbon from the carbon cycle into an apparently premanent carbon-sink), new potential exists for organically pumping carbon out of the atmosphere and into the sea, which has a large capacity to absorb it with ecological damage. How this might be done, exactly, is not yet known. 

This story is interesting in its own right, but what appeals to me most is that it highlights the complex systemic nature of the world in which we live, and the value of understanding it for working with those systems to find solutions that both serve our own particularly human interests, and simultaneously restore disrupted systems to a sustainable dynamic equilibrium.

Humanity faces a daunting challenge: Billions of people desperate to live even in what Americans would call an extremely modest level of comfort and security, and a global integrated system (comprised of biosphere, and the anthrosphere within it; the hydrosphere; the atmosphere; and the lithosphere) already strained by the relatively few who already do.  For the wealthy and comfortable few to attempt to condemn the rest of global humanity to perpetual poverty in the name of environmental sensitivity is completely untenable for both humanitarian and pragmatic reasons (you want more violence and instabililty? Try that strategy).

Our paltry attempts to solve our environmental problems with what are truly systemically superficial strategies are not going to rise to this challenge. We are going to need to effectively redesign our economic and technological systems to become more integrated with the ecological and natural systems within which they are ensconsed, and upon which they depend.

Economically, it means “internalizing the externalities,” incorporating into the prices of our goods and services the environmental costs that are currently not incorporated. Technologically, it is going to mean integrating an increasingly sophisticated knowledge of the systems which comprise our world into the technologies which interact with those systems. Together, economically and technologically, it will mean constructing closed systems, in which the waste produced is the in-put in another process, and in which imbalances are addressed by tweaking the human and natural systems through which we operate in ways which restore and maintain the balance that had been disrupted.

First, of course, we need to overcome that faction of humanity more to the indefinate continuation of immediate, on-going, destructive, unsustainable, self-indulgent greed and mutual indifference. Once again, though the challenges we face together are daunting enough, it is the armies of Organized Ignorance among us who ensure our inability to confront and surmount them.

Another step forward for Colordo’s New Energy Economy? http://www.denverpost.com/business/ci_16086540

Topics
Recent Posts