[unrev-II] Economics and the Garden of Eden

From: Paul Fernhout (pdfernhout@kurtz-fernhout.com)
Date: Sun Jun 04 2000 - 09:05:24 PDT

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    John -

    You make many good points, but there are a few that I think needs

    John \"sb\" Werneken wrote:
    > [Snip]
    > There is a simple solution to the problem that some things are without
    > ownership and hence tend to be treated poorly by the markets - such as
    > species diversity, clean air, or unspoiled vistas. Give them owners. Then
    > they will be given value in the market place and will be conserved, as all
    > valued properties are.

    However, a big issue here is external costs.

    If I own "clean air" and I sell the right to pollute, and other people
    have a greater chance of getting lung cancer, I am passing on an
    external cost to the community. It is unlikely under today's law that I
    could be successfully sued for this because it is difficult to prove
    damages. So it is profitable for me as the "air owner" to kill people

    Another issue is perceived value of cash vs. a non-cash resource, which
    is often highly idiosyncratic to the owner and immediate needs.

    Lets say developers want to pave the Amazon to build a large parking
    lot. I own 100% of the worlds biodiversity rights. They approach me, and
    say we'll give you $200,000 for the right to pave the Amazon. Imagine I
    have a whiny child who want to go to Princeton. I need the cash right
    now! Seems like a good deal. Who is hurt? Me? No! Maybe just future
    generations who never get various medicines or can enjoy nature. But, it
    is a profitable exchange in the light of the priorities of the resource
    owner. Granted, maybe The Nature Conservancy http://www.tnc.org/ might
    have offered me more money in the future, but I needed the cash now.
    Plus, the remaining world's biodiversity is even more valuable since
    there is less of it, so my remaining asset may actually increase in

    Think this is a silly example? It's pretty much what is happening right
    now as the remaining old growth forests in the USA are being cut down to
    give antiquated timber mills a few more years of profit before those
    mills are obsolete. You might argue timber companies might make more
    money out of using the remaining forest for recreation or harvesting new
    DNA, but they don't see that as their business, and they have an
    existing physical plant and cultural system based on cutting down
    forests. (By the way, the replacement monoculture "tree farms" with
    nicely spaced rows bear little resemblance in biodiversity to the
    original forest.)
    Another real example is the destruction of the "state" owned environment
    in the old USSR by various factories. The government owned both the
    environment and the factories -- it just decided to sacrifice one for
    the other.

    I don't see how replacing the state with an individual or corporation
    will make things better. Even within a corporation, perceptions may
    differ as to the value of a non-cash asset. For example, the Newton was
    way ahead of it's time, but Apple decide to kill it because it wasn't
    profitable to keep it up. Or for example, in the 1970's sci-fi movie
    "Silent Running",
    the Earth's remaining biodiversity is stored in habitat domes in "Pan
    Am" space freighters, and the decision is made to blow up the domes and
    return the freighters to commercial service (probably because that would
    be more profitable in the short term). Everyone goes along with this
    except one ecologist who resists.

    I think preserving biodiversity for example takes social consensus, and
    when necessary, enforcing laws related to the public well being and "the
    seventh generation". Every fight to preserve biodiversity has been
    difficult. Creating the National Parks system in the 1930s and
    preserving places like Yellowstone was a huge political fight.

    > Business is nothing but the desires of all individuals, expressed
    > autonomously and honestly in their purchasing decisions.

    Business reflects the desires of individuals to the extent they can pay
    for goods and services. If you are a poor farmer in Ethiopia, "business"
    cares not a bit about your desires. This is a fundamental problem with
    markets. They reflect the interests of people with the money. That is
    why they need to be tempered with morality and laws.

    There's a catchy song I heard on NPR once.

    An example verse is something like:
    "Someone owns the water, someone owns the soil,
    someone owns the land, and someone owns the oil.
    Someone owns the sky, someone owns the trees,
    Someone owns my body but they can't own me."

    The refrain goes something like:
    "Everyone's a criminal unless you got the money, honey".

    Anyone know who the songwriter / singer is?

    > Government in contrast reflects the decisions of a smaller group.

    In theory, Government should reflect a broad community that is governed.
    In practice you may be right (especially given the lack of separation of
    business and state Eric points out).

    > [Your general sentiment of the value of capitalism and ownership.]

    In general, I think you are right. A market system has been involved in
    the production and availability of all sort of interesting goods and
    services. People do tend to take better care of resources when they own
    them. For example, it is often said that home owners take better care of
    them and their communities than renters.

    This also has to do with feedback mechanisms as you mentioned.
    Christopher Alexander discusses this in his book "Notes on Synthesis of
    Form" where he gives the example of living in a mud hut vs. living in a
    skyscraper. The owner of the mud hut will patch a hole that causes a
    draft. The inhabitant of a skyscraper does not have access or
    understanding of the building's air circulation system. Further, the
    architects who designed the skyscraper will probably never (or only
    years later) get feedback on the problems with the ventilation design.

    Both Christopher Alexander and Langdon Winner (in his book "Autonomous
    Technology") make the point that technical systems should be readily
    understood and adaptable by the inhabitants, so that they can be made
    more responsive to the inhabitants needs and prevent the tyranny of the
    infrastructure. Unfortunately, there is money to be made in supplying
    difficult to understand technical systems with proprietary parts which
    resist modification, because that keeps the "user" dependent on the
    "supplier", with a resulting continuous revenue stream for the supplier.
    As Eric points out, most bioengierring efforts for example work in this
    direction -- "terminator" seeds or plant requiring heavy applications of
    pesticides (i.e. "Roundup-ready Soybeans").

    The issue is taking things to extremes, the difficulty of assigning
    external costs, and differences in perceived long term value of
    resources of a scale we can't comprehend [like nature].

    It used to be considered profitable to enslave people. That is rarely
    overtly done now because it is now generally considered morally wrong.
    In part this is also because it turns out you can get more work out of a
    "free" person for less total cost than owning a slave, especially when
    the free person is part of certain types of organizations with capital
    for tools. Someday the same thing might be widely thought about
    destruction of biodiversity. And again, this will be in part because
    economically you can get more out of biodiversity than pavement or

    What is economic to do? In part it depends on the laws. If it is illegal
    to kill
    or beat your slaves, it may be more profitable to employ them. If it is
    illegal to destroy biodiversity, it may be more profitable to use it for
    sightseeing, medical research, or attracting programmers to Seattle (the
    most profitable use of old growth forest in the Pacific Northwest so far
    -- too bad old-growth forest owners can't easily profit from it -- this
    is the reverse situation of "external costs" I guess: "external

    > "These people clearly did not have our relationship to the world,
    > they were of it and not its masters.

    You may not have meant to imply this, but I think it is a dangerous
    assumption that we today are in any sense "masters" of nature. It is
    more like (I think I encountered this idea in Geologist Preston Cloud's
    book "Oasis in Space") humans have become a geological force. We can
    destroy nature, but that doesn't not mean we can rebuild it.

    And, I would argue (to boil down Manual De Landa's "War in the Age of
    Intelligent Machines") the upcoming singularity involving intelligent
    autonomous machines will may with some probability (small or large?)
    leaves us with very little mastery of many things. Eric has a good point
    in suggesting we turn our attentions to building "Edens", however the
    inhabitants define "Edens". For me, that means creating decentralized
    resilient self-replicating infrastructure for life support and economic

    -Paul Fernhout
    Kurtz-Fernhout Software
    Developers of custom software and educational simulations
    Creators of the Garden with Insight(TM) garden simulator

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