Pretty pretty arty environmental rankings [UPDATED]

01/02/2012 Comments Off on Pretty pretty arty environmental rankings [UPDATED]

This week, two things I read collided:

Mike Joy of Massey University relied on the environmental rankings from the article for an op-ed in the Dominion Post. (He kindly provided me the link to the article.) I have three problems with the rankings developed. This is before I get to the economics, this is just the rankings themselves.

  1. One set of rankings seems to list NZ as 6th worst country (of over 170) for Governance. This sub-component drags us down overall. The problem? It doesn’t make any sense when you compare it with other research. NZ does poorly in many respects, but we tend to be right the top for governance and lack of corruption. So, faith in underlying data: C [UPDATE] I’ve heard from the author about this issue. Apparently, they used a reverse ranking for Governance, but didn’t make that clear in the paper. He assured me that the rankings were the right way ’round in the SEM. My faith is strengthened…
  2. NZ does poorly in the threatened species sweepstakes, the worst of any country. Well, we knew we had problems. The way the research is constructed penalises the isolated ecosystems of island nations. It also uses a point estimate of the level of threat. The accumulated damage from rats and stoats introduced decades ago is a poor indicator for what we are doing now. Frankly, if we are going to be the worst anyway, maybe we should just save money and get rid of DoC? Applicability of components: C
  3. The article presents two rankings. NZ is in the worst 20 countries by one ranking but not the other. A ranking isn’t much good if you just select the measurement method that gives you the answer you want (says the consultant!). Imagine: ‘Well, Mr Smith, if I measure your BMI, you really need to make some lifestyle changes. But, if I measure the lengths of your fingers and nose and add them together, you seem to be doing just fine. You be the judge.’ Understanding of measurement theory: D.

We can’t put a lot of faith — or expend policy effort — in such ranking. It just serves to confirm our existing biases. We don’t need more research to do that.

Now, for the economics. The thing that’s really missing is any sense of what people get in return for environmental damage, and what it costs to protect, maintain, and repair the environment. This is where the blog post came in.

I struggle with the tension between looking after our resources and consuming them to produce happy, satisfying lives. It is clear that people want happy, satisfying lives. They want, for example, motorboats and artifical lakes on which to drive them. But such things change the landscape and threaten species and use nonrenewable resources.

One reaction is to focus just on the environment. All species must be saved, all habitat must be protected, all water and air must not be contaminated. But this, I realised, is the same as Bill Buckley standing athwart history and shouting ‘Stop!’ It is just from a different motivation, environmental rather than cultural.

And that reaction, in Orwell’s phrasing, is ‘a piece of dilettantism, of pretty-pretty arty and craftiness’. (I really, really must read more Orwell.) Demanding a pre-European or pre-Polynesian landscape in NZ is lunancy, or pretty-pretty arty and craftiness. It means condemning the 4 million-plus people to hunger and cold and hard work, to a life that is ‘nasty, brutish, and short’.

Now, I know that environmental researchers will say that I am overstating the case. They care about doing less damage, not reverting to Eden. But, if that’s the case, then the argument should be about what level of trade-off is acceptable. The rankings and the Dom Post op-ed don’t say that. They simply say, ‘We are doing environmental damage — Stop!’

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