Environmentalists are conservatives

The psychologist and political theorist Jonathan Haidt declared that what separated the right and left aren’t at separate ends of a spectrum. In reality morality is divided into five main categories of moral concern — harm, fairness, loyalty, authority and purity.

The left care a lot about harm and fairness but not much about loyalty, authority and purity. The right care about all five values about equally. While the environmentalists usually line up with the left on most matters there is a striking difference between the left and environmentalists.

Environmentalists care about purity. One of the things that derives environmental politics isn’t just a concern for the natural world for its own sake, but a feeling that it is should not be interfered with, that it should be kept pure. It is this adherence to purity that makes environmentalists and economists get along so poorly.

Conservatives care about human purity too, one of the reasons they hate the gays (or hated, much of the right has come a long way), is because they violated particular ideals of  masculinity. That and bum sex is icky. Environmentalists have a similar views on nature, there are ways nature should be and then there are ways mankind perverts it.

I began thinking and this in this way after reading Tim highlighting Mike Moffat‘s troubles with environmentalists in Canada. From Mike’s takedown of David Suzuki:

“But if you ask the economists, in that equation where do you put the ozone layer? Where do you put the deep underground aquifers of fossil water? Where do you put topsoil or biodiversity? Their answer is ‘oh, those are externalities’. Well then you might as well be on Mars, that economy is not based in anything like the real world,” Dr. Suzuki goes on to say. Dr. Suzuki’s remarks on externalities were clarified in an interview given to the magazine Common Ground: “I won’t go into a long critique, but currently nature and nature’s services – cleansing, filtering water, creating the atmosphere, taking carbon out of the air, putting oxygen back in, preventing erosion, pollinating flowering plants – perform dozens of services to keep the planet happening. But economists call this an ‘externality.’ What that means is “We don’t give a shit.” It’s not economic. Because they’re so impressed with humans, human productivity and human creativity is at the heart of this economic system. Well, you can’t have an economy if you don’t have nature and nature’s services, but economics ignores that. And that’s an unbelievably egregious error.”

Anybody who knows anything about economics as practised in ivory towers or government knows that this is nonsense. An externality isn’t something which economists ignore. It is something which those economists study will ignore until they are made to pay attention. A factory owner will ignore his pollution’s effect on those downstream because he receives the benefits from cheap waste disposal but none of the costs. This can be dealt with through negotiation, if those downstream have property rights over their water. It can be dealt with through regulation, if coordinating those affected proves to difficult without a state. Economists don’t just ignore it.

In fact, economists have for years been deeply concerned with coming up with ways of dealing with externalities. Pigou was worried about rabbits, Coase was worried about pollution, one of the paper’s that got Paul Krugman his Nobel prize wouldn’t have been possible without the concept of “positive” externalities. That’s over 30,000 citations from three works from three of the most well known economists in the world. This isn’t marginal stuff.

So why would an environmentalist ignore such a canonical part of the economic literature? I would say it is because they share with conservatives a respect for purity which economists and I do not share. Whereas an economist sees a problem of balancing benefits and costs, an environmentalist sees a problem of protecting something from contamination. This implies a different balance of benefits and costs. It implies a steep cost curve going down but only a gradual one going up. Easy to go there, hard to come back.

This means that while economists think they can ameliorate things by changing prices, environmentalists are more worried. Pricing externalities so that those who cause them pay the costs (or receive the benefits) seems like all too little effort for protecting nature’s purity. This means that environmentalists misinterpret economist’s offers of help as capitulation. And economists misinterpret environmentalists’ failure to campaign for the right things as ignorance.

I’ve sketched out a caricature of an environmentalist for this post (likewise a caricature of economists), but I think it gets to a fundamental problem that bedevils environmental policy making. A lot of the policies that would help achieve environmentalists immediate aims are not compatible with their high level aims of maintaining nature’s purity. For example, carbon prices and nuclear power could help eliminate carbon fuels, but environmentalists are uninterested because carbon pricing is too weedy an instrument and nuclear too powerful a technology. Likewise, fisheries are being ravaged because it is very difficult to privatise the seas to encourage careful husbandry and environmentalists see privatising the seas as despoiling their purity.

It is a tragedy of miscommunication, and not one to which I think there is an answer. Sensible policies only get enacted once we know what they are and there is a coalition able and willing to force it through. We know the answer to many environmental questions, and we have a movement able to force those policies into practice, but the will is lacking.