No Second Chance for Man

BOULDING, KENNETH E.

No Second Chance for Man by KENNETH E. BOULDING One of the agreeable things about the young of any generation is that they tend to think that they invented the world, and it is this indeed that...

...A great many bads, however, are nobody's property, and the legal system, as at present constituted, is therefore inadequate to deal with them...
...The legal system tries to do this in the law of torts, under which a private person can sue for damages...
...One can predict with a good deal of confidence that the present excitement will not have much result unless it can be translated into political action...
...Up to the present period, man has lived psychologically, and to a large extent physically, on a "great plain," which has always had a horizon, always had a frontier, and he has always had somewhere else to go...
...The current excitement about the environment in particular is at least the third peak of interest in this particular issue in this century...
...One thing, however, is clear葉hat whatever the future society is like, it will have to inhabit a "spaceship earth," as Barbara Ward has called it, of highly limited resources, and it will have to develop a circular or "looped" material economy...
...He will be inhabiting a plundered planet with all its geological capital squandered...
...Behind the noble banner of pollution control and environmental preservation, which is supposed to bring us all together and unite us in a great war on generally agreed upon vice, there is an uncomfortable shadow, the claims of the poor...
...Nobody has solved the problem of how to prevent the insidious corruption both of the culture of the powerful and the culture of the impotent...
...One of the real problems of the present crisis is that we know so little about the earth as a total physical system, particularly in regard to the atmosphere and the hydrosphere, and even less perhaps about the totality of the biosphere...
...One can visualize everything from a super-hierarchical Brave New World, with a small elite and a large number of happy robots, or one could visualize a highly decentralized society relying on automatic cybernetic controls in a virtually anarchic utopia...
...It is something which diminishes utility rather than increases it...
...We need a new image of the total dynamics of the social system more realistic than those provided by ideologies either of the right or of the left...
...The most obvious, though not the most desirable, way to reduce pressure on the environment, therefore, is to stop the poor getting richer葉hat is, to redistribute income back towards the rich again...
...they may be more subtle things like noise pollution...
...We have made the poor richer not by making the rich poorer, which is hardly ever a good recipe for this, but by increasing output...
...or they may be still more subtle, like information pollution葉he spreading of misinformation謡hich is perhaps the most important pollution problem of all...
...The second peak was in the 1930s, with the dust bowl and the great dust storm of 1934, in which noticeable portions of the Great Plains landed on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, and this produced the Soil Conservation Act, contour plowing, and all that...
...This is even more true of the agricultural legislation which emerged out of the 1930s, which has been so successful in subsidizing the rich farmers that it created a fantastic technological upsurge in agriculture, and in so doing was the major factor in creating the current urban problem...
...We are all aware that we are going through a period of enormous change and that the transition in the state of man which these few centuries represent is perhaps the greatest transition he has ever made or ever will have to make...
...There is no second chance for man...
...Neither capitalism nor Communism can solve the imminent danger involved in the international threat system...
...The brute fact, however, is that it is not the poor who enjoy the beauties of nature, or who are likely to benefit much from the conservation of natural resources...
...His material economy, furthermore, has always been, with some possible exceptions, "linear," in the sense that it has gone from exhaustible resources of some kind, such as mines, wells, or even the stock of huntable animals, into dumps...
...Market institutions tend to be ineffective in the pricing of bads, mainly because the system of property does not encompass them sufficiently...
...Within the short-run, with a horizon, shall we say, of another generation, there are two further aspects, one involving the relative price structure and the other involving distribution of income and wealth...
...I would not blame the Soil Conservation Service for all of this, but certainly it was part of a policy which has driven the poor farmer off the land into the cities, largely into the ghettos, and has created in the United States a hereditary aristocracy of super-peasants...
...The great unknown is the energy requirement...
...The bads may be physical products, like water and air pollution...
...This is an example of the famous "freeloading" problem...
...What we do not know now within orders of magnitude is the total human population that a spaceship earth would support at a reasonable level...
...The problem is complicated by the fact that almost anything we do about the environment is likely to have considerable effect on the distribution of income and wealth...
...Consequently, it is easy to develop scares about the oceans and the are extremely hard to evaluate in the absence of an ad-are extremely hard to evaluate in the absence of an adequate earth science...
...In this case I suppose we could have a world city with 100 billion people and a kind of universal Los Angelization...
...It is clear, therefore, that spaceship earth will require a technology quite different from what we have now, one in which the atmosphere, the oceans, and the soil are virtually the only sources of man's material artifacts and in which as these artifacts are used up their material components are in effect returned to the sources from which they came...
...Two new books will soon be published: Economics as a Science (McGraw-Hill) and A Primer of Social Dynamics (Free Press...
...Per capita real income in the United States has about doubled in the last thirty or forty years...
...The great phenomenon of the Twentieth Century, however, is closure...
...Excitement about the environment seems to have a generation cycle of some thirty years...
...Man's economic life even in the paleolithic period seems to have consisted of exhausting his environment and fouling his nest...
...The individual interest is to go on polluting as long as the rest of society picks up the tab...
...These damages (bads) then become, as it were, a form of property for which one can be legally compensated...
...Neither the American, the French, nor the Russian revolutions created fundamental changes in the state of man and the ideologies which supported them are quite inadequate to bear the weight of this enormous transition which man faces...
...We are conscious also that the time we are living in is unique, that it will never be repeated again...
...It is possible, however, to get a certain perspective on what is happening now, and perhaps also to avoid certain mistakes, if we see it as part of the much larger process...
...Even when I was a boy there were still unexplored places on the globe...
...It is impossible to predict in any detail either the future of knowledge or of technology...
...These environmental crises in the tropics, however, are arising precisely because the people in this part of the world are no longer content to live the way they have always done...
...I have been describing this long-run problem as the problem of "re-entry into spaceship earth...
...On the other hand, this may not be feasible and a much more elaborate structure may be necessary to support a considerably smaller population...
...The principle of 'the public be damned' is the secret vice of practically everybody...
...A part of this is the result of the undeveloped nature of science itself and of the technology which is based on it...
...Now it is perhaps air rather than soil, and cities rather than forests, which have created the anxiety, but the anxiety is of course quite legitimate...
...Diseases, such as schistosomiasis, evaporation, silt, erosion, and displaced peoples present problems on a scale unknown in the temperate zone...
...The science of the total earth is still undeveloped, and the earth sciences for the most part have been "micro" rather than "macro" in their interests...
...There has not, however, been much in the way of the relative redistribution of income葉hat is, the proportion of the total income going to different income groups is remarkably constant...
...Among his many books are The Image and The Meaning of the Twentieth Century...
...What all this means is that while short-run solutions to current environmental problems can probably be found fairly easily, the long-run problem is tough indeed, and will tax the intellectual and moral resources of mankind to the utmost...
...We may eventually, therefore, be forced back on the input of solar energy and utilize this for the necessary material transformations...
...Economic development has been compared not inaptly to a "takeoff...
...Perhaps this is something we do not need to know for a long time, but at some point it is going to be a crucial factor in human history...
...We might visualize an earth of self-contained households, each raising all its food in sewage-fed artificial-algae tanks on one half of the rooftop and capturing all its energy on the other half of the rooftop with a solar trap, using virtually indestructible equipment, clothing, and furniture, with transportation mainly in the form of information carried by radiant energy...
...The simplest and most obvious way to deal with them is through a tax system, and a system of graduated effluent taxes is certainly the place to begin in the control of pollution, even though it is not a panacea or a universally practicable device...
...This is not to deny the importance of the political task...
...Science on the whole is a temperate zone culture and science-based engineering even more so...
...We see this even more dramatically on a world scale where it is the increasing population of the poor, and their increasing demands for development葉he only thing which can give them increased per capita income謡hich is really threatening to create a major world environmental crisis...
...There is nothing in the proposition that something has happened before to argue against its happening now...
...If we solve the fission problem this, too, would go on for a long time, although we might be faced eventually with the inability to export enough energy into space...
...The real question here is whether the sense of public concern is strong enough to persuade people to sacrifice certain private goods for the suppression of public bads...
...It seems absolutely impossible to predict what kind of social organization spaceship earth would require...
...The environmental disasters that threaten the rich countries in the next thirty years are almost trivial compared with the environmental disasters that threaten the poor countries of the tropics...
...This certainly would not have been desirable in the long run, but it does mean that the public land policy imposed a hidden cost on the poor, for which they were not compensated...
...The political task, however, and the intellectual labor which must precede it still largely lie ahead of us...
...If we burn up too much of the earth, it may get too hot for us...
...Nobody has solved the problem of how to develop the tropics without either demographic or ecological disaster...
...We will solve the problem of the automobile by taxing it heavily so as to support electrically powered public transportation which would push us back to about 1900, when automobiles were the privilege of the rich and public transportation was the much less convenient privilege of the poor...
...No Second Chance for Man by KENNETH E. BOULDING One of the agreeable things about the young of any generation is that they tend to think that they invented the world, and it is this indeed that keeps the world fresh...
...It is not wholly surprising, therefore, that another generation has discovered that the world is not wholly indestructible...
...There seems nothing inherently impossible about a technology of this kind...
...It is applicable mainly to industrial pollution, but it is hard to apply to what might be called household or individual pollution, the sort of thing that is represented by the personal automobile, simply because the individual pollutant is in such small quantities that it is hard to identify...
...We may be able to devise an economy without an increase of material entropy, that is, in which we do not on balance diffuse concentrated materials, but, thanks to the second law of thermodynamics (that closed systems run down), it is impossible to have any economy without an input of energy...
...Dam building in the tropics can be particularly disastrous...
...It is easy, therefore, to make disastrous mistakes when we go about developing the tropics, simply because of our ignorance of tropical ecosystems, and also because tropical systems, at least in many parts of the world, seem to be much more precarious than those in the temperate zone...
...We have a rather similar problem in information pollution...
...Virtually all processes of production produce a whole set of joint products, some of which are "goods" and some of which are "bads...
...The first major peak in this country was at the turn of the century, associated particularly with Governor Gifford Pinchot, America's first professional forester, Theodore Roosevelt, and the first conservation movement, which gave us the Bureau of Reclamation and expanded the National Park and Forest System...
...The principle of "the public be damned" is the secret vice of practically everybody...
...There is some distressing evidence that this was one of the principal results of the first two great environmental agitations...
...The ecological disaster with which Egypt is threatened by the Aswan Dam, and also by its uncontrollably expanding population, is on a much larger scale than anything that threatens in the entire temperate zone...
...Furthermore, the partial impact of science-based technology, particularly the introduction of public health measures, destroyed the old equilibrium forever...
...A great many short-run environmental problems arise because of a defect in the relative price system in that not enough negative commodities have negative prices...
...The economics of the environment has two aspects a short-run and a long-run...
...Kenneth E. Boulding is professor of economics and director of social and economic research for the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado...
...What is clear in the midst of all this uncertainty is that in the light of the enormous intellectual and moral task which lies ahead of mankind, the political revolutions of the last 200 years fade into relative insignificance...
...Indeed, some of the Twentieth Century developments point towards it, such as the fixation of nitrogen from the air and the extraction of magnesium from the sea...
...A good many of the problems that we visualize today arise because many things which used to be the privilege of only the rich have now moved a long way down the income scale to become the privilege of a large majority of the people...
...We can supplement this by burning up the earth itself, either the fossil sunshine in the fossil fuels or the nuclear energy...
...A negative commodity is a "bad," as opposed to a "good...
...We have a law of slander for what we might call private information pollution, but this is not adequate to deal with the problem of public information pollution, which requires, indeed, a development of constitutionality beyond what we now have...
...The pollution of the information system by lies, propaganda, and other communications which increase ignorance and malevolence is probably much more threatening to the future of mankind at the moment than is the pollution of water and air, although it is much harder to deal with...
...today there are none...
...It is likewise a strong sign of being over sixty that one points out, much to the distress of the young, that a great deal of what is happening has happened before...
...Just as "public goods" constitute a special category which requires a political rather than a market form of organization, similarly "public bads" require political organization and action if they are to be dealt with...
...If the present excitement about the environment is to produce more than emotion, platitudes, and attempts to take us back to the good old days when the poor knew their place, it will have to stimulate us to an analysis of social dynamics both more realistic and more appealing than any we now possess...
...Virtually the only outside input of energy into the earth comes from the sun and this will go on for a long time...
...We are now in the middle range of the voyage towards spaceship earth, perhaps not yet at the middle, but it is not too soon to start thinking and preparing for the eventual slowdown of the increase in scientific knowledge, a slowdown in economic development, and a re-entry into a type of society which will probably be so different from anything in the past that we can hardly imagine it...
...Even if we look at the public lands policy, we can see clearly, in the West especially, that National Parks and National Forests have mainly had the effect of keeping poor people out of the mountains...
...It requires, therefore, a sense of political awareness and a political community before this problem can be solved...
...In spite of the fact, for instance, that the Bureau of Reclamation probably represents the high water mark of socialist ideology in the United States, having been set up deliberately to undermine the monopoly of private capital, to lower interest rates, and to subsidize small farmers, its ultimate effect may well have been to subsidize rich farmers much more than poor ones...
...it is mainly the rich, who both create and gain the most from economic development...
...This is an age of disillusionment with all previous political solutions and political organizations...
...We probably know more about the economics of the environment, surprisingly enough, than about its biology and physics...
...The space enterprise emphasizes as never before the smallness and the loneliness of planet earth...
...Indeed, the organization of the political life of the planet may well be the factor that will make the difference between successful re-entry and possibly quite irretrievable disaster, for a landing is more dangerous than a takeoff...
...Unfortunately, there is a strong tendency for political action to provide mainly ritualistic and rhetorically satisfying solutions to problems, particularly when there is a real conflict of interests between the public and the private...
...These earlier conservationist policies can be defended, of course, both in terms of the preservation of the enjoyment of nature, in terms of the conservation of natural resources, and in terms of economic development itself...
...There seems to be no way back, fortunately, to a world in which the poor are quietly content to starve and allow the rich to govern them...
...If it had not been for the scarcity of private lands and the fact that the public lands benefited mainly the private owners who were adjacent, considerable numbers of the displaced poor might have moved into the Western mountains and turned them into another Appalachia...
...As far as I can judge from the gossip I hear, meteorologists are still quite uncertain as to whether the earth is cooling down or warming up as a result of man's activities, and one feels that even economists have a better idea than that as to whether we are in some sense going up or down...
...One can see the present environmental excitement tending along the same lines...
...It is not surprising that we know much more about Walden Pond than we do about the oceans, or about the inside of a chimney than we do about the atmosphere, simply because at the macro level there is a great deal more to know...
...As long as there was a new environment and a new nest to move into, this perhaps did not matter so much, and man, by reason of his remarkable learning capacity, was able to expand into the whole earth and become its dominant species...
...It is the only decent piece of real estate in an enormous volume of space...
...If he cannot succeed in organizing his little spaceship on a permanent, self-sustaining basis before he has exhausted the stock of geological capital on which his development now rests, he will never have another chance...
...Increasing output, however, inevitably increases the strain on the environment...
...Most of the pressures on the environment, whether in terms of air pollution, urban sprawl, super highways, artificial fertilizers and insecticides, and so on, arise because the mass of the people in the developed countries are no longer as poor as they used to be...

Vol. 34 • April 1970 • No. 4


 
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