03 July 2008

Robert Blinn on sustainable design

The truth of the matter is that environmentalism and ecological sustainability is a huge subject—indeed, it's the largest possible subject. First of all, there's the problem of competing goals: should environmentalism seek to challenge the basic structure of society, on the grounds that it's in an inescapable conflict with sustainability? Or is the object rather to make other social decisions (such as they are) sustainable through [technical] engineering? Then there's the point of view of scientists evaluating costs and benefits of mitigation plans: do we focus on greenhouse gas abatement or toxin abatement? habitat preservation or emissions regulation?

In my "Cataclysm" series (link is to part 1) I wrote about ways of thinking about technology. In "Jevon's Paradox" I discussed at least one very important obstacle to engineering our way out of environmental catastrophe. Robert Blinn, writing at Core77, also introduces the economic conflicts with environmental protection.
When mankind took up only a small portion of the planet, our growth could subsist on the losses of the far larger animal population. Now, instead of displacing the habitats of others, we're beginning to disturb our own. The "commons" were so large relative to us that our abuses were barely noticeable, but now that we're over six billion strong, our damage is starting to show. We're contributing to what's being termed the anthropocene era, where human pollution is influencing the geological fate of our planet. The commons can no longer afford to be discounted; they're all we have.

The tragedy of the commons is a type of collective action problem, a social trap where all parties agree that action should be taken, but gains will not be realized unless they all act as one. While each player knows what would be best for the communal good, self-maximizing choices fail to realize the optimal outcome for all parties.
In practical experience, there really is no resolution to the Tragedy of the Commons besides some enlightened state or meta-state; and even this approach has severe shortcomings.
Looking at the world through such a lens makes one thing clear: Despite our mansions and our roadways, our designer jeans and our iPhones, human beings have made very little. Instead we've transmuted stored energy into temporary value in exchange for long-term waste...It burns stored solar energy to provide the illusion of growth. The amount of stored energy, real value, in the world is actually shrinking. Our process of "growth" is entropic, creating local pockets of order at a greater net cost in energy.
In the comments section that follows, there seems to be some confusion about the idea of zero-sum phenomena in economics. Blinn refers to the consumption of fossil fuels, which represent solar energy in a very concentrated form.

A basic concept in economics is the idea of future discounting. You can't have your cake and eat it too; and usually economists assume you'd prefer to eat it (now), since future consumption is always valued less than present consumption. Likewise, consider the oceans: they're an example of the commons. The oceans allow for massive movements of their own resources, such as fish, over vast distances. Hence, there's no way of staking a claim over a segment of the ocean's resources and protecting it as private property. Individuals have a personal incentive to extract as much value as possible from the commons for their own use. While oil fields are controlled by nation-state "owners" of the surface, the zero-sum issue arises with present-versus-future consumption of such a valuable resource.

I had some semantic issues with Blinn's use of the term "zero-sum." His definition of the term (and re-definition for commentor John) didn't make clear that zero-sum transactions do include situations where both parties capture some utility; an example is terms of trade between two mineral-exporting countries. Since they cannot really increase production over the short run, their wealth depends on the comparative value of their own respective mineral. If one country exports gold and the other oil, an increase in the demand for gold will necessarily reduce the real wealth of the oil-exporting nation (since it has to pay for gold with exports of oil). The other problem is fairly basic: the increasing-sum component of the modern world economy arises from the ability to add some value to a product that is greater than the cost of the raw materials. It's not inconceivable that a future USA could consume less of every type of raw material, and still have a higher GDP: improvements in economic or technical efficiency could lead to lighter products of superior usefulness.

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