Ronald Bailey on the Economic Value (or Lack Thereof) of Nature

Back in March 2009, Ronald Bailey wrote a nice review of Mark Sagoff’s book Environmental Values which argues that contrary to the assertion of some ecological economists and others that nature does not have any economic value.

Similarly, Sagoff argues that while modern ecological economists would certainly not endorse the labor theory of value, they do “generally accept the idea that economic value represents or refers to an intrinsic or inherent essence to which they attach normative significance.” Such environmental economists take one of two tacks in their quest to establish objective intrinsic values. Some try to estimate the value of ecosystem services based on people’s claimed willingness to pay (WTP) for those services. Others argue that value in nature arises from certain factors thought to limit production, such as energy, net primary production, or low entropy resource flows. These positions mirror Locke’s labor theory of value, Sagoff asserts, because they encompass “a commitment to the idea that economic value is a measurable quantity—whether physiological (labor), psychological (WTP), or material (low entropy resource flows).” Sagoff agrees with Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek that tying to calculate allegedly objective values using some non-monetary measure is beyond the scope of human knowledge.

Part of the solution to assigning a real value to the parts of a nature that matter most to human beings, then, will be doing what seems antithetical to many environmentalists — bring such resources under a market system,

In the end, Sagoff does not heartlessly advocate condemning species to oblivion, cutting down all the trees, poisoning pollinators, or sullying lakes, rivers, and aquifers. His point is that ecological economics are misconceived, that ecological conservation and protection cannot be justified on strictly economic grounds. Claiming that nature provides $33 trillion in ecosystem services is unpersuasive, given that most of nature’s services greatly exceed demand and are thus provided for free. “We recognize that the preservation of the beauty, complexity, and integrity of the natural world represents an aesthetic opportunity, a spiritual duty, and a moral obligation,” asserts Sagoff. While he is surely right, making the protection of nature a moral issue will make it that much harder for people of different ethical and aesthetic views to compromise. Nevertheless, appealing to ersatz economic calculation is, as Sagoff declares, “the most self-defeating path environmentalists can take.” Instead, ecological economists should devote more time to bringing more of the natural world within the ambit of the market system. As Sagoff concludes, “The solution is to structure property rights to turn liberty into prosperity, not to put scientists in charge.”

Ron Bailey on Our Super-Intelligent Purple Space Squid Creators

Ronald Bailey’s Attack of the Super-Intelligent Purple Space Squid Creators is one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time that uses a bit of humor to expose the idiocy behind creationism, and especially the most unintentionally hilarious moment in Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,

Near the end of the silly new anti-evolution film, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed—in which fellow panelist Steve Meyer appeared—host Ben Stein asks Richard Dawkins, who is arguably the best-known living evolutionary biologist on the planet, if he could think of any circumstances under which intelligent design might have occurred. Incautiously, Dawkins brings up the idea that aliens might have seeded life on earth; so-called directed panspermia. This idea was suggested by biologists Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel back in the 1970s. In the film, Stein acts like this is a great “gotcha,” like it’s the silliest thing he’s ever heard. Of course, the irony is that this is precisely what proponents of intelligent design are claiming—that a higher intelligence has repeatedly created life on earth.

So, since our esteemed opponents are agnostic with regard to the “source of design,” and because intelligent design cannot rule out the hypothesis that super-intelligent purple space squids are not the “source of design” of life on earth, I will provisionally accept that hypothesis for the remainder of my talk.

I went and saw Expelled about a week after it came out, and happened to be the only person in the theater watching it — which was nice because I could use my Blackberry throughout the film to fact check it. Which, of course, was beside the point since the movie was so bad it was self-refuting, as in the moment with Dawkins where Stein and the filmmakers poke fun at the panspermia hypothesis. Of course the panspermia hypothesis is extremely unlikely — but it is orders of magnitude more likely than the god hypothesis which Stein and Expelled were pushing.

Anyway, from there Bailey indulges in heresy by questioning the wisdom of choices made by our super-intelligent purple space squid creators,

If that is the case, it would seem the record shows that the intelligent designers—which I am hypothesizing are super-intelligent purple space squids—evidently spent more than 2 billion years tinkering with single-cell algae and bacteria before they got around to creating multi-cellular species. Do intelligent design proponents have a theory to explain that? Were the space squid creators just lazy?

In addition, the record clearly shows that when more complex forms of life were created by super-intelligent purple space squids, they apparently arranged their creations in a specific order. Why did the purple space squids arrange the fossils in a sequence in which fish appear before amphibians which appear before reptiles which appear before mammals? And why did the purple space squids arrange 390 million years ago for the first amphibians to resemble Crossopterygian fish that were also alive at that time? These first amphibians had such characteristics as internal gills, fish-like skull bones, and—interestingly—eight digits just as the Crossopterygian fish did. Apparently our intelligent purple space squid creators (or whoever) found eight digits displeasing, and simply eliminated the extra three digits after they killed off the early amphibians and individually created thousands of later species of amphibians with only the now standard five digits.

It’s almost as if there weren’t any super-intelligent purple space squid creators at all, but rather the slow mindless operation of some natural process — lets call it natural selection for argument’s sake — that over billions of years led to gradual adaptive changes that explain the variety of life in both the fossil record and on our planet today.

Nah, that couldn’t be, could it?

It’s The End of the World As We Know It – Ronald Bailey on Existential Threats

In July, Ronald Bailey wrote several articles for Reason while attending the Global Catastrophic Risks Conference in Oxford. You can read Bailey’s dispatches here, here and here.

The conference was sponsored by Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute which is run by the always interesting Nick Bostrom. Bostrom opened the conference with perhaps the little bit of good news on existential threats — so far, none of them have come to pass,

The good news is that no existential catastrophe has happened. Not one. Yet.

On the other hand, depending on how far you want to go back to date the first homo sapien or homo sapien-like ancestor, the best explanation for this could be that we simply haven’t been around long enough to face an existential catastrophe. And, of course, the evidence supports the claim that at times the breeding population of our distant ancestors was reduced to extremely low levels.

Bostrom himself noted the debate surrounding the Toba super volcano eruption that some have speculated may reduced the human population to a few thousand people, though there is also some evidence that the reduction in population may not have been quite that severe.

According to Bailey, Bostrom argued the biggest existential threats facing humanity are self-induced,

Bostrom did note that people today are safer from small to medium threats than ever before. As evidence he cites increased life expectancy from 18 years in the Bronze Age to 64 years today (the World Health Organizations thinks it’s 66 years). And he urged the audience not to let future existential risks occlude our view of current disasters, such as 15 million people dying of infectious diseases every year, 3 million from HIV/AIDS, 18 million from cardiovascular diseases, and 8 million per year from cancer. Bostrom did note that, “All of the biggest risks, the existential risks are seen to be anthropogenic, that is, they originate from human beings.” The biggest risks include nuclear war, biotech plagues, and nanotechnology arms races. The good news is that the biggest existential risks are probably decades away, which means we have time to analyze them and develop countermeasures.

In his final dispatch from the conference, Bailey reported on Joseph Cirincione who spoke at the conference and noted how human civilization almost ended in 1995 due to, of all things, a Norwegian weather satellite,

With regard to the possibility of an accidental nuclear war, Cirincione pointed to the near miss that occurred in 1995 when Norway launched a weather satellite and Russian military officials mistook it as a submarine launched ballistic missile aimed at producing an electro-magnetic pulse to disable a Russian military response. Russian nuclear defense officials opened the Russian “football” in front of President Boris Yeltsin, urging him to order an immediate strike against the West. Fortunately, Yeltsin held off, arguing that it must be a mistake.

Cirincione noted that worldwide stockpiles of nuclear weapons have been reduced dramatically since the end of the Cold War, and the possibility for a worldwide disarmament of nuclear weapons is higher than at any time since 1945.

Bailey also reports on a few folks who presented the view that a strong AI and/or nanotechnology present serious existential risks, but the arguments presented there (at least as filtered through Bailey) seemed shallow,

In addition, an age of nanotech abundance would eliminate the majority of jobs, possibly leading to massive social disruptions. Social disruption creates the opportunity for a charismatic personality to take hold. “Nanotechnology could lead to some form of world dictatorship,” said [the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology’s Michael] Treder. “There is a global catastrophic risk that we could all be enslaved.”

Ok, but the reason jobs would be eliminated and this would be “an age of nanotech abudance” would be precisely that the little nanobots would be doing all the work. and the resulting goods would be essentially free. I guess if by “massive social disruptions” you mean everyone skiing and hanging out at the beach instead of working, then yeah, ok, but I doubt that’s going to lead to a worldwide dictator (who, as a reactionary, is probably going to want to force people to go back to work — about as attractive an offer as religious sects that demand celibacy).

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m worried about more abstract possibilites such as a devestating gamma ray burst which would wipe out all of humanity except for Bruce Banner. And there’s always that old standby, entropy.

Whose Afraid of the Big Bad Transhumanists?

Funny quote from an interesting article by Ronald Bailey on a recent conference about transhumanism (emphasis added),

Well-meaning though transhumanists may be, their efforts are apparently giving some people the willies. “Transhumanists intend to take us on a long march to post humanity,” warns Center for Bioethics and Culture special consultant, Wesley J. Smith. “If that is not to happen, we will have to resist.” Resist longer and happier lives, better health, stronger bodies, and smarter brains? The prospect sounds incredibly dangerous to me! It must be stopped!

Memo to Wesley: Resistance Is Futile.


The Transhumans are Coming!. Ronald Bailey, Reason, August 11, 2004.