Yves here. Ilargi takes up one of our favorite topics, how the fetishization of numbers and measurement is at best misguided and at worst profoundly dysfunctional, as we discussed in a 2006 article, Management’s Great Addiction. Its roots may lie earlier, but one of the big boosts in the modern era came from Jeremy Bentham and his idea of a “felicific calculus,” that you could measure things that made people happy, and was the precursor of notions like utility curves in microeconomics. Anyone who had read Steven Keen’s Debunking Economics or our recap of some of his arguments in ECONNED knows how intellectually bankrupt neoclassical microeconomics is, yet it is still treated as a serious and legitimate undertaking in universities all around the world.
By Raúl Ilargi Meijer, editor-in-chief of The Automatic Earth, Cross posted from The Automatic Earth
Often, for some reason, when you want to make a simple point, before you know it it mushrooms into something much bigger. Like in this case, blasphemy. All I started out with was the notion that if we put a dollar value on something like an Arctic melt, or the extinction of species, we are making fundamental mistakes. Which invariably show in the way we reach the conclusions, presented as “scientific”, that make us put such values on potential or already final events.
It may be getting increasingly hard to accept in our present worldview, but it’s still true that not everything can be expressed in dollar terms. We may still find this to be obvious when we talk about losing our loved ones, our children, but other than that, there are hardly any questions raised when some individual or institution reports a $100 billion price tag for the loss of the bumble bee, or, the example that led me here, that a sudden Arctic “methane belch” could cost $60 trillion.
These reports come with such regularity these days that we have come to see them as normal. In reality what they depict is our loss of values, and a tendency towards moral bankruptcy. The problem in all this is that as long as we keep expressing the damage done by climate change, pollution or extinction in dollar terms, we have no chance of turning any of it around. Putting a dollar value on our very own destruction of our very own and sole habitat (which we share with all other species) carries with it an unspoken suggestion that there also must be a dollar value price tag we can put on halting the destruction, as well as undoing and repairing it. Which is, just like the original claim that an arctic melt would cost $60 trillion, the peak of absurdity.
But still, for 99% of people who read a headline with such numbers, their first reaction will be: that’s a lot of money. If you are one of those people, you have some thinking to do. It makes no difference whatsoever what the financial cost is of an animal going extinct, or half the arctic melting. The fact that we increasingly tend to describe destruction in monetary terms is precisely why it will continue, since if a dollar value is all you have left, you might as well have no values.
What makes discussing these things blasphemous is that while you can’t escape a critical look at how capitalism functions, in our world capitalism has taken on the role and characteristics of a religion, which typically rejects critical looks. You’re not supposed to question it, and if you do anyway, before you know it you get to be Galileo. In the case of capitalism, if you dare criticize the prevailing system, you are a communist or a socialist. And like Galileo, a heretic.
From where I’m sitting, all the isms through history have led to the same result: a ruling elite and gagged masses. Most forms of Marxism promise those masses a voice in how their societies are structured, but few if any deliver. Our capitalistic societies call themselves democratic, but doubts about that are self-evident. When you only get to choose between options that are pre-selected by ruling classes, that’s at best democracy between huge and thick brackets. Point in case: the masses don’t tend to opt for a choice of rapidly increasing income inequality (which leaves them poorer), but it is what we experience. In short, capitalism leads where all other isms lead. People may claim that it’s the least worst option, but that remains to be seen. Let it run its course, and then perhaps we can judge.
In any case, the pseudo science that comes up with the numbers mentioned above badly needs to be called to task and revealed for what it really is. So let’s give it a shot.
Here’s an article in New Scientist last week:
Huge methane belch in Arctic could cost $60 trillion
A sudden methane burp in the Arctic could set the world back a colossal $60 trillion. Billions of tonnes of the greenhouse gas methane are trapped just below the surface of the East Siberian Arctic shelf. Melting means the area is poised to deliver a giant gaseous belch at any moment – one that could bring global warming forward 35 years and cost the equivalent of almost a year’s global GDP.
These are the conclusions of the first systematic analysis of the economic cost of Arctic melting, which delivers a sobering antidote to other, more upbeat assessments that say melting in this area would improve access to minerals on the ocean bed, increase fishing and create ice-free shipping lanes.
Previous work has estimated that more than a trillion tonnes of methane lie under the shelf, trapped inside lattices of ice known as hydrates, at depths as shallow as 20 metres. Concern about a possible eruption has grown since 2010, when research cruises over the shelf by Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov, both now at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, found plumes of methane as much as a kilometre wide bubbling to the surface.
The pair calculated that a release of 50 billion tonnes would be possible within a decade, through known areas of melting and geological faults. Since methane is a greenhouse gas 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide, such a scenario would trigger a “climate catastrophe”, they say, increasing the methane content of the planet’s atmosphere twelve-fold, and raising temperatures by 1.3C.
Now, environmental economist Chris Hope and Arctic Ocean specialist Peter Wadhams, both at the University of Cambridge, together with climate policy analyst Gail Whiteman of Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, have analysed the likely consequences of such a release occurring between 2015 and 2025. They did so by adding the extra emissions to an existing model used in the UK government’s 2006 Stern Review, designed to assess the economic cost of coping with climate change between now and 2200.
There’s so much wrong with this, where to begin? For starters, an environmental economist is not a scientist, since no economist is. Math and physics are sciences, since they deal in formulas and laws that can pass the fallibilty test. Economics deals with human behavior, which we don’t know nearly enough about to formulate any such laws. The fact that papers like Nature and New Scientist publish this stuff anyway just goes to show where these publications have been heading for a while.
The entire piece is based on guesswork only, and that’s not exactly scientific. To wit, the inevitable rebuttal in Live Science is just as credible:
Arctic Methane Claims Questioned
A scientific controversy erupted this week over claims that methane trapped beneath the Arctic Ocean could suddenly escape, releasing huge quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas, in coming decades, with a huge cost to the global economy.
The issue being debated is this: Could the Arctic seafloor really fart out 50 billion tons of methane in the next few decades? In a commentary published in the journal Nature on Wednesday (July 24), researchers predicted that the rapid shrinking of Arctic sea ice would warm the Arctic Ocean, thawing permafrost beneath the East Siberian Sea and releasing methane gas trapped in the sediments. The big methane belch would come with a $60 trillion price tag, due to intensified global warming from the added methane in the atmosphere, the authors said.
But climate scientists and experts on methane hydrates, the compound that contains the methane, quickly shot down the methane-release scenario. “The paper says that their scenario is ‘likely.’ I strongly disagree,” said Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York.
But I don’t intend to get into such controversies; they just keep our eyes off the ball. Environmentalism tends towards too many of the faults of all isms already. We know that human activity, burning fossil fuels, and the use of energy in general, tends to raise CO2 levels, and we know that higher CO2 levels tend to raise temperatures, but that’s about it. We’re dealing with systems that exhibit such elevated complexity, we should be very careful about drawing conclusions. Far too many people blame a local heatwave or flood on climate change that may well be simple fluctuations in existing models, and that’s just as counterproductive as denying the whole mechanism to begin with (that we raise CO2 levels and they, over time, tend to raise temperatures). We should all stick to science, to what we can prove, not what we wish to believe.
But that was not my point. I wanted to address a different fallacy: that of trying to put dollar values on – sections of – our destruction of the world we inhabit. Capitalism tends to express everything in dollars, and that’s where it fails: it has no other values, and therefore might as well have none. If we convince ourselves to believe that the demise of the polar bear or the bumble bee or, for that matter, half the population of Bangla Desh, can be expressed in numbers or dollars, we lose all hope of understanding the issues involved, let alone doing anything to counter them.
Nor is that $60 trillion number the only one that’s floating around. The Christian Science Monitor has this:
Global warming could spell more bad news for baby seals
Research on threats to harp seals joins surging attention to the effects that melting in the Arctic will have not only on the wildlife there but on the entire planet. This week, a team of researchers found that, by 2030, the release of methane gas from just the melting Arctic ice is likely to accelerate the rise in temperatures to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels. That increase in temperatures would cost the world some $60 trillion in damages – a sum almost as large as the size of the entire global economy last year, which measured about $70 trillion. That number tacks on an additional cost of about 15% to the already $450 trillion that global warming is expected to cost the world.
Now people start to do the math in their heads: If we pay it off over a period of 10 years, or 20, or 100, 200, it doesn’t look so bad, does it? The worst case scenario from that point of view is we could go temporarily bankrupt. But that’s not very likely either, because our economists and central bankers seem to have found the solution to that: just watch the economy flourish in the wake of the banking crisis.
The problem is that while such discussions continue, the destruction continues too, and aggravates unabated. Which more pseudo scientists can then do more pseudo modeling for. None of it leads us anywhere but down. We need to take the discussion away from this nonsense, and put it on less shaky ground than blunt denial or fantasy number games. We don’t even need to wonder what an environmental economist bases his figures on – though that could be pretty revealing -; we should figure out how people can even consider going this route. And that inevitably brings us back to religion.
A few quotes from finance journalist Cynthia Freeland’s book “Plutocrats” put it into a clearer perspective. She cites Matthew Bishop, co-author of a book named “Philantro Capitalism”, on the topic of people like Bill Gates, who “re-invent” philantropism (he labeled it “creative capitalism”), presenting what should at the very least raise serious questions, as something unequivocably positive:
“… in each era going back to the Middle Ages, the entrepreneurs have been among the people leading the response to the destruction caused by the economic processes that made them rich.”
To my amazement, and I kid you not, both Freeland and Bishop leave no doubt that they find this a good thing. Which makes me think they must be either poor readers or religious zealots.
You saw it in the Middle Ages, you saw it with the Victorians, you saw it with Carnegie and Rockefeller. What is different is the scale. Business is global and so they are focusing on global problems. They are much more focused on how do they achieve a massive impact.
You see? It all tends towards the same theme: putting a dollar value on the destruction that made them rich. And then pay it off. And there’s no way they would stop there either:
Marx famously observed that early generations of philosophers has sought to describe the world; he wanted to change it. Gates and his plutocratic peers are having a similarly dramatic impact on the world of charity. They don’t want to fund the social sector, they want to transform it.
One example is their impact on education in America. With their focus on measurable results, Gates and his fellow education-focused billionaires have spearheaded a data-driven revolution. The first step was to put tests at the center of education, so that the output – student learning – could be measured.
The next step is to try to make the job of teaching more data -and incentive – driven. As Gates said in a speech in November 2010, “We have to figure out what makes the great teacher great.” That effort includes videotaping teachers in the classroom and paying them based on how they perform”.
Anyone thinking that what Gates’ education efforts are aiming for is for people to learn NOT to do what he did to get rich? Yeah, me neither. All I can think is this guy is dangerous, like so many self-appointed high priests of so many religions are. I know his foundation saves some babies’ lives in Africa, but does that balance out this megalomania? There’s still more:
Strikingly, the ambition of the philantro-capitalists doesn’t stop at transforming how charity works. They want to change how the state operates, too. These are men who have built their businesses by achieving the maximum impact with the minimum effort – either as financiers using leverage or as technologists using scale. They think of their charitable dollars in the same way. “our foundation tends to fund more of the up-front discovery work, and we’re a partner in delivery, but governmental funding is the biggest,” Gates told students at MIT on a visit there in April 2010.”
If I may summarize: We should all want our children to emulate Bill Gates, so they will learn how to destroy things first and then pay off their guilt about it, preferably by buying up government influence. And feel good about it! Like they’re the most worthy citizens of the earth that history has ever seen. If everything in our lives can be data-drivenly expressed in dollars, then Bill Gates must of necessity be right about all he says and does, because he has more dollars then just about anyone else.
It’s hard to believe people allow their minds to go there (and still claim they love their children). Fortunately, just as I was starting to get really depressed about this, I read something that gave me back at least a glimmer of hope.
A July 11 interview in the Guardian paints a portrait of Doug Tompkins, a rich man by just about everyone’s standards with the possible exception of Bill Gates. Tompkins, a good friend of Steve Jobs, clashed with the latter on issues that are very similar to those raised by Bill Gates’ words. Tompkins became rich through the sale of the North Face and Esprit clothing brands, got out decades ago, and directs his efforts in different ways. He looks the much saner man.
How technology has stopped evolution and is destroying the world
It has become something of a mantra within the sustainability movement that innovations in technology can save the world. But rather than liberating us, Doug Tompkins, the cofounder of retail brands The North Face and Esprit, believes technology has enslaved us and is destroying the very health of the planet on which all species depend. Tompkins, 70 has used his enormous wealth from selling both companies to preserve more land than any other individual in history, spending more than £200m buying over two million acres of wilderness in Argentina and Chile.
He challenges the view that technology is extending democracy, arguing that it is concentrating even more power in the hands of a tiny elite. What troubles him the most is that the very social and environmental movements that should be challenging the destructive nature of mega-technologies, have instead fallen under their spell.
“We have been poor on doing the systemic analysis and especially in the area of technology criticism,” says Tompkins [..] “Until we get better at that, I think we’re cooked, we’re going to continue to extinct species and we’re going to continue to dig the hole deeper of the whole eco-social crisis.
Tompkins [and] his wife Kris, the former CEO of the outdoor clothing and equipment company Patagonia [..] have been instrumental in creating two huge nature reserves and are in the process of creating another one in the South American region of Patagonia, despite opposition within Latin America [..]
[..] ..they also fund numerous small activist NGOs, arguing that more established organisations such as WWF and Greenpeace have become too closely enmeshed with corporations. “When WWF started out, they were doing some good stuff,” says Tompkins. “Now, they’re burning up money like crazy and they don’t really get too much done.”
Tompkins derides those who pin their hopes on technological developments in areas such as wind, solar and nuclear as coming from the smart resource management school, saying they fail to understand that this will not address the core issue, which is that capitalism is addicted to growth.
“Resource efficiency is the wrong metric,” he says. “We should use nature as the measure, using nature’s wisdom as a template for our economic systems.”
“Capitalism doesn’t function when it starts to contract and we can see that quite clearly right here in the eurozone. It’s like pushing a giant monster underwater that’s gasping for air. It goes nuts. Capitalism may have all sorts of things that are good, but ultimately it’s bad for everyone.”
He believes most sustainability practitioners have made the mistake of spending their time creating strategies and projects, without taking the time to gain a deep understanding of how we got into a mess in the first place. As a result, they may end up doing more harm than good. “As we get sucked more and more into the technosphere, we become less and less capable of understanding it because it becomes a technological milieu that we’re in,” he warns.
“If you extinct all the biodiversity and we end up living on a sandheap with a Norwegian rat and some cockroaches, that doesn’t have too much logic to it. That would show that our behaviour as a civilization today is to the pathological. But, if you make a systemic analysis, that’s exactly where we’re going.”
Tompkins recalls the Apple advertising campaign that highlighted the 1,001 great things that the PC was going to give to us and would tell Jobs that these represented a mere 5% of what the computer did while the other 95% was all negative and exacerbating the biodiversity crisis.
“He’d get mad at me when I’d tell him that,” says Tompkins. “He was locked into a view that these technologies were going to bring all these good things. But that’s typical of the purveyors of new technology. They’re selling their product and their idea, and their prestige, their power and their influence. Their self-esteem is wrapped up in that. It’s impossible for them to see it or to admit it, you see? Because, it pulls the rug out from underneath their purpose, especially when it’s attached to a moral purpose.”
Tompkins foresees a dark future dominated as he puts it by more ugliness, damaged landscapes, extinct species, extreme poverty, and lack of equity and says humanity faces a stark choice; either to transition now to a different system or face a painful collapse.
“Of course I’d prefer the transition, because a crash will be highly unpredictable,” he says. “It could exacerbate something terrible.”
“The extinction crisis is the mother of all crises. There will be no society, there will be no economy, there will be no art and culture on a dead planet basically. We’ve stopped evolution.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. Capitalism has nice traits, but it also has a built-in self-destruction mechanism: the demand for never ending growth. And that wouldn’t be so bad, if that mechanism didn’t also spell destruction for much of the planet is has been unleashed on. Spearheading education systems towards producing more Bill Gates clones in a sorcerer’s apprentice fashion is definitely not the answer. Gates would do the world a lot more good if the curriculum were based on the exact opposite. But then, he just goes to proof that you don’t have to be smart in a wider, “uomo universalis” kind of way, in order to get rich. In fact, you’re more likely to succeed in that if your view is narrow.
The entire notion of being data-driven turns a society, bit by bit, into one that is controlled by numbers such at the $60 trillion or $450 trillion ones “calculated” for climate change damage, based on hollow guesswork derived from fake science that is devoid of any actual meaning. When Doug Tompkins says: “We have been poor on doing the systemic analysis and especially in the area of technology criticism”, he advocates the opposite of what Bill Gates does, who would rather see only people just like himself, since he thinks he is a really great specimen. If you count the value of a human being in dollars, that may make sense, but it also leads to counting the value of everything else in dollars. And that’s where the logic stops. Because you simply can’t.
“Capitalism doesn’t function when it starts to contract“, as Tompkins puts it, is not even so much contested as it is flatly denied these days: every crisis is seen as but a springboard to the next high. To the true believers, a crisis is a sign that the system functions, and any contraction can only be temporary. But we can destroy, and we’re actively doing it as we speak, more than we can rebuild, and that has nothing to do with how much money we have or how many technological advances we can yet produce.
We simply can’t express our feelings, our love, our grief, our hope, in data or numbers. And no-one, not even Bill Gates, would dream of that. Techno-dreams involve robots that develop human features, like consciousness, grief and love, not humans developing into robots.
Capitalism, technology and the eternal progress they promise form a belief system increasingly built around the justification of the destruction we unleash on our world. And we need to question that belief.
Then again, I don’t agree with Doug Tompkins that we have stopped evolution. Evolution, which is another word for life itself, is a force much grander than mankind. We are but an afterthought in the scheme of evolution. And if we don’t fit that scheme, we will end up as just another one in a multi-billion years’ series of billions of failed species. If we wish for our progeny to survive, we need to focus our efforts on understanding, not ignoring it. We are not bigger than life itself. At least that we should be able to agree on.
Excellent piece, thank you for posting it. I am happy to see that Automatic Earth is back. I thought they had quit.
I’m sorry, but the author confuses things.
Putting a $value on things is not necessarily saying that you can (or should) buy it, sell it or market it etc.
The reality is, that ANY action (or even lack of) has costs in resources. We need that, to make sensible choices, to be able to prioritise and deploy that scarce and finite resources we have. If the author has a better way of doing it, let’s hear it – but all I hear is “you can’t put a $value on stuff”.
Of course, putting $value on stuff is much much more vague and amiguous than measuring a distance (unless you measure the lenght of the UK coast as famously Mandelbrot asked).
But if this is used to compare, all you need is cardinality, not the exact amount. So even if you agree with Mandelbrot on the UK coast, you can say that however measured, it’s shorter than the coast of Australia (measured the same way).
I don’t really care whether global warming by 2C costs the world economy 1000 trillions or 1000 quadrilions, really. What I do care is that the estimated tail impact is (say) 1000 times more than the cost to prevent it, and the cost to prevent it is not out of our reach by few orders of magnitude. So a) we can do it b) we should do it ( a) is necessary. In the interest of long-time survival of the species we should spread across the universe, but the cost of that is out of our reach, so “should” is irrelevant if we can’t).. But to be able to come to that 1000 times number, and to estimate whether we can do it (on the order of the magnitude scale), I need to come with the estimates of the costs.
If the author doesn’t like the $ sign, that’s fine – we can change it into kWh or whatever. But the reality that action=cost will stay.
Oh, and the argument of “we can’t go bankrupt, econs and bankers found a solution to that” – well, no amount of action of any central bank will create more energy available for our use out of thin air.
vlade – I think what he’s saying is that we put dollar amounts on things AFTER they’re done. Instead, we should pull our heads out of our asses and consider what might occur BEFORE we do things, you know, actually THINK about consequences.
The majority of people think in terms of the “present”, not the future, which will be our undoing. What good does a philanthropist do when the damage is already done?
Stop contemplating “growth”, people, and start thinking!
What a completely narcissistic species we are. 0 KwH.
No, there are some things that are so terrible that we should not be even willing to discuss them in dollar terms. They are, or should be, in the category of revulsion. Yet dollarizing things allows them to be taken out of the category of revulsion and treated as clinical, as outcomes we should deem as acceptable. For instance, there was outrage when it was reveled that Ford determined it would cost $X per car to keep Pintos from turning into fireballs in the event of a rear-end collision but refused to do so. My belief is that the American public has become to desensitized that that sort of disclosure now would produce much less outrage.
For instance, and I could but won’t because even describing it is upsetting to me, but I can easily describe how one could torture a baby to death horrifically. Now I could put that in the realm of the economic: what is the fair price to pay a parent for doing that to their child, say to advance medicine? Oh, and now that we’ve established that price, how much of a premium should there be just because a super rich person want to torture and kill a baby that because he is a sadist and it would give him pleasure?
The destruction of species and the devastation of our environment should be in the same category of revulsion.
THAT is what Ilargi is arguing against. I don’t understand how vlade don’t get that (and I have a lot of respect for vlade, plus he is our official longest standing comment section participant!)
I disagree that $izing issuse desensivitizes us to them – or should I say, does it more than being brainwashed by the media, by the lack of true human interaction, by being a part of a mob etc. etc.
I really have to disagree with you here. I’ve seen the way that people behave with financial models on deals. If they can make the model work, even if they KNOW the assumptions are bullshit and were pushed around to make the deal work, they treat the models as real, more real than the reality of the company and the workers and the products and the suppliers and the legal system. Models (and quantification) are abstractions that allow decision-makers to distance themselves from the consequences of the decisions they are making and enabling.
And I’ve seen this behavior not just with agents (who have every reason to encourage this behavior because they want the deals done to earn fees and get more notches on their belts) but also PRINCIPALS SPENDING THEIR OWN MONEY, as in Fortune 400 individuals (I’ve had billionaires as clients, as well as private companies where the staff were paid as principals, small salaries and a lot in equity or cash-flow linked pay).
Oh, on models I’m entirely in your camp – we’re wedded to the last decimal place even if the only thing you can say about it with certainty is that it’s definitely wrong – I’d bet you’d find an affirmative comment from me on that on your post from 2006 :).
But that’s why I said “orders of magnitude” in $ising. I don’t want to mix modeling and making a choice (which I believe to be orthogonal).
If I $ise to make an informed choice, I’m going through a process to understand what each choice means, and somehow to measure it – incorrectly, but as long as I’m doing it reasonably consistently and consider the results in order-of-magnitude calculation error, it’s ok. So yes, I have to understand that my model is, and always will be wrong. But that doesn’t throw away the value of the model entirely, if in the process of using it I came to better understand the whole thing or make two things more comparable.
That people are too lazy to do that, and do things just because “spreadsheet says so”- well, people are in general lazy around science (mostly because they hate being wrong, and science is first and foremost about being wrong). Should we stop doing it because of it?
I guess we’re approaching it from a different viewpoints. You say, that $ising issues desensitivizes – presumably by implying that you can buy it, making it more legitimate. I disagree (as noted before), but let’s take that as a given.
I then say “what about when you’re presented with a Sophia’s choice?” (and we can’t pretend they don’t exist).
Of course, $ising value of each of your children seems impossible, even insane – but people WERE doing it in real life. Say by selling children so that the rest of the family may survive, or even worse, in Stalin’s induced 1930 Ukraine famine where families ate the smalles babies – and how would it be different if they sold the baby for money to feed the family, even knowing it may be killed, tortured etc?. Do I think it makes the choice any less horrid, and the families less griefstruck? No way. But a choice had to be made.
Sometimes you just have to make choice (personally, I don’t really believe climate change falls there, as regardless of whether the science is right or not, buying the put option to protect us against the possible tail outcome is extremely cheap, so we should just do it). If $ing helps, it’s not a tool to be thrown away.
Of course, the thing where it all gets musty is that when choosing the lesser evil (should we even know what it is), people like to stop thinking about it as evil (who would like to think about themselves as evil?) – and that’s where it all turns pearshaped. But that has nothing to do with $ising in my view, but with people being people -they will rationalise it away regardless. We’re not rational, but rationalising animal. If not $ing, they will always find a different rational for why they acted the way they did.
Lesley Stahl: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?
Madeline Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.
We had jumped that shark long before Madeline Albright took the stage, I’m sorry to say.
No, vlade, everything cannot be measured in dollars, for the same reason that everything cannot be measured in kilograms or in any other single metric. Or rather, you might be able to place a dollar value on everything, but that wouldn’t make it a relevant measure or useful measure. It would be the same as saying weight is a universal measure and that therefore a rock is more valuable than the Pythagorean theorem, since the rock weighs more.
By denying the existence of incommensurable values, you are denying the reality of life. How much is your life worth? How about your child’s? How much would I have to pay you to accept an injection of malignant cancer cells? Surely, everything has a price, if all values are indeed commensurable.
If you believe that a dollar value can be placed on everything, then you must also believe that everyone who makes more money than you do is more valuable than you are. Do you really believe that?
Are you in fact asking the value that vlade places on his life/children/being injected with cancer cells/etc. – his response would be personal, as the $ figure he gives is just a way to quantify the importance of those things in his life.
Indeed, he might suggest one cannot place value on the lives of his children, but what value do I (or others) place on the lives of his children? Should I value them as highly as he does? Should society? I can’t imagine we’d value them the same.
Ultimately, everything does have a price/value (or cost, if you’d like to look at it that way). As more people populate this planet, the value of each person falls (as does our “democratic” value as our one vote gets watered down).
Perhaps that’s a very desensitized/immoral way to look at things, but I think it’s pretty ridiculous to think you can go through life without placing prices/values on everything – in essence, the things you cannot (won’t) put a price on are things you will not or cannot comprehend dealing with under any circumstances (until those circumstances arise and you’re forced to find out just how much those things are worth to you).
What would one do the moment they’re faced with the death of their own children versus the extinction of the honey bee? If both are repulsive/immeasurable, how does one make a decision on which option is better?
If we can’t place equal value on all living things, then we have no concept of value. Money does not equal reality, and trying to place a monetary value on every aspect of life and all of its inhabitants is a denial of reality. When people start valuing their ‘things’ over other people and their ‘things’ it starts to become very easy to commit atrocities against those ‘people and things’ that are perceived as being worth less or worthless. Is a child more valuable than honeybees? I would argue both are equally valuable in that both are living beings, and if they do not have an equal monetary value then I would say that monetary value is a pointless concept.
“Is a child more valuable than honeybees? I would argue both are equally valuable in that both are living beings”
I’m curious what you would choose – the life of a child or the existence of honeybees – if it came down to it?
There is the possibility that two things could be of equal value, but I would think that’s often not the case and the person who is comparing the two is being either intellectually lazy by not trying to figure out which has the better/worse impact or they are trying to avoid making the choice between the two.
Sorry, but not all living beings have the same value (particularly if we’re talking about our own personal values vs. our values as a society) – I would suspect this is something you would realize if you ever had to chose between two (or more) living beings.
I have often thought, after the well-pointed out “gee, that’s a lot of money!” which follows these calculation-revelations, is that the intention is to make the reader feel utterly helpless and incapable of doing anything about it.
what is the thought process after reading something like this? logically, even if you could attribute blame correctly (meaning, charge those responsible. which would be all of us but to a greater or lesser degree, the bickerings over which would never end), and then get them/us to pay it, who would you pay it TO and how would they go about fixing it? as the author above alludes: it doesn’t matter how much it costs, because you can’t pay money to fix such things, and any effort trying to determine how you would do so fairly and in a manner acceptable to everyone would simply waste your time.
so, i say boycott all of this hogwash. or should we start putting a price on women breastfeeding their children and fathers teaching their toddler how to tie their own shoes as well.
also, sociology has a term for using money as the value system upon which at least a person’s individual or social value is judged. i believe it’s called Universalism.
This article led me to Automatic Earth and a quote from there I had to share. It also bears on the GDP:
“I must admit I also really liked the claim that the UK economy will receive a £250 million boost from the Royal Baby™. Yes, in the United Magic Kingdom solid GDP growth can apparently come from the sale of millions of cups and plates and trinkets from one Brit to another, even if most are produced in China. All you need to do is get British citizens to spend £10 for a royal mugshot and we’re on our way to recovery. Why don’t they all just crash into each other’s cars at 100 miles an hour, that’s even much better for GDP.” (Raúl Ilargi Meijer)
I’d offer this feature up to both
a) those who would argue that our current implementation of capitalism (i.e. the bastardised version which is a variant of crony capitalism with some special features all of its own) is The Only Way and that the obvious defects are merely unavoidable collateral damage and we just have to put up with them. Some problems can’t simply be massaged away in the accounting
b) those who think that there’s no hope and we’re all doomed.
The reason for b) is that, painful and often annoying though it often is, we’re actually privileged I think (it is a dubious privilege I’ll admit) to live through what I am sure will be seen in retrospect as a profound phase of history. Profound, because we’re finally facing up to — because we don’t have a choice — some fundamental re-evaluations of concepts and beliefs which have been fudged by too many for too long. Considers that — in only the past 5 years or so — we can now find, even in the dim-witted MSM serious questioning of things like:
What is money ?
What is money for ?
If some resources are finite, how should they be shared equitably ?
Is capitalism capable of executing that sharing equitably ?
If not, why not ?
If not now, when ?
… and so on
In 2006 I can say for sure that if you ran a blog and questioned those sacred cows, you’d be a pinko commie SOB (in the US) or a sandal wearing lefty loon (in the UK). My cultural knowledge isn’t infallible, but the Japanese equivalent would perhaps be to go hikikomori http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hikikomori I’m sure there are other cultural responses besides these. Anyhow, the point is, you’d be widely derided or ignored or marginalised.
Conversely, the debate is certainly hotting up on this topic. Whether the debate will lead to a conclusion of right actions, that I’m not so sure of. Probably not and there’ll be more pain than needed because societies will only do the correct thing after exhausting all other possibilities. But, stay the same, things won’t. (do I sound like Yoda there ?)
What I’m saying is that there are things that can not and should not be expressed in dollars. Your children are not a resource, that one is easy. But neither are the Arctic or the bumble bee, and that one gets harder for some.
If we are able to prevent destruction of our habitat only because we’ve stuck a bunch of price tags on various parts of it, we’re lost. We need to understand the value of that habitat in non-monetary values. After all, what are, we, walking calculators?
Even if we would want to go the dollar value route, how do you value the bumble bee? We do so solely on the basis of the potential damage to crops that humans consume, and perhaps some crops that animals consume that we consume in turn. But the bumble bee has a crucial role in the entire habitat, not just the part that directly affects us. We just don’t understand the extent to which. Which makes the entire human-centered worldview as narrow as it is dumb.
As I say to Yves above – I wish it were so. But if I’m given a Sophie’s choice, I still have to make it, I can’t walk away (that’s part of the horror of the choice). How do I compare two “uncomparables”? If I’m presented with a choice of either saving Artic OR bumblebee (but can’t have both, for whatever reasons), how should I act?
if you mean by $ing that someone says “bumblebee is worth exactly $15 dollars, you can kill any/all of them if you pay” – yes, I agree. But $ing can also mean that I can at least try to compare things when I’m faced with two evils. Which should not, under any circumstances, make me to lose sight that I’m chosing between two evils – but I’d have to do that regardless of whether I $ise or not.
As children as resources – sorry, for majority of human history children WERE resources (and as I mention above, sometimes used in the literal, horrific way). The fact that we don’t consider them so right now, in the wester civilization, doesn’t mean no-one nowhere ever will again.
Vlade, doesn’t your argument imply that Sophie’s choices are more effectively resolved by $izing? Surely there is simply no way of proving this, thus insistence thereon is merely your (current) personal preference.
For example, the (extremely hypothetical) example you give, which would likely never be a binary either/or, might be better resolved via scientific analysis influencing how you value or weigh up the options. In fact, in this case science would most certainly be the superior method. I can’t think of any non-trivial examples where price is superior to a mix of science and wisdom.
Also, where has it been proven beyond doubt that the values assigned by the ‘free’ market are beyond reproach? Nowhere I know of. $izing is a convenience we have grown accustomed to. The point is that this familiarity, this entrenched cultural habit, is destructive because we have come to confuse abstract value – due to its purchasing power and ability as a store of value – for what it represents. We idolise the representation and mistreat the actual wealth it cannot replenish, as efschumacher rightly points out below.
A simple observation:
The idea that you can place a dollar value on choices and use that metric to make decisions about priorities stems from a binary and human-centric view of the world.
The real world is in fact an interdependent ecosphere. The “value” of a honey bee does not derive from the number of Red Delicious apple blossoms it can pollinate, but rather from its role in the entire ecosystem.
Exactly CH! I would add that value is immeasurable, and further that price only appears to measure exchange value, where what is actually happening are expressions of power relationships via credit-debt relationships and waged-labour as a cost of production.
I think you are confusing the value of a singular honey bee versus honey bees as a species.
The value of a honey bee may in fact be how many red delicious apples it can pollinate.
To me it looks like you cannot tell that your valuing of things has been totally commandeered by the price system. Even though it seems like the price system assigns values, something different is happening behind the erected facade (see Hugh’s comment below). Economics is – whether or not its defenders and promoters know or consciously intend it – a constructed school of thought which does little more than justify institutionalised elitism. My advice is to treat with extreme skepticism all of its so-called findings, and especially its ‘Laws’.
You’re getting hung up on “price” Saddam.
It doesn’t matter what you use to measure the importance/value of something – whether it be dollars, “feelings”, or some moral code you adhere to that you feel makes you superior to others (which unfortunately I feel a lot of people are espousing in these comments).
The point is that any time a comparison of any two things can be made, a “measurement” can take place as (eventually) you would have to show preference to one (unless you made it an active point not to choose at the risk of losing both) over the other.
Quite frankly, I don’t know the “price” I place on most of my values – but I strive to comprehend them as best to my ability and understand what I would choose when presented with unpalatable choices (i.e. knowing the lesser of two evils, at least in how they relate to my personal values, so to speak).
No lesson on the fallacies of economics, thanks – you’re preaching to the choir.
Apologies Variable, I wasn’t sure if was reading you right, but posted a comment anyway.
That you put measurement in speech marks is very relevant though. In discussion like this one, I equate measurement with a scientific process. Value cannot be measured in that usage of the word, though of course comparisons between objects probably always involve preference and value judgments.
And for the record, my hang up with price is a battle with what I see as society’s obsession with price, which this article is all about.
What saddens me is that I don’t have the patience to repeat the arguments you lay out here carefully with the stubborn, and that there are so many people stubbornly attached to the idea that $izing is universally applicable and helpful. Western Civ is a culture obsessed with abstract value, I’d say driven insane by it.
Value is a slippery beast. $, € etc. measure the exchange (not utility) variety of value, but the way exchange value is idolised implies this distinction is valid for all time, that the market is an eternal force of nature.
A while back, a commentor here at NC wrote that money started talking a long time ago and we haven’t been able to shut it up since: an excellent summary. One of the beauties of the price system (a.k.a. the market) is that it measures value, or appears to, thus Making Life Easier™. This beauty is cumulatively addictive, somewhat like compound interest. Today it’s as if we can’t begin to imagine how to appreciate the value of things that are rightly beyond the reach of the market. Indeed, in the interests of Perpetual Growth, everything that does not currently have a price should (or will eventially) have one. One market to rule them all.
I’m rambling. In short, the glittering efficiency (hah!) of the market/price system has bewitched and addicted us to it. Growth, stated Obama recently, is an “imperative”. Not any old growth, exponential GDP growth. That this absurd statement is accepted as gospel is the surest sign I know that humanity is going to crash this civilisation too. There is something endlessly intoxicating about the combination of the state’s ability to create vast material wealth and its collectivising/homogenising power that makes changing direction impossible. So, change of direction = death (of a dominant paradigm). Not changing direction = death of civilisation (again).
I guess, in the end, we’re just another species on this beautiful planet. But, as an optimist, I like to think humanity has a lot going for it.
Absurd or not, growth IS an imperative. Any departure from the path of exponential GDP growth means massive job loss, hunger, suffering. Did ISM come in above 50? Is GDP growth stable, or, better, accelerating? That’s the very definition of economic health, and rightly so, because the alternative is recession or worse.
A stable, zero-growth regime in our current system is impossible. It would require fundamental changes in our system of property relations, would require decoupling people’s basic needs of food and shelter from their contribution to capital’s ROI.
And that’s the one topic that’s truly taboo. We’d rather destroy the planet.
Exactly, Yalt. Wisely adapting to the end of growth, which is upon us now more or less, requires a totally new system, a totally new paradigm. But it’s not that we’d rather destroy the planet, imo, it’s that we don’t know how to imagine, collectively and in sufficient numbers, how to go about implementing such a radical change. It’s certainly something humans have never come close to managing before. That, and most of the elite would rather die (it seems to me from this great distance) than relinquish any power and privilege at all.
Same result (mayhem), slightly different causes. And I think the planet will survive us.
Someone here quoted William Ophuls the other day, you might like it (in case you didn’t see it):
Human societies are addicted to their ruling ideas and their received way of life, and they are fanatical in their defence. Hence they are extraordinarily reluctant to reform. “To admit error and cut losses,” said [Barbara] Tuchman, “is rare among individuals, unknown among states.” Instead of changing their minds, leaders redouble their efforts to do what no longer works, wooden-headedly persisting in error until the bitter end.
(Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail)
Yes, it would have been better if I’d closed with “We’d rather die.”
Better dead than Red.
But you’re right, even those prepared for nuclear war in the defense of their property rights probably weren’t weighing the possibility of the destruction of all life. A healthy percentage of the human population, sure, but not the entire planetary ecosphere.
And as Dr. Ain knew, the bears will surely do a better job running the planet than we have.
Very good piece, but I have 2 points:
1) If you always separate the price of a thing – if it has one, if it can be quantified – from its value, then the absurdity shows up immediately. To say the price of a methane belch is $60 trillion is farcical, because there is no way back, no way that spending $60 trillion can put the methane back and lower the global temperature again.
2) Mathematics is not a science. Mathematics is the formal descriptive system that is used in many sciences to communicate with precision. Because it was discovered long ago that natural language fails to deliver adequate precision for the purpose of scientific communication.
The examples we have out in the world of successful complex systems–organisms, ecosystems, it’s probably even true of human societies if they’ve survived more than a few centuries–tend towards some sort of homeostasis. There might be a growth phase initially, but once the system reaches a size capable of fully supporting its members the growth stops, or slows to a manageable crawl.
But the merest hint of the notion of homeostasis is enough to cause an all-out panic in our system. If they aren’t going to get their unending exponential growth, capital’s going to take their ball and go home. The rest of us can starve.
For all the Schumpeterian talk of its adaptibility and malleability, capitalism is the very antithesis of a successful complex system. We’ve managed to construct a world system on the model of a malignant tumor, or bacteria on a petri dish.
Many thanks to Raúl Ilargi Meijer for this profound piece and to Yves for posting it here.
To the average person seeing a price tag attached to something as horrific as Climate Change or an extinction of a species implies that there is a solution, all be it an expensive one.
Humanity is already use to seeing astronomical sums of money thrown at World ratteling problems so it is perfectly understandable to stop worring and wait for TPTB to pony up and take care of it all.
or to adopt the learned helplessness mode—there’s no way we can collect the money, and no one to pay it to. even if we could do both of those, paying someone won’t but the genie back in the bottle.
both of which stances evoke No Action.
I gave up my New Scientist subscription this month because of poor reporting and little content. It’s impossible to be a generalist in science now, though I think training does develop a world-view.
The IPCC has produced very long reports that don’t give us a digest on global warming. All sorts of work on cosmic rays influencing cloud formation and even micro-organisms in clouds (having originated their ‘freezing technology’ on leaves) controlling weather abound.
I’m sure Yves’ points hold. In various areas of science we have been able to identify tiny effects with very real consequences – such as the photon effect (Yarkovsky) on asteroids. Climate science has to rely on models of interaction that make precision very difficult and all theories in science involve some approximation decisions in choosing the maths used.
I’d actually come at global warming from the perspective of why our economics can’t handle sensible precautions against it and other issues like poverty, crap jobs and so on – all kinds of stuff we fail to get done whilst clearly having the technology and labour to get on with the job.
In this we have a poor notion of what spreadsheets and databases can do in control and how we might do something other than bottom-line financial control. One can think of energy use being controlled through a database system that apportioned costs in final products (or use) until we ceased to use fossil fuels with a reversion to market prices after, say, a 10 year drive to go green. I can see this might be exploited, but energy companies have been operating at massive price to cost of production for a century anyway.
There is enough sensible climate change evidence for us to want to stop using them, and enough on their extraction peaking or becoming environmentally hazardous in other ways than warming.
What we won’t give up is the economics of the rich and this is always claimed to be low-cost through competition – something I doubt it can really justify. We lack an understanding of machine-control alternatives to the economics of externalities. This requires a very different felling towards spreadsheet and database than the ones we submit tax returns and financial documents with. I think we have prototypes of what I mean in manufacturing process control – so I’m not directly on about philosophy.
We could argue that current finance-on-finance “investment” is the cause of global warming because it prevents us doing what is right. Manufacturing profit is now down from over 50% to around 5% – there may be room to increase this in green ventures, full employment and so on as a reward for green practice and quality of work life. I suspect there are serious flaws in our attitudes to efficiency because our spreadsheets don’t contain enough. They are like perpetual motion machine cons that prevent us seeing where the energy running them comes from.
I’d draw the rest of the system from sport where some things are rendered equal (ish) and are not competed on to allow the competition.
We have elevated our myths and metaphors above the actual reality they were created to describe. So now we will have to sacrifice reality in order to maintain the sanctity of our myths and metaphors.
We can all try and play registered accountant as much as we want, but in the end the only things that truly make life worthwhile are the ones you can NOT measure. That’s the secret of it all, that’s the whole idea, and we all know it: Love, sorrow, a just plain happy moment, music that brings back a memory of a long lost loved one, a first kiss, a sunset that evokes eternity. We demean life itself, and the glorious mystery it is, by trying to catch it in numbers, or even trying to understand it. Which we don’t stand a chance at. F**k resources. Just stand in awe.
You’re killing me Ilargi!
Why do you spend so much time writing on TAE about the Federal Reserve, inflation/deflation, economics, environment, etc., if not to help others LEARN?
I can’t understand why you would encourage us to “just stand in awe”, as it seems counter-intuitive to everything TAE stands for (i.e. educating people on how the world actually works so they can make educated decisions for themselves).
Also – a bit arrogant to suggest you’ve discovered the secret of life?
Is it arrogant to stand in awe? Does standing in awe mean you think you found the secret of life? In both cases, I think the answer is clearly no. Thoreau clearly stood in awe looking at the world around him, but would you call him an arrogant man? I think standing in awe is a much better way to make educated decisions, or at least the right decisions, then trying to capture the world in numbers is.
“Does standing in awe mean you think you found the secret of life?”
No, but when you publicly post on the Internet “That’s the secret of it all, that’s the whole idea, and we all know it: Love, sorrow, a just plain happy moment, music that brings back a memory of a long lost loved one, a first kiss, a sunset that evokes eternity”, it sounds a bit presumptuous. Particularly because I’m not totally convinced that we “all know it” – consider anyone who lives their lives as a martyr or in constant masochistic denial of joy/happiness; if they knew it, something tells me they’d lead their lives a bit differently.
I will admit I might have misspoke however – I’d agree there’s nothing wrong with standing in awe, but would add that standing in awe brought on by willful ignorance is not necessarily a good thing.
And I still have to disagree that we demean life to try to understand it. My journey in truly understanding life is what has brought me to respect it (and perhaps stand in awe of it).
“I know his foundation saves some babies’ lives in Africa, but does that balance out this megalomania”?
Well, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. Billy Boy, really just a jumped up, badly educated computer nerd, has gotten together with an odious posse of Vulture Capitalists and other plutocrats and decided that the best way to deal with ‘HOT,HOT’ nuke waste of the world, is to make it pay!
In short, a great big hole in the ground would be filled with this stuff, nuke experts would set off a reaction somehow, and the heat would generate power for twenty or thirty years, as Billy and the rest of the lunatic tribe grabbed the big bucks for as long as it lasted. Let’s see you start first right down the road at Puget Sound Billy!
It’s like reading a fable from Greek mythology about some bird devouring its own entrails!
I’m reminded of Steven Talbott’s book (almost as badly received by $ly Con Valley worshipers (despite that Valley’s stunningly brutal, obscene and vicious, $TATE Funded inequality), as Paulina Borsook’s (one of the first female writers for “Wired”), been out of print for quite the while (sooprise! …copies can be found though, last I looked Powell’s offered copies), book: Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech  (the largest criticism I have of Paulina’s book is that she had faith in the DemRats not to sell out to stunningly selfish Techie Gawdz, but then again, at the time she wrote it, so did I) :
Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
And the fact of the matter is that the all thingz techie world (to the absolute exclusion of human reasoning and actual humanity) has always been loaded with Hawk Sadistic Privacy Commoditizer/Violator winger$ who have historically supported it right along with Hawk, Sadistic Privacy Commoditizer/Violator DemRat$ (read Paulina’s book and just ask Fundy GOPPER/Good German/ Misogynist, Peter Thiel, Billionaire of Palantir/PayPal and FaceFiend Fame, for one.).
 This book is about people and culture, not about computers and markets. It is about a set of beliefs well known inside high-tech, but little known outside it. It is not a getrichkwik guide nor about the ways scary hackers are going to get your momma.
And then ya can ask Edmund Jerry the appoint a BofA VIP as A Jawbz Czar Jesuit Brown, Al the Millionaire in Google/Apple Options Gore, Dianne Perpetual War & $$$$$$ Fein$tein/Nama$te Himilayan$ Blum, Nancy the MD N$A Pearl Clutcher who absolutely adored that Reagan $statue that the Obomber DemRat Crew had installed, Mrs. Multinational Corp[se] Tax Expatriation, Barbara the Boxer [for ya!]™, Anna E$hoo House Hawk Reps of one of the most unaffordable for honest persons Di$strict$ in the World (whose unaffordable district ….is absolutely surrounded by the most concentrated, still Toxic, Toxic Superfund Sites in the UZ) Wax Man the Nur$sing Home$ Indu$try Hero, etcetera, etcetera, name your state, ….I used The Nasty, Corrupted to the Bone, “Empire of California” as an example.
Ohhhh, and I just cant resist repeating, as I did elsewhere a while back, that one of Anna Eshoo’s (of the GooglePlex/NASA/CMU-AI Extension/Thiel-Palantir Headquarters/Singularity Institute/Tesla Whirled) major bills was to reduce the volume of TV commercials while thousands right in her neck of the woods, lost the ability to even watch TV, let alone commercials, after the Big Bill the Dawg FCC Act of 1996 came into play and all renters (millions in the Sly Con Valley vicinity), lost the ability to watch stations they were historically able to (even though they blew off money on new ‘digital’ tvs) if they could not afford, or did not want to be extorted by, their local Comcast Cable Monopoly or the AT&T/UZ/Narus/Zionist Bund[l]e[r] [all your communications and viewing into our fiber optics!!!!!] (Snoops, Bar none).
Yeah, Nada, it appears, about those stunningly high cancer rates in her Big Valley, though I will say that she, while ‘up for re-election’ – had the Murky Nooz print a bit about how females in Sly Con Valley were paid stunningly far below the disgusting national Average (she didn’t have to mention blacks, or elders, as there are hardly any left who can afford to live in her district, percentage wise, to embarress her) …..too bad she has not said a thing about that since election day, …. am so very shocked.
Such fetishization of numbers is a product of the current role of the knowledge worker class: producing strategic unknowing, in other words, creating ignorance.
We have the infrastructure and educated people to run a post-scarcity knowledge-driven economy, but that potential is caught within the social structure of a scarcity machine-driven society. As a result, the elite no longer has any historical function and therefore, no basis for any intra-elite discipline or ethics. Also, the most crucial assignment for the knowledge worker class as a whole is to produce the unknowing required to keep the system going. The higher one goes within the knowledge worker class, the more likely that one is being paid to produce unknowing, rather than knowing. An adjunct professor is paid next to nothing to actually convey knowledge, but a college president is paid vast sums to reduce the sum of human knowledge.
Economics which is not informed by non-economic values is just a cover for oppression and looting. This is why the rich and elites split economics from social purpose and values because they can not justify their activities in social terms. In their propaganda mythology, money is a primordial constituent of the universe, not a social construct to accomplish social purposes. So of course, a price tag can be put on anything, much like mass or energy content could be assigned to anything, because they use this money decontextualized of its social purpose as the measure of all things.
Humans attempting to assign arbitrary units of measure to something they don’t even understand… yet????
[I]f human beings are inherently good, then why did we make the “mistake” of creating civilization? Aren’t the two propositions (human beings are good, civilization is bad) contradictory?
Only if taken as absolutes. Human nature is malleable, its qualities changing somewhat according to the natural and social environment. Moreover, humankind is not a closed system. We exist within a natural world that is, on the whole, “good,” but that is subject to rare catastrophes. Perhaps the initial phases of civilization were humanity’s traumatized response to overwhelming global cataclysms accompanying and following the end of the Pleistocene. Kingship and warfare may have originated as survival strategies. Then, perhaps civilization itself became a mechanism for re-traumatizing each new generation, thus preserving and regenerating its own psycho-social basis.
What practical suggestions for the future stem from primitivism? We cannot all revert to gathering and hunting today because there are just too many of us. Can primitivism offer a practical design for living?
No philosophy or “-ism” is a magical formula for the solution of all human problems. Primitivism doesn’t offer easy answers, but it does suggest an alternative direction or set of values. For many centuries, civilization has been traveling in the direction of artificiality, control, and domination. Primitivism tells us that there is an inherent limit to our continued movement in that direction, and that at some point we must begin to choose to readapt ourselves to nature. The point of a primitivist critique of civilization is not necessarily to insist on an absolute rejection of every aspect of modern life, but to assist in clarifying issues so that we can better understand the tradeoffs we are making now, deepen the process of renegotiating our personal bargains with nature, and thereby contribute to the reframing of our society’s collective covenants.
skippy… the certainty some display is a real killer, always has been…
Thanks Yves and Illargi. This was a beautiful essay. My favorite part was the comment that it would be best if we could have a transition to a different system before pollution, GW, extinction hit the point of no return. It has baffled me to watch environmental science tell us a long list of horror stories which we have just shrugged off since the 70s at least.
Hugh’s simple point above is the one on which we founder because we refuse to take it on board – almost acting like Nazis ‘steeling’ themselves in the total solution for the greater good. Economics makes out it is a kind of tough love.
Arguments on the incommensurable have moved on since Kuhn and ‘paradigms’ (Ludwig, Sneed and others) and the Greek origins of such probably ends up in complex numbers. It’s not really about value rather than price.
Far away from really complex argument we could stick a feedback mechanism in our accounting that prevents great financial wealth and funnels investment into a different public sector than we have now, aimed at ensuring full employment and getting necessary work (as on GW) done. Currently, a traditional Roman decimation (killing one in ten people) would do more good than the carbon tax. Gengis Khan was thus a GW warrior (killing one in three of the population available to him)! Good grief!
Technology should give us much more control of our economies, but the problem is most are not bothered to learn what can be done and accept the pulling levers garbage of economics. This leaves control in a few hands and technology as ideology. We knew that in 1970 too.
I wonder, somewhere, on whether what we need is much more control of work so we can be much more free of it.
I can tell you the total and absolute cost of human consumption: Life on earth.
I’m sorry Yves, but you’re mistaken about what constitutes a science. As a degreed physical scientist and practicing economist myself, I would like to offer some clarifications.
Math and physics are sciences, since they deal in formulas and laws that can pass the fallibilty test. Economics deals with human behavior, which we don’t know nearly enough about to formulate any such laws.
First, mathematics is a tool of science, but it is not science. More on this later.
Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Theories can be tested and validated or invalidated, modified, refined, or rejected, depending of the nature of the facts as they are accumulated. It is this process that is science itself, and any endeavor amenable to this process is a science.
Like it or not, economics is a science, precisely because relevant factual data can be obtained, theories can be constructed to account for those facts, and some of those theories can be tested and validated. If you decrease the supply of a product or service the price will tend to go up, and vice versa. It is even possible, within limits, to estimate how much the price will change, so the theory of supply and demand is also predictive.
This example alone suffices to characterize economics as a science, and there are many examples. If you increase the money supply in a certain way, you’ll get inflation. If you decrease it in a certain way, you get deflation. If you cheat the markets with monopoly power, you can extract rent. These effects are causal and therefore predictable.
Physics and chemistry happen to have a great deal more rigor than economics, but if you require that degree of rigor in your definition then you must throw all just about every science except physics and chemistry, geology and astronomy included.
Moreover, physics and chemistry are guaranteed not to be exact sciences by the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle. There are no exact sciences, and there is no such thing as scientific certainty. Which brings us back to mathematics, which can be exact because it is not technically a science, however it may be defined colloquially but unscientifically. Science refers specifically to the world of observable facts, and mathematics does not:
To be sure, the complex high-order mathematical formulations in the contemporary economics journals are so much BS: they cannot possibly predict economic behavior with precision sufficient to validate them, which makes them unprovable conjectures. But this is not to say that economics itself is not a science. It is merely a science with more highly-constrained validity and deeper limitations than the more rigorous sciences.
The same can be said of other so-called soft sciences, like psychology, sociology, archeology, and paleontology, which you cannot deny to be sciences, at least not reasonably.
Classical economics certainly allows for normative, ethical valuation in addition to financial valuation: I’ve never seen an introductory economics textbook without an extensive discussion of normative valuation and derivative topics such as economic externalities. But there is no such discussion here – but there is an angry determination to discredit economics altogether, even where it does have validity, however limited.
I don’t see a reference to normative valuation anywhere in this thread. That’s a mistake. Perhaps we need to have a discussion about the nature of normative valuation, its treatment in introductory economics, and the avoidance of discussions about normative valuations, not only in the modern predatory practice of finance but in your article here as well. And please, in the future, let’s try to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, shall we?
Can’t help myself.
Economics is the study of why humans believe in foundation myths and organize themselves accordingly… even when the SHTF… even when its contrary to acute and measurable failure.
skippy… the evidence keeps building and building yet[???].
Economics has been deeply corrupted by the Financial Industrial Complex.
The field of economics, properly treated, should be a powerful tool against the depredations of repacious capitalism.
But it is insufficiently and improperly leveraged.
Why is that?
I seek only information.
Vlade’s error is not in proposing $ as a useful discriminant of relative value. Vlade’s error is his concealed assumption that choosing between baby and bumblebee, between artic and bumblebee, are legitimate alternatives of choice.
Sophie’s Choice was NOT a choice at all. It was a casual brutal torture.
The correct response to, ‘choose between artic and bumblebee’, ‘choose between baby and starvation’, is certainly not an argument over the best evaluation function. The correct response is a scream of rage and the swift removal of those who dare to force such choices upon us.
one of the best articles I’ve read on here