Eco-Strategic Review| Part 2. The Milton Friedman Ecology
In any battle of ideas, in order to win, it is necessary to be willing to say what is true at the expense of being popular.
To give a famous example, what Jesus said (or what he’s reported to have said, if you prefer — it doesn’t matter for this example), wasn’t popular. It wasn’t popular for a long time. Christians were persecuted for centuries, and even once what Jesus said became popular in Europe, only a fairly narrow space of both versions of what he was reported to say or then how to interpret those things, were included in being popular, and going against that would mean more persecution up to and including a crusade by the popular Christians against the unpopular ones.
To give a more recent example of a hero of mine, when Noam Chomsky spoke out against the Vietnam war, it was not a popular idea at the time.
Of course, epistemological speaking I cannot just proclaim Jesus and Chomsky as having said true things. Things are up for debate; the point here is that if you have a belief that you think is true, but isn’t popular, it’s going to be personally risky to share that belief. You maybe crucified for it, eaten by lions or be forced to review comments of Ben Shapiro on your life’s work. The risks are significant and potentially horrifying.
To followup on my last article focusing on the largest blunder (Eco-Strategic Review| Part 1.) of the environmental movement — a long story short, embracing “green capitalism”, in the form of market mechanisms to solve environmental problems, after in and after Kyoto — I’d like to explore in this article more the general errors of thinking in which green capitalism is an error.
For, embracing markets and “sustainability hype” about techno fixes that can’t and won’t fix anything, was attractive because it was popular.
It was an idea too good to be true: nothing really changes to the Western way of life for anyone:
1. No challenges to consumerism, just some (entirely voluntary) sermons available on ethical consumerism
2. No challenges to markets as the dominant institution for organizing society
3. No challenges to globalization (but, you can, if you have the money, choose to buy local if it makes you feel better)
4. No challenges to the institutions that caused the problem (nationalizing fossil fuel companies, stopping the finance of denialism and winding them down in parallel to an aggressive sustainable policies)
5. No room for even the discussion of more radical ideas that would disrupt the status quo
Surprise, surprise, a movement that does not challenge the status quo, did not manage to change the status quo since the 90s.
This new environmentalism is a stark contrast to the environmentalism of the 60s and 70s that was clearly anti-capitalism and radical, and, even if those ideas weren’t popular, no one in the debate believed that environmentalism implied some version of the status quo and not profound change.
The other side of the debate was simply denying environmental problems existed or then minimize it, but, in principle if it did exist then the government should do something about it.
This libertarian “principled environmentalist” approach was championed by Milton Friedman, and the basic argument (which works completely fine in a imaginary view of how capitalism works), and the denialism that environmental problems are “big problems” he perfectly weaves together in this 1999 interview (which you can also watch on Youtube).
Even Milton Friedman accepted the principle that the polluter should pay, and if global warming was happening then obviously it will create a lot of damages on most people’s property and so the people making that pollution should pay for it, but compensating or mitigating the damages as well as sending a strong signal to the market to make energy in other ways.
Interviewer: So what you’re saying then that this mental image that drives so much, even to this day, of the environmental movement, is simply … it maybe true as far as it goes, but you’d advise more historical understanding.
Milton Friedman: but not only historical, present; where are the most the most polluted areas of the world today?
Milton Friedman: Today, in Russia. Why, because everything in Russia is controlled by the government. There were no, and I keep emphasizing, nobody is going to take care of someone else property as well as he’ll take care of his own.
Title voice over: But who should take care of the resources that we all share, such as, the air breath
Title card: Breathing Lessons
Interviewer: I want to push you one more time on the environment: Air. You’re in California, it turns out there are 30 million people who like to breathe, and we have, particularly in the LA basin, smog beginning in the 1970s, that the environmental movement begins to.
Milton Friedman: No, the smog went back 100, 200 years. There are stories of the Indians describing that as a smoggy area.
Interviewer: so part of what’s going on is just natural
Milton Friedman: The, the thing about that about the government requiring those who impose costs on third parties to pay for them. And the point is, with respect to smog, the efficient way to do it is to use the market.
Interviewer: How, how do you create property rights in the air say.
Milton Friedman: well, you do it now by selling the rights to emit a certain amount of pollutants into the air. You now have a market in effluent rights.
Interviewer: For large, large manufacturing concerns.
Milton Friedman: For manufacturing concerns, which is where most of it comes from. And, you do the same by charging, by essentially making it a requirement that automobiles have to have ah, um
Interviewer: catalytic converters
Milton Friedman: Catalytic converters
Milton Friedman: And that’s effectively making individuals be responsible for costs they impose on others. Remember, what I said is: the key feature of a libertarian view is you should be free to do what you want, provided you don’t prevent other people from doing the same thing. And so the only case for government, when, it is not feasible for market arrangements to make individual pay to compensate others for any harms they impose on them. If you and I enter into an dea.., an agreement to buy or sell something, well that’s are business, you may lose, I may lose, or more likely we’re both going to win; we’re not going to enter into it unless both of us think it’s better for us. But there are cases when, like when the, the power plant that emits smoke that dirties my shirt, in which the company is imposing a cost on me, for which I’m not being compensated. Those are the only cases. But, you have to qualify that, by noting that it’s also emitting smoke, it’s also imposing costs on third parties, because it’s, it’s always a very imperfect arrangement. And moreover, it always has to collect taxes. As I like to say, there’s a smoke stack on the back of every government program.
Interviewer: there’s a smoke stack on the back of every government program. By that you mean a distortion in the market place.
Milton Friedman: Imposing a cost on third parties, for which the third parties are not compensated.
Interviewer: So the key characteristic in which you find a circumstance where it’s legitimate for the government to intervene would typically be where property rights are vague or diffuse. Is that correct?
Milton Friedman: And where it’s almost impossible to make them precise. That the problem in the case of the power plant, is that there’s no way in which you can say you have have to get the agreement of each of the persons who’s shirt you’re going to dirty, and pay em for the privilege of dirtying their shirts before you can do it.
Interviewer: So, on the environment, the greens actually do have a point.
Milton Friedman: sure
Interviewer: That there is one case where there is a strong case.
Milton Friedman: But in most cases, in practice, when you look at it, and there are some people up in Perth as you know, who have, uh, Terry Anderson, who I’m sure has been on your program
Interviewer: that’s right
Milton Friedman: Uh, who have demonstrated that there are many, many cases in which market arrangement are far more effective than planned and controlled arrangements.
This agreement, in principle, to the obvious implications of what the environmentalists are saying (if the environmentalists are correct), is always followed by a denialists argument downplaying the problem, that these large scale environmental problems are simply not happening (Smog is “historically” in LA, even the Indian’s knew it).
There is, preceding the above excerpt, in the same interview, a nice lead up to the part above of laying down the myth of progress, and, after the section above, he goes on to say civil rights problems were essentially “caused by government laws”, slavery would have gone away in the south with “free markets” etc.
Environmentalists, in particular the largest institutions, nevertheless embraced Friedman's libertarian version of environmentalism.
Because it’s an easy sell:
Gradual change that doesn’t “disrupt the market”, and so only after the environmental problems are 100% certain — no “risk to the market” will be taken, any policy not justified by essentially a 100% certain risk will not be implemented.
Hence, for 30 years we the world has been waiting for the “science” to complete on climate change.
And when it does very much seem pretty certain, that there is “scientific consensus”, environmentalists are surprised to find out that toting this fact about has no affect. Even the promise that risks would be dealt with using the gradual market mechanism if essentially 100% proven is not delivered on.
Because the whole premise in an absurd concoction of a corrupt system. Why believe any promises of a corrupt system?
The intellectual justification of only acting based on near 100% certainty is recklessly insane. The purpose is not some “intellectual honesty” that even Friedman would admit polluter pays principle must apply if the damages of the pollution can be proven, so of course all pro market actors are going to “do the right thing” when there is finally the proof: the purpose is to stall and delay.
If your opponent is stalling and delaying by asking you to wait decades and they’ll do the thing if you eventually get past the continuously moving goal posts of “proof”, they will just ignore you if you eventually accomplish that.
In short, the environmental movement became dominated by naive idiots that presume good faith intentions to obviously bad faith actors.
The system built and controled by these bad faith actors, promotes naive idiots to positions of leadership within the environmental movement. This is what Kyoto accomplished: who will take the 40 pieces of silver and shut the fuck up about capitalism, and who wouldn’t and would no longer be welcome in the public debate “because kyoto” arrived at a reasonably compromising solution in a global concensus. Anyone still against it, still think climate change is a “threat”, is a raving lunatic; environmental risks are out, terrorism is in as the “existential threat” worth talking about.
Whether for lack of understanding or lack of numbers or the forces of evil simply being too powerful, the environmentalists that saw this ruse, and tried to continue in the public debate, didn’t manage to.
Make no mistake, these are the heroes who tried, but, objectively speaking, they failed at the task. Impossible to say for certain if the task was achievable or not; although it is an interesting question, I may get into in a next article.
What we can more easily say about a side that loses, is the obstacles they clearly didn’t overcome. If someone loses a race, it’s difficult to say they “could have run if they made better decisions” (whether recently or over their whole life: the perfect optimum decisions may still result in losing because genetic and early life pre-conditions are necessary to even have a chance at being the fastest), but it is very easy to identify the obstacle that would have needed to be overcome to win: run faster than the winner.
Obstacles 0: the courage of one’s convictions
I just said I was going to talk about the mistakes of true heroes that at least tried, but the “obstacle zero” is obviously the simple numbers game of why there weren’t more heroes. For, between embracing delusional narratives about the market mechanism in exchange for comfort, prestige and money, and keeping to a clear headed radical understanding of the issue with plausible basis in fact, there is a large grey area of people who intuit the problem, see the delusions peddled by the status quo won’t work, but can’t quite bring themselves to be unpopular. The solution is to temper one’s beliefs to be more palpable to those outside the movement: Yes, climate change is a problem; no it isn’t a problem anytime soon; Yes, fossil fuels keep increasing and have huge subsidies; no, I’m not saying “clean energy” isn’t getting towards “parity” and once that happens “poof” the market will magically transform into clean. Yes, the system is corrupt; no, it’s not “so bad”, politicians are just “regular joes” trying their best, needing to placate corporations and rich people and denlialists is just the way it is. And so on.
I was faced with this choice in the late 90s and early 2000s. I became intellectually convinced that global warming was a incredibly massive risk, and feedback loops could spin it out of control sooner than linear extrapolation would lead us to believe.
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Side note: linear extrapolation is simply drawing a line through the “middle” of a set of data points and seeing where it leads. So, if a glacier loses 1% of it’s mass in year 1, and “roughly” the same amount in year 2, already we can just draw a line through these two points and cross the x-axis at year 100.
In other words, linear extrapolation is simply the answer to the question of “if this keeps disappearing at this rate, when will it be gone”.
Of course, reality is more complex, there is no reason for rates of change to stay the same. It’s still useful to know where a straight line through the data is going to lead, but the followup question is whether the change is linear even right now, and if so will it stay linear.
There are step changes possible in a system: sudden radical change. For instance, if a baby starts slowly moving their glass to the edge of a table, we can make a linear projection that the glass will be on the other side of the room in 30 minutes; however, the baby may suddenly lose interest in the glass and the movement stops, or the glass reaches the edge of the table, falls over and rolls quickly to the other side of the room or then smashes into many pieces and it’s not even clear that there is still a “glass” to track the movement of.
In the case of glaciers, warming may at first increase the rate of sublimation (direct evaporation into the air) because it remains too cold to form water, so sublimation is the only way for the ice to dump the energy it receives from the sun into the external environment, which represents an amount of ice loss, over a decade, proportional to the surface area and a new temperature that is “roughly the same”, so a “more or less” constant, resulting in what appears to be and arguably is: a linear change in ice mass. However, more warming way result in a “phase change” of the system to not simply sublimate but tollerate liquid water, so that’s what water is going to do instead of directly evaporating as it takes less energy to make liquid than vapour. Water absorbs more energy than ice, breaking the equation that the melting is simply proportional to the surface area and newish temperature. Water can also tunnel through the ice, weakening it and also lubricate it’s foundation when it accumulates on the bottom: this can lead to another non-linear change of how fast the ice accelerates towards the ocean.
In the 90s, all the non-linear affects that the climate system is sensitive too were “known about”. However, they were not included in “official models”, not because people didn’t work on these kinds of problems and modelling, but because the uncertainties were too large to get to “essentially certain” which was the precondition for action in order to not “risk” any unnecessary harm to the markets.
That these affects are starting to be worked on, is primarily not because the fundamental physics of these systems are better understood (though, of course, there has been improvement) nor that super computers are vastly more powerful (although this helps too), but because the best way to reduce uncertainty is to be able to simply observe these system “phase-change” phenomena and hard-code those observations into the models. It’s essentially impossible to predict ahead of time the mode in which large thousand year glaciers will melt passed certain thresholds, or 10 000 year permafrost is going to melt. We simply haven’t observed these multi-10 000 year systems experience these sorts of changes; that’s why they have been there for thousands of years or more. Now that we can observe these unprecedented things happening, it’s much easier to both hardcode these new proportionality constants into models as well as calibrate models based on this data.
The same thing has happened with the historical record; in the 90s, resolution of historical changes (ice ages ending and so on) was very rough; it could be clear the climate went from state A to state B, but not at all clear how long this actually took nor the modes in which glaciers and permafrost collapsed. With more work on this issue, these uncertainties have been reduced, which, again allows models to be better calibrated and threshold changes in the climate system to be better understood generally speaking.
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For “intellectuals” people interested in climate change in the 90s and 2000s, these step-change and non-linear risks were obviously present and obviously incredibly high risks.
However, the linear narrative that we have a century, was far more popular.
If you didn’t want to sound “alarmist”, you stated your “values” and that you’re “concerned” about climate change, but that, yes, maybe we have a 100 years and the market mechanisms of Kyoto are going to work.
However, what was clear to me then was that many people who did not actually believe this narrative was true, stuck to it based on the erroneous belief that “gradualism” was the only thing normal people would be willing to listen to.
The problem was that it simply wasn’t true; only 20–30 years have passed for the climate system to completely destroy the linear-extrapolation and gradualism narrative.
The “fuel” of this internal denial of the emergency within the “grey area” of intellectually convinced environmentalists, was “what if I’m wrong”.
I remember the anxiety well: I’m devoting my life to solve climate change, reducing my fun significantly, organizing my life around this social problem. What if, over the next decades it simply doesn’t reveal itself to be the problem I think it is? I would have been alarmist for nothing? I would have wasted my time fighting for radical change, when the gradualists turned out to be right?
Three things solidified my resolve:
First, when you fully breakout of the “requires 100% proof” narrative, even a 1% chance of planetary catastrophe is worth massive efforts to avoid; and, even in the 90s, it was simply impossible to sit down with the science and, being as skeptical as possible and as generous as possible to “optimist” assumptions, conclude the relatively short term massive planetary risks were anywhere near 1%. Maybe, in blue tinted glasses, risk was 10%. That’s simply massive amount of risk.
Furthermore, what was the level of risk for planetary catastrophe the scientific community agreed was reasonable in the performance of a experiment (turning on the LHC). Risks physicists felt were reasonable were one in billions and trillions, and serious works was done demonstrating with intellectual rigor that the risks of the LHC of producing some strange particle or black whole that led to a planetary catastrophe were incredibly minute. Why does the planetary experiment of burning fossil fuels to drive personal vehicles without any real benefits (at best a significant amount of environmental damage due to roads cutting up ecosystems, and also a lot of lung and heart disease from the smoke), deserve not only a risk threshold of more than one in billions and trillions, but requires near certainty that it is a dumb risk to do anything about?
Complete hypocrisy the scientific community on the one hand saying the LHC needs to be proven to be of the minutest nearly unfathomably low risk to the planet, but professors do not go on strike until the personal vehicle is banned globally; which only has benefits to doing anyway.
It is simply not a coherent set of beliefs. If we can tolerate large risks to destroy the planet for personal vehicles, particle accelerators or other scientific experiments should have acceptable risk thresholds of at least 5%. Science is at least advertised as a noble cause.
Obstacle 1: failure to understand the capitalist system
It’s an understandable mistake to make, but the coherent environmentalists that came to coherent conclusions about the risk and the urgency of the situation, focused too much on environmental issues and failed to address as a community capitalism.
Global warming, and the long list of other unfolding environmental disasters, is a consequence of capitalism as such. A few environmental victories on some specific issues, does not change in the slightest the overall perspective of what capitalism does to the environment.
Global warming and the various other environmental catastrophes are the result of the interaction of capitalism and the environment. The history of environmentalism and capitalism demonstrates clearly, irrefutably, that the capitalists system first denies an environmental problem exists and when it is no longer deniable, simply tolerates it and moves the ethical goal posts farther away.
There was a time when any extinction at all was a “controversial issue”. The capitalist system did not deal with being both wrong about the facts and the cause of the extinctions by admitting that and coming to better convictions: the capitalist system dealt with being wrong by simply no longer caring about the issue.
Collapse of whole ecosystems, poisons everywhere including forever pollutants, desertification, acquirer depletion, collapse of fish stocks, are all dealt with in capitalism by moving society’s beliefs to a point of no longer caring about those issues.
Up to and including the problem of planetary collapse. The capitalist system is dealing with that by saying “Privatize NASA, so we can let the rich go to space in their noble quest to continue civilization among the stars!”
Capitalism is not a “honest intellectual” which will correct previously wrong assumptions in face of insurmountable evidence and arguments, and, above all else, be embarrassed for and act swiftly to resolve internal contradictions. When the dodo and the carrier pigeon went extinct from unchecked commercial exploitation, the capitalist system didn’t respond “ah, shucks, we were wrong about that, let’s put in place the policies our opponents recommended to begin with so as it never happens again”. Capitalism simply responded by devaluing other species so we tolerate their extinction; within a few generations, it’s not even controversial or discussed anymore that species go extinct: some idiot professor will be asked to say the magic phrase that makes it all ok, “99% of species have gone extinct”.
In short, a fight with a bad faith actor is not simply “making the better argument” and then waiting for the opponent to either accept it or reformulate their position to repeat the process until consensus on the facts and implications of various moral philosophies with regards to those facts are agreed, moral positions clearly delineated and room cooperation within the area of overlapping goals explored and implemented.
The better arguments have been made for over a hundred years. We aren’t in an argument, we are in a fight.
Actually defeating the problem, capitalism, is “the” obstacle; spending time on trying to convince the wealthy to fund this or that, rather than question the organization of society by the wealthy, or working on gradual plans of reform, of new clever market mechanism fantasies, of pushing ethical consumerism, instead of question the individualism that powers capitalism, are all capitalism winning the fight: strengthening the system with the life force of its would be detractors.