I Am a Dysonite

I agree with Freeman Dyson:

Beyond the specific points of factual dispute, Dyson has said that it all boils down to “a deeper disagreement about values” between those who think “nature knows best” and that “any gross human disruption of the natural environment is evil,” and “humanists,” like himself, who contend that protecting the existing biosphere is not as important as fighting more repugnant evils like war, poverty and unemployment. 

Here is my Marketplace commentary from this morning describing the risky fuiltity of cap and trade. I realize now that it may have been too strong to say that China is “the world’s largest owner of dollar-denominated assets,” though I’m not totally sure that’s wrong. What I meant is that China owns more U.S. debt and holds larger USD cash reserves than other country.

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15 thoughts on “I Am a Dysonite

  1. Fragment:

    Dyson has said that it all boils down to “a deeper disagreement about values” between those who think “nature knows best” and that “any gross human disruption of the natural environment is evil”

    Well, in the sense that he thinks he identifies groups like these, perhaps, but in the sense of that being the best argument, no.There are plenty of people who can phrase global warming or any other environmental problem in terms of “environmental services.:”It's just factually correct that we net-net lose those services every day. There are fewer big edible non-polluted fishes in our oceans to eat. There are fewer old hardwoods from which to build our furniture. Those are just facts.Dyson's judgment is apparently that the rate of loss is acceptable. I'm not convinced, especially when we consider the quality of future life. Is it important for your children to eat tuna, ever? Sushi, ever?

  2. Odograph,Sure, those are facts, but I'm not sure they have the policy implications you seem to be assuming. If you have a consequentialist view of environmental issues, there's no reason why, for instance, being able to prevent the extinction of a big edible fish implies that you ought to prevent it. (That is, the natural resource econ literature explicitly allows for an “optimal extinction.”)Though I may be misreading you and merely stating the obvious.

  3. I can accept a “optimal extinction” concept, but I see no indication that humanity is rationally seeking such a thing.In the newer thread I reference an article on the poor, their dependence on fishing, and (in the case of that paper) climate impacts on those fisheries.FWIW, I really doubt that the carrying capacity of the earth, for humans, is higher without those big fish, and I really doubt that such a world would be happier.

  4. Well, first of all, “humanity” doesn't seek anything. More to the point, the issue isn't “would we rather have more big fish or not?” That gives a non-interesting answer to a non-interesting question. The better question is, is the present discounted value of the amount of extra big fish we get in the future from catching one less today greater than the value of catching said fish? The key point with big fish is that the “return” to leaving it in the water is lower. I think poverty might cut in the opposite direction you're implying, given economic growth. If world poverty rates are declining and average income is increasing (so we expect to have more in the future than today), then that pushes for consuming more today. After all, if we're making an argument about transferring from the rich to the poor, well, future generations are richer than the current one, and since we're already discounting the future …

  5. Well, first of all, “humanity” doesn't seek anything

    You don't think an alien naturalist would find trends here, esp. with respect to future risks?

    More to the point, the issue isn't “would we rather have more big fish or not?”

    Not to someone who understands fisheries biology, and the degree to which we humans depend on them.

    The better question is, is the present discounted value of the amount of extra big fish we get in the future from catching one less today greater than the value of catching said fish? The key point with big fish is that the “return” to leaving it in the water is lower.

    No, because fisheries are not abstract mathematical entities. We do not have find control over fishing at the margin (too much cheating and too much by-catch) but even if we did, you would be assuming a single fisher-prey model that does not exist in the real world.Overall, I'd say that you make the economists worst sort of mistake. You prefer theory to practice, and you don't even bother to know the practice.

  6. I think poverty might cut in the opposite direction you're implying, given economic growth. If world poverty rates are declining and average income is increasing (so we expect to have more in the future than today), then that pushes for consuming more today. After all, if we're making an argument about transferring from the rich to the poor, well, future generations are richer than the current one, and since we're already discounting the future …

    Except you pulled a fast one on your audience. You called for “optimal extinction” but then made no attempt to define it, or identify the path that would get us there without overshooting the target.It is the standard half-argument that if there is a limit, we can assume it is way ahead of us, not near enough to worry … presented without input from ecologists of course.

  7. Normally I'm a big carbon-tax booster, but Freeman Dyson has given me some serious pause. I don't understand the atmospheric physics at all. He's actually a physicist. My first inclination, reading that article, is to defer to him.And the depressing thing is, it may take someone outside the climate field to look at this incisively. Because climatologists must be aware subconsciously that their careers depend on their models not being worthless, even if they have no intent to deceive, I'm sure they inadvertently miss observations that would make catastrophic climate change look less likely. But I think Dyson, and Wilkinson, and odograph, are missing the point if they think this is a debate about values or ideologies. The reasons I worry about global warming are “humanist” reasons. What if California becomes too dry for agriculture? What if coastlines flood in Bangladesh and Indonesia? What if the Middle East and the Sahel dry up further? What if larger areas of the world become malarial? These are essentially poverty issues, and maybe security issues if resource rivalry leads to war. The question ought to be “are these scenarios likely? Are they preventable?” and not “what are my politics?” Because if they're likely and preventable, reasonable people of whatever politics will want to prevent them. And if they're not, reasonable people will not want to waste money on a useless effort. It's one of the few issues in policy that I think comes down to an empirical question, albeit a hard one.

  8. No, I'm saying that I don't think a (competent) alien naturalist would believe that human have a hivemind. If you want to talk coherently about purposes and goals, you have to talk about individuals.

  9. Speaking of “pulling a fast one” and being excited — it's entirely possible you're misunderstanding what's being said (or that you're being wildly unfair). I didn't “call” for optimal extinction. I pointed out that you can't be a good consequentialist on environmental policy as you claimed if you're ruling out a priori the possibility that the extinction of a species or environmental degradation in general might be optimal. And no, you don't get to say that these might be in principle be okay but only way in the future and that these things are inherently suboptimal in the immediate future. Or at least you don't if you really are committed to being the hard-headed, consequentialist empiricist on environmental & natural resource issues that you insisted to Wilkinson that you were. I didn't define optimal extinction because I thought it was obvious, particularly given my other comments. You choose policy as best you can (from the set of all policies available to us) to maximize present discounted value, and if it turns out that the policy that best achieves that goal involves one species dying out, you call it “optimal extinction”. Now consider an extreme, very unrealistic example (just as a mental exercise): suppose there were some infinitely lived species that never reproduced at all (so leaving them alone doesn't increase future population) and that had no aesthetic or other value besides eating them. It's very easy to imagine that there would be an “optimal extinction” here (it's basically a nonrenewable resource, and it's not like reasonable people think we should never use them). In fact, if you can scale up your catch cheaply enough, and if the marginal value of the fish doesn't drop off too quickly (or you just expect to be richer and/or have plenty of alternatives in the future), that optimal extinction would be almost immediate. Now please note that I'm not saying this is a realistic example. But I think it does a pretty good job of laying out the reasons why we would want to preserve a species — e.g., if there are important (and good) interactions with other species or aesthetics or other value that you can get besides eating a fish, if marginal value drops rapidly, if the species grows or reproduces rapidly (or otherwise increases value), etc. And if you extend it, you can see how it's almost certainly not generally the case that the ideal is to shoot for the maximum sustainable yield. Sorry for the overly long response.

  10. Your long response missed my meaning entirely.It is easy to say “optimal extinction” and to define it abstractly, in a thread about the benefits of coal burning … but how do you define it in practice? How would you actually target it, if you aren't just using it as a canard?Basically you mad another ecology-free environmental argument.

  11. Your long response missed my meaning entirely.It is easy to say “optimal extinction” and to define it abstractly, in a thread about the benefits of coal burning … but how do you define it in practice? How would you actually target it, if you aren't just using it as a canard?Basically you mad another ecology-free environmental argument.

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