MESS-y ideas

22/11/2011 § Leave a comment

Clive Spash introduced a new acronym in the May 2011 Environmental Values, of which he is editor: merciless economics of scientists and society (MESS). According to the editorial, a environmental scientists are getting behind a narrow economic discourse to produce this MESS. The mess is ‘ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss’, driven by ‘human population increase, war, corruption and greed, colonialism’.

Spash thinks that the shift from plural ecological values to ‘a monistic pseudo-economic one’ value is the wrong move for environmental scientists. It won’t just be bad for biodiversity, either: ‘Not just species are threatened but social and environmental responsibility itself.’

I started reading the editorial because (a) it had ‘economic discourse’ in the first sentence, and (b) I liked Spash’s work on non-compensatory preferences for economic goods, using contingent valuation. It let me down, though, in two ways.

Spash doesn’t really tell us what this economic discourse is. In fact, he seems to be guilty of that of which he accuses the environmental scientists. He has taken a jargon-y, intelligent-sounding word from another discipline and stuck it in his own economics analysis. He doesn’t describe the discourse, how it operates, what it includes or excludes, who is allowed to speak it, what its inversion might mean, what it glosses over, what its internal contradictions are — any of that. We are told that this discourse is ‘narrow’, ‘monistic’, and post-colonial, but not much more.

We can dig a bit deeper into the editorial and find that the discourse privileges orthodox economists, financiers, major corporations like Rio Tinto and Citigroup, banking concerns, and developers. On the other side, those who are spoken to include the Moabi tree, the politically weak, the poor. These categories are used rhetorically, rather than being categories inhabited by real people (or trees).

The use of ‘monistic’ also alludes to all sorts of work on phallogocentrism, but without really telling us what Spash is trying to say about it. It also alludes to Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man. That book was about productionism narrowing the field of human concerns and endeavours. Maybe that is what Spash is saying: we are placing the environment into the same productionist perspective, rather than considering it using plural values.

The second problem I had with the editiorial was the straw-man of economics that it presented. We aren’t really told what economic theory is causing the trouble. The word ‘neoliberal’ shows up in the last sentence, ‘orthodox’ in the second to last paragraph. ‘Economics’ seems to signify ‘that which I think is wrong about the actions of the rich’.

Those of us trying to work on ecosystem services and resource economics know that there is a lot more to the economics. We know there are limits — the amount of arable land, for example. We can create models using limits — that’s the point of a Lagrangian multiplier. We optimise a system subject to a constraint, and calculate the shadow price of the resource. If, for example, we decide that the atomsphere can sustainably handle no more than 350 ppm of CO2-equivalent, then we can model an economic system with the limit and figure out the shadow price.

Towards the end, Spash notes that the plural approach hasn’t worked: ‘environmental ethicists have seemingly tried every avenue of appeal to inspire their fellow human beings to forbear in the wanton destruction of Nature.’ That really should be a data point in whatever theory he constructs. His failure to grapple with that fact undermines the whole piece.

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